CSIRO hides the methane decline: or, propoganda in four easy steps

Evidence of a scandal?

As we noted earlier this year, the CSIRO and BoM released a document that made deniers furious (see “CSIRO forces the hand of the media” and “Rage against the science“). It conclusively demonstrated that temperatures had risen over the last century, and that this could be attributed to human activity.

However, for the last couple of weeks deniers niggling at it, trying to chip away at the credibility of both the report and the CSIRO itself.

Like creationists who attack scientists and museums, they can’t abide the what the science is telling us so they look for tiny inconsistencies and attempt to blow them up into scandals. This “anomaly hunting” is the stock in trade of all ant-science movements.

Recently, a new claim has been doing the rounds amongst the Australian denial movement. They are working very hard to try and manufacture a scandal. So far it’s failing. Apart from a few excited blog posts by the usual suspects (I’m looking at you Andrew Bolt), now one else seems to be biting. Still it’s worth investigating.

Here’s the claim (my words):

The Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research organisation (CSIRO) “hid” data about the level of atmosphere methane in their “State of the climate” report.

As one would expect, the CSIRO did no such thing.

But what we do have is a perfect, text-book example of how the denial movement attempts to manufacture controversy.

Leading the recent charge against the CSIRO is Tom Quirk, a member of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). The IPA is the think tank behind a great deal of denialist activity and propoganda in Australia. Recently Quirk has claimed the CSIRO had attempted to “hide the plateau” in atmosphere methane emissions in the State of the Climate report.

Step 1: Publish your “peer-reviewed” research” for credibility

Local deniers can’t abide that the CSIRO is one of the countries most trusted institutions. That the CSIRO is supportive of the science underpinning global warming is doubly frustrating. That thing called “science” is very frustrating when it’s results conflict with your world view, but gosh-darn-it denialists crave the authority and respectability that science bestows.

Indeed they crave it so much so that they have manufactued a alternative science with its own journals, conferences and blog sites.

Quirk has published some research – and I do use the term loosely – on atmospheric methane in the notoriously unreliable journal, Energy and Environment (E&E). E&E has a partisan editor who is sceptical of IPCC and sees their role to “balance” the opinion of the IPCC and scientists. It is also how many deniers claim to have published “peer-reviewed” research. [1]

The standards and reputation of E&E are so poor that genuine scientists avoid publishing articles in E&E.

E&E articles are widely cited by deniers, but hold very little weight in the scientific community because the quality of the papers are generally thought of a low standard.

Quirks paper, Twentieth Century Sources of Methane in the Atmosphere (Energy & Environment Volume 21, p 251, No. 3, 2010) was published early in the year.

Thus having established his “credentials” to talk about methane, Quirks then hits the denial blogosphere…

Step 2: Publish in well-known denial magazines

On May 19, Quirk published his views on Quadrant, a right-wing journal that frequently publishes the views of deniers. In it, Quirk claimed;

The CSIRO paper “State of the Climate” is as much a commentary on the state of the climate scientists who put the document together. The CSIRO has waded into a large government funded trough and is not inclined to publish anything that gets between it and the trough.

Not exactly scholarly language is it? His specific claim is this:

The insert of Figure 1 shows that the methane data is only plotted up to 1990. This is some ten years short of the carbon dioxide measurements. Yet groups within the CSIRO have been involved in measurements up to the present within international collaborations.

What has happened since that time? Figure 2 tells the story. Methane concentrations have plateaued. This does not fit the CSIRO storyline.

Shocking! If it was true…

Quirk is attempting to do is manufacture a controversy. He has found a tiny, insignificant anomaly and his trying to create a “hide the decline” scandal ala “Climategate”.

Step 3: Get “sceptical” bloggers to link to your article to circulate the meme

The next part is inevitable, and was actually brought to my attention my a reader of this blog [hat tip AS]. Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun mentioned Quirk’s Quadrant article on his blog on May 21:

Tom Quirk is puzzled. Why, in its State of the Climate report, did the CSIRO leave out the last 20 years of data of methane concentrations?

Is it because the concentration of this greenhouse gas has barely increased since, against the warmists’ theory?

Both myself and AS stopped by to point out the obvious flaws in Quirk’s article. Simply put, he played around with a graph (discussed in more detail below).

Step 4: Get “sceptical” journalists to paraphrase your arguments in a major daily

Terry McCrann, a business writer for Murdoch’s Herald Sun and The Australian joined the attack on May 29

In March, it joined with the Bureau of Meteorology to produce a “snapshot of the state of the climate to update Australians about how their climate has changed and what it means”. Although the pamphlet had a neutral title, “State of the Climate”, it was clearly designed to bring the great weight of the apparent credibility of these two organisations to bear against, and hopefully crush, those pesky climate change sceptics…

…In short, the CSIRO is a fully signed-up member of the climate change club. It wanted to project the horror story of continually rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. So it simply disappeared inconvenient evidence to the contrary, in the process announcing it cannot be trusted ever again to deliver objective scientific evidence.”

Quite the claim. Let’s hope we can trust CSIRO the next time a virus breaks out.

McCrann goes on:

Did the answer lie in the inconvenient truth that methane concentrations have plateaued since the mid-1990s? Yet here is the CSIRO, the organisation dedicated to scientific truth, pretending — even stating — that they’re still going up, Climategate style. This is bad enough, but just as with Treasury, real policies are built on this sort of “analysis”. The first version of the so-called carbon pollution reduction scheme included farming to address the methane question. But as Quirk has shown in a peer-reviewed paper, atmospheric methane is driven by a combination of volcanos, El Ninos and pipeline (mostly dodgy old Soviet) leakage.

Australian Climate Madness picks up the story later on May 30 here, claiming:

CSIRO, The Bureau of Meteorology, the UK Royal Society, the American National Academy of Sciences and hundreds of other organisations have all nailed their colours to the climate change mast, abandoning objective scientific enquiry in favour of environmental advocacy.

Between Quirk publishing an article earlier this year in the dodgy E&E and late May the “hide the methane” claim had become a truism in the denial community.

Andrew Bolt mentions it again on May 29, doing his usual tag-team effort with fellow Murdoch journalist McCrann. Bolt, in his usual style uses the stock-in-trade language of outrage and hyperbole:

“Meanwhile, a private citizen forces the CSIRO to (very quietly) fix up a very suspicious mistake. Tery McCrann describes the CSIRO’s latest shame…”

Somehow I think the shame rests elsewhere.

Note the use of language:  Quirk a director of the IPA become a “private citizen” who has fixed up a “suspicious mistake”. ”

Really, who can you trust to tell you the truth about climate change? Scientists? Hell no!

Better to trust “pesky” directors of think tanks who publish in journals of dubious quality.

Did the CSIRO “fudge” the data?

In the end it’s a silly claim, especially since there is peer-reviewed literature out there in which the CSIRO has stated that methane concentrations had been stable for some time (see below). CSIRO scientists helped author the following 2008 paper:

After almost a decade with little change in global atmospheric methane mole fraction, we present measurements from the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation networks that show renewed growth starting near the beginning of 2007. A similar growth rate is found at all monitoring locations from this time until the latest measurements.[2]

Methane concentrations did “pause” for 10 years in the early part of the 21st century, but a this recent paper shows concentrations are rising again.

Tha main claim is that the tend line in the CSIRO report for methane atmosphere concentration “stopped” in 1990, therefore “hiding” the plateau (see the above graph). CSIRO did amend the document after Quirk’s article to include more recent data. However, they did make clear if very clear why they did. Quadrant did graciously allow them to publish a response on their website:

The methane and carbon dioxide data shown in State of Climate are annual means up to and including 2009. The methane data were plotted by a non-CSIRO designer in a manner that resulted in about a 20 year lag at the end of the record, presumably to separate them visually from the carbon dioxide record. This should have been explained in State of Climate – unfortunately it was not, and this has lead to Quirk’s misinterpretation of the data. The data are now correctly plotted on the ‘snapshot’ web-site.

Science is a self-correcting process, and State of the Climate was intended to present data to a lay audience. One tiny error fuels suspicion and paranoia.

In the end there is no scandal.

However, it shows how the denial movement will cherry pick tiny inconsistencies and try to magnify these. This is very much a case of creating scandal when none exist. Given that our old friends the IPA are behind this push it’s not suprising.

Six aspects of denial

I’d nominate the following “Six aspects of Denial” that characterises the latest attack on CSIRO:

  • Question the motives and integrity of scientists – without question this is a direct assault on the CSIRO and it’s scientists. The language of Bolt, Quirk and McCrann is inflammatory and they directly accuse them of “wading” into the government-funded trough. Never mind that CSIRO received funding under the conservative Howard government to conduct research into climate change.

[1] See Wikipedia article for background. The editor of E&E is on record saying “I’m following my political agenda — a bit, anyway. But isn’t that the right of the editor?”

[2] Renewed growth of atmospheric methane, M. Rigby et.al GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 35, L22805, doi:10.1029/2008GL036037, 2008

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