Nafeez Ahmed Responds

Nafeez Ahmed writes in a blog post at the Guardian

About a week ago, climate scientist Michael Tobis wrote a critique of my ‘Seven facts about the Arctic methane time bomb’ following a twitter exchange with him and Chris Colose, author of an article at Skeptical Science arguing that the core scenario of a new Nature paper by Gail Whiteman et. al on the economic costs of Arctic climate change is extremely unlikely.

There follows a great deal of counter-spin, but essentially zero recognition that his seven points are beside the point that he is trying to defend. I appreciate that he writes “there’s not enough research justifying conclusions that we are definitely on the brink of a catastrophe”, but that follows after saying “there’s simply not enough research to justify dismissing the possibility of a catastrophe”.

Of course it is not possible to prove a negative. The claim is only that there is nothing in Shakhova’s work that actually indicates the likelihood of the specific catastrophe that she alludes to in informal communication. There is no evidence of that catastrophe. There is no reason to factor it into our calculations.

Ahmed’s counter-counter-arguments to my counter-arguments amount to repeating and defending his original red herrings.

I showed that he offered nothing in support of Wadhams’ claims which amount to credulity in Shakhova’s coy speculations. For Ahmed to bolster his seven points does nothing further, because the points are simply not germane.

He does not seem to understand that they are red herrings. That was my complaint, and my complaint stands.

There’s not much point in arguing nuance on his seven points, because they are still beside the point, and he still doesn’t seem to see how or why.

Maybe I can defer to Gavin Schmidt for a summary:

“The scenario they used is so unlikely as to be completely pointless talking about,”

and

“There is still no evidence of actual shallow hydrates on ESAS.”

Until somebody says something to the contrary worth discussing, the only thing we have to discuss is how much discussion there has been about nothing.

At least we have a concession from Ahmed that

The Nature paper by Whiteman et. al went too far in stating the Shakhova et. al scenario as “likely”.

I’ll go along with that much. Let’s count it as progress.

UPDATE: Nafeez has withdrawn his support for the Shakhova scenario, below. I have verified that it is him via his Twitter account.

Comments:

  1. I see NA is now writing long comments on his own post trying to re-defend his position.

    Its nice that he starts off confessing that your first point was right. However, that looks like nothing more than a ploy - "see, I'm a reasonable guy, I can admit defeat sometimes, therefore all the other times when I don't admit defeat I must be right".

    But I think the Graun is being dishonourable. NA has now given up all pretence of having a general argument - he is specifically arguing with you, and using the Graun to do it. The Graun really ought to be offering *you* a column to reply. I think - really, seriously - you should email the Graun and ask for a "right or reply" guest post in NA's blog spot. That would be entirely reasonable.

      • Agreed, it's been discussed to death. Plenty else to worry about. If there's anything to see, it will emerge soon enough.

      • One more. Being caught in the middle, and without scientific expertise myself, I don't think what Gavin Schmidt, speaking from the sidelines, says justifies the level of animus here, and I continue to disagree with the implications of the cabalistic image.

        The scenario they used is so unlikely as to be completely pointless talking about,”
        and
        There is still no evidence of actual shallow hydrates on ESAS.

        {Exposing myself further, this sheds light as well though I'm not thrilled about the handsome stranger image any more than I am with the Kabbalah (viz. Madonna); 4 August response to me from RealClimate August Unforced Variations:}

        [Response: It's worth addressing one of your points more directly than perhaps I have to date. There are indeed many unknowns going forward and we should certainly be alert for 'surprises' or anomalies in the observations that can point us in the right directions. The example of the Antarctic polar ozone hole is a classic example. However, there is a huge difference between maintaining vigilance and declaring an imminent and ongoing 'emergency' - as is being done by a few people associated with the 'methane' issue. It is the difference between installing smoke detectors and yelling 'Fire!'. Sometimes, as with the overall climate trajectory we are on, we can marshall a lot of theoretical knowledge, successful predictions, and ongoing observations to make a robust case for what to expect. Other times, there is no theoretical basis (merely extreme extrapolations), no successful track record, and no supporting observations (imaginary shallow hydrates for instance). These two cases are not equivalent, and when people expect us to give the two projections equal consideration, they are just going to be frustrated. Scientifically, it does not matter what is being predicted, but rather how it is being predicted. Astrologers who predict that you will meet a tall dark handsome stranger today may occasionally be correct - but the method by which they come to their predictions is demonstrably worthless, and so an occasionally correct guess does not count for much. Method matters. - gavin]

        I'm quite willing to wait and see, but the implied accusation that not only lack of evidence is present, but malice and/or manipulation, sticks in my craw. I believe there is more evidence not yet mainstreamed as well. To me the atmospherics in the video look more like trying to pick one's words carefully speaking in a very foreign language than trying to put one over. There were some questions a long while ago about spikes being possibly an artifact of instrumentation, but that's not malfeasance either, even if it's true.

        We get pretty furious with journos over their lack of expertise when they use their standing to promote stuff we believe is wrong, but that can be honest as well though that does not abate our fury. Then there's the complication that the financial calculation was clearly off the wall, and I can see how that calls the rest into question.

        As for not being interesting enough to keep going, then why ... (Concomitantly, why am I sticking my all too vulnerable neck out here ...) Life is complicated, innit?

        It is important to remember that the Arctic is still a difficult and hostile environment, and that funding cuts have made remote observations harder to come by. That's one of the reasons Neven's community is contributing such great value. I'm not prepared, much as I admire and respect Dr. Schmidt, to accept his as the final word on this topic, any more than I am yours or Ahmad's. I will continue to run with both hare and hounds until there is actual evidence in hand.

      • Susan, it's not that they are wrong, it is that they are "not even wrong". The observational science they have has nothing to do with the scenario they are proposing.

        Maybe Russian scientists are funded to some extent in proportion to international media attention?

        It's not that we disagree with Shakhova. It's that we looked and didn't find anything there to agree or disagree with.

        There is no science here, just a pretense of science. Vague theories stuck into abstracts and conclusions and press releases, nowhere supported by substance. We've been spending decades fighting this trick by the deniers, and now we are expected to let someone get away with it because their spin is alarmist?

        No, I'm not buying it, and yes, like it or not, I am angry.

        No, I'm not discussing the science with Ahmed, not because this is unimportant, but because he doesn't know how to construct a meaningful evidence-based argument. It would be wasting my time to take this further. He has clearly said all he has to say to me, and so have I to him.

        Again, my attitude to Shakhova is not disagreement, because she has presented me with nothing to which I can agree or disagree in any evidence-based way. My attitude toward her is indignation and dismay. I don't make a fuss like this about science that doesn't impress me, and after all I have no clout in the inner circles of science, so needn't bother anyway.

        The reason I am on this case is that there isn't any science there at all.

      • Yes, what matters is evidence. You appear to have dismissed the possibility and are pronouncing on the absence of same. Let's put it on hold, and I expect an apology if you turn out to be wrong.

    • If you apologize to me when the evidence never comes I will be waiting a long time.

      There's actually a traditional Texas weather joke about this; "Don't bet on rain in Texas. My uncle bet a man ten dollars once that it would never rain again, and he collected on that bet."

      I will grovel thoroughly if Shakhova finds significant metastable clathrates.

      I will not grovel if she changes the theory to another scary theory, though.

      • Completely OT but, quoting the Old Timer from the Fibber McGee and Molly classic radio comedy, "that ain't the way I hear'd it!" Short form: If I bet you my watch will never stop, when can I declare victory?

        Feel free to borehole...

  2. Ahmed: 'Now Tobis is openly [?!] arguing, effectively, that Shakhova and her colleagues are non-experts, and that they offer no evidence for their claims.'

    Have they? Or has anyone else? Is there any evidence at all for shallow hydrates/clathrates in the ESAS, let alone evidence of humungous quantities of them that might be released by shallow warming?

    Stoat seconded. You really should ask the Guardian for a right of reply, MT. You are not, after all, denying the possibility of a Siberian methane apocalypse; you're just saying that this apocalyptic mechanism is pants.

    • "pants"? The ocean seems to get wider every week. "pants"?

      No, look my real opposition here is Whiteman and Hope.

      Nafeez Ahmed is confused and wrong about Shakhova, and has a bigger soapbox than I do. Pity. It's reassuring to be arguing a little more symmetrically for a change, but it's not as if I haven't seen prominent journalists getting science drastically wrong before.

      As for Shakhova, I viscerally distrust her. But I am willing to settle for Gavin's more diplomatic approach at Ahmed's rebuttal and leave it at that. She's not my real target in this either,

      The real issue we ought to be addressing is why a catastrophe of this enormous magnitude comes up as survivable in the economics models. That is the most consequential error.

      Because it's the economists who are giving cover to the inactivist opposite-of-a-movement.

      • The Urban Dictionary is your friend, Michael 8^D:

        1. pants

        rubbish, no good, bag of shite

        The trouble with UD is that when you see how many slang terms from our youth (look up "YMMV") and even common words, have taken on new connotations, you start being afraid to post 8^(!

      • Concentrate on Hope, MT - or on Wadhams if you can get hold of him. Whiteman is too easy a target. She's an ethnographer rather than an economist or any kind of scientist and seems to have been named as lead author of the _Nature_ comment solely because she organized the workshop at which the idea for the study was first raised. Her PhD was a part-fictional narrative about how First Nation methods of beaver management might be relevant to modern multinationals. At her inauguration as a full professor on April Fools's Day 2011, her academic gown ('toga') was made out of Gullibility^WReturnity, a flame-resistant polyester fabric whose price includes a returnable deposit to encourage you to send your old clothes to Austria to be made into garden furniture. She makes her MBA students hug trees.

  3. "The real issue we ought to be addressing is why a catastrophe of this enormous magnitude comes up as survivable in the economics models. That is the most consequential error."

    I'm really gonna have to spend a weekend trying to understand some of this cos currently I... what's the phrase... haven't got a scooby what's going on. Why would a particular scientific error be "survivable in an economic model"? Doesn't it stand (or fall) on its own terms quite separately? Coupling models doesn't imply anything about the veracity of the separate components. Am I even using words that have anything to do with this issue? Somewhere along the line I became very confused. Perhaps I need to shut up and come back after some reading...

    • This all refers back to Whitehead, Hope and Wadhams comment in Nature and my response "Two Wrongs Make a Half-Right".

      I consider Shakhova's hypothesis to never have had any scientific traction whatsoever, and I am proud to have contributed to limiting its public impact, but like any spectacular climate myth that gets major press, it has attained zombie status. While dead, it will be decades before it vanishes altogether.

      But the other wrong is the IAM work that seems to show that this imaginary methane release scenario would be, while expensive, not utterly catastrophic. I think this is wrong, and it is far more disturbing of a myth, because this sort of thinking is very influential in policy circles. There is, in my opinion, a systematic underestimation of climate risk between the WG I community and the policy community. It turns out (I just learned this) that Chris Hope, the second author of the Nature comment, is the author of the very model that Stern used to lowball the impact of CO2 in the first place. (It's in Excel. Yes, the future of the world is being weighed in a spreadsheet. I am not certain but I suspect that it is not an adequate tool for the job.)

      If Chris' work is correct then I will feel happy hanging up my hat as a climate communicator, because it will turn out that climate is not that important after all. Unfortunately I don't believe it.

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  5. Dear Michael

    I'm dropping by to say thank you for your posts on this, including this. They have provoked a lot of reflection for me.

    As just another journo trying to make sense of the science, it wasn't obvious to me at all that Shakhova's work is speculative.

    That some prominent Arctic scientists seem to agree with her only made it seem more incredible to me that her assertions about gas hydrates at the ESAS are not actually confirmed, but rather hypotheses. Yours and Gavin Schmidts comments have now made this point really clear.

    I didn't really get this before - the language that has been used by Shakhova and others on this issue has been almost definitive in tone (there *are* this quantity of hydrates etc etc).

    On twitter when Gavin first responded saying 'but there's no evidence for this' after I'd sent a link to a paper by Shakhova and Semiletov talking in some detail about methane clathrates at the ESAS and permafrost, I didn't grasp that their discussions were actually not proven.

    Journos generally assume that strong statements of fact about science issued - whether in press releases from credible sources or in journal articles - have been checked enough to be reliable. I'm now starting to realise, with some shock, that this is not necessarily the case. (I've been a journo for a while but working on enviro related stuff in last few yrs)

    I believed shallow methane hydrates were found disassociating at the ESAS because this is what has been stated repeatedly as if it is fact. Even with the caveats and qualifications, the existence of the hydrates has been stated again and again - I took this at face value and couldn't quite believe that it would be possible for scientists to make such statements with such seeming certainty and be wrong. Especially given that there are quite a few other specialists lending credence to the idea. People like Wadhams for instance, or the 20 authors of that Russian review paper, don't use speculative language.

    So it has, for me, been a challenge trying to understand why these guys treat Shakhova's work as non speculative while many others are unconvinced.

    As an outsider and non scientist, this comes across as a scientific disagreement / but if you, Gavin and others are correct then there is more going on here, and it would seem to me that some irresponsible claims are being made, and that reasonable speculation is being presented as fact.

    I'm still trying to understand this and make sense of the extent to which the assertions lack evidence. Some of the papers refer to drill cores and samples and hydro acoustic analysis etc but I'm not equipped to grasp how solid or hypothetical the results of this sort of empirical fieldwork is.

    So I plan to come back to this subject looking more closely at the speculative nature of the claims about methane hydrates at the ESAS in particular - for now, though I need to take a break from the issue!

    But I will probably come back to you with some questions for a follow up piece.

    If you are right about all this, then you are also right about the challenges posed for science / enviro journos.

    I'm now starting to experience that sense of dismay you describe as its dawning that what some prominent scientists are saying about this issue might not actually be justified by available evidence.

    Thanks for your persistence on this one.

    Warmest
    Nafeez

    • Bravo, Nafeez, for your gracious acknowledgement of error and your willingness to be corrected. You are a credit to your profession.

  6. It is not dishonorable or horribly wrong to be concerned about a methane meltdown scenario. History has shown us that positive feedbacks are a) more common than negative feedbacks, b) show up on the horizon unexpectedly or operating at a greater rate than expected (such as arctic ice melting) and c) teach us more about climate systems.

    The methane hydrate worst case scenario is so bad that one should not ignore it when first confronted with it. It's like hearing a noise in your house that you've never heard before, even though you KNOW there is an alarm system that is working. You still need to check it out.

    These two streams of initial reasoning require that this research be looked at closely. I tend to agree with MT that there is a lack of evidence that the worst case scenario or anything like it is imminent or even possible. But it is also true that a limited number of scientists have been working on this, there are unknowns or at least new territory for systems that are not extremely well understood, and even if the worst case scenario amounts to an orbiting teapot, methane is still a positive feedback so looking closely at it is very important. These two problems ... a narrow range of people working on it and the importance of methane even in the absence of a catastrophic event scenario ... means that more research needs to be done.

    In any event, this all about shallow methane hydrates. If sea level rise is fast enough they won't be as shallow!

    • ...History has shown us that positive feedbacks are a) more common than negative feedbacks, b) show up on the horizon unexpectedly or operating at a greater rate than expected (such as arctic ice melting) and c) teach us more about climate systems.

      This is not true. Nature is full of negative feedback mechanisms. If CO2 were having the effects that are being claimed temperatures would have run out of control when levels were many times higher than today. But that is not what happens. The climate is actually remarkably stable as warming creates low troposphere cloud cover that reflects much more energy from the sun and leads to cooling. The temperature of the human body does not get out of control because there are negative feedback systems that help us regulate it. The same is true of the regulation of blood sugar levels as insulin is secreted to deal with changing levels. When we do not have sufficient red blood cells the drop in oxygen is detected and the kidneys secrete erythropoietin. In the wild we see that every time the number of rabbits increases so does the population of its predators and eventually the numbers reach equilibrium once again.

      If anything it is very difficult to find examples of positive feedback in nature because such systems experience that feedback once before everything falls apart. Since we are still here I think that the talk of positive feedback is overstated.

      • There is some confusion; in the nomenclature of engineering all positive feedbacks are unstable. In the nomenclature of climate science, "positive" feedback is just amplification in engineering nomenclature. It's a very unfortunate confusion.

        I agree, though, that the idea that "positive feedbacks are more common than negative feedbacks" is not really supportable even in the sense of amplifying vs attenuating.

        On the other hand, the efforts by the deniers to suggest that the water vapor feedback to radiative forcing is speculative are complete nonsense; this makes up the bulk of what they consider amplification, but should probably consider the null hypothesis.

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