How the media bungled the reporting of sinking Solomon Islands

First reported in the Guardian.

Links between climate change and the sinking of five islands in the Pacific Ocean have been exaggerated, the author of a widely reported new study has said.

The report, published on Friday, tracked the shapeshifting of 33 reef islands in the Solomon Islands between 1947 and 2014. It found that five had been washed away completely and six more had been severely eroded. The study blamed the loss on a combination of sea-level rise and high wave energy.

Many media outlets, including the Guardian, jumped to the conclusion that the islands were lost to climate change. But this largely misinterprets the science, according to the study’s author, Dr Simon Albert.

“All these headlines are certainly pushing things a bit towards the ‘climate change has made islands vanish’ angle. I would prefer slightly more moderate titles that focus on sea-level rise being the driver rather than simply ‘climate change’,” Albert told the Guardian.

The major misunderstanding stems from the conflation of sea-level rise with climate change. As a scientifically robust and potentially destructive articulation of climate change, sea-level rise has become almost synonymous with the warming of the planet.

However, as Albert’s paper points out, the ocean has been rising in the Solomon Islands at 7mm per year, more than double the global average. Since the 1990s, trade winds in the Pacific have been particularly intense. This has been driven partly by global warming and partly by climatic cycles – in particular the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

“These trade winds have basically pushed water up into western Pacific and have driven these exceptionally high rates of [sea-level rise] in the Solomons,” said Albert. “The trade winds are partly a natural cycle but also the recent intensification is related to atmospheric warming.”

The proportion of the extra rise driven by climate change was not considered by Albert’s study.

Areas of the Pacific where seas are rising at closer to the global average have not yet experienced the same loss of land as the Solomon Islands. A few studies, based on comparing aerial photos of islands from world war two with current satellite images, have thus far have been inconclusive. There is even a suggestion that atolls in the central Pacific are getting bigger.

The loss of land in the Pacific is a totemic image of climate change. Residents of low-lying nations see incursions of the sea where it did not use to be and blame the burning of fossil fuels. This study shows that the issue is more complex than this. But it also contains a dire warning.

By the second half of this century the sea-level rise across the Pacific will be close to the rate observed in the Solomon Islands in recent decades. Albert’s team also observed a disturbing trend of wave energy increasing along with local sea-level rise, meaning islands exposed to high seas were trounced into oblivion.

In this respect, the drowning of these lands is a window into the future. For the first time, we can see clearly that the amount of sea-level rise we expect from climate change will overwhelm entire landscapes.

“The key aspect I stand by is that these observations from the Solomons are a warning of things to come irrespective of if climate change alone caused it or a range of factors,” said Albert.

It appears that in some cases journalists did not contact the researchers and instead quoted from a comment piece the authors wrote on The Conversation website.

“This is the first scientific evidence,” said the authors, “that confirms the numerous anecdotal accounts from across the Pacific of the dramatic impacts of climate change on coastlines and people.”

This was used to justify erroneous headlines. Albert told the Guardian: “I understand why these more dramatic titles are used and it does help bring attention to the issue that I firmly believe will become a major issue for the islands in the second half if this century from climate change.”

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Refugee mothers on Nauru speak on Mothers Day

Refugee mothers on Nauru have marked Mother’s Day with a plea to the Australian immigration department to let their kids resettle in Australia.

WARNING: contains graphic images of young Iranian man who set himself alight on the 27 of April.

Controlled invasive species advertised on eBay and Amazon to UK

Some listings have now been removed, original screen grabs below.

Ebay.co.uk:

  • A seller in Yorkshire selling bags of 20 floating pennywort strands (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides).
  • An Australian seller offering to ship water fern (Azolla filiculoides) anywhere in the world, including the UK.
  • One Polish vendor who has sold 53 clumps of parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum), a water plant. The advertised shipping region was “worldwide”.

Ebay.it:

  • The same plant on offer in Germany to anywhere in the EU. This advertisement notes customs restrictions outside the EU, but not in the UK.

Amazon.co.uk:

  • Latvian seller advertising sale of parrot’s feather into UK.
  • UK seller advertising parrot’s feather (currently unavailable) for sale from warehouse in England.

The relevant UK legislation is the Wildlife and Conservation Act 1981, Section 14AZ.

 

Tasmania’s bushfires: a human-made calamity on par with the razing of Palmyra’s temples

First published on the Guardian

It is a three-hour, thigh-torturing climb to reach Tasmania’s high central plateau. Ancient myrtle rainforests flank the slopes. In years gone by, springs and streams gushed from the soaked highlands above, feeding the ferns and tall, old trees. The track passes Norm’s spring, from which local legend holds it is good luck to drink. But in these parts the luck has run dry.

Last year Tasmania suffered its driest and hottest spring. At the nearby Miena dam, October’s rainfall was just 10.2mm, a record 65mm below average. The second driest November followed.

For the world heritage-listed ecosystem above, these normally sodden forests are a fortification against the fires that perennially torch the lowlands. But their fluorescent mosses turned a circumspect pastel green in the heat. By the time December and January broke summer heat records, they were just waiting for a spark.

On 13 January a huge, dry electrical storm set more than 70 fires rampaging across the island. Within days the flames tore through the dried-out defences and into the world heritage area above. For more than a month, fire has rolled back and forth across the fragile plains.

At the lip of the plateau a spectacular field of cushion plants once marked the northern edge of Tasmania’s vast world heritage area. These fragile plant communities build on the skeletal wood of their ancestors. As the centuries pass they construct huge, alien-green mounds that bulge from the peat. Today they look like a tray of burnt sponge cakes.

A long glacial valley stretches out below, devoid of colour, filled only with twisted black branches and burned stones; a monument to entropy. The rocks still radiate heat even though a fortuitous cloudburst put out the flames weeks before. At every step the normally spongy soil bursts into puffs of dust. The torched bark of thousand-year-old pencil pines shines iridescent black.

Only in tiny pockets has some life survived. Due to some inherent extra wetness, a protecting rock or a random swirl of the wind, here and there a few square metres of peat still shout forth little fantasias of sphagnum moss, pineapple grass, honey richea and cushion plants. Like funeral photos of a young life cut short, these still-glorious toeholds only accentuate the bitter, irredeemable tragedy of the surrounding acres of ash.

When vandals of Islamic State blew up the temples of Palmyra, the sickened world responded with appropriate and universal rage. The director general of Unesco, the UN body that oversees world heritage sites, called it a “war crime”.

As the burning of Tasmania enters its sixth week, Unesco remains silent. But if the dire warnings of forest scientists are correct, this summer heralds a new era of decline for this great Gondwana ecosystem. Unlike eucalyptus forests, these plants have not evolved to cope with regular bushfires. Once burned, they die. In a region that has rarely experienced fire, the blackened trunks of millennial trees will burn again and again. Some fire-resistant species will remain but the change will be absolute.

The beginning of its end is a theft from us all. Two-thirds of the plant species on the plateau exist nowhere else on earth but Tasmania. According to one estimate, 4% of the world’s remaining pencil pines – among the longest living of all trees – have been lost in these blazes.

The British explorer Gertrude Bell once wondered of Palmyra’s temples whether “the wide world presents a more singular landscape”. For the pilgrims who visit Tasmania’s wild sanctuary, there is only one answer. They come, from both near and far, to worship a different articulation of the divine. Or, as one local bushwalker puts it: “This is where we go to have fun.”

Away to the west, fires still burn. Tasmania’s fire service says they are contained. Thankfully, the weather failed to produce the dire northerly buster that would have sent the fires deep into the wilderness. Damage has been limited to 22,000 hectares of the vast 1.5m-hectare park. The Tasmanian government has been at pains to point out that the great majority remains intact. Rather than the final cataclysm, the ruined valleys at the northern edge are a premonition of a warmer, less wonderful world.

Unesco says it is “not in a position to speculate about the extent to which global warming is responsible for this particular fire”. Earlier this month the Tasmanian premier, Will Hodgman, attacked “activists” for “almost gleefully capitalising” on the fires, which he said were “naturally caused”.

But this ignores the unnatural rarity of these particular fires and the circumstances that preceded them. If they had been lit by arsonists, says David Bowman, a forest ecologist from the University of Tasmania, “that would be bad, but you would understand that that was preventable”.

Instead the rising background of climate change combined with a huge El Niño to create conditions in which peat bogs were dry enough to burn for the first time in perhaps a thousand years. Tasmania’s rainfall has been decreasing since the 1970s, accompanied by a rise in annual average temperature of half a degree. Last week research confirmedthat even with an El Niño in effect, the occurrence of Australia’s three hottest-recorded springs in the past three years was “almost certainly” caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate scientists have also predicted that lightning strikes will happen 12% more frequently with every degree of warming.

“It’s a historically significant event,” Bowman says.

Deep in the valley, a tiny grove of pines is still green. From afar the trees (which look to be about 500 years old – young by pencil pine standards) appear to have been protected from the fire by a rocky slope. But closer inspection reveals that the peat burned right up to their bases. Licking flames singed the bark at the bottom of their trunks. Then, inexplicably, the fire turned away. Perhaps this was the moment the rain came to douse the flames. The chubby needles of the pines remain soft and lively. But if these trees are going to ride luck like this their end cannot be far away.

The parents of these young trees may have been young themselves when the citizens of Palmyra still walked their desert streets. The razing of these old treasures are two points on the wide spectrum of human failure. Along with the fractured temple of Baalshamin, Isis have broken the statues of Hatra in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban blasted the great Buddhas of Bamiyan. All of these places carried the aegis of world heritage. This week news comes that the violence of climate change has turned towards another Unesco wonder, the Great Barrier Reef.

At the edge of the central plateau, a half-torched wooden signpost bears Unesco’s world heritage symbol, signifying the interdependence of nature and human ingenuity. Nothing within eyeshot is now worthy of such lofty recognition. Amid the blackened clumps of the cushion plants, the icon is a travesty.

Keystone XL: how Obama’s iconoclasm signals the turning of the climate tide

First published in the Guardian

The symbolism was everything. Standing before a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, the conservationist president who 104 years ago busted the Standard Oil monopoly, Barack Obama made his own tilt at an environmental legacy.

The proposed 1,179-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama rejected on Friday, would have borne more than 800,000 barrels of exceptionally high-carbon oil from Canada’s tar sands fields in Alberta to refineries on the US gulf coast each day.

It should have been a shoo-in for presidential approval. Conservatives and many labour unions loved it. According to a State Department report in 2014, environmentalists’ claims that it would reduce emissions from tar sands were unfounded. Keystone XL is just one of many pipelines being built across North America. If it was not built, the Canadians would simply ship it from elsewhere.

So how did Obama come down on the side of a coalition of students environmentalists, farmers and indigenous nations who admit that when they started this fight seven years ago, they had no hope of winning?

“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership,” said the president on Friday in an address to the nation.

It is here that the iconoclasm of Obama’s decision reveals itself. Climate change has become such an overwhelmingly mainstream political and diplomatic imperative that it overrides traditionally unbeatable domestic interests.

The president said he had weighed the familiar arguments – jobs, gas prices, energy security – and had been swayed by none.

Building the pipeline would have done little to benefit the US, he said. More oil from Canada was not going to make pump prices cheaper or help the US cut its reliance on foreign oil. That has already happened thanks to the fracking boom. Since 2008, the US has increased the yield of its domestic oil fields by a massive 173%.

“There’s no shortage of oil and gas here, so it seems particularly crazy to be importing crap when we have lots of our own fossil fuels,” said professor Daniel Kammen, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment.

On jobs, Obama said the pipeline was insignificant and that his mooted infrastructure plan would create 30 times more jobs. But jobs are jobs and the US’s major construction union called the Keystone decision “shameful”, adding that defining jobs as insignificant just because they are temporary amounted to throwing workers “under the bus”.

Professor Robert Stavins, the director of Harvard University’s environmental economics program, told the Guardian he was not aware of any reliable assessment of the project’s employment impact. But he added that “Keystone would have created a relatively small number of jobs, and only during its construction phase.”

Obama also had some harsh words for those in the environmental camp. The pipeline was not “the express lane to climate disaster” they had proclaimed. Canada’s tar sands are undeniably dirty. They come to the surface in the form of a sticky and impure mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen. These are expensive and carbon-intensive to refine.

Now, with a chronic oversupply and low prices, tar sands have become less attractive. Oil major Royal Dutch Shell has recently pulled out of two projects in oil-rich Alberta, writing off billions of dollars worth of initial investment.

Environmentalists argued oil producers would not be able to pay the extra costs of shipping by train or truck, meaning crude that would have run through Keystone XL will now stay safely under the soil. But Stavins said this argument relied rather too much on the unknowable future wanderings of the oil price.

“It may mean less CO2 emissions in the long term, but we don’t really know,” he said. “When oil prices were higher last year, Keystone would not have made any difference, because the oil would have been developed and sent to refineries with or without Keystone. But that is less clear with the much lower oil prices we now have. In any event, this is a long-term and uncertain consequence.”

Obama had opened his remarks by pouring scorn on the totemic importance the pipeline has attained.

“Now, for years, the Keystone pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an over-inflated role in our political discourse. It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter,” he said.

And yet the president was engaging in his own signification, standing in front of Theodore Roosevelt, killing Keystone because of how it would look to the rest of the world.

“We’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” he said.

Cynics have pointed out that Obama could have made his brave stand four years ago, instead of kicking the pipeline into the bureaucratic long grass and ensuring it was no impediment to his second election. But leading Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have already stated their opposition to Keystone XL, indicating it may no longer be a poisoned chalice.

Suddenly, environmentalists believe they are winning. The Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has long fought against Keystone in Congress, said he “wasn’t really sure it could get much better” on Thursday, after the New York attorney general launched a potentially era-defining investigation into ExxonMobil’s climate denial. “And then today’s news came”.

Whitehouse, who represents Rhode Island, likened Obama’s decision to the Battle of Gettysburg, where the American civil war swung in favour of the union. “The town of Gettysburg itself was not the point,” he said.

“The tide has turned,” 350.org’s Bill McKibben told journalists on a press call. “Just in the last 36 hours we’ve had the New York attorney general subpoena the largest, richest, most powerful fossil fuel company on earth. Now we’ve had the first rejection of a major fossil fuel infrastructure project that I can think of. That is a sign that we are moving into a new era.”

Linking the decision to the upcoming United Nations climate negotiations in Paris, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said the decision “will reverberate from Washington, to Ottawa, to Paris and beyond”.

“Keystone is such a touchstone issue because it flies in the face of the new United States position being a climate leader,” said Kammen. With the rejection, he said, Obama was “backing words with actions”.

Obama has increasingly pinned his legacy to the outcome of those talks, striking emissions deals with China and the G7 and forcing through the strongest-ever domestic cuts to US power emissions.

Uncharacteristically commenting on a member country’s internal politics, the UN’s climate chief, Christiana Figures, also tied the Keystone decision to the Paris talks, tweeting: “Just in the last 24 hours Exxon subpoenaed, Keystone rejected. We may finally have understood the risk of inaction on climate. Now to action.”

“The symbolic value is significant because it will position the United States in a more favourable light with those countries and those activists who favour strong action on climate change,” said Harvard professor Stavins. The boost to US credibility would allow it to drive through a more effective deal in Paris.

On Friday, Republicans called for back-up to mount a challenge to the rejection of Keystone in the Senate. TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, tried to staunch its bleeding share price by saying it would “review all of its options”.

However these amount to reapplying for a new presidential permit – a costly process that will most probably depend on whether a Republican or Democrat takes over the White House in 2016.

But even if the project is somehow resurrected, it will face infinitely stronger opposition. Environmentalists, who once thought taking on Keystone XL was an unwinnable fight, will now know for sure that it is only a pipeline.

 

 

GM: “the entire socio-ecological world in which it is currently embedded has to be made anew”

This piece of feedback from a Maywa Montenegro, a food systems scientist, is not only very flattering. It also expands on what I think is the key misrepresentation that makes GM less of a debate and more of a shouting match between people in seperate soundproof booths.

Worth a read.

Dear Mr. Mathiesen,

Hello, from across the pond in California. As a graduate student in food system studies at the University of California-Berkeley, I greatly enjoyed your fine column, “Is a ban on GM crops more harmful than growing them?” Rare is the journalist who pushes back against scientific ‘expertise’ with such an incisive observation: “Defining the GM debate as a contest between objective science and irrational belief allows scientists to ignore a wider definition of risk and to frame opponents as fundamentalists.”

I cheered aloud when reading that line – and immediately sent the piece to some 400 researchers affiliated with the UC Berkeley Diversified Farming Systems Center, and the globally-scattered New World Agriculture and Environment (NWAEG) group. We are a polyglot array of social and natural scientists who work in agroecology, plant biology, agronomy, and conservation biology (amongst the natural sciences), geography, development, rural sociology, political economy, public policy, and science & technology studies (amongst the social). But many of us find those silos unhelpful and define ourselves as interdisciplinarians.

What unites our work is an interest in food justice and agroecology. For many of us, this means farming and food systems that are based largely on incorporating biodiversity into agricultural landscapes, rather than stripping farmland of its people and nature on the idea that some land should grow food – and other parts “spared” for conservation. We push back at the idea that “feeding the 9 billion” is a problem of productivity, given vastly productive farming today, amidst persistent hunger and malnutrition.

Genetically modified crops may or may not be antithetical to an agroecological approach – in theory, it could happen. So far, however, as so poignantly put by Marco Contiero in your piece – the benefits of GM have largely accrued to oligopsony interests. For me personally, in order for GM to “work,” the entire socio-ecological world in which it is currently embedded has to be made anew.

What you captured so well in just a few short lines was the more complex terrain of thinking that should accompany GM crop evaluation. The GM question hinges not on science versus belief, but upon the boundaries of science in question, whose knowledge is considered a legitimate part of the conversation (are farmers given room at the table?), and a deeper inquiry into whether the ‘science’ that is deemed objective and truthful isn’t itself always mediated by ideology, cultural habits, social norms, and political power. Researchers’ cannot help but mature in their thinking as individuals, and as communities of scientists, in a world where all these forces come to bear. Thus, the kinds of questions they ask – as importantly, the kinds of questions they don’t ask –  are deeply rooted in these social structures and experiences.

This was illustrated in your piece where Jones declares that the GM potato could have saved millions: “Blight costs UK potato farmers around £60m every year in losses and the massive use of chemical sprays. Each hectare has £500 worth of fungicide dumped on it each season.” Similar stories pertain to pest-resistant cabbages and broccoli as well as yellow-rust resistant wheat. “These are examples where in a rational world we’d be just getting on with [them].”

What is rational to Jones is a binary: between GM crops (saving the environment and untold millions) and a regime of fungicide and pesticide dumping. This is a false choice, of course, since there are many other ways of growing food – agroecology, for example – that offer viable alternatives.

But enough. I only want to close by offering a few resources that you may find useful in your future reporting. The first is a petition signed by 67 academics and researchers that my colleagues and I submitted in October to the National Academies of Science, which is currently conducting a review of GE Crops in the United States. We felt that the composition of the panel that will be undertaking the review was insufficient to the scope of the task; our letter includes a fuller explanation. Perhaps of interest to you will be the list of signatories on this petition.  These are professors, post-docs, and leading researchers at non-governmental organizations who would all give you informed – and scientific – critique of GM in a broader social/ecological context.

The second is a Scientist Support Letter that was submitted to the FAO in November, in advance of the International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition. As the name suggests, the letter was signed by a number of prominent academics who could potentially provide you with “a wider definition of risk” and a vision for feasible alternatives, such as agroecology and food sovereignty.

Best regards,

Maywa Montenegro

Reaction to Times report on rejected climate scientist

Climate scientists reacted agrily today at an apparent attempt to paint the discipline as ‘activist’. The Times ran a front page story that a paper written by Lennart Bengtsson had not been accepted because its findings were uncomfortable for climate scientists. The Science Media Centre gathered reaction today from some of the UK’s heavy hitters.

Prof Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture at King’s College London, said:

“The publishers of the journal concerned, IOP, express astonishment that the story of this rejected manuscript made front-page news.  Of course it’s perfectly normal for scientific papers to be rejected for a whole variety of good reasons.  But the reason it made front-page news in this case was because of the previous pressure brought to bear on Professor Bengtsson, from a variety of quarters including from other climate scientists, which made him resign his position as an academic advisor to the GWPF think-tank.  This is the real story here: why certain climate scientists believe it’s their role to pass public judgement on whether a scientific colleague should offer advice to political, public or a campaigning organisations and to harass that scientist until they ‘fall into line’.

“This episode tells us a lot about how deeply politicised climate science has become, but how some scientists remain blind to their own biases.”

Dr Simon Lewis, Reader in Global Change Science at University College London, said:

“The rejection of a scientific paper becoming front page news is a surprise.  Scientific papers get rejected all the time. In top journals nine in ten papers get rejected; there is nothing unusual about it.  Decisions about publication are made by editors, not reviewers, so it is entirely wrong to selectively quote from reviewer comments alone.

“What counts are the reasons the editor gave for rejection.  They were because the paper contained important errors and didn’t add enough that was new to warrant publication.  Indeed, looking at all the comments by the reviewer they suggested how the paper might be rewritten in the future to make it a solid contribution to science.  That’s not suppressing a dissenting view, it’s what scientists call peer review.”

“I suspect that the rejection of a scientific paper hitting the news is simply because Professor Bengtsson has strong links to campaigners at the Global Warming Policy Foundation.”

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

“The full referee’s report that has been released by the journal shows that Professor Bengtsson’s paper was rejected because it was not good enough.  While it did include an inappropriate comment about the perceived impact of the paper on media coverage, this was just a single phrase in the referee’s detailed and constructively critical review, which pointed out the technical limitations of the paper. It is clear that the recommendation to reject was based on the poor quality of the paper.

“It is not a surprise that Professor Bengtsson is upset about the rejection, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the decision was based on concerns about the paper’s impact on the media.  Most researchers who receive such feedback respond by improving a paper and re-submitting it for publication.  But it appears that Professor Bengtsson has decided instead to allow himself to be used as a pawn in the disinformation campaign by climate change ‘sceptics’.” 

Prof Joanna Haigh, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

“Professor Lennart Bengtsson’s resignation from the GWPF Academic Advisory Council has received wide coverage and raises important issue.

“Whatever anyone’s views are on the role, motivation and integrity of the GWPF in this matter, it is up to individual academics whether or not to associate themselves with it.

“It is regrettable that perceived political stances on the climate issue are apparently so affecting academic activity.  The Grantham Institute at Imperial has always opposed such behaviour, believing that scientific progress requires an open society.  We try to engage with a wide range of figures, some with radically different views on climate change.”

“The outcome in this case is probably a reflection of the ‘us and them’ that has permeated the climate science debate for decades and which is in part an outcome of – and reaction to – external pressure on the climate community.

“This episode should not distract us from the fact that we are performing a very dangerous experiment with the Earth’s climate.  Even by the end of this century, on current trends we risk changes of a magnitude that are unprecedented in the last 10,000 years.  How we respond to that is a matter of public policy but scientists clearly play a key role in providing policymakers with the evidence they require.”

Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, said:

“As scientists we rely on peer review to ensure that the very best science is published.  You can’t cry foul and run to the media when you manuscript is turned down – however famous you are.

“In this case the independent reviewers suggested there were flaws in the science – and, even more damning, that it was not original.  The reviewers were right: publishing bad science does not advance the science or the policy relevant discussions at all.

“On the question of climate sensitivity to doubling carbon dioxide, there are already many excellent papers published which give a huge range from 1.5 to 4.5 degrees C.  So even if this flawed paper been published it would have said nothing new or original.”

Prof Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford, said:

“No self-respecting scientist would reject a paper on the grounds that it might fuel climate scepticism.  However, according to the journal, the paper contained errors and did not sufficiently advance the science.”

Prof Myles Allen, Head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, said:

“Whether there is a story here at all depends on whether you read ‘unhelpful’ and ‘harmful’ in the quotes I have seen as meaning ‘harmful to our collective understanding of the climate system’ or ‘harmful to the case for a particular climate policy’.

“If the reviewer meant the first, then there is nothing wrong with them saying so.  Part of the job of a reviewer is to point out statements in a paper that are liable to cause misunderstanding.  The problem is that journalists can now spin this as meaning the second.

“The real tragedy here is that climate scientists are now expected to check their comments in an anonymous peer review to ask themselves how they might ‘play’ if repeated in the Times or the Mail.  The progress of science since Galileo has depended on the principle that an anonymous graduate student can point out errors in a paper by a Nobel laureate confident that their comments will be used solely for the purposes of editorial judgement.

“The peer review system has its faults, of course: good papers get rejected, bad papers accepted, and reviewers have their prejudices which editors have to take into account.  But overall, it has served us well, and there is a lot more than climate science at stake if we allow it to be undermined by forcing scientists to consult their lawyers before recommending that a paper is rejected.”

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

“In the interests of transparency and informed debate, Professor Bengtsson’s paper should be made public along with reports from the referees and editor.  Only this will prove that his paper was rejected by the journal for sound scientific reasons rather than politics.  The peer review process is always susceptible to inappropriate comments from referees, but it is up to editors to ensure the integrity of the process.”

Twitter praise!

The Bruny Island Long Weekend

There are two types of car on Tasmania’s Bruny Island. One is a rusted workhorse, a no-frills veteran of the dusty roads. The other is a shiny, rented bubble of confusion, with muddled wayfarers poring over maps and brochures, too busy to notice other cars passing by. But when two of the island’s battered Holdens meet, an ancient rite is observed. An acknowledging finger rises from the steering wheel – the universal salute of the local.

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We drove down the island’s main road with Rob Knight, the owner of its newest attraction the Bruny Island Long Weekend. He told us that the next three days would be all about getting beneath the island’s salty skin.

The locals seem to regard us ‘townies’ with a mixture of amusement and vague suspicion. By choosing not to live on Bruny Island, we seemed to have demonstrated a priori a lack of judgement – possibly dangerous. Or, as one islander put it: “Why would you want to live in town? All you’ve got up there are suits and caffé lattes.” By the end of the weekend, I don’t think there was anyone in our group who had not asked themselves the same question.

Bruny should be easy and in some ways it is. Close to the capital Hobart, stunning scenery, a flourishing cottage tourism industry and (basically) one road.  But it is a place where even Tasmanians can feel like tourists; where the raising of a finger hints at a secret world of beaches, forests and epic seascapes.

“The number of day visitors has been increasing exponentially,” says Rob. “The ferry is so busy. But there’s so much more to Bruny than just coming for the day, doing the cruise and going to the cheese place.”

The ‘cruise and the cheese place’ – the famous, cliff-hugging Bruny Island Cruise and the addictive Bruny Island Cheese Co. – are two of many highlights on Rob’s food, wine and walking binge.

On the Long Weekend, we explored the island’s towering contours by sea, foot and eventually by air. Our days were divided between coastal walks and visits to some of the gourmet producers living and creating on this long strand of rock and sand.

As we travelled down the island Rob collected ingredients for the evening meal. The food on this trip is more than a highlight; it’s a reason to go. Lamb ribs and cutlets, wallaby carpaccio with sheep pecorino and mussels with leek and saffron cream are three of eight dishes that we tuck into on the first night alone.

Evenings of wine-soaked rest are spent at Rob’s brand-spanking forest camp. Camping never included a king-sized bed when I was a kid.

The weekend had started on Friday morning on the waterfront in Hobart where we boarded the Peppermint Bay Cruise that would convey us to Bruny. The 23-metre catamaran isn’t quite how they did it in 1777. But from my exclusive top deck seat, cappuccino in hand, I watched the island’s cliffs rise in the southern distance and it did feel like a voyage of discovery – minus the scurvy.

Captain Cook himself landed on Bruny in 1777 and met with the Nuenonne people of the island. It is possible that present at this meeting was a boy chief called Mangana. It is evidence of the swiftness of Tasmania’s indigenous tragedy that Mangana’s Bruny-born daughter, Truganini, would die just 99 years later, the last full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian.

Not far away from the Hiba English Garden, where we had lunch on the first day, Captain Bligh – of Marlon Brando and coconut chocolate bar fame – planted the apple isle’s first apple tree in 1788.

They also left their names. In 1792 the wonderfully French-sounding Chevalier Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux established that Bruny was, in fact, an island. This Gallic explorer lent his name to both the island (anglicised to Bruny in 1918) and the D’Entrecasteaux Channel that he found separating it from the mainland.

The island (really it is two islands connected by ‘The Neck’ a narrow sand isthmus) drapes itself along the map of southeastern Tasmania like a Rorschach inkblot. And like that famous test, people have tended to make up their own versions of the place.

Long the preserve of farmers, woodcutters and Hobartian shacks, Bruny has lately become a haven for artisans seeking a place of purity to grow, paint, make and raise all manner of fine produce.

“There are two reasons why Bruny has become such a place for food,” says Rob. “One is because it has got a very clean environment. Also I think the island attracts like-minded people that do these things.”

Get Shucked oyster farm allowed us to head out onto their lease on Great Bay for a tasting. Straight from their briny shells the way it was intended. I can say, without the least hint of hyperbole, that Tasmanian oysters are the kings of the phlegmy crustacean kingdom. And, if just for the name alone, Get Shucked oysters are worthy of the high praise.

Another treasure that Rob showed us was Bruny Island Premium Wines, Australia’s southernmost vineyard. I was thoroughly heartened by the predominance of Pinot Noir on their list. White wine is wasted on me, but with red it tends to be the other way around. After we had tried the wines and nominated a few favourites, Rob collected a swag of preferred bottles to be retested over dinner that night.

On Sunday, our last day, we revisited the sheer skirts of South Bruny on the Bruny Island Cruise. This time the cliffs were at neck-craning distance. The ocean hurled itself against the rock. It was a place of violence and turmoil and yet life was everywhere. The waves were stuffed with seals and dolphins and our nimble little boat darted right in there for a seal’s-eye view.

Exploring an island by sea seems like the proper way to do things. Leaving on a seaplane is just showing off. But the Bruny Island Long Weekend isn’t particularly bashful.

The Long Weekend showed us Bruny from every angle. We ate, drank, talked and walked it. We saw through the eyes of its locals, wildlife, explorers and original inhabitants. As we took off and looked down we had our last perspective, a scale usually reserved for the birds.

How long would it take to really know a place of such diversity? Before we parted I asked Rob if, after all the years of coming here, he ever gets a wave on the road.

“Give it another twenty years.”