For the past three weeks, a set of figures has been working a hole in my mind. On April 16th, New Scientist published a letter from the famous botanist David Bellamy. Many of the world's glaciers, he claimed, "are not shrinking but in fact are growing. ... 555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980."(1) His letter was instantly taken up by climate change deniers. And it began to worry me. What if Bellamy was right?
He is a scientist, formerly a senior lecturer at the University of Durham. He knows, in other words, that you cannot credibly cite data unless it is well-sourced. Could it be that one of the main lines of evidence of the impacts of global warming - the retreat of the world's glaciers - was wrong?
The question could scarcely be more important. If man-made climate change is happening, as the great majority of the world's climatologists claim, it could destroy the conditions which allow human beings to remain on the planet. The effort to cut greenhouse gases must come before everything else. This won't happen unless we can be confident that the science is right.
Because Bellamy is president of the Conservation Foundation, the Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife International and the British Naturalists' Association, his statements carry a great deal of weight. When, for example, I challenged the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders over climate change, its spokesman cited Bellamy's position as a reason for remaining sceptical.(2)
So last week I telephoned the World Glacier Monitoring Service and read out Bellamy's letter. I don't think the response would have been published in Nature, but it had the scientific virtue of clarity. "This is complete bullshit."(3) A few hours later, they sent me an email.
"Despite his scientific reputation, he makes all the mistakes that are possible". He had cited data which was simply false, failed to provide references, completely misunderstood the scientific context and neglected current scientific literature.(4) The latest studies show unequivocally that most of the world's glaciers are retreating.(5)
But I still couldn't put the question out of my mind. The figures Bellamy cited must have come from somewhere. I emailed him to ask for his source. After several requests, he replied to me at the end of last week. The data, he said, came from a website called www.iceagenow.com.
Iceagenow.com was constructed by a man called Robert W. Felix to promote his self-published book about "the coming ice age". It claims that sea levels are falling, not rising; that the Asian tsunami was caused by the "ice age cycle"; and that "underwater volcanic activity - not human activity - is heating the seas".
Is Felix a climatologist, a vulcanologist, or an oceanographer? Er, none of the above. His biography describes him as a "former architect".(6) His website is so bonkers that I thought at first it was a spoof. Sadly, he appears to believe what he says. But there indeed was all the material Bellamy cited in his letter, including the figures - or something resembling the figures - he quoted. "Since 1980, there has been an advance of more than 55% of the 625 mountain glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring group in Zurich."(7) The source, which Bellamy also cited in his email to me, was given as "the latest issue of 21st Century Science and Technology".
21st Century Science and Technology? It sounds impressive, until you discover that it is published by Lyndon Larouche. Lyndon Larouche is the American demagogue who in 1989 received a 15-year sentence for conspiracy, mail fraud and tax code violations.(8) He has claimed that the British royal family is running an international drugs syndicate,(9) that Henry Kissinger is a communist agent,(10) that the British government is controlled by Jewish bankers,(11) and that modern science is a conspiracy against human potential.(12)
It wasn't hard to find out that this is one of his vehicles: Larouche is named on the front page of the magazine's website, and the edition Bellamy cites contains an article beginning with the words "We in LaRouche's Youth Movement find ourselves in combat with an old enemy that destroys human beings ... it is empiricism."(13)
Oh well, at least there is a source for Bellamy's figures. But where did 21st Century Science and Technology get them from? It doesn't say. But I think we can make an informed guess, for the same data can be found all over the internet. They were first published online by Professor Fred Singer, one of the very few climate change deniers who has a vaguely relevant qualification (he is, or was, an environmental scientist).
He posted them on his website www.sepp.org, and they were then reproduced by the appropriately named junkscience.com, by the Cooler Heads Coalition, the National Center for Public Policy Research and countless others.(14) They have even found their way into the Washington Post.(15) They are constantly quoted as evidence that manmade climate change is not happening. But where did they come from? Singer cites half a source: "a paper published in Science in 1989".(16) Well, the paper might be 16 years old, but at least, and at last, there is one. Surely?
I went through every edition of Science published in 1989, both manually and electronically. Not only did it contain nothing resembling those figures; throughout that year there was no paper published in this journal about glacial advance or retreat.
So it wasn't looking too good for Bellamy, or Singer, or any of the deniers who have cited these figures. But there was still one mystery to clear up. While Bellamy's source claimed that 55% of 625 glaciers are advancing, Bellamy claimed that 555 of them - or 89% - are advancing. This figure appears to exist nowhere else. But on the standard English keyboard, 5 and % occupy the same key. If you try to hit %, but fail to press shift, you get 555, instead of 55%. This is the only explanation I can produce for his figure. When I challenged him, he admitted that there had been "a glitch of the electronics".(17)
So, in Bellamy's poor typing, we have the basis for a whole new front in the war against climate science. The 555 figure is now being cited as definitive evidence that global warming is a "fraud", a "scam", a "lie". I phoned New Scientist to ask if he had requested a correction. He had not been in touch.(18)
It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then dissolves in your palm. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world's most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals. You must, if you are David Bellamy, embrace instead the claims of an eccentric former architect, which are based on what appears to be a non-existent data set. And you must do all this while calling yourself a scientist.
1. David Bellamy, 16th April 2005. Glaciers are cool. New Scientist, issue 2495.
2. Conversation with Nigel Wonnacott, press officer at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, 2nd July 2004. This part of the conversation is reproduced at http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2004/08/19/correspondence-with-david-bellamy/
3. Conversation with Dr Frank Paul, WGMS, 5th May 2005.
4. Email from Dr Frank Paul, WGMS, 5th May 2005.
5. He cited Frank Paul etc al, 12th November 2004. Rapid Disintegration of Alpine Glaciers Observed with Satellite Data. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol 31, L21402; and WGMS, 1998. Fluctuations of Glaciers 1990-1995 Vol. VII. http://www.wgms.ch/fog/fog7.pdf. A fuller list of recent publications on glacial movements and mass balance is available at http://www.wgms.ch/literature.html
8. Eg Terry Kirby, 21st July 2004. The Cult and the Candidate. The Independent; Chip Bertlet, 20th December 1990. http://www.skepticfiles.org/socialis/woo_left.htm
9. eg Roger Boyes, 7th November 2003. Blame the Jews. The Times; David Bamford, 30th July 1987, Turkish Officials Carpeted. The Guardian; Michael White, 3rd May 1986. Will the Democrats wear this Whig? The Guardian.
10. Francis Wheen, 21st August 1996. Branded: Lord Rees-Mogg, international terrorist. The Guardian.
11. Extract from Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort
Guilford Press, New York, republsihed at http://www.publiceye.org/larouche/synthesis.html
12. This is the constant theme of 21st Century Science and Technology.
14. http://www.junkscience.com/nov98/moore.htm; http://www.globalwarming.org/article.php?uid=296; http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA218.html etc
15. John K. Carlise, 17th November 1998. Global Warming: Watch the Glaciers. The Washington Post.
17. Email from David Bellamy, 5th May 2005.
18. Conversation with Mike Holderness, deputy letters editor, 5th May 2005.