Sunspots and climate cathedrals – a poor basis for debate

A clash of scientific opinions has played out in a New Zealand paper in the last 10 days, one that typifies the often nonsensical treatment of climate change by the mainstream media.

Stoking up the sunspot argument
Stoking up the sunspot argument

On November 10, Bryan Leyland, a consulting engineer who regularly appears quoted on energy matters, was given a half-page in the Dominion Post’s Business Day section (page C3) to express his views on climate change. The headline “Sunspots spell end of climate myth” said it all.

Leyland wrote: “Observations from balloons and satellites have shown that warming is not happening. Therefore greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are not a major factor in the world climate. This fact alone is enough to sink the man-made global warming hypothesis.”

He then advanced the oft-quoted sunspots theory which some scientist believe explains the fluctuations in the planet’s temperature.

“More evidence is gathering that the sun, not greenhouse gases, drives our climate. Records going back thousands of years show a close correlation between sunspots and climate.

“The theory is that sunspot related effects influence the number of high-energy cosmic rays reaching the atmosphere and that these cosmic rays affect cloud formation.”

Leyland ends by suggesting that a “major experiment” about to get underway, if successful, would “sink the hypothesis of man-made global warming”.

Leyland’s column and the provocative headline drew strong responses in the Dom’s letters pages. Science writer Marilyn Head replied:

“I see The Dominion Post is continuing to source ”expert” information and comment by the prominence given the Sunspots spell the end of climate myth article by consulting engineer Bryan Leyland ( BusinessDay, Nov 10).

“I trust that you will return the favour by inviting Peter Barrett, Andy Reisinger and other real climate-change experts to comment on the technical requirements for building bridges and apartment blocks.

“They might well think that the engineers have it all wrong and will use a medieval cathedral or two to show that there’s ”no hard evidence” to support particular engineering specifications for strength, durability and safety, regardless of the difference in building materials and construction techniques. I suppose the timing of this ”environmental comment” in the paper’s business section has nothing to do with National’s intention to change the emissions trading bill?”

The Dominion Post soon did return the favour, with a column from Dr Ralph Chapman, director of Environmental Studies at Victoria University, published in the Dominion Post on November 19 and titled: “Cooling theorist has sunspots in his eyes”.

“It is time to accept that change is necessary and it would be foolish for New Zealand to pretend it can operate differently from the rest of the world. In short, calling for delay in emissions cuts is not responsible. No one’s interests are ultimately served by denying climate change,” wrote Dr Chapman.

And there it ends, exactly as it did in the Otago Daily TImes in July when Professor Geoffrey Kearsley, a geographer and head of the Department of Media, Film and Communication at the University of Otago, also advanced the sunspots argument.

He was slammed the following week in a column in the same paper by Dr Doug Mackie, a research fellow in the department of chemistry at the University of Otago who takes issue with climate change sceptics.

These tit for tat exchanges in the newspapers continue to play out, gobbling up valuable column inches and making it appear as though there’s a major rift splitting the scientific community on the issue. What do they do to improve the public’s understanding of the issue? Very little, I should think. They are more likely to confuse readers.

While governments engineer emissions trading and carbon tax schemes, consumers adapt their behaviour to consume less resources and clean tech companies spring up, a re-run of the same fundamental climate change argument plays out again and again in newspapers the world over.

So what should newspaper editors do? Purge the climate change deniers from their pages? Snuff out debate on climate science? Of course not. But newspapers need to more accurately represent the reality which is that the argument has moved on, that the consensus view among scientists is that we have to change our habits to combat global warming.

There are any number of thought-provoking, contentious columns that could be run on that issue. Until the media stops trying to make mileage out of throwing scientists with opposing views at each other, there won’t be any sense to be extracted from the comment pages of our newspapers.