How science sensationalism serves meaningful action badly while distorting science.
An unholy alliance
Our perceptions of climate change, if it happens, whether we have caused it and our responses to it, have been shaped by what I have called elsewhere an ‘unholy alliance between science, media and politics, much of it sensationalised and short-term’. While science and dialectic is at the very centre of that discourse the way it is being used has not only greatly delayed meaningful action, but also changed its very nature. Instead of using the dialectic discourse and process of negotiation (for more than 30 years now) to come up with responses which are timely, make sense and do what needs to be done in a highly complex, unpredictable (no matter what science claims), very long-term (but not enough so sadly) and increasingly frightening predicament we find ourselves in, it has promoted denial, delay, opportunism as well as short-term and oversimplified responses. In other words it has promoted opportunism, poor quality of science, market-driven thinking, economic rationalism of the worst kind and short-term and monetary obsessions (Just look at the many unsavoury and almost unchecked ‘business players’ in the carbon sector (for the interested I recommend Chris Lang’s REDD Monitor www.redd-monitor.org). It has also promoted the politicisation of the debate which has mostly used it for party ends, ideologies and the empowerments of the very industries and influences which need to be changed (especially here in Australia) if humanity wants to progress, and as the case may be, survive in its present form. Not insignificantly, it has also disempowered those who think not of money but humanities interest (yes, there are some left of us, old-fashioned as that seems) who work in natural systems depending on their complexity (indigenous people, traditional farmers, wildlife harvest, including natural forest products (terrestrial, aquatic, marine) appropriate nature conservation and holistic ecosystem/landscape based management) and who try to think sustainable and long-term.
Let me here just briefly discuss an article I have read this morning which shows well the many things which have gone wrong in our climate change debate and shows the quite deplorable role modern science, as it increasingly reduces, ’models’ (simplifies), isolates and sensationalises, in fact falsifies in this case, its own findings. This article demonstrates not only how much in our climate debate has become polarised, exaggerated or even used AGAINST the (wider) scientific evidence and logic, if it was there in the first place, but also, at a more fundamental level, how the science of ecology has, over and over again, promoted a highly simplified, polarised, sensationalised and short-term view of the natural world, which in my eyes, is serving it and us increasingly poorly.
As to this article I discuss: It needs to be pointed out that the claims might reflect the views of the scientists, or the journalist as the case may be, in fact I suspect the latter. That does not really matter however. No matter what, the editorial team of NS should have picked it up. In my eyes the article should have not been published at all in this form as what it writes is simply wrong, but also as it reflects so poorly and in such a disturbing isolated manner on what ecologists do and what science can deliver. At least an editorial comment would have been in order.
Lush carbon-fed Earth is NOT drying out
An answer to ‘Lush carbon-fed Earth is drying out’ by Michael Slezak in New Scientist 24 October, 2015 p 14.
Please allow me to do that now.
Let us look at just two claims in this article.
‘The carbon dioxide we’ve been pumping into the atmosphere is fertilising plants, making them grow faster- but now those plants are sucking our streams dry. Australia is already parched and will only become dryer as the planet warms and rainfall decreases. On top of this, the country has lost about a quarter of its stream flow over the past 30 years, as plants given an extra boost by our carbon emissions are growing faster and slurping more water’.
“A similar effect could be anticipated in other semi-arid subtropical regions in the Mediterranean, southern Africa and the Americas where rainfall is also expected to decline as global temperatures increase.’
Quite a handful of amazing claims and staggering generalisations in that and presented in a sloppiness which should not be permissible even in popularised science. This is not the only claim, even if it encompasses an entire continent. It gets worse:
Let me just look at the claim that vegetation reduces stream flow and that this process has been observed by ‘satellite imagery comparisons over the past 30 years’ in Australia by a CSIRO researcher. Also the implicit assumption that this reduction of flow is ‘quite worrying for areas that are already water-scarce around Australia’ (‘the plants are growing more and bigger leaves…which evaporate even more water”.
What a claim, what a world view and above everything else: God help us! Surely not even an engineer can think that our world is as simple as that.
Let me cite an example from our 300 ha farm. Simple engineering too. In 1991 when we bought it, it was badly degraded, there was no understorey in the forest and the grasslands were overgrazed and often barren. We also had some half a dozen creeks which flowed most of the year, except during long dry spells. None of them flow any longer and, as I like to remind myself every time it rains (one starts doing that if one depends on rainwater collection for the household, I know (and rely on) that for every 10 mm of rain we collect 5000 litres of beautiful clear rainwater in our water tanks) our land, its soils, vegetation and wildlife, have now for every 10 mm it rains 30 mega litres (30 million litres) available not just for growth but also for the maintenance and progressive recovery of a diverse, productive and complex ecosystem which, amongst many other things, supports a dozen or so endangered species, helps regulate our local climate and hydrology and so on and on (I refer the reader e.g. to Mactaggart et.al. 2007a and b and 2008). So to make a claim that the observed reduction of stream flow through more vegetation is BAD is really quite inacceptable, not just plain wrong. In Australia several generations of farmers and soil agencies (not even to mention one Peter Andrews) have tried to achieve that reduction of flow (also called erosion in parts ) as the land had been all but destroyed by billions of rabbits, 200 million sheep, 70 or so million cattle and a farmer regime which generally tried to imitate locusts. I also give a reference of some of my own studies with colleagues, here in Australia but also in Asia, which show how wrong the science presented (interpreted?) in this article is. Reduction of water flow does NOT DRY UP AUSTRALIA as is claimed in that article but rehydrates it and reactivates soil and life.
Such simplification is rampant in many climate studies where the researchers (and eager journalists in their trail) try, for all kinds of reasons, including funding, to shift causality towards climate. While this is often (and can be) justified, in many instances it cannot and has discredited many climate claims and shifted action where it should have remained. It has also, over the years, done more harm than good in reducing the impact of the studies that showed. (Never cry wolf). The world and ecology is not just about carbon and GHG emissions. Both have been chosen as (greatly oversimplified) indicators and drivers of change- and as currency for eventual payments so we hope. As processes they are however only a small part of a much bigger whole and cycle. Surely we will not exterminate termites because they emit 11% or so of the world’s methane. But such is the reasoning behind such simplifications.
The simplification and falsification of complex ecological processes in this manner should not be permissible, even in the mainstream media. If we find it in journals like New Scientist (which I have been subscribing to and reading for the past 30 years) we scientists should not only consider whether we still want to continue reading them, but also whether this type of sensationalism is increasingly distorting the debate, the science itself and perhaps most importantly, what we will be finally and long overdue doing to prevent our planet from getting too warm for us.
Mactaggart, B., J. Bauer, D. Goldney and A. Rawson., 2007. The restoration and protection of the swampy meadow within an agricultural landscape. AFBM Journal (Journal of Farm business and Farming Systems Management) 3(2): 68-74
Mactaggart, B., J. Bauer, D. Goldney and A. Rawson., 2008. Problems in naming and defining the swampy meadow-An Australian perspective. J. Environmental Mgmt. 87:461-473
Mactaggart., J. Bauer and D. Goldney.,2007. When history may lead us astray: using historical documents to reconstruct swampy meadows/chain of ponds in the NSW Central Tablelands., Australian Geographer 38(2): 233-252
Bauer, J.J.and Goldney, D.,(2001) Extinction Processes in a Transitional Agricultural Landscape. in Hobbs. R.J. and C.J. Yates. Temperate Eucalypt Woodlands in Australia, Biology, Conservation, Management and Restoration. Surrey Beatty and Sons.
Goldney. D. & Bauer, J.. (1998) Conservation in an Agricultural Landscape- Fact or Fiction Pp 13-34 in Pratley J. and G. Candrel (eds) Agriculture and the Environmental Imperative. CSIRO Publishers. Melbourne.
Bauer, J.J. 2002: Management of Natural Recovery Processes on Farmland within a Landscape Context A Case study from the Central Tablelands of NSW. Background Document Residential School Conservation Biology BIO 320 and 321, Charles Sturt University, Spring, 2002
Bauer, J.J.,T. Maskey and G. Rast, 1995: River systems, hydrodevelopment and the species crisis in the Terai. pp. 137-145. in B. Bhandari, T.B. Shresta & J. McEachern” Safeguarding Wetlands in Nepal”. IUCN-The World Conservation Union. Heritage and Biodiversity Conservation Programme. Gland Switzerland. 160 pp.
Bauer, J.J., T. Maskey & G. Rast (1997) The Environmental Costs of River Regulation in Nepal -Present Evidence and Scenarios for the Future. Pp in: Proceed. Int. Conference on Wetlands & Development 8-14.10.1995, Selangor. Malaysia
Bauer, J.J., Maskey, T. Rast, G., T.,DeLacy, H. Glazebrook & B. Furze (1999) The Impact of Mega Hydrodevelopment on Biodiversity Conservation and Community Development in Nepal’s Terai- A Riverbasin Perspective A Case Study from Nepal’s River Basins., UNEP/AWB. Kuala Lumpur, Nairobi , Kenya, Johnstone Centre of Ecosystem Management, Charles Sturt University, Albury. 85 pp.