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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. 51
    Chris Squire [UK] says:

    mark s #41 is quite right: the Indie [as it is known] is noted for its over-the-top reporting on climate change: the end is reported to be nigh so regularly that no-one takes any notice any more. It used to be a highly thought off broadsheet [see: here] but is now in a sad decline and unlikely to last much longer.

  2. 52
    SecularAnimist says:

    Eric wrote: “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 … The basic patterns of weather … are not going to change … There’s no theoretical or empirical basis for supposing that there will be some interval of ‘chaos’ before the new regime ‘settles in’ …”

    Let me reference two other comments to try to clarify what I mean …

    Gavin subsequently wrote: “IPCC did note trends in certain weather extremes (intense rainfall, heat waves, etc.) that were attributable to climate change.”

    Edward Greisch subsequently wrote: “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? … 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.”

    What I meant by “climate patterns becoming unstable” during a period of “chaos” between “climate regimes” is just this: that the trend towards more frequent “extreme weather events” which the IPCC attributes to global warming implies less predictable patterns of weather. The “extreme events” like droughts, floods and heat waves will, almost by definition, occur more or less unpredictably, not following historical pre-AGW patterns but neither yet settling into a new pattern. As the accelerating rise in CO2 emissions & concentrations, and the resulting accelerating warming, drive accelerating climate change, patterns of weather will change continuously from season to season and year to year.

    At some point in the future, I suggest, observers will be able to look back over the preceding thirty-year or so period (which I understand is accepted as a conventional time window to observe “climate”) and describe it as a time when climate in much of the world became “chaotic”, shifting frequently in unpredictable ways, with the historical patterns of seasonal and regional weather that over time are called “climate” giving way to unpredictable extremes. And then, assuming that humanity ends CO2 emissions, and CO2 concentrations and the greenhouse effect stabilize, weather and climate will eventually again settle in to more stable and predictable patterns.

    But as long as accelerating emissions accelerate the warming that accelerates climate change, I expect we are in for a period of rapidly and unpredictably changing weather extremes and weather patterns which can be characterized as “chaotic”.

  3. 53

    These are not deniers.

    These are hecklers.

  4. 54
    Pat Neuman says:

    John @ #27 says, …

    The report you mentioned by Environment America (EA) was note-worthy but received little
    attention. That’s because only studies by NWS (on severe weather and rainfall) are given
    media and public attention – and NWS avoids climate change in it’s research and reporting.

  5. 55
    Anders says:

    Myself in #42

    Thank you for the link gavin. I am sorry if my posts are a little of context with the current thread.

    Have I understood the link correct if I say that if we see no additional heating for the next decade we will have to admit that AGW is false??

    This was based on the following statement form your link:

    “Over a twenty year period, you would be on stronger ground in arguing that a negative trend would be outside the 95% confidence limits of the expected trend (the one model run in the above ensemble suggests that would only happen ~2% of the time).”



    [Response: You obviously want some kind of simple answer, but I can’t give it to you. Think about things like this – the expectation is that with the current rate of increase of CO2 (etc.), we anticipate a warming trend of about 0.2 deg C/decade for the next couple of decades. This assumes that the changes in all forcings follow more-or-less their current trajectories. However, there is a lot of internal variability in the system, and so that makes it difficult to be clear that a signal has come out of the noise over short periods of time (the length of which depends on the magnitude and structure of the variability). If there is another ten years without much change in such a way as it falls outside of expectations, then people go back and examine all the pieces that went into the prediction/data mismatch. For instance, are the data reliable (remember MSU)? Did the forcings change as expected (maybe aerosols from Asia have increased more than we know, maybe the sun is doing something weird)? do models underestimate internal (decadal) variability? In previous mismatches each of these has been at fault. What isn’t going to happen is that people will suddenly decide that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas. It is, and the evidence for that is overwhelming, and our understanding of radiative transfer (that is tested every time we do a satellite retrieval) is very good. Therefore the expectation that AGW will be falsified is naive – AGW is a consequence of many, many different bits of science. Which bit would be wrong would be the issue – and it’s very unlikely that it would be the role of GHGs. But this is all hypothetical since no mismatch has yet been detected. – gavin]

  6. 56
    David Horton says:

    This is well-meaning, fair-minded, bending-over-backwards, to be even-handed, and all that. But I think it is wrong-headed, as well. If you believe the graphs, and we all do, of rising CO2, rising temperatures, etc, over the last, say, 30 years, then how could these be not having an effect on every aspect of the biology and ecology of the natural world (not to mention the physical world of storms, droughts, heat-waves, cold-spells, and the effect of those in turn on the natural world)? If it is true that you can’t ascribe any particular change in species distribution, breeding season, food supply failure directly to global warming (and I can’t see that you could ever directly ascribe them at least in the short term), it is also true that there is almost nothing that can’t be ascribed indirectly. If you are going to put an embargo on using changes in ecology to illustrate what is going on, and what the future holds, then you will remove a great deal of the possibility of Joe Public understanding what is happening. You just get left with “2 degrees warmer? Bring it on, it’s been cold lately in Chicago/Manchester/Melbourne”. Your article echoes an earlier (2006) comment by the Royal Society which I disagreed with here ( With the greatest respect to Real Climate and Royal Society I think you both got this one wrong.

    [Response: David. Fair points, and I agree with what you wrote on your blog. But let me reiterate that I’m not saying that one should not use changes in ecology to illustrate what is going on. Nor that one should not use Katrina, or the 2003 heat wave. Those are all good examples to use. The question is how one uses those examples.–eric]

  7. 57
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Anders, Think about this. Climate change manifests as a steadily rising trend on top of a noisy background. In any one year, or two or 3, the noise can overwhelm the added forcing–maybe due to La Nina, or a volcanic eruption or decreased solar output. Grand Solar minima can last decades. However the effects of carbon dioxide persist for centuries to millennia! The only way they will not happen is if there is some unexpected negative feedback that magically kicks in right at our current temperature range or if everything we understand about climate is wrong and there is some other theory that explains Earth’s climate better. I’m not holding my breath for either. BTW, you seem to think warming has “stopped” or stalled. Have you seen this analysis:

    Even if you just look at a simple average, it’s still warming.

  8. 58
    John Mashey says:

    re: #35 roberto
    “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.”

    Actually, these are (usually) quite different. From how to learn about science:

    “To paraphrase Stanford Professor Stephen Schneider, in any scientific discipline, ideas can be roughly categorized as:

    (S3) Some things are well-established – strong proof is required to overturn [strong theory]

    (S2) Some things (especially measured effects) have competing explanations. [hypotheses]

    (S1) Some things are speculation. [ideas]”

    One group sometimes promotes S1 to S2, or S2 to S3, thus ascribing more certainty than is deserved, or perhaps emphasizes the more alarming edge of a range. Some exaggeration of this may be purposeful, and some may be naive, but much is inherent in summarization, especially when translating science-speak for the general audience. It is *hard work* to explain caveat-laden, error-bar-filled stuff to audiences not so used to it. It is even hard work just to get people to think in distributions instead of averages.

    The other side tries very hard to *eliminate/obscure* inconvenient knowledge in S3, for which people have recently coined the term agnotology. Doing it really well actually takes some knowledge. In this case, making basic physics disappear takes real effort.

    Alternatively, one could say:
    science = {S1=>S2=>S3 (or not, weighing evidence)
    non-science = conclusions not (yet?) warranted by science
    anti-science = attempt to make science disappear

    Those latter two modes are *not* symmetric.

    [Response: Interesting, and well said. I made a minor correction — you wrote science = {S1=>S3=>S3 (or not, weighing evidence) but you meant science = {S1=>S2=>S3 (or not, weighing evidence). Let me know if you meant otherwise.–eric]

  9. 59
    John Mashey says:

    re: #56 David Horton

    1) Humans notice noise, including especially extreme events, which by their nature are relatively rare. As a result, it really needs a long baseline or really major changes to determine changes in:

    – Frequency OR
    – Intensity

    and especially to ascribe any specific one to AGW.

    2) Hence, I’d claim that for many people, especially in some places, it’s much easier to use events that happen more continuously, or in changes naturally averaged over time or space.

    3) I mentioned here at RC some of my favorites (kudzu, bark beetles, and to some extent, West Nile mosquitoes), as they’re all geographically controlled by specific kinds of coldspells. People track these very carefully, as all have highly visible downsides, unlike effects like longer growing seasons or milder climate in the Okanagan or Yorkshire for vineyards. I don’t know the equivalents for Australia, maybe kudzu or cane toads. I asked Barry Brook about such at BraveNewClimate, 11, and you might check his answer there, i.e., there’s a lot less biological-response data for Oz, but they’re working on it.

    For the pine beetle, here’s the Canadian Pine Beetle website. See especially the 1959-2002 animation, and the realtionship to coldspells.

    4) I also like glaciers, since they do their own physical time-averaging. That doesn’t help you much in Oz, but the Swiss glacier website is very nice. Longer glaciers often average over longer periods – see the Grosser Aletsch on that page, which is shrinking fairly smoothly.

    Anyway, I think it is all too easy to get confused by noise, so it’s often better to pick examples that are inherently less noisy.

  10. 60
    Hank Roberts says:

    David, I think attribution has to be done carefully, but look for example at the recent paper simply assessing the likelihood that the temperatures over the past ten years don’t indicate a trend.

    Similarly biological changes can be looked at — the odds of any one variation may be hard to determine; the odds that most of the butterflies over a decade shift to, say arriving a week early and fifty miles north of their previous documented appearance, will be convincing statistically as suggesting a change.

    And meanwhile the practical questions are being addressed. None of the practicing biologists need to be convinced, I think.

    I just looked up studies on British hedgerows for a posting at Tamino’s blog and this is the sort of paper that’s turning up, just one striking example; plenty more.

    The Role of Constructed Ecosystems in An Era of Rapid Climate Change
    John Cairns, Jr., Department of Biological Sciences,
    Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,
    Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, USA
    —-excerpt follows—–


    Rapid climate change is causing ecological disequilibrium in many parts of the planet, which makes restoration of natural ecosystems to predisturbance conditions less probable. An alternative to restored ecosystems may be constructed ecosystems that are designed to address this problem. These circumstances offer only two choices: (1) do nothing and see if natural systems can adjust and (2) design constructed ecosystems that can tolerate and adjust to rapid climate change. Constructed ecosystems are not restored to ecological predisturbance condition because the probability of restoration to predisturbance condition is minimal. The ecological procedures and goals for constructed ecosystems are similar to the emergency room at a hospital – the goal is to keep the patient alive. The goal is a naturalistic biotic community with a structure and function similar to natural communities, which should consist of natural capital that provides ecosystem services similar to those provided by natural systems….

  11. 61
    Dave Rado says:

    mark s, in #41, referring to this article in The Independent, asks whether the paper included anyone at RC in its survey regarding geoengineering.

    The answer to Marks’ question is in the Independent article itself, which quotes David Archer (of RC) as follows:

    Among those who oppose geoengineering is Professor David Archer, a geophysicist at Chicago University and expert on ocean chemistry. “Carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere will continue to affect climate for many millennia,” he said. “Relying on geoengineering schemes such as sulphate aerosols would be analogous to putting the planet on life support. If future humanity failed to pay its ‘climate bill’ – a bill that we left them, thank you very much – they would bear the full brunt of climate change within a very short time.”

    [Response: I suspect that many of us share David’s views on this. We took a somewhat critical look at geoengineering in Dire Predictions -mike]

  12. 62

    #56 David, I agree and I would like to have consensus on what is considered AGW events.
    I would say without hesitation that warming of the Arctic and the shrinking/thinning/disappearing Arctic ocean ice are AGW attributable, but I’d like to hear more, like the mid west Dew point data Pat is mentioning, a thunderstorm over Baffin Island in February, bees active in NY state during winter etc. There has to be a general agreement or solid guidelines before all diverges with their own AGW interpretations as it is happening right now.

  13. 63

    #19 Steve 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.

    For a little while there I thought you were going to say that climate scientists were in line for riches. That being the case, I would have to ask why I ended up switching from computer science to bioinformatics, rather than climate science.

    I hope you realise that the purpose of the carbon trading schemes is to make pollution expensive, and phase it down. Ultimately the fact that almost 20% of CO2 emissions are still in the atmosphere after 1000 years means that to meet any target, we will have to scale down to zero emissions. That’s a bigger economic reality for those selling fossil fuels than the possibility of corruption in carbon trading. Looked at in that way, you can see the economic incentive to buy time; the tobacco companies got away with it, why not fossil fuels? Tobacco has killed millions more than if it were treated as a rational health policy issue, and it is perfectly conceivable that fossil fuels executives are cut from the same cloth as tobacco executives.

  14. 64
  15. 65
    Anders says:

    Dear Ray and gavin

    Thank you for your replies. I agree with your points.

    I dont think any of the deniers are unaware that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. I think that what they believe in uncertain is the ability of increasing CO2 pressure to significantly induce global temperature rise. I think they believe that the effects of CO2 is second to other phenomena such as La Nina / El Nino Solar output. Therefore, if temp fails to rise in the next decade or so (and lets not hope that happens, or we will all be out of work) and we can actually attribute this to La Nina or other similar events, then we have proven the point of the deniers. Namely that CO2 of-course is a GHG but that its effect on global climate is easily overruled by other phenomena.

    To make our point more digestible to the public I therefore believe it is important that we state which observations that will falsify our models (Not falsify that CO2 is a GHG, of-course).

    For me it is difficult to ague agains people who say: “If you dont know which events that do not agree with your theory (GHG induces temp rise) then it is not a theory”. Of-course, since we are not dealing with pure mathematics, then this statement will have to be accompanied by a probability.


  16. 66
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Re: Eric’s inline comment on 48
    My point was that temperature changes that are not record breaking, may have huge impacts on ecosystems. I cannot find any weather records that were broken around here about the time that plants started blooming the wrong time of the year.

    What I have is a ten-year trend of warmer nights in November and December. Actual lows seem about the same, but now we seem to spend more time above freezing so we get more chill hours and less frost hours.

    I have a continuous ten-year trend that I break in to three parts because 4 of those years were temperate, three of those years were “transitional” and the last three were sub –tropical. Basically, in the course of 10 years the boundary between the two climate zones moved 3 miles.

    My point is that in the short space of 10 years, I have seen dramatic changes in local plant and animal behavior resulting from tiny amounts of warming. That is, changes so small that they did not really affect the daily high temperature, or the daily lows but only the ratio of “chill hours” to frost hours in late fall nights. Even the ratios were not records, but now we have a consistent trend, year after year, of fewer frost hours, and that is changing plant and animal behavior. It shows it is not necessary to have “record-breaking” change to disrupt an ecosystem. It is necessary to keep records on what does affect ecosystems. Perhaps we have been breaking the records that do matter to ecosystems without knowing it.

    [Response: Aaron. Point taken. There are of course records of directly ecosystem relevant variables, but they are generally shorter and less reliable. Monitoring this stuff well is hard. There is no doubt more information out there than I’m aware of though.–eric]

  17. 67
    Paul says:


    I think the ‘policy’ of deniers to reduce CO2 to a minor influence on climate change whilst accepting global warming is happening (see well known Scandinavian economist and others) is a political move.

    IMO most of these people are still denying humans are responsible, but by allowing CO2 to have a small influence gives them credibility with those that are in the middle ground and don’t like the implications of significant change. They are trying to twist the subject in their favour having failed to convince people there is no warming at all.

    It is a clever marketing/political tactic.
    But armed with that knowledge, it is quite easy to counter this political stance.

  18. 68
    Douglas Wise says:

    As a sceptic turned firm believer in AGW (thanks largely to RealCimate), I was interested in Hank Roberts’ posts (#45 and #50) and the responses to them. They related to changes in TOA radiation balances which apparently (and unfortunately)cannot be directly measured with any accuracy and thus have to be inferred. In my sceptical phase, I became very hung up on the question of saturation in the CO2 band, in part because saturation appears to be defined differently by physicists and biologists. I was instructed about brightness temperatures and effective radiating levels. My attention was drawn to plots indicating that less IR was escaping to space if its wavelength was in the CO2 or water vapour absorption bands than if its wavelength was outwith those bands. It occurred to me that nobody could possibly retain a figleaf of respectability in maintaining a sceptical viewpoint if direct measurement could show that that the effective radiating level in the CO2 band had increased (brightness temperature decreased)in the last quarter of a century, coincident with an increase of atmospheric CO2 concentration of about 15%. Did the answers to Hank’s question imply that such direct measurement remains impossible or were they addressing the more complex question of total balances (energy in vs out)?

  19. 69
    Douglas Wise says:

    re #61 and David Archer’s purported opposition to geoengineering.

    It seems that there are several possible geoengineering approaches and they possibly suffer by being discussed in a single lump. I can understand that many would be squeamish about lofting large amounts of SO2 into the upper atmosphere. However, an alternative albedo-increasing strategy has been mooted which involves increasing the number of cloud condensing nuclei over the oceans by spraying small water droplets into the air (Latham, Salter and Smith). I originally thought that this might be a more innocuous stopgap measure. However, in order to work, I understand that these small droplets would require the presence of algal-derived dimethyl sulphoxide which might otherwise have sunk in the oceans. Would the latter form of sulphur equate to the former in terms of possible damage or is the scale totally different?

    Most other forms of geoengineering are, in effect, carbon sequestration technologies, some of which will have to be deployed if it is deemed necessary to get atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppmv. These include ocean fertilisation (iron and/or nitrogen), ocean turnover/pumping to sink CO2 (Lovelock), mechanical extraction of CO2 from air, accelerated weathering of rock by grinding and spreading and biochar production by pyrolysis. I am aware of a previous RC post on air capture. Would it be possible to have further posts on geoengineering issues, given that climate scientists appear to be more or less equally divided into pro and anti camps?

  20. 70
    Paul says:

    Ron R.

    If you want a crazy example of a Newspaper comments board gone mad, try the Belfast Telegraph and an article about Sammy Wilson the NI environment minister:

    I think there is probably a small number of people posting in political support for Sammy.

  21. 71
    Steve D says:

    I’d like to compliment Eric on an excellent post. There’s too much garbage in the mainstream media on all scientific subjects, not just climate, and it’s always good to see it corrected.

    Reading this comment string I’ve gained the impression that there is some concern that recently deniers have been monopolising comments in online articles on climate change and that this must be due to some nasty conspiracy got up by big oil or coal or whatever. Does nobody pause to think that the cold winters of the last couple of years might cause ordinary people in the street to doubt the wisdom of the consensus position?

    20 years have passed since Dr. Hansen made his testimony to congress and since then sea levels have hardly changed; since the El Nino spike in 1998 temperatures have not accelerated upwards either. In summer 2008 the icepack at the north pole recovered slightly from 2007, rather than disappeared, as more excitable activists thought it would. (I think everyone enjoyed the kayakers getting stuck hundreds of miles from the pole & having to turn back.)

    This has certainly caused me to wonder if the theory of AGW is correct. My limited understanding of the science causes me to believe that the CO2 levels in the atmosphere cause a warming of about 0.5C… and this is an observed fact. Then it essentially comes down to feedbacks – do positive feedbacks outweigh negative ones and cause runaway warming? At this point I’m not persuaded they do.

    [Response: Thanks for the thanks but you’ve entirley missed the point. A couple of years of observations — 2008 vs. 2007 for example — don’t tell you anything. You are making precisely the same mistake (just in the opposite direction) from the article I was complaining about.–eric]

  22. 72
    Alan Neale says:

    Re #65, how many more decades to we have to await that fall in temperature before we do anything about it. We surely cannot just keep om awaiting more and more proof due to a few skeptics who have no scientific theory of present summer Arctic sea ice melting and warming other than natural variabilty.

    If we wait one more decade and then another one and another one when then will we listen to the scientists?

  23. 73
    Dave Rado says:

    Re. mark s, #41:

    e 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.

    We in the UK certainly have a tendency to extrapolate our weather and assume it reflects the global mean. As an example, the extremely disappointing BBC series “Earth: The Climate Wars” pretended that global warming rather than global cooling began to be taken seriously as an imminent danger by climate scientists following the exceptionally hot summer in 1976. The film then showed many shots of sweaty people eating ice cream on beaches to illustrate how hot 1976 was. In fact 1976 was not an exceptionally warm year globally (it was slightly cooler than 1975 and 1977), but it was exceptionally warm in the UK, and the film was made for a UK audience.

    (And of course, as has frequently been exposed on Realclimate, the preponderance of 1970s peer reviewed literature prior to 1976 had emphasised anthropogenic global warming (due to GHGs) rather than global cooling (due to sulphates) as the most likely threat, while making it clear that the uncertainties were at that time to great to be definitive about which would predominate.

    My point is that when a geologist like Iain Stewart (who made that film and who really should know much better) confuses UK temperatures with the global mean, we have a serious problem in the UK.

    I admit that people in the US also tend to be very insular in this respect (last year, for instance, there was a lot of misinformation in blogs implying that the warmest year in the 20th century occurred in the 1930s, which may arguably be true in the case of the US but is very far from the truth in the case of the global mean temperature). But extrapolating from one’s own country’s mean temperatures to the global mean is statistically less flawed in a country as large as the US than it is in one as tiny as the UK, and we do have a tendency in the UK to fall into this trap.

  24. 74
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Douglas Wise,
    First, keep in mind that the measurements involved are difficult and have to be conducted over a long period, since clouds, weather, dust, etc. will change the measurements over time. The DISCOVR satellite would have gone a long way toward resolving the issue definitively. It spent the Bush administration, however, mothballed in a warehouse in Greenbelt, MD, and it would appear that there is now a rush to refurbish and launch it–sans any Earth-observing instruments–before the new administration finds its sea legs. See:

    As to geoengineering, unfortunately, many of them involve aerosols and clouds–the two most uncertain aspects of current models. As such verification of efficacy and avoidance of unintended consequences would be problematic. Our best bet for now are the schemes that sequester carbon (e.g. biochar, weathering of olivine… and avoiding putting the damn stuff into the atmosphere in the first place).

    Happy New Year, Ray!

  25. 75
    Dave Rado says:

    Re. Steve D, #71, in addition to the inline point Eric made:

    Does nobody pause to think that the cold winters of the last couple of years might cause ordinary people in the street to doubt the wisdom of the consensus position?

    You illustrate the point that I made in #73 perfectly – you are extrapolating UK weather and assuming it is the same as the global mean. Globally the winters in the last couple of years were not cold, and in any case, it is the average temperature over a year that counts, not the winter in isolation. Globally, 2007 was one of the ten warmest years since records began (look it up if you don’t believe me).

    20 years have passed since Dr. Hansen made his testimony to congress and since then sea levels have hardly changed

    It’s true that the “man in the street” who doesn’t look at the figures has yet to see any obvious ill effects from sea level rise, and that is a good illustration of the difficulty in communicating what is actually happening to laymen, and of the failure of the media to communicate scientific knowledge effectively, but the fact is that global mean sea level has risen significantly faster than had been forecast. Have you looked at the figures? If not, why not?

    since the El Nino spike in 1998 temperatures have not accelerated upwards either.

    No one said they would accelerate upwards, just that the long term trend would continue, which it has. Did you read #57 and the article Ray links to?

    In summer 2008 the icepack at the north pole recovered slightly from 2007, rather than disappeared, as more excitable activists thought it would.

    No credible scientist predicted it would. As Eric points out, you are confusing weather with climate while simultaneously criticising The Independent for making the same mistake that you are making!

  26. 76
    SecularAnimist says:

    Steve Reynolds wrote: “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.”

    It is certainly true that financial incentives exist for the fossil fuel industry to deny the reality of AGW that are far larger than the “puny” tens of millions they have invested in funding fake, phony, pseudo-scientific denialist propaganda. For example, ExxonMobil alone reaps some forty billion dollars per year in profits from “business as usual” fossil fuel consumption. But that just demonstrates that the “puny” amounts they have invested in deliberately deceiving the public have paid off handsomely, since they effectively delayed action to reduce fossil fuel use for a couple of decades.

  27. 77
    Steve D says:


    The point I was trying to convey (obviously not very well) was that overclaiming by excitable activists generates tremendous press attention & when the predicted event (eg the ice pack disappearing) does not occur, lots of readers will tend to be more sympathetic to the opposite point of view. Neutral observers will also tend to react unfavourably when they see ad hominem abusive stuff dished out to opponents, whoever is doing it, irrespective of the scientific merits of the case.

    BTW, in the UK we have had mild winters over the past few years so I am not extrapolating.

    My personal opinion, for what it is worth, is that man does contribute to GW but I do not believe we will see runaway warming (pace Mark Lynas’s 6 degrees). Another 30 years of trends to look at will show who is right.

    [Response: Steve. Fair enough, and you have put it better this time; I agree with your sentiments. BUT: note that Mark Lynas’s book does not talk about a “runaway”. He is simply talking about where we are going if we keep pumping GHGs into the atmosphere, business as usual. And you are right that it essentially comes down to feedbacks. But don’t confuse net positive feedbacks with “runaway”. If the strength of the feedback decreases with increased forcing (as is often the case), then you reach a new equilibrium state, not a runaway. See Brian Soden’s excellent post on feedbacks, here.–eric]

  28. 78
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Steve D, Cold winters? Uh, Dude. I’ve still got collard greens and leeks alive in my garden from last Summer–in Washington DC, right at 40 degrees North. Yes, it’s been chilly, but my dogs will tell you not cold enough to kill of last years ticks. Despite a good-sized La Nina, 2008 was the 8th warmest year since 1880! Saying warming has stopped requires either a special stupidity or a special mendacity or a combination thereof.

  29. 79
    Hank Roberts says:

    “Steve D” you first say 2 years then 30 years; the answer depends on the exact measures and statistics. Neither is a good generalization.

    Steve, I notice this Arctic ice notion has been posted — by a lot of userids, in a lot of places around the Web, just this morning. Be careful where you get your information. I think there’s a bot posting this kind of stuff on the theory that seeing misinformation repeated many times convinces people it’s true. Regrettably that does work.

    Try here for Arctic sea ice references:

  30. 80
    Anders says:

    In line with #42, #55 and #67

    So we have not settled on future observations, which are so unlikely given that our models are correct, that we will have to rethink CO2 as a climate driver??

    If this is true I will be a laughing stock next time I meet my denialist friends. Please do not let that happen to me. I am to cute.

  31. 81

    Steve D:

    My personal opinion, for what it is worth, is that man does contribute to GW but I do not believe we will see runaway warming (pace Mark Lynas’s 6 degrees). Another 30 years of trends to look at will show who is right.

    Yes it will, unfortunately, and by then we’ll have lost thirty precious years of inaction. You, or folks like you, are part of the problem: not foreseeing the consequences of an exponential growth process with major built-in delay loops, before it is well too late.

    You see, the 0.6 degree warming over pre-industrial that we see now is transient warming. Equilibrium warming — after we allow the oceans with their huge heat capacity to catch up — is about twice that.

    If we wait 30 years, those figures will double: transient 1.2 degrees, equilibrium 2.4.

    If at that point we were to stop emitting, temperature would stabilize thereabouts after a while. But obviously we cannot do that as it would amount to major capital destruction: power plants, real estate, infrastructure have depreciation times of 30-50 years.

    But if we go for depreciation-rate replacement by carbon-neutral alternatives, CO2 will continue to go up further, perhaps to 2×2.4 = 4.8 degrees. And that’s assuming we all play along, Russia, China, India, Australia… Lynas’ iconic number isn’t very far away then.

  32. 82
    Pat Neuman says:

    “The trends for the past 20 years are pretty clear, and if they keep up there won’t be any moose in 50 years,” said John Vucetich, a population biologist at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.

    “As the climate warms, some creatures will do better, some worse. For moose, it’s fairly straightforward that we’ll lose them … and there are a lot of people who identify with moose,” Vucetich said.

    I think parasites are the main culprit (but parasite problems increase with warmer temperatures).

  33. 83
    Hank Roberts says:

    One aside — back to the original subject.

    Save some wrath for the headline writers and editors; it’s quite possible the science writer got it right (that this is a weather story) and was edited to error.
    (Has anyone invited the writer to drop by and say?)
    ReCaptcha: “Chedo Confesses”
    (I wonder if Chedo works at the Daily Telegraph …)

  34. 84
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Anders, The misunderstanding the both you and your denialist friends seem to be operating under is that there is some simple proposed hypothesis that humans are behind the current warming trend. There isn’t. Rather, there is the entire body of climate science amassed over >150 years of study and confirmed by countless studies and observations, and the inevitable conclusion of this body of theory and evidence is that if you increase CO2, the atmosphere will warm. So, really, what would be necessary would be a theory of climate that better accounted for the evidence and which determined that CO2 sensitivity was in fact small (less than 1.5 degrees per doubling, say). Alternatively, if one came up with a strong negative feedback that kept temperatures from warming up from present levels, that could also alleviate concern. To date, however, there’s no evidence for either proposition. There is also no evidence that warming has stopped or even slowed down:

  35. 85
    Steve Mauget says:

    A few years back I did an analysis of the Hulme gridded precipitation data, which (in my work) accounted for ~45% of global land area outside Antarctica during 1901-1998. Won’t get into the details of the methods here (see ** below), but the paper’s ‘punch line’ was similarly significant wet regimes over Northern Europe and North America in recent decades. There was a highly significant incidence of wet years over a northern Europe grid region that includes the British Isles, with 7 of the 10 wettest years occurring during 1978-98. There was also a similarly significant incidence of wet years over a North American grid region during 1972-98, with 8 of the 10 wettest years of 1901-98 occurring during 1972-1998. I found significant wet and dry regimes over other land areas in the last decades of the 20th century, but the late century North American and northern European wet periods stood out as the most statistically significant during 1901-98. Didn’t attempt any kind of attribution study or discuss the possible impact on biota. etc., but did suggest that these two wet regimes were actually part of a single multi-decadal wet regime extending across the North Atlantic.

    ** Intra-to multi-decadal terrestrial precipitation regimes at the end of the 20th Century. Climatic Change. 78: 317-340. 2006.

  36. 86
    it is not ok says:

    Some recent articles link the level of toxic tannins in eucalyptus leaves to rising levels of greenhouse gases, thereby threatening the koala bear as a species

    All over the world there are increasing numbers of marine mammals being washed ashore. Are these a result of the ocean circulations changing abruptly and causing disorientation to sea life?

    In my garden here in England, the spring leaves on the elder trees sprouted about a month ago. The hummingbird hawkmoths are not native to these parts but are becoming a common sight as they migrate with the changing climate. The salticidae (jumping spiders) are also moving northwards, having for so long been fairly restricted to the southern parts. There is a myriad of changes now taking place and being observed by ordinary people – and the examples are merely indicative of what is being noticed.

    Once some of threads are pulled out from the fabric of nature, other sections of the intricate quilt come apart.

    Climate change is causing nature’s quilt to come part. It is a shame that so much of the human race cannot see it happening. For those that do see it, there is a heavy sadness.

  37. 87

    Humans are dangerously deluded to think that by redefining perceptions we can change the underlying reality.

    We need a confident understanding of behavioral economics, marketing, political science, psychology, etc, – all required to decide on momentous change.

    Until now the consequences mis-perception and wrong action have been slight.

    The physical science of climate change is neither ruthless nor forgiving. It is totally uncaring of human emotions. And will unfold as it must.

  38. 88
    Roberto says:

    Re #58 John,

    >“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.”

    >Actually, these are (usually) quite different. From how to learn >about science:

    Well, in practice they might be different but a priori, there is no difference. Thinking only as a scientist (if that is possible at all) both are equally bad and I don’t see any reason (from a science standpoint) to fear one more than the other.

    Your sequence S1 to S3 can actually be used to construct both, obfuscations and exaggerations in both sides of the debate. What struck me was that the phrasing of the post seemed to imply that when environmentalists exaggerate a claim, they must be given the benefit of naivete. I don’t see the relevance (for the understanding of the science) of the argument (which you didn’t make) that, since environmentalists don’t make money out of the exaggerations, they must be acting out of naivete and therefore forgiven.

  39. 89
    tamino says:

    Re: Nature’s quilt unraveling

    All the suggested possibilities for observable consequences of global warming’s impact are suggestive, and merit close investigation.

    BUT: as I said in #4, it’s a mistake to report speculation as though it were established science. For example, there seems to be a trend in “chill hours” compared to freezing hours which affects fruit trees, and that is “real world data with real world impact.” But is it statistically significant? Is it a trend or a fluctuation? I followed the given link and was only able to find about 7 years of data — an extremely paltry sample for such a phenomenon. I am NOT saying that the phenomenon fails statistical significance, or that it’s not a direct result of global warming, just that *I* haven’t yet seen any hard evidence of that.

    I certainly agree that someone who makes his living from the fruit of trees, and therefore has paid careful attention to this for a long time (many decades?) is far better qualified to opine on the subject than I am. I also agree that from such an expert, even anecdotal evidence is valuable, surely highly suggestive. But it is no substitute for proper statistical analysis of data. While I consider the testimony of those who have experienced such changes as sufficient to justify careful study, I do not regard such testimony as a proper substitute for scientific study.

    Likewise, I read here claims that “there won’t be any moose in 50 years” and “there are increasing numbers of marine mammals being washed ashore” and “hummingbird hawkmoths are not native to these parts but are becoming a common sight as they migrate with the changing climate.” Are any of these results statistically sound? Frankly I don’t trust results even if they’re from the peer-reviewed literature until I’ve reviewed the data and analysis myself (I don’t distrust them, but I don’t trust them either) or unless they come from a source I regard as nearly unimpeachable. I’ve seen too many instances of unanticipated subtleties or even sloppy work in scientific research. And when the references are to the New York Times or Washington Post or somebody’s blog, not only is the credibility of the reference vastly lower, I don’t even have the opportunity to review the data or analysis.

    I repeat, I am not saying that any of these claims are false, just that I haven’t yet seen the evidence and haven’t yet heard it from sources I consider unimpeachable.

    Therefore, while I think it’s important (maybe even crucial) to expose all such evidence to public scrutiny, and to speculate on the possible or probable root cause (global warming), I think it’s even more important to emphasize the difference between speculation and established science. Only such a practice can prevent the kind of embarrassment, when claims go sour, which impedes public acceptance of the necessity to address the global warming problem. And without such rigor, it’s far too easy, nay inevitable, that the public is flooded with ridiculous denialist claims like “global warming stopped in 1998” when in fact rigorous analysis shows its folly. A lack of rigorous and correct distinction between proper analysis, speculation, hyperbole, and outright mendacity, is a hallmark of denialists.

  40. 90
    Bob Ward says:

    The postings on RealClimate are usually thoughtful and insightful, but I’m afraid this one was a bit misguided. While ‘The Independent’ has been guilty of occasionally exaggerating evidence about climate change, in this case its primary failing was uncritically reporting the source of the story, namely the UK’s National Trust:

    I think it would have been far more constructive if RC had leveled its criticisms primarily at the National Trust, rather than The Independent. The National Trust is a reputable organization, which makes the shortcomings all the more serious.

    Likewise, I am willing to bet that the opening paragraph of the article from The Daily Telegraph was probably re-written by an uninformed sub, rather than by the journalist, so the criticism of him may also be somewhat unfair.

    Journalists are guilty of many things, but not nearly as many as researchers tend to think. It would be helpful if RC could promote informed insight into how the media operates, rather than falling into all the usual trap of assuming that journalists are always at fault.

    If you want to find a legitimate journalistic target for criticism, then I would suggest Christopher Booker, who writes a column each week for ‘The Sunday Telegraph’, which is the UK’s second largest circulation Sunday national ‘quality’ newspaper: (see, for instance:

    Booker is to climate change what Neville Hodgkinson was to AIDS (see:

    [Response: Bob. Fair enough in a way, but it would be taking several steps back to seek out the disinformation that may or may not have come from the National Trust. I don’t have the time or energy (or indeed, the desire) to do that. After all, the National Trust does not, in general, claim to be an expert organization on climate change! In any case, I was critiquing the way things are reported, and so it is the reporter who (in this case) deserves the critique.–eric]

  41. 91

    Re #30:

    Steve, don’t give up so easily…simply point Gavin et al. the Al Gore’s (he certainly is an environmental organization) New York Times Opinion Piece from July 1, 2007. In it he repeatedly talks about how adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is going to “destroy…the conditions that have made it hospitable for human beings” and that “If we don’t stop doing this pretty quickly, the average temperature will increase to levels humans have never known and put an end to the favorable climate balance on which our civilization depends.”

    He then goes on to discuss the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus as if it has some relevency (RC readers will recall that it does not).

    Clearly, Gore’s editorial is a “willful deception” if there ever was one. The idea is to scare us in to doing what he feels that we should do.

    Eric commented in #9 that “ 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.”

    Apparently, Mr. Gore doesn’t see it that way (just flip through the book version of “An Inconvenient Truth” for as many examples as you care to find).

    -Chip Knappenberger
    supported, to some degree, by the fossil fuels industry since 1992

    [Response: Chip, I will certainly grant you more expertise in willful deception than I possess. But your implication that any mention of Venus is a distortion cannot stand. Gore’s point is that carbon dioxide is powerful thing, and since plenty of people are happy to assert without evidence that it is not, pointing out that Venus is warm because of carbon dioxide is perfectly valid. Like I advised Steve, try again. (I note that the fact you have to try and wring out possible misconceptions out of this thin gruel is quite telling). Meanwhile on the other end, plenty of evidence for ongoing willful distortion (and simple making stuff up)…. – gavin]

  42. 92
    RichardC says:

    30 Steve noted that:

    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’.

    Steve, the word “usually” means that the facts are sometimes correct. “Smear” is about intent and abuse. For example, if I were to say you can’t comprehend simple definitions, it would be a smear even though I just gave substantiated evidence.

  43. 93
    gerda says:

    hey snap. i just came on line to show the awfulness of the telegraph to someone who said its only the sunday mag that is bad. i couldnt believe that article. ‘science’ correspondent? shouldnt be allowed.

  44. 94

    Re 91:


    “Chip, I will certainly grant you more expertise in willful deception than I possess.”

    I would contend that we both have well-honed “willful deception” detectors, and would like to think that we do our best to try to keep it out of our own writings and thinkings–and while we can try to do our best to educate those around us, we don’t hold their hand to the paper. And, as you know, there can be several valid interpretations of a set of observations, especially in complex systems. I am sure we do our best to steer folks away from the invalid ones. Perhaps in many cases, you and I may differ in our support of the potential valid ones.

    The main point I was making the NYT piece was the one about Gore’s repeated contention that the planet is going to become unsuitable for human civilization because of our use of fossil fuels. I haven’t seen take spelled out in the literature anywhere. In fact, I would contend that we have made the planet more habitable/suitable primarily by our technological advances (primarily made possible through fossil fuel use). I would imagine that 6.3 heading to 9 billion people is pushing the carrying capacity of the earth for humans not relying on fossil fuels.

    Gore throws in the point about Venus, inapropriately, in order to try to convince the unwary that it we keep things up, we will end up like that.

    I think you well know that discussions about the conditions on Venus have no part in discussions about efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions on earth. And I have seen no prominent person, other than Gore, drop such a hint. As you all at RC have already pointed out, the earth is not headed there.


    [Response: You appear to be setting up a litmus test that can be trumpeted from the rooftops every time someone says Venus in whatever context. There are more ignoramuses declaring that CO2 is saturated and can’t possibly contribute to more warming than I can point a stick at. Venus is the obvious counterexample to that and I reserve the right to bring it up whenever appropriate (and Gore can too). You are imagining words and statements that weren’t made in order to add to a store of untrue memes, and that just isn’t kosher. How about making a new year’s resolution not to misrepresent people’s statements? Is Gore concerned about where the planet is heading? Of course. But to equate warnings of potential and serious trouble with a runaway Venusian atmosphere just because Venus mentioned further up the text is hyperbole. You can do better than this. Dare I say it’s on a par with equating an overhead projector with a planetarium ;) – gavin]

  45. 95


    I have already been queried and tried to set someone straight about Ambler’s notion that the CO2 bands are saturated, if that in any consolation to you.

    And yes, I agree that equating the greenhouse effect on Venus with that of Earth is like equating an overhead projector with a planetarium projector (or vice versa)! :^)


  46. 96
    dave p says:

    Re 31
    I don’t know what you are getting at but in England every source has said that summers will get hotter and dryer. There is an anticyclonic system over the Azores which tends to move north in relation to NH temperatures.
    For the last 10 years summers have been generally unsetted. The last 2 are extreme examples but there has been no sign of the summer climate the models predicted.
    My point is that for a specific region the models have been wrong. There are obviously there are things happening the models have not factored in. Their predictions for future precipitation need some work.

    [Response: No climate model predicted anything for two specific years. Their projections cannot be tested over such a short time period. What I imagine (because I haven’t looked in detail) they did project is that in the long term (decades and longer), average summers will be hotter and drier. You could presumably analyse them further and come up with a timescale for which this signal comes out of the noise of interannual weather. I haven’t done it, but I will guarantee it is longer than a couple of years. – gavin]

  47. 97
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Thanks Eric, good article. It never hurts to be reminded that no group in society has a monopoly on the less-than-accurate portrayal of scientific research results, regardless of motive or political orientation. Of course the outing of those distortions by those capable of seeing them as such should reflect the amount and severity emanating from the various camps, so that the innocent bystander (Joe public) has some chance of assessing the relative BS factors of the groups/individuals responsible.

    Scientists have the task of determining cause and effect relationships in complex systems, often with limited ability to perform the manipulative experiments that would lead to “strong inference” (cf Platt, 1964). This presents many difficulties and usually results in qualified or probabilistic conclusions, the uncertainty of which often does not fit well with those who want a black and white confirmation of their beliefs and/or support of their positions.

    The public needs to understand that attribution of observed ecological (or any other) effects involves a hierarchical attribution chain (e.g. delta climate forcing–> delta global temperature parameters—> delta other climatic variables —> delta ecological effect #1—> delta ecol. effects #2, #3…#n. Each step in this chain has to have solid evidence behind it to arrive at the stated conclusion (delta climate forcing—> delta particular ecological effect x). This challenge is further complicated by the degree of complexity of the system and the spatial and temporal scales at which the putative cause and effect relationships are proclaimed, by whomever, to exist.

    Ain’t nearly as simple and straightforward as many want it to be to support their “agendas”.

  48. 98
    Theo Hopkins says:

    Hope this is the place to post this, Gavin.

    There is a real need for climate scientists to stop, or at least constructively chastise, journalists who exagarate GW. I see it all the time, and constantly I am told “There are only two/four/ten years @to save the world'”. And sometimes I was told it was three years – but that was five years ago and I’m still here.

    Climate exagerators are as much of a menace as deniers, in my mind.

  49. 99
    JCH says:

    “Climate exagerators are as much of a menace as deniers, in my mind. …” – Theo Hopkins

    To prove you are not a menace, link a story from 5 years ago that claimed life on earth was going to end in 3 years.

  50. 100
    nanny_govt_sucks says:

    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.

    Do you mean a warmer, wetter climate? How will this be bad for insects?