Why I Dismiss Environmentalists: a Close Reading of the TreeHugger Tsunami Article

12 Mar

Before I begin bashing environmentalists I want to define the term. I don’t mean anyone who cares for the environment or attempts to conserve it. I don’t mean scientists who do research about the environment. I mean people who are actively a part of the ‘green movement’ best exemplified by members of Greenpeace or websites like TreeHugger.

Generally speaking, I dismiss most everything environmentalists say. The reason is simple. I have yet to meet (or hear from) a well informed environmentalist. What do I mean by well informed? They have a deeper understanding of any issue relating to the environment than the average person does.

I don’t blame average people for not understanding issues. They aren’t demanding anything of me. I do blame environmentalists for not understanding issues, because they want to either force me to pay for something or demand I stop doing something.

I have been writing an article about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” for some time. I wanted to use it as an example of why I dismiss environmentalists. I’m sure I’ll finish it one day, but when I saw the following article on Treehugger I knew I had the perfect example. Here’s the March 11’th article:

Yes, Climate Change May Cause More Tsunamis. No, That’s Not Alarmism

I recommend you read the article first for yourself. It is complete with a picture of the Japanese Tsunami’s destruction at the top of the article, and a video of the Japanese Tsunami’s destruction at the bottom (in case you’ve forgotten as you’ve been reading). I’m going to do a close reading of the article and give you my thoughts. The story will be in the quoted areas.

Yes, Climate Change May Cause More Tsunamis. No, That’s Not Alarmism

Notice the title itself. The author, Brian Merchant, knows that these claims are going to be met with hostility. By adding on “No, That’s Not Alarmism” to the end, he is attempting to take the readers focus off of the what most rational people are already thinking by reading the headline: this is alarmism. Opportunistic alarmism at that. He understands this, and addresses it immediately.

I know headlines like that might just make most folks roll their eyes at this point — I mean, what doesn’t climate change cause these days, am I right? And I realize that people are skeptical of news-cycle tie-ins, like this very story appears to be.

He seems to believe that acknowledging the shortcomings of his article will keep the reader engaged. I admit that I was thinking these very things. So what is his response?

But just because it’s sort of depressing to keep tabs on all of the myriad impacts of ol’ climate change occurring the world over, doesn’t mean we should be glossing over facts like this: Geologists believe that global warming may already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.

Notice his use of the term ‘sort of depressing’. Earlier, he was acknowledging that climate change has been linked to nearly everything, in a seeming attempt to show that he understands how ludicrous that is. Even the link to an article about how climate change is ruining coffee seems somewhat self-deprecating. Now, it is not ludicrous that everything is linked to climate change, it is depressing. This implies that all these problems really are caused by climate change. He can’t have it both ways.

The last part of this quote is really the core of the article. I’ll repeat it for emphasis, “Geologists believe that global warming may already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.”

Wow! Global warming may already be causing earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions! Considering that all of these events are regularly refered to as “natural catastrophes” the fact that humans may be causing them to happen is an extraordinary claim. So what is the evidence?

After all, screwing with the world’s ornery climate system to the extent which we have is bound to have far-reaching effects — effects like huge amounts of melting ice causing the earth’s crust to “bounce” up, potentially triggering earthquakes.

Hmm. This doesn’t sound very promising. He begins by saying “After all”, which is an appeal to common sense. He believes it is obvious that “screwing with the world’s ornery climate system” will have far reaching effects.

First off, this is not common sense at all. Most people would not agree that GHG emissions cause natural disasters.

Then he uses terms like “screwing” or “ornery”, which have no meaning. Do emissions of CO2 screw up the planet? Does “ornery” imply positive runaway feedbacks? Also, he says they will have “far-reaching effects”, a vague term that needs explanation. His explanation? These effects could be, “…huge amounts of melting ice causing the earth’s crust to “bounce” up, potentially triggering earthquakes”.

Ah-hah! Here is the mechanism by which global warming can cause earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Now, earlier he stated that geologists are warning that global warming may already by causing earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Here he gives the mechanism by which earthquakes potentially happen. There is only theory so far, no evidence.

Which makes sense.

He starts the new paragraph by stating that the mechanism which he just described “makes sense”. Why? He hasn’t given any timescale or actual examples (or even possible scenarios) of this occurring. He hasn’t mentioned a scientific paper which has studied it. So why does it make sense? Here is one central problem with environmentalists.

Science makes sense to environmentalists only when human activities are a problem.

In other words, if science shows that humans are not the cause of the problem (or God forbid, actually the solution to a problem), environmentalists reject or ignore it. The best example I can think of is genetically modified food. The science is so clear that GM food is good, yet they fiercely reject it. Why? Because man’s ingenuity is the solution, and they can’t stand it (or to be kinder, they are intensely suspicious of it). Another example? Nuclear power. In light of the nuclear events happening in Japan, I can only imagine the ignorance environmentalists will be spewing in the near future.

Back to the article.

And if you ask me, now is a perfectly apt time to be analyzing such possible causal relationships, like the one between climate change and earthquakes (which set off tsunamis). You are, after all, perhaps turning to a green site like TreeHugger to examine the environmental implications of various world events. But some insist this reeks of opportunism (especially those amongst the anti-climate crowd) — and therefore should be immediately written off as sensationalism.

My guess is, no one was asking him his opinion, but he gives it anyways. Now is a perfectly apt time? Why is now the right time? Because of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The author explains that his readers turn to TreeHugger to assess the environmental implications of world events. The implication is that since the earthquake just happened, now the is the right time to look at the possibility the climate change can cause earthquakes.

This makes no sense whatsoever, even by his own standards. He claims that readers want to find out the environmental impacts of world events, but he is not discussing them. He doesn’t talk about the impact of the earthquake on the environment of Japan, he doesn’t discuss the effects the tsunami will have on the coastlines of numerous countries. Instead, he gives us some theory about how earthquakes and tsunamis may be caused by humans through some obscure mechanism that can potentially cause earthquakes at some undetermined point in the future.

He claims that some people will write this off as sensationalism because it is so opportunistic. He is right, I’m writing it off right now for that vary reason (among others). He employs an interesting trick to keep his readers from writing him off as sensationalist. He says that some insist that this is opportunistic and then he explains who those people are, “those amongst the anti-climate crowd”. The author does this in order to prevent readers from seeing the obvious fact that this is indeed opportunistic. After all, if a climate denier believes something, he must be wrong.

But there are perfectly appropriate ways to treat the story. For instance, Grist’s Christopher Mims has a good piece pointing out scientists’ concerns that increased carbon emissions are leading to more earthquakes (though the headline’s pushing it). Here’s a snippet:

In a little-heeded warning issued at a 2009 conference on the subject, experts outlined a range of mechanisms by which climate change could already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic activity. “When the ice is lost, the earth’s crust bounces back up again and that triggers earthquakes, which trigger submarine landslides, which cause tsunamis,” Bill McGuire, professor at University College London, told Reuters.

Melting ice masses change the pressures on the underlying earth, which can lead to earthquakes and tsunamis, but that’s just the beginning. Rising seas also change the balance of mass across earth’s surface, putting new strain on old earthquake faults, and may have been partly to blame for the devastating 2004 tsunami that struck Southeast Asia, according to experts from the China Meteorological Administration.

It’s almost funny that he points to the Grist article as one of the “perfectly appropriate ways to treat the story”. That article received so much criticism that the author changed the title and the article within a day. It’s a terrible example of how to treat the issue, complete with a huge picture of a fireball in Japan and a headline that originally read, “Today’s tsunami: This is what climate change looks like”.

Why does he like the article? He says it is “pointing out scientists’ concerns that increased carbon emissions are leading to more earthquakes”. How does that article do that? The article points to a 2009 conference supposedly devoted to the issue. Here is the conferences website. Finally, we have an appeal to something which at least sounds scientific.

I will now do something environmentalists never engage in. It’s called research. I am going to look for evidence of the article’s claim that “scientists’ concerns that increased carbon emissions are leading to more earthquakes”. Is there evidence at this cited conference that scientists are concerned that increased CO2 emissions are leading to more earthquakes?

The short answer is no. Just so that the environmentalists reading this can learn the process of research, I’ll show you how I came to that conclusion.

Visiting the website of the conference quickly shows us where such evidence would be. Scrolling down you see “Session 3: Climate as a driver of seismic, mass movement and tsunami hazards”. Perfect! That’s what we want. Now let’s look at the presentations. In order to view the abstracts we need to download a zip file containing various documents from the program. I’ve put the abstracts on my site to view here.

There are eight presentations in this section. So now we look over the eight abstracts to see if they support the claim that increased CO2 is leading to more earthquakes.

There is no mention of carbon emissions. The only mentions come in session one, and only in relation to the past. So part one of the claim, that carbon emissions are causing earthquakes, is false.

There are only two abstracts that have any possible relevance. One is entitled “GLACIAL EARTHQUAKE TSUNAMI—A CONSEQUENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE” by Tony Song at JPL. The other is entitled “SLIP RATE VARIATIONS ON ACTIVE FAULTS CAUSED BY ICE SHEET GROWTH AND MELTING”.

The Song abstract is about glacial earthquakes and possible ensuing tsunamis. It concludes (note that this is NOT in the TreeHugger article):

With more evidence showing that the world’s major ice sheets are disintegrating and melting much more rapidly than previously thought, a better understanding of the process of a low-probability but high-risk scenario of glacial earthquake tsunamis is essential for natural hazard mitigation and saving lives.

A quick look at Song’s CV shows that this is not a peer-reviewed paper. In fact, you can’t find it outside of this conference. I don’t know why it wasn’t further pursued if the threat is truly as grave as Song claimed it was. Either way, there is no evidence to support the TreeHugger article. This only projects that glacial tsunamis are possible (though low-probability) at some point in the future. It does not any in way state that earthquakes are increasing due to carbon emissions. Additionally, glacial earthquakes are (several) orders of magnitude smaller than earthquakes of the recent Japanese size and take place over much longer time periods (meaning they are substantially less intense).

The second article is peer reviewed (or became so eventually). Here is their conclusion:

Our findings imply that postglacial slip on faults in formerly glaciated regions may not be uniform through time. Rather, a significant fraction of slip may have accumulated within a few thousand years after the last glaciation. Our results also support the idea that the present low seismicity in Greenland and Antarctica is caused by the ice sheets. Our models indicate that the decay of these ice sheets due to global warming may ultimately lead to an increase in earthquake frequency in these regions.

So this paper uses models to determine the impact which ice sheets have on seismic activity. In their models they believe that the ice sheets reduce seismic activity, therefore if the ice sheets melt seismic activity will increase.

Note that this is not observational evidence. It is simply a claim, using models, that earthquakes might lead to increased earthquakes in the future. And most likely, a very very long time in the future since the ice sheets will remain for centuries if not millennia. Remember the article’s claim, “scientists’ concerns that increased carbon emissions are leading to more earthquakes“. This provides no evidence for that claim.

There is absolutely no evidence from this conference that increased carbon emissions are leading to earthquakes. So why did the author make that claim? He didn’t know any better. He didn’t do any research himself, he just read the Grist article. It said something that he liked (humans causing earthquakes!!!) so he repeated the false claim. He wanted the claim to sound credible, so he mentioned the conference. If he looked at the conference presentations he would know that his claim was false, but why bother?

Back to the article.

It’s interesting stuff, and a little frightening. But it’s not sensationalism. What does, ironically, veer more towards sensationalism, are the attempts by opponents of climate action to lambast such discussions as opportunistic, to try to shut down the dialogue. For instance, the right-wing blog the Daily Caller has a very poorly reported article that attempts to poke fun of Twitter users who’ve tweeted links between climate and earthquakes. “Twitter blames earthquakes on global warming,” the headline mocks. The author then gathers some tweets that make the whole idea sound stupid, and contacts an “expert” who confirms her suspicions:

“Global warming alarmists will exploit any natural disaster to promote their anti-fossil fuel agenda,” Tom Borelli of the Free Enterprise Project told The Daily Caller, adding that the climate change reaction is a result of the “global warming spin machine. First it’s global warming, then it’s climate change, now it’s probably tectonic instability – no doubt all caused by man,” he said.”

In yet another attempt to make this article not appear sensationalist, the author points out some “true sensationalism”. The Daily Caller article which collect tweets about the earthquake and global warming. I don’t understand why this article is sensationalist. It points out some dumb tweets from dumb people, so what? It is stupid to claim this earthquake was caused by climate change, which some of the tweets implied. The response they got from the Free Enterprise Project was clearly biased, but that doesn’t make it sensationalist.

Case closed — Lefty global warming alarmists are nincompoops! This is, of course, entirely unfair. Is there a definitive link between climate change and more earthquakes? No, but there’s some compelling evidence that there could be a relationship between the two. Preemptively trying to shut down the dialogue by shouting at the curious is the truly sensationalist move here.

The author rightly points out there is no definitive link between climate change and earthquakes, but then the continues and claims that there is “compelling evidence that there could be a relationship between the two”. He certainly hasn’t shown any compelling evidence of this relationship in this article.

He also claims that the Daily Caller article is trying to ‘shut down the dialogue’ about climate change and earthquakes. I don’t think that’s true, and the author’s lack of any scientific common sense shines through here. The tweets mentioned in the Daily Caller were about the Japanese earthquake specifically. The only ‘evidence’ the author has presented that earthquakes could cause climate change specifically mentioned only the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and it pointed out that melting might have regional impacts on seismic activity. The idea that the Japanese earthquake (or any earthquake not near Greenland or Antarctica) could be linked to climate change is laughable and the Daily Caller did nothing wrong by pointing this out.

So here is some of the best footage of the tragedy — a tragedy that could have been much, much worse, were it not for strict laws and building codes — unfolding in Japan.

(Video of tsunami damage here)

Our thoughts go out to the victims, and may we use this opportunity to examine the science behind the events that unfolded, and have a rational dialogue about what it may mean for the future.

This closing statement is interesting. He pleads for us to “use this opportunity to examine the science behind the events that unfolded”. First, what opportunity are we talking about? I guess he means the attention on the earthquake and tsunami. Now, what exactly does he mean by “examine the science behind the events”? Since this entire article is about the possible link between climate change and earthquakes, we must assume that the author wants us to examine possible links between climate change and this earthquake. But as I’ve already mentioned, there is absolutely no reason at all to assume climate change had anything to do with this earthquake, and the article doesn’t change that. He gives us no reason to examine the events that unfolded in light of climate change.

Just in case you might not be sure he is suggesting a possible link between climate change and the Japanese earthquake, look at the very last part of his statement, “and have a rational dialogue about what it may mean for the future”. He must be implying climate change had some cause. If not, then he is simply stating “let’s talk about what earthquakes mean for the future”. That makes no sense with the theme of the article.

Unfortunately this article isn’t an exception to most ‘green journalism’, it’s the rule. The authors latch onto one seemingly scientific fact and expound upon it. They don’t check their sources. They lack basic scientific common sense.

That’s why I dismiss environmentalists.



Posted by on March 12, 2011 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “Why I Dismiss Environmentalists: a Close Reading of the TreeHugger Tsunami Article

  1. aquila

    March 13, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Excellent analysis and deconstruction! You were a tsunami.

    There’s an additional reason why his theory doesn’t make sense, and I’ll use his own theory to debunk it. In plate tectonics, one plate moves against the other and according to his theory by removing weight from a plate (through melting ice via AGW) that the plate on which the ice use to rest suddenly bounces back causing an earthquake. But the same mechanism could just as easily RELIEVE the stress and in this way PREVENT an earthquake. For example it is theorized that the japan quake was cause by the north American plate subducting the Asian plate. Thus by removing weight from the NA plate (by melting ice through AGW) it would reduce the force of the subduction and thus make the quake less likely or at least postpone it.

    “Global warming science” has a lot of parallels with “creationist science”. They both start with an undeniable (by definition) theory (a dogma), and then selectively search for any evidence that might remotely support it, avoid any that might disprove it, and all the while calling non-believers names.

  2. Redmond

    March 29, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Holy moley – haven’t read it yet, but I am thinking of writing a piece on defining an “Environmentalist”

    Far too many people call themselves one, but aren’t really.


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