Mount Kilimanjaro. (Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey)
On 1 March, Joris Luyendijk, an investigative journalist from the Netherlands, appeared on Dutch television (NPO 2, VPRO Tegenlicht) in a 45 minutes tv documentary explaining the way bankers in The City of London conduct business. His interest for the financial sector arose after the financial crisis of 2008 which plunged the world economy in turmoil.
As a columnist for The Guardian, Joris Luyendijk embarked on a project for which he interviewed many City-based bankers in order to grasp the world of banking. The interviews he collected over a two year period appeared in a “banking blog”, anonymized, in the British quality newspaper. Subsequently, he published a book “Dit kan niet waar zijn” (English: “This cannot be true”) sharing his findings with a wider audience.
In the tv documentary, Luyendijk explains that he initially did not understand globalization, in which the financial world is a key player. He postulates that bankers are much more powerful players than politicians, the former easily crossing borders where the latter are more restricted, putting limitations to their ability to control. So far so good, as indeed understanding financial flows and morale will help putting issues of wealth creation and poverty into perspective.
The City of London. (Photo: Marcel Rutten)
Luyendijk should be applauded for practising investigative journalism, which unfortunately seems to be an expertise less available nowadays. However, despite his enthusiasm for explaining the ins and outs of global capital in the documentary, he loses his way somewhat by making a comparison that can be called ‘bad science’.
And this is unfortunate because, as Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1471-1530) explained a very, very long time ago: “Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out.”
Apparently, that happens to Luyendijk when he brings up an analogy explaining the behaviour of an evil banker: “The Tragedy of the Commons” theory of American ecologist Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) as published in Science in 1968 is presented, without Luyendijk realizing he does so.
More than the theory it is the example Luyendijk uses that is faulty. Like Hardin he presents an example from Africa. While Hardin spoke of a pastoralist putting extra animals on the common pastures at the expense of fellow pastoralists, Luyendijk takes the example of global warming and the shrinking Kilimanjaro glaciers: “If you are a farmer at the slopes of Kilimanjaro and every year you see the glaciers melt and shrink, you would also point at Westerners and tell them hey folks….! But as an individual, one will say: I know people who pollute more than I do. If I alone would stop emitting carbon dioxide, nothing will change. This has to be regulated at a higher level and for now I just continue my style of living. So for that reason and looking how incentives operate in the financial sector, one can understand why it will be business as usual.”
Mount Kilimanjaro. (Photo: Roel Slootweg)
The idea that the Kilimanjaro glaciers shrink due to global warming is false, as explained by an Austrian team criticizing colleagues from the Ohio State University, US, who amazingly did and still do hold on to their own theory (see Thompson L, Brecher HH, Mosley-Thompson E, Hardy DR, Mark BG (2009) ‘Glacier loss on Kilimanjaro continues unabated’. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106:19770–19775). The Americans predicted the glaciers would be gone between 2015 and 2020. However, the Kilimanjaro glaciers are situated, year round, in a zone that never reaches above 0ºC.
So why do the glaciers retreat? The reason according to the Austrian team is, foremost, direct sunlight radiation turning ice into vapour, and secondly, a reduced precipitation that adds less to the glacier build-up, a process which has been ongoing for over a century, long before humans began pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, climate scientists like Philip Mote and George Kaser have explained (The Seattle Times, 12 June 2007). In addition, some point to the destruction of the forest at the foot slopes of the mountain, affecting wind patterns and humidity resulting in the drying of the local microclimate.
So yes, global warming is around and does affect middle range temperate zone glaciers, but not Africa’s highest stand-alone mountain. The Carbon Dioxide mistake made by Luyendijk was also made by Al Gore in his “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary.
Kilimanjaro is a grossly overused miss-example of the effects of climate change, which is risky as it might be used by Naysayers to global warming. As the motto of Bad Science states: It is better to communicate good information than to offer misinformation in the name of good communication (see http://www.ems.psu.edu/~fraser/BadScience.html).