Bob Ward: Why the house journal of the sceptics is full of hot air

'The Spectator's' latest issue attempts to undermine the evidence for global warming. An expert explains why it's wrong

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The propaganda machine of self-proclaimed climate change "sceptics" has been in overdrive in the run-up to the United Nations summit in Durban, and the new edition of The Spectator is just the latest attempt to promote ideology over science.

The magazine's front page story, "The sea level scam: the rise and rise of a global scare story", allows Dr Nils-Axel Mörner to recycle inaccurate and misleading claims about the impact of climate change on the world's oceans, each of which has been debunked by mainstream researchers.

Dr Mörner asserts that "sea levels rise and fall entirely independently of so-called 'climate change'", and alleges that "they rose in the order of 10 to 11cm between 1850 and 1940, stopped rising or maybe even fell a little until 1970, and have remained roughly flat ever since". But these statements are completely at odds with the evidence published in scientific journals.

A recent review by French sea level experts (Anny Cazenave and William Llovel) of the evidence from satellites and tidal gauges shows that global sea level has risen at an accelerating rate since the start of the 20th century, reaching 3.3mm per year between 1993 and 2007. Of this, about 85 per cent can currently be attributed to the effects of climate change, with ocean water expanding as it warms, and meltwaters from glaciers and ice sheets draining into the seas.

Dr Mörner also suggests that the threat of rising sea levels to island states, such as Tuvalu and the Maldives, has been exaggerated. This is also untrue. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading authority on the causes and consequences of rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, last month published a comprehensive assessment of the link between climate change and extreme events. It pointed out: "Small island states in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans, often with low elevation, are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and impacts such as erosion, inundation, shoreline change, and saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers."

The report added: "These impacts can result in ecosystem disruption, decreased agricultural productivity, changes in disease patterns, economic losses such as in tourism industries, and population displacements – all of which reinforce vulnerability to extreme weather events."

Dr Mörner dismisses the work of the IPCC as "nonsense", and he may be right that its projections of future sea level rise will be proved inaccurate – not as he suggests because they are too high, but because they are too low. The IPCC's last comprehensive assessment report in 2007 suggested sea level might rise by up to 59cm by the end of this century in its most pessimistic scenario. But it also admitted it had not included the possibility of rapid destabilisation of the land-based ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica, which contain enough snow and ice to raise global sea levels by about 13 metres.

Why has The Spectator allowed so much space to Dr Mörner to make claims that are so clearly wrong? Perhaps it is because he highlights his position between 1999 and 2003 as president of the Commission on Sea Level Changes and Coastal Evolution which was set up by the International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA). But naturally he neglects to mention that the president of INQUA wrote to the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2004 to point out that it "does not subscribe to Mörner's position on climate change".

While Dr Mörner has published a few scientific papers on sea level rise and climate change, his last major contribution in 2004, which suggested that global sea level had fallen around the Maldives, was subsequently shown by other researchers to be completely at odds with the rises recorded by tidal gauge and satellite measurements.

But Dr Mörner seems to be less interested in contributing to mainstream research and more concerned with boosting the campaign of sceptics. His most recent essay, "Sea Level is Not Rising", was published by Lord Monckton's Centre for Democracy and Independence.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Dr Mörner's article is not so much the views he expresses, which are not new, but the way in which The Spectator has accorded them so much weight, apparently without any fact-checking or consultation with experts on sea level. But I guess that is not surprising to see in a magazine that apparently believes ideology can trump science.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science

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