Thursday, August 8, 2013

Jim Steele, climate change and the sixth major extinction event

Sou | 11:00 PM Go to the first of 10 comments. Add a comment

Jim Steele writes on WUWT that he thinks the scenario of "catastrophic climate change" is false (my bold):
Why have so few scientists celebrated the good science like Jeremy Thomas’ when it empowers us with the critical understanding that allows us to locally build a more resilient environment? Why instead have thousands of scientists uncritically pushed false scenarios of catastrophic climate change? Although some skeptics have suggested a nefarious scientific conspiracy, I believe it demonstrates the ease with which the human mind embraces illusions. 
Jim Steele was ostensibly writing about the work of Jeremy Thomas, who he much admires, and how he figured out what was the cause for the extinction of a butterfly in Britain (which has subsequently been reintroduced by conservationists from populations in Europe).  I say "ostensibly", because Jim Steele used what would otherwise have been a fascinating story as a springboard for a rant against climate science and against a biologist, Professor Camille Parmesan, against whom he seems to hold a particular grudge (unexplained).

I looked up Jeremy Thomas and his work.  He's an entomologist, the Professor of Ecology and Professorial Fellow of New College working in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University.  He has published quite a few papers.  Clearly a top scientist in his field and held in high regard.

(This is kind of long - so if you're on the blog home page and want to read more, click here.)

The biological world is approaching the sixth major extinction event in its history - a catastrophe in the making

Jim's idol, Professor Thomas himself warns about a catastrophe that is being caused in part by climate change.  So much for Jim's "false scenarios".

The first paper I looked at was one in which Professor Thomas provided more evidence, this time from an entomological viewpoint, strengthening the hypothesis that the natural world is experiencing the sixth major extinction event in its history.  If that sounds catastrophic then so it should.  The authors write:
We found (Fig. 1A) that 28% of native plant species have decreased in Britain over the past 40 years, that 54% of native bird species have decreased over 20 years, and that a majority of butterfly species (71% over ∼20 years) has declined....
... Certainly, the main drivers of change in British plant, bird, and butterfly populations (13, 14, 20) are the same processes responsible for species' declines worldwide (27, 28).

Land-use change and climate change are driving loss of biodiversity and extinction

The papers listing "the same processes" responsible for species decline include Diamond et al (1989), which discusses the human-caused extinctions and discusses causes under the main mechanisms as overhunting, human-introduced species (eg as vectors of disease and as predators of the native populations) and habitat destruction (which they listed as now becoming the leading cause).  Back in 1989 Diamond et al were of the view that the current rate of human-caused extinctions will increase.

The second reference was  to Sala et al (2000), which put forward scenarios of biodiversity looking  ahead to 2100.  They listed drivers of change as follows. "For terrestrial ecosystems, land-use change probably will have the largest effect, followed by climate change, nitrogen deposition, biotic exchange, and elevated carbon dioxide concentration. For freshwater ecosystems, biotic exchange is much more important."

J A Thomas et al 2004, Comparative Losses of British Butterflies, Birds, and Plants and the Global Extinction Crisis, Science 19 March 2004: Vol. 303 no. 5665 pp. 1879-1881 
DOI: 0.1126/science.1095046

Jeremy Thomas gives credence to the work of Camille Parmesan

Jim Steele has a particular dislike of a scientist called Professor Camille Parmesan, recently named 2013 Distinguished Texas Scientist by the Texas Academy of Science .  I don't know if they have a history or not, but Jim has mentioned her in previous articles on WUWT so it comes across as a personal grudge of some sort.  In this article, Jim finds fault with her because of a paper she coauthored with economist Gary Yohe that was published in Nature in 2003: A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems.  Jim writes:
In contrast to Jeremy Thomas’s detailed investigations, Parmesan again advocated that biologists should ignore local details.
Does she?  No.  Not at all.  Jim's comprehension is not the best at the best of times (eg see this article as well as Jim's comments below it).  Even Jim's next sentence shows that he's missed the point.  He quoted the authors as writing:
Here we present quantitative estimates of the global biological impacts of climate change. We search for a climate fingerprint in the overall patterns, rather than critiquing each study individually.
Parmesan and Yohe are not arguing against individual studies.  You could say it's quite the reverse because this macro-analysis of theirs is based in part on individual studies.  Detail is important, but so is the overall picture. Some people see forests as a whole, some don't see the forest for the trees, some can see both the trees and the forest.  In their paper, Parmesan and Yohe address this sort of issue, writing (my bold italics):
Most short-term local changes are not caused by climate change but by land-use change and by natural fluctuations in the abundance and distribution of species. This fact has been used by non-biologists to argue that climate change is of little importance to wild systems10. This approach, however, effectively ignores small, systematic trends that may become important in the longer term. Such underlying trends would be confounded (and often swamped) by strong forces such as habitat loss.
Biologists have tended to concentrate on studies that minimize confounding factors, searching for trends in relatively undisturbed systems and then testing for significant associations with climate change. Economists have viewed this as biased (nonrandom exclusion of data) whereas biologists view this as reducing non-climatic noise. Thus, economists focus on total direct evidence and apply heavy time discounting; biologists apply a ‘quality control’ filter to available data, accept indirect (inferential) evidence and don’t apply time discounting.
The test for a globally coherent climate fingerprint does not require that any single species show a climate change impact with 100% certitude. Rather, it seeks some defined level of confidence in a climate change signal on a global scale.

In their analysis, Parmesan and Yohe found that: 
  • A total of 74–91% of species that have changed have done so in accord with climate change predictions (Table 2).
  • With 279 species (84%) showing predicted sign switches, this diagnostic indicator increases confidence in a climate change fingerprint from either viewpoint. (The "either viewpoint" refers to an economist's and a biologist's viewpoint.)

A number of explanations

And contrary to what Jim Steele writes, the authors are very aware that at the micro level, there are a number of different factors operating.  They write, for example:
Change in any individual species, taxon or geographic region may have a number of possible explanations, but the overall effects of most confounding factors decline with increasing numbers of species/systems studied. Similarly, uncertainty in climate attribution for any particular study does not prevent the development of a global conclusion on the basis of a cumulative synthesis. In particular, a clear pattern emerges of temporal and spatial sign switches in biotic trends uniquely predicted as responses to climate change.

Now I have no problem in Jim disagreeing with the approach taken by Parmesan and Yohe or disputing their findings.  That happens all the time in scientific research.  The issue I have is that he goes off on an evangelical born-again climate science denier tangent and writes stuff like this:
Once those scientists accepted CO2 warming as a reasonable explanation for ecological disruptions, despite never thoroughly examining the issue, they embraced whatever supported their choice. Their intellectual identity became intimately entwined with any validation of their chosen hypothesis. Like an avid sports fan, they feel great when their team is “winning” and distraught when their team is “wrong”. They brand anyone who challenges their hypothesis as a denier, stupid, traitor or infidel, and do not hesitate to brutalize anyone on the wrong team.
Jim isn't criticised because he challenges a hypothesis.  His position is criticised because he protests very fundamental science that is supported by a vast body of evidence on no grounds whatsoever.  It's not as if he "challenges" the explanation of the greenhouse effect by pointing out something wrong with it.  He doesn't offer any alternative explanation.

The Silver-Spotted Skipper Butterfly

In one part of their 2003 paper, Parmesan and Yohe give an example of the silver-spotted skipper butterfly attributing its shift in location predominately to climate change.  Jim takes exception to what they wrote.  In trying to untangle his logic I found myself on a strange path.

Parmesan and Yohe when discussing this butterfly example, cite a paper co-authored by Jim's Professor Jeremy Thomas: Rapid responses of British butterflies to opposing forces of climate and habitat change. From the abstract: The dual forces of habitat modification and climate change are likely to cause specialists to decline, leaving biological communities with reduced numbers of species and dominated by mobile and widespread habitat generalists.

Jim Steele disputes the extent to which climate change affected the distribution of the silver-spotted skipper butterfly.   He asked Professor Thomas about it.  Thomas replied that it's likely only around one third attributable to climate change and the rest mostly to land use change.  So what Jim's gripe boils down to is not whether climate change was a factor or not, but whether it was a greater factor than land use change.

Bear in mind that the researchers only referred to the silver-spotted skipper butterfly to illustrate a point. The study was not about the silver-spotted skipper butterfly per se.  But those couple of paragraphs was what Jim has honed in on.  He apparently isn't just arguing about the silver-spotted skipper butterfly, but he rejects all the research of Professor Parmesan and maybe the economics of Dr Gary Yohe as well.  Jim Steele seems to have a knee jerk reaction when he sees the two words "climate change".  (He's even written a rejection manifesto.  I guess that's why he's started writing for WUWT.  Like Bob Tisdale, he wants to sell his book.)

Jim is also most upset that the paper by Camille Parmesan: A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems, published in arguably the most recognised general science journal Nature (Impact Factor 38.597) ten years ago (in 2003) has been cited more than 3000 times, while a paper by Professor Thomas: Evidence based conservation of butterflies, published in the Journal of Insect Conservation (Impact Factor 1.801) two years ago in 2011 was "only" cited 17 times.  Ironically, Professor Thomas' 2011 paper cites a paper by Parmesan (for which Jeremy Thomas was one of the co-authors).

I'd be very surprised if Professor Thomas were at all upset at the number of citations that paper has received.  It seems quite good considering the topic and the journal.  In any case, he has plenty of publications in high profile journals which have been cited in the multiple of hundreds.  On his website, Thomas doesn't even list the paper that Jim is so upset about.  But he does list several of the papers he had published in the high profile journals Nature, Science, PNAS, Phil Trans R Soc B etc.

Collaborators in Climate Change

At the risk of bursting Jim Steele's bubble, his entomological hero, Professor Thomas, is very aware of the impact of human-induced climate change.  In his 2011 paper he credits the new warmer climate in Britain for making conservation of the formerly extinct butterfly easier.  Thomas also points to climate change as one of the main drivers of this sixth major extinction event and has published as much.  Thomas is acknowledged by Parmesan in her 2003 Nature paper that Jim so dislikes, for discussions and for providing her with unpublished raw data.  Thomas also cites the above study and other work by Professor Parmesan in his own papers.  For example, a Google Scholar search of JA Thomas with the word "Parmesan" yields the following:

Protected areas facilitate species’ range expansions

The challenge of conserving grassland insects at the margins of their range in Europe

Seasonal variation in the niche, habitat availability and population fluctuations of a bivoltine thermophilous insect near its range margin

Evidence based conservation of butterflies - not from a Google search, but it does cite Parmesan (1999).

Poleward shifts in geographical ranges of butterfly species associated with regional warming - in this work, Jim's much-admired Professor Thomas was a co-author with Professor Parmesan the lead author!  The abstracts shows that this work was most likely drawn upon for the study that Jim Steele takes such exception to.  The abstract is as follows (my paragraph breaks):
Mean global temperatures have risen this century, and further warming is predicted to continue for the next 50–100 years1, 2, 3.
Some migratory species can respond rapidly to yearly climate variation by altering the timing or destination of migration4, but most wildlife is sedentary and so is incapable of such a rapid response. For these species, responses to the warming trend should be slower, reflected in poleward shifts of the range. Such changes in distribution would occur at the level of the population, stemming not from changes in the pattern of individuals' movements, but from changes in the ratios of extinctions to colonizations at the northern and southern boundaries of the range. A northward range shift therefore occurs when there is net extinction at the southern boundary or net colonization at the northern boundary. However, previous evidence has been limited to a single species5 or to only a portion of the species' range6,7.
Here we provide the first large-scale evidence of poleward shifts in entire species' ranges. In a sample of 35 non-migratory European butterflies, 63% have ranges that have shifted to the north by 35–240 km during this century, and only 3% have shifted to the south.

IMO it's not very likely that Jim Steele will get support from Professor Thomas in his attempts to denigrate the work of Professor Parmesan.  Professor Thomas might take issue with one or two details that he has particular knowledge of, but he regards Professor Parmesan's work highly enough not just to cite it in his own papers but to collaborate with her as lead author.  And the professional respect is reciprocated, with Professor Parmesan collaborating with and citing Professor Thomas.

Postscript 1: Camille Parmesan's early work was on Edith's Checkerspot butterfly, which is considered threatened by climate change among other things probably.  You can read a bit about it here.

Postscript 2: This video suggests Jim Steele may have crossed paths with Camille Parmesan (she did some work in Sierra Nevada mountains which is probably close to Jim Steele's stomping ground).

Postscript 3: If Jim Steele stuck to what he knows about, which looks like it is habitat restoration, he would probably find a lot of support for his work across the board.  Habitat restoration is something that people from all walks of life can get involved in to the betterment of the planet.  Instead he muddies the waters by going outside his area of expertise and protesting climate science, which is not his field.  I reckon a book on the "how to" of habitat restoration would generate a lot more sales than his book that by all accounts is largely a transparent whine about how all the thousands of climate scientists in the world are wrong.

Postscript 4: A personal note - I am very aware that good entomologists are thin on the ground in many parts of the world, including here in Australia, based on work I've done.  There is a huge amount of research just waiting to be performed and I think this is one field of study that will become more and more important in the coming years.  It's not that easy to get funding unfortunately.


  1. This is very funny. I got into an argument with Steele on Climate progress about Michael Mann, where he went into a whole range of arguments against climate change. Most of which are pretty much what you describe above. He takes isolated issues, like Kilimanjaro, and rather mild Mann emails from climate-gate and extrapolates to conclusions that are completely at odds with the rest of the relevant information.
    But the ONE point I did give him was the possibility that a researcher on butterfly's was being influenced by climate change rhetoric, and that her results were biased. I encouraged him to publish accurate scientific research that showed her conclusions were wrong.
    Now I read this, and it appears he is bullshitting in the one area I suggested he had a valid argument.

    1. She did her first work on butterflies and climate change influenced changes in range in the early '90s. At time it was about a species (I think it was Edith's Checkerspot) that it appears (from looking at her publication list) that she had been studying for a couple of years.

      I have to say that the man is a master cherry-picker.

    2. Yes, you're right about Edith's Checkerspot. See Postscript 1 above.

      As far as I can see, Jim Steele will pick any fact (can be quite unrelated to the topic at hand) and turn it into a rant about how all the scientists are wrong about global warming. So far I've seen him do heat waves, Kivalina and butterflies. Not sure what's next on his hit list. Maybe the melting sea ice in the Arctic :D

    3. You must have missed his first two on Polar Bears. Those were none too pretty.

    4. I just went back and read one of them. I also read one of the papers from which he picked out the bits that suited his meme and it was very noticeable the bits he didn't pick - and in fact that he flat out contradicted.

      And he pretends to be an environmentalist. What a horrible man.

  2. Dou:" Not sure what's next on his hit list. Maybe the melting sea ice in the Arctic :D"

    As if by magic,I bring you Steele on sea ice. (http://landscapesandcycles.net/antarctic-sea-ice--climate-change-indicator.html).

    Steele seems to be a rising belch in the denial bog.

    1. oh dear. Thanks.

      Jim is a denier looking for things to deny. He doesn't take an objective, scientific approach. Instead he piles up stuff that he thinks supports the denier stance he's taken and ignores everything else.

  3. For what it's worth
    Here's a pretty detailed review of Jim Steele's

    "Fabricating Climate Doom: Parmesan’s Butterfly Effect"
    that I've finished putting together.

    March 19, 2014
    "Fabricating Climate Doom: looking at Jim Steele’s fraud"

    Jim certainly is a work of art, it is sad though.

    1. Thanks for that; a comprehensive slap-down of a noxious bug.


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