Monday, June 18, 2007

Stupidity on display: Sean Hannity edition

Last night Sean Hannity said that recent research indicating that the retreating snows of Kilimanjaro is not related to global warming is further evidence that Al Gore is a liar and propagandist because in An Inconvenient Truth Gore cited the snows of Kilimanjaro as evidence of global warming.

This is Sean Hannity putting on display his stupidity in regards to how science works. Gore made the claim based upon the research of Lonnie Thompson, a geologist who attributed the melting snows of Kilimanjaro to global warming, using the inductive reasoning that the snows on Kilimanjaro were part of the global retreat of glaciers due to increased global temperatures, BEFORE this new research paper* came out indicating that the snow retreat on Kilimanjaro was not attributable to global warming.

There is genuine criticism to be made about Gore having asserted the retreating snows on Kilimanjaro to be due to global warming (without the proper qualifications about the certainty of that conclusion), as this blogger points out by noting that as a test of deductive reasoning it does not follow that retreating snows on Kilimanjaro are necessarily attributable to global warming. But what Hannity failed to mention to his audience was that the new research paper did not dispute that the majority of retreating snows and glaciers around the world are due to global warming.

Here Hannity has not only revealed his own stupidity, but his own intellectual dishonesty and nature as a propagandist. The paper itself mentions:

What factors may explain the decline in Kilimanjaro's ice? Global warming is an obvious suspect, as it has been clearly implicated in glacial declines elsewhere, on the basis of both detailed mass-balance studies (for the few glaciers with such studies) and correlations between glacial length and air temperature (for many other glaciers). Rising air temperatures change the surface energy balance by enhancing sensible-heat transfer from atmosphere to ice, by increasing downward infrared radiation and finally by raising the ELA and hence expanding the area over which loss can occur. The first and only paper asserting that the glacier shrinkage on Kibo was associated with rising air temperatures was published in 2000 by Lonnie G. Thompson of Ohio State University and co-authors.
Before going on to conclude that the best evidence now indicates that the "lines of evidence do not suggest that any warming at Kilimanjaro's summit has been large enough to explain the disappearance of most of its ice, either during the whole 20th century or during the best-measured period, the last 25 years."

Hannity failed to inform his audience that the researchers stated

The fact that the loss of ice on Mount Kilimanjaro cannot be used as proof of global warming does not mean that the Earth is not warming. There is ample and conclusive evidence that Earth's average temperature has increased in the past 100 years, and the decline of mid- and high-latitude glaciers is a major piece of evidence. But the special conditions on Kilimanjaro make it unlike the higher-latitude mountains, whose glaciers are shrinking because of rising atmospheric temperatures. Mass- and energy-balance considerations and the shapes of features all point in the same direction, suggesting an insignificant role for atmospheric temperature in the fluctuations of Kilimanjaro's ice.

It is possible, though, that there is an indirect connection between the accumulation of greenhouse gases and Kilimanjaro's disappearing ice: There is strong evidence of an association over the past 200 years or so between Indian Ocean surface temperatures and the atmospheric circulation and precipitation patterns that either feed or starve the ice on Kilimanjaro. These patterns have been starving the ice since the late 19th century—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say simply reversing the binge of ice growth in the third quarter of the 19th century. Any contribution of rising greenhouse gases to this circulation pattern necessarily emerged only in the last few decades; hence it is responsible for at most a fraction of the recent decline in ice and a much smaller fraction of the total decline.
So if Gore were to continue to assert that the loss of snow on Kilimanjaro were due to global warming Hannity would be correct to call him a liar and a propagandist. But instead Hannity uses this finding as propaganda that global warming is not happening and/or that it is not a problem that we should be alarmed about, when in fact that is not what the paper says.


The climate scientists at Real Climate wrote - as of May 23, 2005 -

Kilimanjaro has attracted special attention not because it is an unusually important indicator of tropical climate change, but because it is well known through the widely read Hemingway short story. If anything, it is the widespread retreat of the whole population of tropical glaciers that provides the most telling story. Perhaps one can regard the Kilimanjaro glaciers as a kind of "poster child" standing in for this whole population. It is not yet clear whether this photogenic and charismatic poster child is a good choice for the role. Certainly, if Hemingway had written, "The Snows of Chacaltaya," life would be much simpler.

Based on what is now known, it would be highly premature to conclude that the retreat and imminent disappearance of the Kilimanjaro glaciers has nothing to do with warming of the air, and even more premature to conclude that it has nothing to do with indirect effects of human-induced tropical climate change. On the contrary, a study of the glaciers' long history argues powerfully that the recent retreat is happening in an environment significantly different from that which the mountain experienced during past equally dry periods.
In that linked post Real Climate takes into consideration the research being done by the authors of the paper that was just released and offers a different interpretation of the evidence that suggests that global warming does play a role in the melting of the snows, so again, the issue is not as black/white as Hannity would have you believe. The criticism of Gore's lack of qualification over the on-going status of this research stands, but Hannity is not interested in making that sort of honest criticism.

I expect that Real Climate will comment on this new paper within a few days, at which point we'll be able to see if they find the new paper more compelling.**

*The paper is new, the research is not, as the researchers have been compiling evidence for twenty years. A genuine criticism can be made of Gore for overlooking this research, although I'm not able to tell from the paper how well known this research was before Gore made the documentary.
**Don't let that fool you. The Real Climate entry is quite nuanced, and the authors state that they find the research of Kaser - one of the lead authors of the new paper - "interesting and thought provoking."

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