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Newsletter 27th October 2006

- Personal searching or scientific censorship? - Wood-burning stoves in the developing world - The Stern review - Correction

Personal searching or scientific censorship?
The ever-inventive Google is now offering the Google Custom Search Engine. Users can set up a bespoke service which only looks at certain websites, for example, or customises and presents the results in particular ways. Since we all know that there is an awful lot of dross on the Internet, at first sight this looks eminently sensible. After all, most of us look only at the first few results of a search, or fine-tune our keywords to get to a particular piece of information. But there is a difference between using our own critical faculties and letting someone else decide for us.
 
In the BBC report on this (Google offers personal searches), the RealClimate.org website is used as an example of early users of this development. In particular, according to the article:
"RealClimate.org is a site that tries to give credible expert opinion on the science of climate change," said Dr Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and a member of the organisation.
"Unfortunately, since this topical subject has become rather politicised, the quality of information available on the web is very variable."
The custom engine on the organisation's website only searches pages that have been scrutinised by climate scientists and are deemed to provide "solid and reliable information".
"Hopefully, it will allow users to get to the good stuff faster, without some of the confusion that currently occurs," said Dr Schmidt.
 
Now, this website is very much one for mainstream scientists who subscribe to the IPCC view of the world, and they therefore would be expected to favour particular points of view. There’s nothing wrong with this, but we have to confess that we find the elimination of certain material from searches started from the site to be rather worrying. If you go to a commercial site, you expect to be directed towards whatever goods or services are being sold. If you go to a site purporting to give the facts on climate change, we think you should expect a degree of balance, or for it to be made very clear that results have been selected. The search function on the site does say in small letters that the results have been customised, but this could still mislead the unwary into thinking they have access to the full range of legitimate interpretation of the evidence.
 
The moral here, surely, is to be sceptical about the results coming from websites’ own search functions, and instead rely on a non-customised searches of our own. If we are interested enough to search for information, we should be able to decide for ourselves what it valid.
 
Wood-burning stoves in the developing world
From our privileged and comfortable perspective, it is easy to forget that hundreds of millions of people in developing countries have no access to electricity or gas for cooking. Instead, they rely on open fires, without chimneys. Such fires are a source of smoke, dioxins and particulates, and many people – particularly women – breathe this mixture in for many hours day.
 
A new study of the soot produced by such cooking fires is to be published in Environmental Science and Technology, a journal of the American Chemical Society. That in itself is good: highlighting the problem once more should help to encourage a solution. However, the rather surprising spin put on the work in the Society’s press release is evident from the title: Soot from wood stoves in developing world impacts global warming more than expected. The authors had previously published results of laboratory-based work which estimated domestic wood fires to produce some 800,000 million tonnes of soot particles each year; almost as much as emitted by diesel engines. They have now doubled that estimate, using results from field studies, and suggest that these fires are therefore a greater contributor to global warming.
 
But is this really the most important problem? What about the health of those who rely on such fires (two billion people served by 400 million cooking fires, according to the paper)? About halfway down the release, we see the statement: In addition to its environmental effects, smoke from cook stove fires is a major cause of respiratory problems, eye infections and tuberculosis, according to the researchers.
 
Well, better late than never, but this publication serves to show the extent to which the scientific community latches on to the current fashionable topic. Balance and context are important, and we would suggest that the researchers (or at least those writing the press release) are missing the key issue of health in this case.
 
The Stern review
On Monday 30th October, the Stern report will be weighing down desks and clogging up internet bandwidth as its 700 pages are made public. Sir Nicholas was commissioned by Gordon Brown to carry out the review in July 2005. At the time, many people thought that this would be an open-minded and hard-headed process which might highlight some of the difficulties associated with an economic evaluation of proposed emissions reduction programmes, and perhaps spark a serious debate.
 
In fact, the outcome has been widely leaked, and all the indications are that a significantly positive benefit/cost ratio will emerge for swingeing reductions in carbon intensity. Today’s Independent quotes a Whitehall source as saying that he (Sir Nicholas) “left no one in any doubt that doing nothing is not an option". The article even speculates that the report will force a change of policy at the White House. But let’s not forget that the Stern review is only assessing in economic terms the scenarios put forward by the IPCC. Sir Nicholas is told that certain weather patterns will emerge and he calculates their impact. Equally, he is told that these changes can be mitigated by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and he estimates the cost of doing that.
 
However, we still think that the scientific basis for this is nowhere near as certain as we are led to believe, and that the very concept of being able to control climate on a global scale is extremely doubtful. Before the Stern report is used as a tool for launching us down the single, costly track of emissions reductions, there is still a need for sober reflection and discussion of how best to use our limited resources. Adapting and improving people’s lives now must surely still be open for consideration.
 
And finally…
The sharper-eyed among you will have noticed a mistake in last week’s newsletter. In our item on the benefits of eating fish, we said “The point the researchers make is that the benefits of regular consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (of which oily fish are the main source) are vastly outweighed by the purported dangers from the very low levels of mercury and PCBs found in such fish.” What we should have said, of course, was “…vastly outweigh the purported dangers…”, which makes a lot more sense. Sorry for the error.