If you see something, say something – but who should feel obliged to do so? And when?

Michael Mann has an op-ed in the NYTimes If you see something, say something. Closer to home, John Gibbons, at one time a regular Irish Times columnist, now an occasional one,  recently re-tweeted on similar lines:


In principle we can probably all agree that speaking out to correct errors, misrepresentations, etc., is desirable, although I suspect John Gibbons may not have intended that this be applied to his own writings. In practice of course no one has time to do this every time, however tempted we may be to do so. It can be frustrating. Speaking from experience, I can proudly lay claim to a 100% failure rate in trying to point out blunders and nonsense, from John Gibbons and others, by letters to the editor of the Irish Times. In contrast, I have had a near 100% publication rate for letters to the editor of the Irish Times on other topics, where my views have been more closely aligned with the editorial line of the Irish Times.

Are there circumstances however in which we should feel obliged to speak out? I believe that there are, and I will illustrate this here with a case study, starting from one of Mr Gibbons’ own columns.

For those readers unfamiliar with the editorial line of the Irish Times and with Mr Gibbons – or in other words the vast majority of potential readers – I will post examples separately. [As I will be away for the next week, these will probably not be posted until the end of the month. The link will then replace this note. (2014/03/18: it will come eventually. Choosing from the extensive array of dubious tweets and opinions is a major task which I underestimated)] I wish to concentrate here on one single issue – a misrepresentation of the IPCC AR5 WG1 Report – without providing opportunities to evade this misrepresentation by discussing some other topic.

Update (February 26th 2015):

‘Eventually’ is coming ‘eventually’. I’ve had better things to do than deal with Mr Gibbons’ nonsense. In particular a journal submission which I suspect Mr Gibbons will find unpalatable, and which even his usual Guardian third hand source (surely a self-styled specialist environmental writer and commentator should be checking the original sources) may find difficult to sanitize to his liking. Perhaps then I will find time to waste more fully documenting the “science” and “IPCC” sources of Mr Gibbons and his friends.

The October/November issue of Village magazine, self described as “Ireland’s political magazine”, published an article by John Gibbons including the claim that the IPCC says “we have no better than a 50/50 shot at avoiding an impending 4°C global warming calamity”. (The screenshot below shows the version posted at Mr Gibbons’ blog, where links are live, including a link to a Guardian article from 2010 for that impending 4C global warming calamity, rather than what might have been expected here in context, a link to an IPCC report or document):


This may be John Gibbons opinion, but the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) does not say that “we have no better than a 50/50 shot at avoiding an impending 4C global warming calamity”, nor does it contain any text which might be understood to mean this. What the IPCC Report actually says can easily be verified by examination of that IPCC report itself, a more reliable source that John Gibbons. No scientific knowledge is required. This is simply a matter of reading comprehension. The Summary for Policy Makers may be found at http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/uploads/WGI_AR5_SPM_brochure.pdf (for those clutching at straws, climatechange2013.org is the official site for the report – verify if you wish by first visiting http://www.ipcc.ch). On page 18 you will find (my colouring):

Relative to the average from year 1850 to 1900, global surface temperature change by the end of the 21st century is projected to likely exceed 1.5°C for RCP4.5, RCP6.0 and RCP8.5 (high confidence). Warming is likely to exceed 2°C for RCP6.0 and RCP8.5 (high confidence), more likely than not to exceed 2°C for RCP4.5 (high confidence), but unlikely to exceed 2°C for RCP2.6 (medium confidence). Warming is unlikely to exceed 4°C for RCP2.6, RCP4.5 and RCP6.0 (high confidence) and is about as likely as not to exceed 4°C for RCP8.5 (medium confidence). {12.4}

This does indeed say, with medium confidence, that warming is “is about as likely as not to exceed 4°C”, but this is only for RCP8.5, the most extreme scenario considered. With high confidence, warming is unlikely to exceed 4°C for RCP2.6, RCP4.5 and RCP6.0.

Chapter 11 (page 52) of the accepted final draft of the full report indicates

(1) No likelihoods are associated with the different RCP scenarios. For this reason, previous IPCC Assessment Reports have only presented projections that are conditional on specific scenarios. Here we attempt a broader assessment across all four RCP scenarios. This is possible only because, as discussed in Section, near-term projections of GMST are not especially sensitive to these different scenarios.

So, although the IPCC assesses four scenarios, and does not associate any likelihoods with these four scenarios, Mr Gibbons chooses to cherry pick the medium confidence projection for the most extreme scenario, ignoring the high confidence projections for the other three scenarios, and presents this as if the IPCC had instead assessed the likelihood of RCP8.5 as 100%, and the likelihoods of the other three scenarios as 0%. The question of the likelihoods of these four scenarios is certainly worthy of a post in its own right, as also is the confidence shown regarding these projections and the underlying models. But there is no necessity to examine any scientific issue to see that the IPCC Report is being misrepresented here. The IPCC presents four scenarios, not one. Mr Gibbons presents one scenario, not four.

At this point you may well wonder, particularly if you are familiar with the columns and tweets of Mr Gibbons, why I might feel any obligation to say something about this misrepresentation. Obviously, I am doing so now, but at the time I did not feel it was worth doing so. A more significant player however enters the case study at this point, one which did prompt me to say something.

An Taisce is the Irish National Trust. A press release from An Taisce, dated October 27, 2013, contained a similar misrepresentation of the IPCC AR5 WG1 Report:

Update (February 26th 2015):

The press release is no longer at the URL above. It can now be found at the press release, and see the March 18th 2014 update further below to see what the IPCC AR5 WG1 scoping documents had to say about a “runaway greenhouse effect”. John and his friends of course know better. But the IPCC does not provide much support for this substitution of their own alarmist view for the more considered conclusion of the relevant section of the IPCC AR5 WG1 report. Back to primary school perhaps – my primary teachers would not have accepted this sort of trick when précis writing.


Here we find the claim: “with the recent IPCC report stating that there is now only a 50-50 chance of avoiding runaway temperature rise”. This is just as great a misrepresentation of the IPCC Report as was the previous article, and since I have failed to find other similar claims it seems it may well be derived from that article. Friends of the Earth for example seems more concerned whether the 2°C target may be exceeded, a concern which a least seems based on an actual reading of the report rather than a misrepresentation of it. The embellishment of “runaway temperature rise” is somewhat amusing too – as it happens the only reference I have been able to find to any “runaway” effect in the report, summary or full, is that to a counterfactual hypothetical change in atmospheric composition “leading to a runaway drop of the greenhouse effect that would plunge the Earth into a frozen state”.

An Taisce is a serious player, an organisation for which up to that point I still retained considerable respect, even though I have not always agreed with their position on some particular issues. Because of this, I e-mailed Public Affairs at An Taisce (the address suggested on the press release) on October 31th, rather than making a public comment, with a copy to their President, Professor John Sweeney


suggesting that the “press release clearly and unacceptably distorts” the IPCC Report, “damage[s] the credibility which An Taisce still retains”, and “requires retraction in the same media in which the original press release was published”. I further asked whether Professor Sweeney is “prepared to stand over this practice under his stewardship?”. To date I have received no reply from An Taisce or from Professor Sweeney. In light of this I would amend that e-mail to remove any suggestion that An Taisce, under its current direction, retains any credibility to damage. I no longer retain any respect for the organisation.

As An Taisce makes representations to various bodies, a press release misrepresenting an IPCC Report should prove very useful to any body wishing to oppose or simply ignore any such representations. For example, An Taisce only recently had an adverse judgement in the High Court of England and Wales in a case relating to the legality of the decision last March by Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, granting Development Consent (permission) for the construction and operation of Hinkley Point C Nuclear Power Station some 150 miles from the Irish coast. The press release would not have been available to the Secretary of State’s legal team in that case, but may well prove a highly embarrassing own goal in any future case. (For the record, I believe a court action to ensure compliance with the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive of the EU and the UK regulations on transboundary impacts and consultation was appropriate if An Taisce believed that the March decision breached these, while I would not be in agreement with an objection made solely on the grounds of opposition to nuclear power).

At this point we finally come back to the question of who should speak out, and when.

Professor John Sweeney, as well as being President of An Taisce, is also Professor Emeritus at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, described by NUI Maynooth as “IRELAND’S LEADING expert on climate change”, [update: which can now be found at http://web.archive.org/web/20140202082119/http://research.nuim.ie/node/51] IPCC Contributing Author and Review Editor for AR4, nominee of the Irish Government and participant at various IPCC Working Group sessions. and contributor to the IAC Review of the Processes and Procedures of the IPCC.

I find it inexplicable that Professor Sweeney can ignore this misrepresentation of the IPCC Report, with which he must surely be familiar, in the press release from An Taisce, of which he is President. I know that I could not do so.

Update (March 18th 2014):

My attention has been drawn to Annex C, included with documents for the Thirty-first Session of the IPCC, Bali, 26-29 October 2009, on:


Page 11, http://www.ipcc.ch/meetings/session31/inf3.pdf shown below, may help further clarify the extent of the An Taisce rewriting needed to come up with “with the recent IPCC report stating that there is now only a 50-50 chance of avoiding runaway temperature rise” RunawayGreenhouseRunaway Greenhouse?

I have to date still received no response from either An Taisce or Professor Sweeney. I can only conclude that Professor Sweeney is indeed “prepared to stand over this practice under his stewardship”. I am hardly surprised by his reluctance to participate on PrimeTime (http://www.antaisce.ie/Press/AnTaisceRelatedNewsReleases…, http://www.bishop-hill.net/blog/2014/3/17/what-is-the-gaelic-for-integrity.html). It seems highly likely that the dreaded sceptic might in this respect prove far closer to the IPCC consensus than the position which Professor Sweeney has chosen by his silence to endorse.

The An Taisce Press Release is an insult to the intelligence. The Public does indeed deserve an honest discussion of Climate Change policy choices. It is clear however that An Taisce, an organisation which chooses, under its current leadership, to rewrite peer-reviewed science to suit its own agenda, needs to take a long hard look at itself before it can expect to be taken seriously in that discussion.

Name calling is no substitute for honest discussion, and says much more to me about the name caller than about the target. In this case, use of a meaningless term, ‘Climate Denier’, reveals something regarding the logic and reasoning abilities of  those drafting and approving the press release. What would such a person deny? (On a personal note, as one old enough to have worked for a period with a number of colleagues who still bore concentration camp number tattoos, I regard this use of “Denier” to denigrate those who dare to disagree as nothing other than abuse in very poor taste). Nor is An Taisce in any position to demand that the Director General of RTE and the Programme’s Producers should explain themselves to An Taisce.

I hope that RTE will not make the mistake of cancelling this Prime Time programme. An Taisce and Professor Sweeney have chosen not to participate. This should not prevent others being heard. If any good is to come of this episode it may be that it may prompt some of the An Taisce membership to question where they are being led by the current leadership.

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2 Responses to If you see something, say something – but who should feel obliged to do so? And when?

  1. Pingback: Twitter exchange with John Gibbons | Peter O'Neill's Blog

  2. Pingback: Through Giant Green Goggles | Peter O'Neill's Blog

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