tip off

CSIRO says sea level claims from Oz expert are dead in the water

The CSIRO is crying foul over a front page article in The Australian last week which “misinterpreted” a report on rising sea levels and claimed the national research body’s model for global warming was “already dead in the water as having no sound basis in probability”.

Under the title “Sea-level rises are slowing, tidal gauge records show”, journalist Stuart Rintoul reported on a new peer-reviewed study by NSW Office of Environment and Heritage specialist Phil Watson, which found that “based on century-long tide gauge records”  there has been a “consistent trend of weak deceleration” in rising sea levels to the year 2000. At first glance, this appears to contradict the international scientific consensus that sea level rises are accelerating.

Providing colour to the piece were quotes from “climate change researcher” Howard Brady, who took Watson’s cautious conclusions and went much further, claiming that the report raised “questions about the CSIRO’s sea-level predictions,” that the sea level rises accepted by the CSIRO for the 21st century were “already dead in the water as having no sound basis in probability” and that the divergence between the sea-level trends and the models of those trends was so large that “it is clear there is a serious problem with the models”.

With rising sea level acceleration apparently on the decline, the article suggested without any evidence that instead of a 0.8m rise this century, we could see zero acceleration and “a rise of about 0.15m by 2100.”

These were mighty claims. It did not take long for a skeptical online media outlet to pick apart the article, in particular the role of Howard Brady, the researcher from Macquarie University, and some of the more grandiose claims of the article.

Science blog Deltoid looked into Brady’s qualifications, finding that the “climate change researcher” was actually the retired CEO of oil company Mosiac, his position at Macquarie University appeared to be honorary, and his only “publications” on climate change were “are a couple of letters to the editor in Sydney Morning Herald where he was just as dismissive of sea level change as his now.”

Alarmed with an incorrectly captioned image on the online version of the story on The Australian website (since updated) that said “global warming is not affecting sea levels”, Watson’s employer the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage sent a letter to The Australian stating the article was “untrue and misleading” and that the “research and underlying data is entirely consistent with the rate of global average sea level rise for the 20th century advised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

Angry that Deltoid and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage had accused him of misrepresenting the report, journalist Stuart Rintoul told Crikey that people had “read an incorrect caption on an online version of the story … that’s what they’re complaining about and that’s not in the article … that’s it, it’s very straightforward”. Furthermore, “I’ve had several conversations with Phil Watson, he’s got no complaint with anything that’s in the body of the article.”

So the idea that I’ve misinterpreted this research is entirely wrong, entirely wrong … I’m seeing this online headline saying ‘Stuart Rintoul misinterprets a scientific paper’, and it’s …outrageous.”
“As to Howard Brady, he made contact with us, he has published Antarctic research articles in the Antarctic Journal of the United States, Nature, Science, and the English Journal of Geology and Geophysics, and his criticisms of CSIRO modelling were judged newsworthy.”
“The differences between CSIRO modelling and tide gauges is the subject of continuing reportage.”

Crikey phoned Watson, but sensing a public spat of which it wanted no part, a spokesperson for the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage banned Watson from talking to the media and called Crikey back, explaining that Watson’s “comments were accurate. The rest of the article was the journalist’s interpretation. He put in that Brady guy’s comments, which were unhelpful.”

However, the biggest repudiation of the article comes from the CSIRO.

Neil White, scientist at Sea Level and Coast Group at CSIRO Marine Research, has provided Crikey with a point-by-point demolition of Brady’s more spurious claims in the article, saying Brady “misinterpreted the paper in front of him.”

On Brady’s claim that the CSIRO models were “already dead in the water as having no sound basis in probability”, White says that “the recent research, if you look at the graphs in the paper, shows recent sea level rises that agree with those calculated by CSIRO … the overall long-term trends shown in the Watson paper agree reasonably well with estimates of global-mean sea level.”

On the claim that the rise in sea levels was decelerating:  “You can’t just say the trend has been so much and we can extrapolate that. It only looks at two places in Australia that aren’t typical.  Yes, the sea level flattened off and then started increasing again. We know the reason  for the flattening off — it’s because a lot of water was retained in man-made dams  in the second half of the 20th century — equivalent to about 30 millimetres of global sea level …  in addition, there was a plateau in global temperature at about this time which would tend to flatten the sea level curve. ”

On Brady’s claim that the divergence between the sea-level trends from models and sea-level trends from the tide gauge records was now so great there was a “serious problem” with the models. “This is quite incorrect, in fact if we look at recent estimates of global mean sea levels from measurements and the IPCC projections they agree quite well.”

If anything, the measurements are towards the high-end of the projections.”

Additional research and interviews by Andrew Crook and Amber Jamieson.

  • 1
    Posted Wednesday, 27 July 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I noticed the fourth last paragraph of the hard copy version of the story which says since 1990 sea leveal rises have been high. But you had to flip over to bottom of page 2 for that.

    For such a hugely serious issue where literally hundreds of millions of lives are at risk, to indulge in misleading and deceptive reportage is very low indeed. No wonder the journalist is anxious.

    How many people were ripped off the value of the cover price by dodgy ‘news’, if that is what it is? There is a law against dodgy advertising but journalists can write whatever their boss likes?

    Why indeed was there no balance with reference to the pro GW experts in the same article?

    Which brings us to the second aspect of News Ltd’s editorial - bad faith.

  • 2
    Posted Wednesday, 27 July 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Anyone betting that Rintoul’s article will become much quoted by deniers?

  • 3
    Jimmy Nightingale
    Posted Wednesday, 27 July 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I was one of the commenters on Deltoid who smelled a rat with this article.

    It didn’t take long on Google, about 10 minutes, to find out what Phil Watson’s paper actually said and to uncover Howard Brady’s history and lack of expertise on this subject. Unfortunately, the average reader is more likely to just accept this kind of article at face value. Stuart Rintoul’s article is more than just shoddy journalism - it is a reflection of a consistent meme in News Limited newspapers of climate change denial.

    It is sad that Stuart Rintoul needed to misrepresent a paper and introduce a fake expert in Howard Brady to extrapolate that misrepresentation to reach the conclusion that he did.

    If one puts on their critical thinking hat, the next logical step would be wonder, if as New Limited newspapers continually report that the science underpinning climate change is not settled, why there is the need to do this. Where are the credible scientific papers and real experts?

  • 4
    michael r james
    Posted Wednesday, 27 July 2011 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    @JIMMY NIGHTINGALE Posted Wednesday, 27 July 2011 at 3:10 pm

    Good, but perhaps you can clear up this inconsistency in the article concerning Brady. Is this statement (below) wrong? Or is it all stuff by Brady on other scientific subjects? (I haven’t tried to check this out on PubMed because with a name like Brady I suspect there would be a lot of ambiguity — therefore a lot of work to check each paper for the affiliation of the author named Brady etc.) Is Brady a geologist?

    “As to Howard Brady, he made contact with us, he has published Antarctic research articles in the Antarctic Journal of the United States, Nature, Science, and the English Journal of Geology and Geophysics, and his criticisms of CSIRO modelling were judged newsworthy.”

  • 5
    Posted Wednesday, 27 July 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Web of Science has 7 publications by Brady, the most recent was in 1983. They are all on sediments in Antarctica. Nothing on climate science, let alone sea level.

    NATURE (1)
    SCIENCE (1)

  • 6
    Posted Wednesday, 27 July 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    MikeB - the shoutback jocks were already yelling it to their credulous audiences, AJ and ravin’ Ray Hadbeen on 2Gb and David Odious on Beobachter’s 2UE.
    I tried to get onto 2GB when Raver came on but heard many other callers come on reacting to later comments,mostly UltraTune problems, before the line dropped out after 11am. Odd, that.

  • 7
    Derek Butcher
    Posted Wednesday, 27 July 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    In 2050 we will know the truth

  • 8
    Jeremy Williams
    Posted Thursday, 28 July 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Another day, more misinformation and distortion by the oz
    To quote another:
    In other breaking news the sky is blue, the grass is green