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Environmental reporters ought to be more responsible too

Filed under: — eric @ 3 January 2009

At RealClimate, we have more than once been accused of being imbalanced — criticizing those who would deny the basic science of climate change, while leaving inflammatory statements by what might be called the “environmentalist side” without comment. It’s not an entirely a fair criticism, because there is a world of difference between the willful obfuscation of science and the naive exaggeration of it. There are however plenty of silly, and sometimes outrageous, claims made – see e.g. the Telegraph on Jan. 3rd — and we probably ought to do a better job of calling these out, particularly when they show up in prominent places. So to inaugurate the New Year, I humbly offer a rant about a minor but illustrative example that I happened to notice because there was a link to it on Nature Reports Climate Change.

The subject of the linked article, in the British online newspaper The Independent, is the decline of various bird and butterfly species in England. The article, entitled Changing climate devastates UK species, reports that “insects in particular, and creatures that feed on insects…were sharply reduced in numbers” due to a “cold late spring, a wet summer, with few sunny days, and the long dry autumn….” Now I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the claim that 2008 was a hard year for UK insects and insectivores. But this is weather we’re talking about, not climate. And while it is true that at least one prominent study shows that there has been an overall increase in rainfall in the latitude band that includes the UK, and that climate models reproduce this trend (see e.g. the Zhang et al. article in Nature, in 2007), one cannot, as we are fond of pointing out, attribute a single, or even several individual extreme weather events to “climate change”.

Indeed, Peter Stott, a co-author on the Zhang et al. study noted, in reference to 2007 (the wettest summer on record in the UK) that “This latest study cannot make the link between climate change and what we have experienced so far this summer.” Moreover, most projections actually suggest drier summers in the UK in the future, though with increased convection (so less total precipitation, but bigger rainstorms).

Another thing that bugs me about the Independent article is the suggestion that climate is becoming “more unpredictable”. I suspect what is meant here is that we used to know what a mean season and normal variations were, and now we don’t. That’s valid, since the baseline climate is changing. But saying it this way — that “climate is becoming more unpredictable” is misleading. In fact, climate may, if anything, become more predictable as anthropogenic forcing becomes even more dominant (as greenhouse gas concentrations increase), relative to natural forcing and variability. And what is definitely not the case — but might be inferred from the article — is that weather is becoming more unpredictable. Weather prediction is based on observations just a few days in advance — climate and climate trends have nothing to do with it.

The point here is not that we shouldn’t be concerned about the fate of insects and birds in the UK (that would be the kind of conclusion that only the most willfully ignorant would draw.) They have been in decline for a long time (mostly due to land use change and pesticides) and there is little doubt that climate change will continue to add insult to injury. But it is simply wrong to confuse a year or even two years of unfavorable weather with a change in climate, and it is irresponsible to headline an article that is really about weather with the provocative juxtaposition of “climate” and “devastates”. Doing so gives the average reader the sense that their personal observations about “weird weather patterns” or fewer sightings of Parus caeruleus represent definitive manifestations of climate change. The fact is, climate changes are — so far — small enough in most places, relative to the natural variability, that one’s personal experience is a very poor guide to what is happening over the long term (observations of sea ice changes by those that live in the high Arctic notwithstanding).


176 Responses to “Environmental reporters ought to be more responsible too”

  1. 1
    Bud says:

    Along with the continuing disappointing coverage of climate change relative to weather that we surely will see throughout 2009, we can celebrate some of the outstanding coverage equally certain to continue. In properly lamenting this example of coverage in The Telegraph, which has not established itself as one of the preeminent media voices on this issue over past years, let’s acknowledge the truly outstanding coverage we also see early this year in a far more influential and respected outlet: Coverage of these issues in the Economist’s “The World in 2009″ Special Section on the Environment and also in the magazine’s January 3-9, 2009 16-page “Troubled Waters” special report on the seas is strong testimony to the power of good journalism done exceedingly well. These make for critical must-reading.

  2. 2
    Andy Revkin says:

    Bravo.
    And Happy 2009, Real Climateers. More on how the media tend to fall into traps covering this stuff at this shortcut to a Dot Earth post on “whiplash journalism”: http://tinyurl.com/dotwhiplash

  3. 3
    Thom says:

    Just a quick note on the UK, and the use of ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ in that country. I spent two years over there, and had to adjust lots of my vocabulary, as a native American English speaker. What I learned is that England uses the word climate where we, as people who live on a vastly larger continent, would use simply weather. For them, a small pocket of our ‘weather’ often translates into an entire climatic event, given the size of the land mass. I do realize the difference between climate and weather, in terms of time and weather events and the averages that are needed to define climate. I think, especially in the newspapers, the British often think of their country as bigger than it is, and therefore have a tendency to see things a little by myopically. Of course, this is just an outsider’s observation, and is not meant to paint an entire nation of people into one swath, but it’s what I saw, and experienced.

  4. 4
    tamino says:

    Another unfortunate habit of the mass media is to report speculation as though it were established science. For example, there was speculation that global warming could lead to higher likelihood of people experiencing dehydration, which could lead to higher incidence of diabetes. Of course it’s just speculation, but some media reported it as though it were a scientific finding — which of course gave the denialosphere an opportunity to add to the “global warming causes everything” meme which they often use to ridicule climate science.

    What can be done to counter the mistaken impressions given (willfully or inadvertently) in mass media reports? I don’t know, but at least one good idea is: more from RC!

  5. 5
    Alan Neale says:

    There must have been hundreds and possibly thousands articles and reports on AGW which in scientific terms are incorrect. The UK Guardian Newspaper reports extensively on environmental matters (is it its liberal nature I wonder) as opposed to the Telegraph who seems to believe in Viscount Monckton somewhat and this is a right wing newspaper in general and hence I am summising that in the UK and probably the USA (you know it I reckon) liberals and republicans/tories are clashing over AGW.

    After all it all comes down to doing less prosperity stuff, spending billions on changing economics and politics via energy delivery and sorts of radical behavioural changes.

    Sarah Palin hardly backed that strategy did she and even though McCain did back it he lost. After all, there is the real america and the liberal one according to her. The real one wants to dig up the Arctic and Alaska as cheap oil is everything and it is going to need to be found and the liberal one sees the peak and the AGW problems and went for Obama. Thank you USA, we have a fighting change now.

  6. 6

    I’ve been thinking lately that our culture could be characterized as “epistemologically broken”–that is, we don’t know how we know what we think we know! It seems that for all too many, the answer is basically “everyone is saying that—-.” For others, it’s a trusted source–which begs the question as to why a given source *ought* to be trusted.

    I trust RC because there is an ethos of open (if occasionally tedious) debate, and of examining and sharing original sources.

    [Response: Thank you! And yes, I agree. Espistemologically broken is a good term. I have no idea what to do about it, other than try to teach well, contribute to RealClimate, and well, encourage people to read the brilliant work written over the last century about what science is, and how it works. Carl Sagan's writings would be a good start.--eric]

  7. 7

    Great piece.

    I note that Climate Progress seems to complement your story. http://climateprogress.org/2009/01/03/is-toyota-developing-a-purely-solar-powered-car-or-is-this-a-story-lost-in-translation/#comment-26077

    Since this global problem requires a global solution there should be some way to harness and guide personal observations and amateur science appropriately.

  8. 8
    Jeremy Erwin says:

    A friend sent me that Telegraph article, but I have not yet had time to read more than the abstract of the scientific article it was allegedly based on. I assume that the reporter was confusing correlation with causation.

    In any case, the modern earth’s albedo is less than that of a snowball earth, and the sun’s output is quite a bit brighter. I’ve heard that 100,000 ppm carbon dioxide would be required to counteract the albedo melt the snowball– so even a 12,000 ppm C02 atmosphere would still be quite cold.

    [Response: You've pretty much got it right. There is a pretty comprehensive description on Ian Fairchild's website. - gavin]

  9. 9
    Steve Reynolds says:

    >”It’s not an entirely a fair criticism, because there is a world of difference between the willful obfuscation of science and the naive exaggeration of it.”

    While I certainly agree there is plenty of ‘willful obfuscation of science’, why do you think the “environmentalist side” only engages in ‘naive exaggeration’?

    Don’t you think professional activists and politicians are just as capable of willful deception on the environmentalist side? If not, I might ask who is naive here?

    Thanks for the attempt at some balance, though. It does help your credibility with me.

    [Response: This is a fair question. I have a long philosophical answer I could give, but it basically comes down to the idea that those who would like to make anthropogenic climate change sound serious have little need to distort the facts, as established in the scientific literature (though there is certainly motivation to exaggerate it). For more on this point, see my review of Mark Lynas's book, Six Degrees, here--eric]

  10. 10
    Thomas says:

    I certainly want to second what Kevin @6 said, we really need to start teaching good epistemological practices. The acceptance of poor ones IMO is a primary reason that propaganda is given equal weight to science.

    But to change the subject a bit, there is a grey area between weather and climate which has important practical consierations. That is the predicting of near term seasonal “climate”. By this I mean the sort of predictions NCEP makes, such as June,July,August in location X has a 40% chance of being in the driest 30% of years. These sorts of prognostifications while pretty vague are still useful for optimization of activities like water storage, crop selection, estimation of heating fuel needs etc. So predictability on this sort of time scale, and changes in predictability have substantial economic consequences.

  11. 11

    Although it seems to be that most of the popular media and the institutions who are targeting the mass readers tend to oversimplify and thus exaggerate certain aspects of climate change, the importance of what the average man on the street says is far less than the importance of what the decision maker has to say. Yes, it is important that the masses know how climate change works and the fundamentals behind it, but this is quite unrealistic. The important thing for those with the knowledge is to give it those with most of use for it.

    So the mass readers need to know how to improve their behaviour and change their habits to better serve the environment, and those with some ability to influence government policy for example, should know the hard science. If someone thinks they can sell more newspapers by saying something outrageous, the effect is not really pronounced because he has given wrong knowledge to people who have no use for it.

    There is a need however to refute their fallacies so that the public does not put pressure on the politicians to do the wrong thing. And politicians being normally more eager to be reelected (and thus do more “good” things in the future?) could yield.

  12. 12
    Aaron Lewis says:

    “The fact is, climate changes are — so far — small enough in most places, relative to the natural variability, that one’s personal experience is a very poor guide to what is happening over the long term.”

    Is that a personal experience, or a scientific survey including farmers trying to anticipate planting dates, crop nutrient needs, and pest control programs? I very much suspect that you have no idea of the little nuances of weather and climate that farmers traditionally used to trick plants into growing while avoiding weeds and pests. Any change in the climate and they lose these tricks, and their margin narrows.

    One well documented case is farmers in California who depend on irrigation, but the source water for that irrigation depends on a climate that delivers more snowpack then we have seen in the “weather” in 8 of the last 10 years. Again, this year we are behind in snow pack. Is this just weather, or a real world impact from climate change?

    I have fruit trees. Fruit trees depend on “chill hours” to bloom and fruit properly. If one of your statistical mavens looked at the chill hour record from the local pomology weather station (http://fruitsandnuts.ucdavis.edu/chillcalc/chilldatachoose.cfm?Station=170&type=chill), his response would be, “From the view of an pear tree, now, you have a different climate than you had 10 years ago!” That is real world data with real world impact. It affects what kind of trees I plant. It affects when I fertilize. It affects when I spray. It affects when I harvest. And, it affects when I must have bees available. These days, bees must be scheduled well in advance. Based on the Concord data, anybody want to estimate my sickle pear bloom date in 2012?

    The daffidills that John Muir recorded as blooming in March, have been blooming for 3 weeks. If they were a commercial product for me that I was expecting to sell in March – that would be a real problem. Now, it is only a problem for the bumble bees that will be looking for them in March. And, without the bumble bees, the daffidills (and other spring bulbs blooming too early) will not set seed. Without the spring bulbs, what will happen to the bumble bees? What will happen to the other plants that depend on the bumble bees?

    Agricultural production and the weather/climate that affects it is important to everyone. Entire eco-systems depend on weather and climate cues. Change those cues, and the system is no longer a system.

    [Response: Your point is well taken. Farmers no pay attention more closely than the average anecdotal observation by the lay person I was thinking of when I wrote that. Still, even farmers (in my limited experience) are capable of making claims about the weather and the climate that wouldn't likely stand up to scientific tests. Unless you've been farming for 30 years or more -- or have very good records from your predecessors -- then my statement would still apply. And you obviously agree that that long time perspective is needed, since you are quoting John Muir here.--eric]

  13. 13
    SecularAnimist says:

    Eric wrote:

    Another thing that bugs me … is the suggestion that climate is becoming “more unpredictable”. I suspect what is meant here is that we used to know what a mean season and normal variations were, and now we don’t. That’s valid, since the baseline climate is changing. But saying it this way … is misleading. In fact, climate may, if anything, become more predictable as anthropogenic forcing becomes even more dominant … relative to natural forcing and variability. And what is definitely not the case … is that weather is becoming more unpredictable.

    But it is my understanding that while anthropogenic global warming is rapidly heating up the planet and thus changing the climate, long-standing climate patterns are becoming unstable. At some point, presumably anthropogenic GHG emissions (and feedbacks like methane from melting tundra) will cease, and the “greenhouse effect” will stabilize at some new level, and a new global climate system will settle in. That system, as you suggest, may be more stable and predictable than the pre-AGW climate system. But the transitional period between the Holocene and Anthropocene climate regimes, driven by the rapid warming we observe today, might well be quite chaotic and unpredictable both at the level of “climate” and the level of “weather”.

    [Response: I think it is a very liberal reading of the scientific literature that "climate patterns are becoming unstable". I'm actually not sure what that means. It's this kind of terminology --- which sounds scary but conveys very little sensible meaning -- that I'm complaining about in my rant. The basic patterns of weather --- mid latitude westerlies, trade winds in the tropics, etc., are not going to change. There's no theoretical or empirical basic for supposing that there will be some interval of "chaos" before the new regime "settles in", unless something truly catastrophic happens (say, massive collapse of the thermohaline circulation). Such scenarios are possible but unlikely, and in any case haven't happened yet -- and the topic of my post was about the recent past and the present, not the future.--eric]

    Eric wrote:

    … one cannot, as we are fond of pointing out, attribute a single, or even several individual extreme weather events to “climate change” …

    It would be an error to say that global warming “caused” Hurricane Katrina. Global warming does not “cause” a particular hurricane to form at a particular time and place, or to follow a particular path, or to encounter particular conditions along that path that make it more or less powerful or long-lasting. On the other hand, after Katrina lost strength passing over Florida, it regenerated into a huge, powerful storm by drawing energy from the unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. So it does not seem unreasonable to me to attribute that aspect of Katrina’s development, and its ultimate destructiveness, to global warming.

    Moreover, it is my understanding that anthropogenic global warming could, in principle, lead to more powerful and longer-lasting hurricanes by making more energy available to those hurricanes that do form, and that empirical observations suggest that this trend may already have been observed. In your view, at what point would this trend progress from merely “several individual extreme weather events” that cannot be legitimately attributed to AGW, to a change in weather patterns that can be so attributed?

    There are also observations indicating that parts of the USA are experiencing more frequent, long-lasting and extreme droughts, consistent with the predictions of global warming. Again, at what point on the trendline from “grasslands with occasional moderate droughts” to “grasslands with frequent, intense, multi-year droughts” to “desert” does a mere “several individual extreme weather events” become “climate change”?

  14. 14
    SecularAnimist says:

    Steve Reynolds wrote: “Don’t you think professional activists and politicians are just as capable of willful deception on the environmentalist side? “

    It’s not a question of “don’t you think“. It’s a question of what has been demonstrated and documented with evidence. Willful deception on the “denialist side” has been thoroughly documented: fueled by tens of millions of dollars from ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel corporations who for twenty years funded the fake, phony, deliberately deceptive pseudo-science cranked out by propaganda mills disguised as “conservative” think-tanks. And of course this has been complemented by the eight-year campaign of censorship and suppression of actual climate science by a US executive branch sympathetic to the concerns of those who profit from fossil fuels.

    If you have any actual examples of “willful deception” by the “environmentalist side”, please share them rather than asking readers to imagine that they might exist.

    [Response: There are no doubt some examples that could be found, but your basic view here is one I share.--eric]

  15. 15
    paulm says:

    The article, entitled Changing climate devastates UK species, reports that “insects in particular, and creatures that feed on insects…were sharply reduced in numbers” due to a “cold late spring, a wet summer, with few sunny days, and the long dry autumn….”

    Technically I think it is correct if that is the weather which tends to be dictated by the on going change in the climate.

  16. 16
    S2 says:

    I agree with the sentiment of the post. One bad year for wild birds cannot be pinned on climate change.

    However up in Scotland we have had terrible breeding seasons for seabirds for 5 years now. Puffins, Razorbills, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Guillemots are all suffering.

    They all feed on sandeels, and the sandeel population is declining. One possible reason for this is overfishing, so a ban on sandeel fishing was imposed since 2004 – but has had little effect.

    Another reason is that the plankton that the sandeels feed on is migrating northward, and the sandeels are simply following. This isn’t too much of a problem for the birds for most of the year (since they spend much of their time at sea and can follow their prey), but at breeding time they need land – and if that land is too far away from their food source they either have to abandon their nests or starve.

    It is distressing to find dead and dying Guillemots on your doorstep.

    Nature copes with fluctuations – occasional bad years don’t matter that much in the long term – but after five successive bad breeding seasons numbers are declining rapidly. Harbour Seals are also suffering around Scotland, the adults are fine (they can feed on anything) but the juveniles need sandeels for proper development, and they’re not finding them.

    More recently, there are reports of seabird breeding failures from Norway and Iceland.

    The fact is, climate changes are — so far — small enough in most places, relative to the natural variability, that one’s personal experience is a very poor guide to what is happening over the long term (observations of sea ice changes by those that live in the high Arctic notwithstanding).

    I’d agree with that, but the problems with high latitude seabird populations is real.

    http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2375924
    http://www.jncc.gov.uk/pdf/ukseabirds_2004.pdf

    (I can post more links if anyone is interested)

  17. 17
    Steve L says:

    Isn’t part of the problem that most of the offenses (the vast majority) are in the form of a couple of bad lines in news articles that are (individually) unimportant? I think these are a lot less satisfying to point out and correct than high profile junk essays on op-ed pages of widely-read newspapers. In any case, I will appreciate more posts like this one tackling the worst of the big ones. Thanks.

  18. 18

    12. Aaron Lewis: Thank you. May we quote you? That is exactly the information the world and the politicians need to make the necessary laws to stop AGW before we all starve. Please take your message to Congress. We many friends will come with you, at least as far as local congressional offices.

  19. 19
    Steve Reynolds says:

    SA> “If you have any actual examples of “willful deception” by the “enviromentalist side”, please share them…”

    My personal experience with previous attempts to share something like that at RC have been blocked by the censor (perhaps rightly so to stay on a science topic, although a lot of accusations the other way seem to get through).

    I hope that you realize that financial and other incentives exist to exaggerate AGW that are far larger than the puny ‘tens of millions’ you describe provided by the fossil fuel industry. The proposed carbon trading schemes provide almost unlimited opportunities for rent-seeking for corporations and corruption for politicians.

    [Response: We moderate unfounded accusations of fraud and corruption. If you have an actual example, then post it - original text in context preferred. Links to wild eyed conspiracy sites are not requested. - gavin]

  20. 20

    There is also a gap between Climate and Weather, not defined very well.
    Planetary Waves placing themselves at a certain location or another affects both weather and in the long run climate. People are right to be confused. After 1 week of steady planetary wave configuration, giving dramatic weather, is this a climate shift? Or a Weather pattern? Or is weather more easily defined as day to day changes, rather than monthly averages? The intermediate between the two, not weather, neither climate is a bit nebulous…..

  21. 21
    Pat Neuman says:

    There’s much data indicating rainfall intensity has increased in the U.S. but there’s few studies on that. Why?

  22. 22
    Spencer says:

    Almost as bad and common as confusing weather with climate: thinking that every shorefront problem is due to “rising seas”. So far I don’t believe rising sea level has caused any noticeable problems, that’s all for the future. Most of the problems you hear about are actually due to erosion, subsidence due for example to withdrawal of groundwater, dams preventing silt from maintaining deltas, etc.

    Boingboing.net caught a good example of this, correcting rising seas to erosions in this post.

  23. 23
    Geoff Russell says:

    my favourite weather/climate analogy is an almost boiling saucepan
    of water. There is a (probably) unpredictable formation of bubbles rising to the surface. Add a little heat and the number
    of bubbles increases.

    Does it make sense to claim that a particular bubble
    was caused by the added heat? Obviously not.

    But given the statistical naivety of most people, even some intelligent and well educated people, the
    occasional incorrect claim that some particular bubble is due
    to added heat doesn’t seem too sinful! Its better than saying
    that none of the bubbles are due to the increased heat.

  24. 24
    dave p says:

    Funny about the Independant article and the weather climate thing. In England the last few Summers, especially the last 2 have been the exact opposite of what the climate models said they would be. According to the climate models British Summers should be getting hotter and dryer. Instead we have been having record rainfall. We have even had Summer floods, which are previously unheard of. No wonder people are confused. Perhaps the models need some tweaking.

  25. 25
    Steve Reynolds says:

    SA and gavin,

    OK, here is an example of one of my comments previously censored, this time with complete text. This in particular is not claimed to be fraud or corruption, just hypocrisy (that may indicate something about sincerity).

    From: http://www.tennesseepolicy.org/main/article.php?article_id=367

    [edit]

    Confirmed at http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/gorehome.asp
    with a little balancing info.

    [Response: But this is nothing more than snark. It represents neither hypocrisy, fraud or corruption. Has Gore suggested that everyone live in a cave and use no energy? If so, that would be hypocrisy. But he hasn't. Instead he has promoted renewables, increased efficiency and carbon credits and used each himself. You were asked to come up with a misleading statement by an environmental organisation, but instead you came up with a smear on Al Gore because he breathes and eats and has a large organisation. The problem here is that you are assuming that being worried about climate change implies some wish for a Rousseauian idyll - yet this is neither espoused here, nor by Gore. Your point is nowhere near made, and if this is the best you can do (and it wasn't even a statement by an environmental organisation), forget it. - gavin]

  26. 26
    Juha says:

    I really liked this posting. In my opinion the environmentalists have been getting away with too much loose talk in the name of common good.

    Here in Scandinavia at least, where the green political movement is strong, a lot of stuff is commonly, and w/o any scientific proof, attributed to global warming. Typical examples being eg those that eric described.

    I think that it might be good for the greens to cool it a bit in their rhetoric. The way they are referring to global warming as political justification and/or excuse for whatever, will one day backfire.

  27. 27
    John Atkeison says:

    Pat @#21 says,
    There’s much data indicating rainfall intensity has increased in the U.S. but there’s few studies on that. Why?

    The study I am most familiar with is “When It Rains It Pours.”
    http://www.environmentamerica.org/home/reports/report-archives/global-warming-
    solutions/global-warming-solutions/when-it-rains-it-pours

    I wish it contained language that would help me communicate to even less scientifically educated folks than I am… suggestions?

  28. 28
    Garry S-J says:

    Steve Reynolds Says: (3 January 2009 at 4:40 PM): “The proposed carbon trading schemes provide almost unlimited opportunities for rent-seeking for corporations and corruption for politicians.”

    In my observation, virtually all of the rent-seeking behaviour of corporations regarding carbon trading schemes has been the effort to scuttle or circumvent them.

    In a properly managed CTS, the economic rent should accrue to the seller of the right to emit – in the first instance the government -rather than the acquirer.

    The fact that exiting emitters seem to be gaining some success in acquiring these rights for free – and thereby gaining economic rent from their ownership – simply means the adjustment to a low-emissions economy will be less efficient than it otherwise would be.

    And all this, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with the science…

  29. 29
    mac says:

    Certainly after this post no-one could a bias on the part of realclimate, at least no-one I could name. “Epistemologically broken” indeed.

  30. 30
    Steve Reynolds says:

    gavin> “…you came up with a smear on Al Gore…

    Merriam-Webster: smear 3: a usually unsubstantiated charge or accusation against a person or organization

    Since my charge was substantiated, I do not think it is properly characterized as a ‘smear’.

    gavin> “(and it wasn’t even a statement by an environmental organisation)”

    The comment by SA was “If you have any actual examples of “willful deception” by the “enviromentalist side”, please share them…”,

    so I don’t feel limited to environmental organizations (where _proving_ willfulness and economic interest is fairly hard).

    How about a likely willful deception from the most recent week from an insurance company that has been taking the “environmentalist side”:
    Torsten Jeworrek, member of Munich Re’s Board of Management: “This continues the long-term trend we have been observing. Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes.”

    I think the willful point is made fairly well here:
    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/overselling-disasters-and-climate-change-by-munich-re-4826#more-4826

    [Response: Munich Re is not an environmental organisation, they are a private company with a clear interest in encouraging people to pay higher insurance premiums. Their statements should be judged accordingly (but this is much better than your Al Gore comment). Mind you, the statement you quote is actually true - IPCC did note trends in certain weather extremes (intense rainfall, heat waves, etc.) that were attributable to climate change. The implication that a single year's insurance losses are tied to that is more dubious, but I think describing this as 'deception' (willful or otherwise) is still a stretch. Try again. - gavin]

  31. 31
    Hank Roberts says:

    Dave P, you write “according to the climate models …” and gives a weather report for “Summers, especially the last 2″ and says the models were wrong.

    Which climate models are you using as your source for predictions for the past two summers? Cite please? If you’re not looking at an actual science paper, what blog or newspaper article did you read that says this? Why do you consider that a reliable source?

    You’re not thinking of these for decades in the future, are you?

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/m35mu141g142112q/
    http://www.springerlink.com/content/92110157jm1t6761/

    Aside — sometimes I wonder when I see name+single initial userids; there seems a pattern to the associated beliefs that makes me wonder if they indicate use of the same source material. No doubt mere coincidence.

  32. 32
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Steve Reynolds says, “I hope that you realize that financial and other incentives exist to exaggerate AGW that are far larger than the puny ‘tens of millions’ you describe provided by the fossil fuel industry. The proposed carbon trading schemes provide almost unlimited opportunities for rent-seeking for corporations and corruption for politicians.”

    OK, Steve, ‘splain me this. How are folks getting rich off of exaggerating risks due to climate change? Yes, climate change been berry-berry good to Al Gore, but that has more to do with the failure of politicians on the right to stand up and admit to their followers that climate change is a real threat. If Jim Baker of John McCain had been willing to stand up on stage with Gore, the message would have been less strident and more effective, and I rather doubt the IPCC would have had to share the Nobel Peace Prize with Gore, your bete noir.
    I certainly agree that it is possible to screw up a cap and trade scheme. It’s also possible to screw up a carbon tax or just about any other policy. The answer, however, is not to avoid action, but rather not to screw it up!

  33. 33
    Patrick 027 says:

    When it is said that the weather will become more extreme, this could be taken as 1. weather and low frequency variability will increase and/or 2. with averages such as temperature increasing, the hottest heat waves will be even hotter if the variability were kept fixed. But with 2., there would be fewer cold spells. It is possible to imagine that 1 and/or it’s opposite could be the case depending on specific phenomenon – for example, with SSTs increasing on average but with the thermal inertia of the deep ocean, there could be greater temperature variations between upwelling regions and non upwelling regions, and that implies a potential for more extreme differences between El Nino and La Nina; higher SSTs in general could give the otherwise same SST anomaly greater influence in a mode of low-frequency variability because of the role of latent heating and the roughly exponential relationship between water vapor concentration and temperature. Also, stronger rain concentrated into smaller pockets would lead to greater local short-term extremes which has potential consequences… On the other hand, one can imagine that variability in other forms could diminish, for example, if the temperature difference between the coldest and warmest air masses decreases, then there might be less temperature variation associated with the movement of those air masses…

    And so on with predictability – a greater amount of rain concentrated in a smaller area would make local short-term rainfall harder to predict at specific locations, while a reduced temperature difference across a front would lead to less error in temperature prediction for the same error in frontal movement, etc…

  34. 34
    dhogaza says:

    Reynolds …

    I hope that you realize that financial and other incentives exist to exaggerate AGW that are far larger than the puny ‘tens of millions’ you describe provided by the fossil fuel industry. The proposed carbon trading schemes provide almost unlimited opportunities for rent-seeking for corporations and corruption for politicians.

    So on the one hand, climate science will destroy the economy and cause the collapse of the first world as we know it. On the other hand, profits from climate science are so huge that they dwarf the benefit that would derive from preventing climate science form destroying the economy and cause the collapse of the first world as we know it.

    I’m mightily confused, folks …

  35. 35
    Roberto says:

    I am going to pick on a minor point. I am not sure if one can really characterize the two sides as “willful obfuscation” and “naive exaggeration”. In reality, there is no basis to distinguish between the two. There are plenty of people with agendas on both sides of the debate that would like to exaggerate or minimize claims according to their convenience. As scientists, we should not judge the intentions, rather just be accurate for the sake of it. In my humble opinion, there should be no free ride for exaggerators whether they are naive or not.

  36. 36
    Hank Roberts says:

    Well sure. You can’t go wrong overestimating the venality of the business world.

    We invent a new light blub that saves 20 percent on electricity.
    We contract to sell you the design but we reserve the right to all of any potential future carbon credit payments for use thereof.
    You take the design and create a big market, sell sixty zillion of them, people install them all over the world, everyone gets all excited because at every step of the way people think oh, I’m not only getting paid for this, I’m writing down how much carbon credit I get.

    And lo, only the person who hired the lawyer who had the foresight to put some wording somewhere in some contract actually collects.

    Carbon credits can’t be like markups — where something passes through five or six or a dozen hands between design and final use and every transaction doubles the price of the thing.

    Or can they? Are there enough auditors?

    That’s why the idea of a flat tax at the beginning makes more sense.

  37. 37
    RW says:

    Re: tamino Says: 3 January 2009 at 9:50 AM

    “What can be done to counter the mistaken impressions given (willfully or inadvertently) in mass media reports?”

    As someone who has spent over 45 years of my working life in a broadcast newsroom or teaching journalism (now well and happily retired), I feel a bit of a duty to offer a short review of what everybody should have learned before junior high school about the nature of the press, and how it deals with the GW issue (AS IT DOES WITH EVERY ISSUE). With few exceptions journalists are rarely, if ever able to determine the truth of any matter they report because they lack (a) the time and training of scientists to discover truth, or (b)the power of the judicial system to compel sources to tell the truth using the threat of jail for perjury. So, journalists rely instead on self interested sources in both the establishment and the counter establishment for a version of the truth. But if a source burns a reporter with bad information there will be a reporter looking for revenge.

    There are two other salient characteristics of the press to keep in mind. One is the indoctrination too many journalism students get that they have to tell “DRAMATIC” stories to grab and hold the attention of the audience—and what`s grabier than, for example, a cute polar bear cub floating off on a melting chunk of ice to a horrific burial at sea—-ohh the ursanity!!! The other is the inherent laziness of so many mainstream media practitioners. They`re more than happy to let others provide them with the news—it easier than digging for it. That`s what a lot of public relations is about, and there are few bigger sources of publicity stunts and pre-written new stories than those body, soul and earth saviours with massive funds (often tax free) to solicit press support for their causes. Again with few exceptions the people involved here are NOT scientists, or even people with a general knowledge about science, but people earning their bread by mastering the tricks of spinning.

    Do I have a good (grabby) answer for Tamino? No…I mentioned I was retired didn’t I. But there are a few things that could do no harm. 1-Realize where the main action is; TV is far and away the biggest source of news for most people, and the internet now appears to have passed the print press as the next choice. 2-Get to know the local media operations and how they work, and be available as an expert source. 3-Make the calls, i.e.when you hear/read/see obvious BS, tell the reporter, the editor, the owner and even cancel a subscription or two making it clear why; 4-Get rid of this denialist/alarmist silliness (mostly it’s preaching to the choir anyway and it becomes a boorish habit). I have a bright 15 year old grand daughter who spent an hour or so reading a climate blog as an assignment; she walked away muttering that no sane person would bother with any of that stuff, “…they’re supposed to be experts”, she said, “ but they’re just another bunch of politicians”. She told me she read more name calling than science. Maybe she picked a bad blog, or a few bad comments on a good blog. But it may also be the last science blog she reads.

  38. 38
    Steve L says:

    I’m confused too; I thought the discussion was about environmental reporters more than organizations or big Gore Al. I would ask Reynolds (or anybody else) to identify ‘alarmist’ examples of terribly biased, incorrect, deceptive reports in the important media. I would be interested in an evaluation of some of these in comparison to those on the ‘denialist’ side.

  39. 39

    16 S2 reminds me of the book “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan. If memory serves, there was an “empire,” of [I'm guessing] 50 square miles in South America. A slight change of climate moved the place the rain fell by a few hundred miles. The first empire fell with great suffering and death because food would not grow without the rain. A new empire arose in the new rainy place. The people did not just move because they had no idea where the rain went. The people died. New people found the new spot. The climate changed back and the cycle repeated. “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan and “Collapse” by Jared Diamond tell a few dozen of these stories. It happened many times in the middle east. It happened in Chaco Canyon. Centuries later, we can say that the climate changed by some fraction of a degree.

    Last summer in eastern Iowa and western Illinois there were 3 or 4 floods rather than the usual 1 flood. A recent previous year was way too dry. Should farmer X plant rice or cactus in 2009?

    We need to be able to tell, for example, farmer Aaron Lewis to move his pear trees 97 miles north by northeast. But of course that won’t work for long. Just building irrigation ahead of time won’t work for long either. It isn’t just about one thing like water. It is about a lot of interlocking things, not the least of which is the farmers’ experience of when to do what. Adaptations also won’t work for long as Nature ramps up her response as AGW gets worse. I’m referring to “6 Degrees” by Mark Lynas. Nature’s wrath gets severe unexpectedly. In that light, are environmentalists’ inflammatory statements morally wrong if they get people to take action against AGW? Yes.

    BUT: RC is not able to advise farmers well enough and Congress has not acted yet. RC is still not posting articles by, for example, paleontologists or archaeologists on the possible or probable consequences of small climate changes. Unscientific statements need to be traded for scientific statements that include knowledge from enough other fields to make an emotionally convincing case. Yes, I realize that invoking emotion is taboo in science, and very difficult for us scientists anyway. It is morally wrong to allow civilization to fall for lack of the emotional engagement required to move the political process. The emotional decision comes first when average people decide who to vote for.

    NOTHING will happen without invoking emotion, as the Democrats found out in their election losses in times past.

    The $100 Billion/year coal industry is not restricting itself to unemotional science. Based purely on what RC posts so far, average people and Congress will do nothing.

  40. 40
    Jim Eaton says:

    #12 Aaron Lewis Says: “The daffidills that John Muir recorded as blooming in March, have been blooming for 3 weeks.”

    Aaron, I absolutely agree with most of what you wrote about the affects of warming on agriculture (the reduction of chilling hours already are affecting my fruit trees). But I do want to make one observation regarding daffodils.

    I have been growing a number of narcissus here in Davis, California, for 26 years. They are not a New World species, and from my observations, the blooming time depends mostly on the advent of winter rains (or artificial watering). I have hundreds of paperwhites (narcissus tazetta) growing in various areas in my yard. Where they get summer irrigation, the leaves emerge in August and flowers may occur as early as late September. Where they are grown on dry sites, the leaves emerge a few weeks after the first substantial winter rain, and the flowers often wait until January or February to bloom.

    Native flowers probably would be a better choice to observe, although again it needs to be determined whether it is water or warmth (or both) that affects blooming times.

  41. 41
    mark s says:

    re 3

    “I think, especially in the newspapers, the British often think of their country as bigger than it is, and therefore have a tendency to see things a little by myopically.”

    Ha ha, I just cant let that pass. I think u’ll find us Brits have been here for a while now, and we know how big our countries are, thank you very much! Whilst i understand your point about differences in the use of language, i dont think it is a significant issue in this case.

    It is true that we are obssessed by the naturally rather changeable weather over here, but we have had a bewilderingly out-of-kilter few years, with all sorts of records being broken, particularly as regards summer rainfall, but also in terms of a certain lack of our tradional ‘seasonality’. It will be interesting to see if this develops into a meaningful trend over the next few years.

    The Independent is actually a proper newspaper, not just an online publication as you seem to imply in your piece, and whilst it is probably the one the most AGW aware papers in the UK, it does have a tendancy to get a bit carried away in its efforts to highlight the dangers we face. But then i doubt that there is a newspaper anywhere in the world that is consistently on the money, as regards climate science.

    [Thank you for pointing this out. I suspected that there was also a print version, but could find no evidence in the online version that this was the case. Funny how web sites often do not provide the most basic information. --eric

    Here is an exclusive and rather better informed piece (in condensed internet form) from Jan 2, where the paper actually surveyed some of the leading lights in climate science (did they ask anyone off RC?), over the issue of geo-engineering. It basically asked if they felt that because of the lack of success in reducing our emissions, is it time to start working on a ‘plan b’? It recieved 80 replies, about 20 of which were published in the paper on the day.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/climate-scientists-its-time-for-plan-b-1221092.html

    Here are about 40 of the replies it recieved…

    http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/what-can-we-do-to-save-our-planet-1221097.html

    I know that one better piece doesnt really make up for a misleading piece, but its not all doom amd gloom at the Indy, tho I’m normally a Guardian reader myself.

    Happy new year to all at RC, thank you for all your efforts to keep me sane!

  42. 42
    Anders says:

    Please forgive me, if this question has been raised before. I have looked at the wiki without results though.

    People who are less convinced about the AGW theory have asked me this question, to which I currently have no answer. I hope you guys can help me out.

    Although global warming has slowed down (some even claim cooling) in the last 7-10 years (apparently there is some dispute over what a decade is). AGW proponents claim that althogh this was not very likely since only app. only 9 out of 55 model runs predicted this (please dont ask me for ref on this, and I admit the numbers might be wrong) the current stalling of temp rise is still within our model predictions.

    The question then goes: What temp observations will it take for us to abandon the models?? (please make the timeline short as possible—so the modellers will not have passed away before their theory is proven/disproven)

    I hope my question is clear (english is not my native language).

    Anders

    [Response: Discussed here. - gavin]

  43. 43

    I’ve heard some claims of very large amounts–such as $40 billion–being somehow “on the table” in funding AGW research. Challenged to source this, the best anyone could do was to point to a Canadian AGW researcher who is a university faculty member! (I suppose he does all his instructional and administrative work pro bono, then.)

    But there’s no reason to think the university mandates what his research says, which was explicitly the case with some of the Exxon “incentives.” And Spencer, Christy, and Lindzen, to name just three contrarians, are also faculty, which means that the alleged $40 billion is funding them, too.

    So far, this idea that AGW research is “all about the money” seems unpersuasive, if it is evidence that persuades.

  44. 44
    Paul says:

    Unless there is a catastrophic event or change, then slow changing climate or slow changing sea level is always going to be someone elses problem. Thom (No. 3) says sea level rises haven’t so far caused a problem??
    Well if you combine the rises that have taken place so far with the tilt that the UK is going through, storm surges in the North Sea and atmospheric pressure changes, then i’m afraid it is having an impact.

    The trouble is i think people want simple answers and simple models of what is going on. People live in their homes and like to know that when the tap is turned on, water will flow and if it doesn’t there are a small number of reasons why it doesn’t. Simple, easy.

    But you have to have a very open mind and an ability to see a very big picture in order to take onboard the consequences of even small changes, such as sea levels. There are some places that are literally centimetres away from occasional flooding due to small sea level rises.

    I have an engineering background and as such can understand the science to a certain extent. I do get stuck occasionally, but i do trust the scientists mainly because of the wide ranging research that also indirectly supports climate change science and the modelling.

  45. 45
    Hank Roberts says:

    Gavin, one question; in the thread you pointed Anders to, which answers his “how long” question
    — early on there, you answer someone else’s question inline:
    12 May 2008 at 3:52 AM
    When the models show cooling for a few years, is this due to heat actually leaving the (simulated) planet, or due to heat being stored in the ocean ?

    [Response: You’d need to look directly at the TOA net radiation.
    ---------------

    My followup question: How can, or how could, you look directly at TOA net radiation? Is this a missing piece of information,
    do we have an instrument to do this, or a method for inferring the number from other information available? It seems to me it's the "bottom line" that -- ideally -- whould have been determined first, before all the details of the transactions within the climate system were figured out.

    [Response: The measurements aren't accurate enough yet. Maybe at some point. - gavin]

  46. 46
    Ron R. says:

    Of topic. Sort of. Has anyone else noticed that in the comments section of online news articles discussing climate change that the deniers are ALL OVER it. Denialist comment after denialist comment after denialist comment. And on and on and on. It’s probably at a 50:1 ration to non-deniers. I’ve seen this in several articles now recently. I suspect that Big Energy is upset about Obama’s stated plans to tackle Climate Change and is trying to jaundice the debate. Create a groundswell of opposition before Obama can do anything about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of this is coming from the usual camps, The Marshall Institute, Heritage, Cato, CEI, AEI, Bivings etc.

    Disgusting. These people would sell their mother for a dollar.
    Check out the comments section of this article for example:

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article1984755.ece

  47. 47
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Ray>… ’splain me this. How are folks getting rich off of exaggerating risks due to climate change?

    There are plenty of ways to get rich off of poorly implemented schemes that are supposed to reduce carbon emissions. One link:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/file_on_4/6720119.stm

    Most of the ‘folks’ exaggerating risks due to climate change are sincere (and not getting rich), but the hysteria they attempt to produce is very useful to the corrupt politicians and financial traders selling these purposely poorly implemented schemes.

    Ray> I certainly agree that it is possible to screw up a cap and trade scheme… The answer, however, is not to avoid action, but rather not to screw it up!

    I agree!
    I think we will be much more successful developing effective action against AGW if we recognize the bad guys are not all on the denialist side. It is not only ‘possible to screw up a cap and trade scheme’, it is almost certain if you let politicians with financial interests design it.

    Instead of continuing an us vs. them fight between alarmists and denialists, why not make it a fight between honest science and economics vs. those favoring negative externalities, rent-seeking, and corruption?

  48. 48
    Aaron Lewis says:

    re #40: I did not say that they were a native species, just that in this area they were observed to bloom in March from the 1870′s to 2002. From 2003 to 2006, we had inconsistent blooms, but but they have bloomed in each of the last 3 Decembers. It is worth noteing that in 2003, my pears also bloomed in December.

    I am well aware of moisture effects on bulbs. However, a change in rainfall patterns causing a change in bloom date would also be a change in climate? Possibly due to??

    Prior to 2000, the mountain ash in the neighborhood dropped their leaves in mid-November. Over the last 5 years, they have dropped their leaves later and later. Now, as I look out the window, they are just starting to drop their leaves. The figs and the grapes were almost 4 weeks late (compared to a pre-2000 basse line)in dropping their leaves. I have posted here previously about the date of bud break and bloom moving earlier and earlier in the spring.

    I would say that for anybody that gets out of their centrally heated environment, and pays attention (keeps a journal)to what is going on, global warming is easily observable in time frames as short as a decade. My local climate changed from temperate to subtropical in the period 2002 to 2005. It is a change that is very hard to see in most meterological data, but the change in ecosystems is profound. The doves in our area hatch 4 clutches of eggs instead of 2. We see more generations of deer mice each year. And, I am able to serve rasberries from the garden on Christmas. (3 years in a row!) Where prior to 2005, I cut the then bare canes back to the ground in mid-November.

    Is three consecutive years row climate or weather? How many consecutive years do we need to have dramatic sea ice melt before we say, “Ja, the climate is changing?” In their own way, the local changes that I see are as dramatic as the changes in sea ice.

    [Response: Aaron. I don't disagree with your points. But the article I was complaining about could have been titled "Two consecutive wet summers devastate UK wildlife" and then gone on to talk about the possible relationship with climate. That would have been much more accurate. As to your (rhetorical) question about whether three years in a row is climate or weather, it very much depends on the variable involved (e.g. precip, temperature etc) and the magnitude of the change. But in general, three years in a row is probably not very convincing, by itself. See also our earlier post on how to establish what is and what isn't record-breaking change; in particular, consider the graph, here--eric]

  49. 49
    Paul says:

    Ron R (No. 46).

    Yes i have noticed that Deniers are currently VERY active on various Newspaper comments columns in the UK and US, possibly elsewhere. I’m glad i’m not the only person to notice.

    I think there seems to be some sort of campaign going on. But on the other hand a lot of these comments are appearing in Google News, which is how i am finding them. Also some newpapers are running blogs from the general public, which google is picking up.

    But i think there is something going on.

  50. 50
    Hank Roberts says:

    Thanks, Gavin. Would Triana/DSCOVR (or some instrument in such a fixed position/distance) suffice to determine the TOA number? Or do we yet have no instrument good enough, even if we could put what we have in the right place for long enough?

    [Response: Well you need to determine two (large) numbers and the imbalance is the (small) difference between them. Unfortunately the two measurements need to be done with two different instruments (short wave and long wave) and integrated over the spectra. Getting the requisite accuracy is hard, whatever your sampling is going to be (ie. from orbit or from L1). I think Triana would have helped certainly, but it wouldn't be sufficient on it's own. Of course, at the rate we are increasing the forcing, the imbalance might be directly observable even with current technology sooner than we think! - gavin]


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