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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. 101
  2. 102
    Hank Roberts says:
    “… warming in the tropics, although relatively small in magnitude, is likely to have the most deleterious consequences because tropical insects are relatively sensitive to temperature change and are currently living very close to their optimal temperature. … the greatest extinction risks from global warming may be in the tropics, where biological diversity is also greatest.”

  3. 103
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Tamino (#89):

    Excellent post.

  4. 104
    Anders says:

    Ray #84

    Thank you for your answer. If I understand you correct, we are waiting for an appropriate amount of years to pass, which be observation will clarify wether a dobling in CO2 pressure will affect temp by 1.5 deg C. Considering the period of 20 years starting in 2001 and ending in 2021. If CO2 pressure emissions are unschanged, how much must temp rise for us to be able to say that CO2 affected temp as we predicted it to. And how must temp evolve for us to say that CO2 did not affect temp as we predicted.

    By the way:
    your comment
    “There is also no evidence that warming has stopped or even slowed down”

    Got me a little puzzled. Since there has been no increase in temp during the last 8 years ofcourse warming has stopped. That rising CO2 levels are preventing it from dropping and that warming will start againg might be likely scenarios, but we dont know that. Thats a guess. Saying that warming has not stopped makes is free of sense.

    Also, I do not agree with the argument that you can attribute effects to a certain factor, just because you have not found a better candidate. That argument is prehistoric.

    To be honest I am quite surprised that we are so confident that CO2 dobling impacts temp by at least 1.5 deg C. But we cannot set up a future observation that would make us have less confidence in our belief.

  5. 105

    The semantic issue of weather vs. climate seems to be a FAQ. And it seems that there is some inconsistency in the original posting between “… 2008 was a hard year for UK insects and insectivores. But this is weather we’re talking about, not climate.” and “Weather prediction is based on observations just a few days in advance”.

    It seems possible to have a local agreement here at RealClimate to include the cumulative feature of weather during a whole year in “weather” (even though its prediction is not based on observations just a few days in advance). But, as Thomas (#10) says, it is what the Climate Prediction Center of NOAA NCEP (USA) and its counterparts in other countries are expected to predict.

    As I remember (though my memory is not very sure), the activity to predict the state of near-surface atmosphere in the time range between a month and a year was usually called “long-range weather forecast” in 1970s. By 1990, it became “climate prediction”.

    (Japan Meteorological Agency often avoids both terms by calling the activity just “seasonal forecast”. It’s no problem because no one expects JMA to do a seasonal economic forecast….)

    The 1980s saw a transition (maybe called a paradigm change). The notion of the climate system became well known by the book “Understanding Climate Change” by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1975. Global Atmospheric Research Program was changed over to World Climate Research Program in 1980. A big El Nino event of 1982-83 (the biggest of the century before 1997) promoted the studies of tropical ocean and global atmosphere. It became obvious that the ocean (at least the upper part of the tropical ocean) is essential in the predition of the atmospheric situation several months ahead. Thus, “climate” (here meaning the climate system, not 30-year average weather) seems to be a better term than “weather” to describe the activity of prediction in this time range.

    So I think that the usage of “climate prediction” by CPC is as legitimate as that of “climate change projection” in the context of IPCC. Both are based on the concept of the climate system (a coupled ocean-atmosphere-land sytem), though how deep we must dive into the ocean is different.

    But this situation is confusing enough. Can we invent a new technical term to fill the gap? Unfortunately, even where there is such an intermediate term as “tenko” in Japanese or “Grosswetter” in German, it is often overwhelmed by direct translation of “climate” from English. (e.g. I see “Klima actuell” at the web page of DWD.) Perhaps a viable intermediate term should be based on “climate” rather than “weather”. I tentatively suggest “seasonal-climate” (with hyphenation).

  6. 106
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Anders #104, did you look at my link to Tamino’s Open Mind post on the subject? This makes it clear that even looking at a simple average over any reasonable period (e.g. 10 yr avg, 5 year avg), warming is still occurring. I even looked at 3 year averages, and there the only point where there was a decrease was the last–and that by a tiny amount. Please go look at the link

    Anybody who claims warming has stopped is either ignorant or mendacious.

  7. 107
    Nick Gotts says:

    “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.” – RW

    You expect us to take this seriously, but you don’t identify the blog? It sounds like you don’t even know what it was yourself. If you meant to exemplify journalistic laziness, you’ve succeeded.

  8. 108
    Bob Ward says:

    Sorry Eric, I really do think it is important not to shoot the messenger so readily when it comes to reporting. If a reputable organisation publishes something that is false or wrong and it is reported in good faith by a journalist, I think it is unfair to blame the journalist rather than the source. I think this particularly applies to research where it is practically impossible for reporters to check for all flaws and errors before deciding whether to cover it. In this case, the information had clearly not been subject to peer review, which maybe should have caused the journalist to treat it with care. But then, peer review is not always an indicator of credibility or accuracy, and not all credible and accurate information about climate change is subject to conventional peer review (eg postings on RC!).

    I am willing to bet that a fair number of problems with reporting that are complained about actually arise from the source rather than the journalist. My challenge to RC fans is that the next time they see a story that they think is problematic, they spend a few moments to try to track down the source and work out if it is the fault of the journalist – in this case the National Trust was clearly mentioned near the beginning of the story and it took less than 30 seconds to find the source on its website – I suspect that is rather less time than it took to write the initial posting on RC.

    Perhaps Andy Revkin might care to comment, if he looks in again on this posting? Or any other journalists?

    [Response: Bob, thanks for commenting. We have often fingered the press release as being one of the problematic steps in communicating scientific research (here or here for instance). However, like the poor, poor press releases will also be with us. Clearly journalists are not just passive conduits of PR to the masses, and so must be expected to critically look at releases that they get. Sometimes the problems are subtle – and journalists don’t always have the context and background to see where something is overstated – but I’m not sure that was the case here. There was plenty of information in the release of interest to many people, so covering the story is a no-brainer. But the press release does indeed make some fundamental errors and badly conflates weather with climate, but you can’t give the journalist a free pass just because they’re busy. – gavin]

  9. 109

    Anders, I think one of the sources of your puzzlement over the idea that the “warming has (not) stopped” is semantic. It sounds as if you are thinking in terms purely of what we might call the “realized record”–since we have a history, we can consider objective facts without much uncertainty, and we can look at the temps and make a straightforward judgement that year x is or is not warmer than year y. (This seems logical at first glance, but note Ray’s analysis.) Most of us, however, are really more interested in the future than in the past–when we talk about warming we want to know whether or not it is dangerous–and this brings us to the second meaning.

    In this sense of “the warming has (not) stopped”, people mean that the physical process of warming is (or is not) ongoing regardless of the natural short-term variability of the system. Temperatures may not rise during period x due to any number of short-term factors, but the behavior of the GHGs in the atmosphere doesn’t change, which means the warming continues, although it may be “masked” at times by natural cooling (or even anthropogenic cooling, as in the case of aerosol pollution.)

    There has been a lot of confusion on this score, some of it almost certainly intentionally promoted. Consider the too-often expressed idea that this or that cool snap has “wiped out” x years of GW. This implicitly says that you can draw meaningful conclusions based on two points in a time series. Not so!

    To get an intuitive sense of why not, ask yourself what qualifications a time point should have in order to be the “right choice” to begin or end a comparison. Should it be a record year, or at least a notable one? Well, it doesn’t seem right to pick the least typical data points somehow, so what about the most typical points, then? Well, then we fail to capture the variability of the data. (Besides, we just smuggled extra data points in the back door via the “most typical” descriptor.) Is there even any good reason to privilege the present (or most recent) data point over any other? I don’t think it is clear that there is, when you really think about it!

    Moral of the story: use good statistical methods to compare, and shun these seemingly intuitive point-to-point comparisons–being aware that they can creep into our thought processes without our explicit invitation! After all, that’s why statistical tools were invented. We need them, in order to bring consistency and clarity to our intuitions about process and probablility.

  10. 110
    SecularAnimist says:

    Chip Knappenberger wrote: “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.”

    There is absolutely nothing about that contention that is inconsistent with climate science, let alone “misleading”.

    Given the primary effects of anthropogenic global warming, plus the self-reinforcing feedbacks (albedo changes, methane release, etc.) caused by that warming, plus the effects of that warming on the biosphere, plus the acidification of the oceans, it is entirely possible and indeed probable that continued “business as usual” use of fossil fuels with the resulting accelerating increase in anthropogenic CO2 emissions could make the Earth inhospitable to human civilization.

    Chip Knappenberger wrote: “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 contend that your contention is ludicrous. No “technological advance” achieved by humans has ever enhanced the capacity of the Earth to support life — technology has only enabled humans to usurp more and more and more of the Earth’s biological productivity and vitality to human uses, often with destructive effects that eventually prove inimical even to human well-being. And fossil fuel use has inarguably and demonstrably degraded the capacity of the Earth to support life, and continues to do so, with detrimental impacts on humans already apparent to anyone who can see clearly.

    The simple fact is that we are technologically and economically capable of moving beyond fossil fuels now, to a post-carbon energy economy based on harvesting limitless, abundant, ubiquitous, FREE wind and solar energy. The only obstacle to making that transition is the entrenched political and economic power of the fossil fuel corporations who don’t want to lose the trillions of dollars in profit they can expect to reap from a few decades more “business as usual” fossil fuel consumption. It’s not a question of “fossil fuels vs. starving in the cold and dark”. It’s a question of breaking the death-grip of an obsolete and destructive technology and moving on to the New Industrial Revolution of the 21st Century.

  11. 111
    tamino says:

    Re: #104 (Anders)

    If you study temperature data, you’ll find that its shows two kinds of change: trend and noise. “Noise” refers to that part that is essentially random, it’s the constant up-and-down “jitter” in temperature data. I’m not talking about measurement error (although there’s that too), I’m referring to jitter in the actual physical phenomenon. Noise definitely exists in temperature data (and in fact in almost all data), anyone who tells you different is selling something.

    Over the last 30+ years global temperature has shown an upward trend, but of course it has also shown noise. Climate is the trend; the jitter is weather. If we want to separate climate from weather, we have to separate the signal from the noise.

    When you do so, you find that the “hasn’t risen in x years” we hear all the time, is really just data noise. The signal is inexorably rising. It’s counterintuitive to most people that this can be the case, but it’s really easy to show that if you take an artificially constructed signal which is forever rising at a constant rate, and add noise which looks just like the noise we observe in global temperature, the result looks just like the temperature record for the last 30 years. Including the last 8 years. This is illustrated in this post.

    Probably the simplest way to reduce the noise is to compute simple averages over a long enough time span that the noise is reduced enough to let the signal emerge visibly. One-year averages aren’t long enough to do that. Five-year averages are better, and they look like this. Ten-year averages are better yet, and they look like this.

    “Global Warming” refers to the trend in temperature, not the noise. There’s no statistically valid evidence whatsoever (despite what you’ll hear from misinformants) that global warming has stopped, or even slowed down.

  12. 112
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Bob Ward said: “I am willing to bet that a fair number of problems with reporting that are complained about actually arise from the source rather than the journalist.”

    OK, right here in this sentence, I see a big problem for the journalist, and that is the fact that “source” is singular. Any investigative reporter who went with a single source would be violating a cardinal rule. Why should it be OK to take a PR blurb from a single source and run with that? Look, I understand about deadlines, but is it too much to ask that a science reporter cultivate some relationships with trusted scientists and ask them for comment before rushing to print?

  13. 113
    Hank Roberts says:

    I’d like to speak to the teacher behind this problem:

    > reading a climate blog as an assignment; she walked away muttering > “…they’re supposed to be experts”,

    Please find out which of the people writing on the blog were “supposed to be experts” and who “supposed” that. Was it the child? If so why did the child rely on the teacher for this? Did the teacher suggest the child check whether the writers were experts? If so, how? Did the teacher have any prior familiarity with the particular text assigned? Did the teacher just say “find a climate blog for yourself and read it” perhaps?

    Could the teacher tell a troll from a scientist by what’s read on a blog screen? If so, how?

    What is being taught here, except despair and hopelessness?
    Who is the teacher relying on for good information?

    And do you have a PTA or a school board you can report this to?

  14. 114
    Bob North says:

    I think Bob Ward (108) picks up on a very important point that many here should note: Much of what the mass media picks up doesn’t come directly from the scientific journals or scientists themselves but is filtered through issue advocacy groups such as the National Trust, Sierra Club, NRDC, or, on the other side, similar conservative, issue advocacy organizations. These groups often take out many of the caveats that may appear in the original papers and emphasis the whatever points best support the issue they are advocating. Further, they issue numerous press releases to get the broadest possible coverage. Journalists are more than willing to use these groups as their source of information rather than digging deeper and talking directly to the scientists that did the original research.

    Kevin Mckinney in #109 also (and finally) makes the important point that climate scientist here and at other blogs are using the term “Warming” more or less as a noun that describes the overall process of increasing GHGs and landuse change leading to higher temperatures whereas those that say warming has stopped for the last x years are using it in its layman sense of an active verb that describes what is happening with temperatures here and now. Since there has been no statistically significant increase (or decrease)in the estimated global mean temperature over the past 7 or 8 years, they are technically correct in the smaller sense even it is not right in the big sense. A lot of the very long-winded arguments I see about this point really come down to how the word is being used.

  15. 115
    Bob Ward says:

    Gavin, I agree with what you say – the journalists don’t have enough time these days to properly investigate sources. This is spelled out very clearly in the recent book ‘Flat Earth News’ by Nick Davies, which I highly recommend to all RC devotees.

    However, I think science and environment reporters need greater support, rather than scorn, from the research community, if we are going to bring about any improvement. The reporters get a hard enough time from their editors, without also dealing with attacks from researchers who only speak up when they want to complain.

    As I suspected, the very poor report in the Telegraph that was flagged up in the original posting is actually a pretty faithful reproduction of a very poor press release issued by the University of Birmingham, the host institution of the researchers whose Science paper provided the hook for the story:

    I would also add that the science correspondent at the Telegraph has only just taken on the science brief in the last few months, having previously been a general reporter at the newspaper, so he may not have appreciated just how poor the press release was.

    [Response: Yes of course. I don’t think anyone is thinking that this was done on purpose. But where do we go from here? We’ve been exhorting (you as well of course) that environmenal journalists learn to cultivate a bbackground network of reliable sources who they can go to for context – we try and provide such context here as well, and we’ve tried to help scientists better nip-in-the-bud potential issues in press releases that will likely lead to miscomunications. But we can’t mandate that everyone be correct in what they say at all times, and so the natural journalist skill – that should have been honed on a news desk – to look behind the press releases should be encouraged as well. – gavin]

  16. 116
    tamino says:

    Certainly any errors in a press release on which a news story is based, are the fault of those who issued the press releas. But if that misinformation is repeated in a news story, the responsibility lies with: the journalists.

    I remember when the three most important words in journalism were: accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy. It’s a reporter’s job to get the truth, not his sources’, and it’s especially a reporter’s job to know enough about how information (and misinformation) is disseminated to know better than to rely on a single source of unknown credibility.

    I couldn’t care less if “the science correspondent at the Telegraph has only just taken on the science brief in the last few months,” in his time as “a general reporter at the newspaper” he should have learned just how poor press releases can be, and he should have known a helluva lot better than to rely on a single press release on a topic about which he’s clearly not savvy.

    I repeat: accurate and correct news is the journalist’s job, and failure is the journalist’s responsibility. There’s way too much “slack” given for sloppy reporting and way too much “but it was a bad press release” abdication of responsibility; the title of this post is hauntingly appropriate. Oh for the days of Harry Truman, when people actually appreciated the virtue of “the buck stops here.”

  17. 117

    Bob N., thanks for the tip of the hat. Whether “technically correct” or not, the “verbish” usage of “warming”–I call it that since “global,” like all adjectives, isn’t really supposed to modify a verb–is problematic. It is too easy to conflate the usages, promoting the very confusion you describe.

    I feel reasonably sure that some whom I have encountered in the media are, regrettably, employing this ambiguity quite intentionally in order to mislead or confuse the naive. (I am not speaking of professional journalists here, for the most part, but rather some bloggers and columnists.) Disambiguating the two usages should help a bit–as would the statistical literacy so ably promoted by Tamino.

  18. 118
    Hank Roberts says:

    Gavin, a thought about how to encourage herewith.
    Yes, I wish it were better. It’s not. Bob Ward is telling you the cold hard truth. We all wish news writers scrutinized PR.

    Run many a news story through a plagiarism detection site, or Google pithy phrases — and you find much of the “news” is copypaste PR. Word for word.

    This was a surprise to many of us. Thankew Google.

    A suggestion — you still have a “Journalist” login area here somewhere? If not, if this would work, revive it? Either by you or as a pointer to help you know is good?

    Announce — Press Releases Critiqued ——

    Sign up some people to try to cover that, on specific advance request, with some clear ground rule about how much homework help they get. Like
    — they have to identify themselves
    — they have to identify the PR provider
    — they have to provide full text of the PR
    — they agree the critique is left available for the next news writer who logs in looking for the same help
    — what happens in that area stays there unless attribution to a RC author is authorized
    — any amateur help is identified as such, there are some talented amateurs who could maybe help but who aren’t scientists.

    Maybe instead call on help from someone with expertise like DeSmogBlog or direct people there if they could do it, but with some oversight to avoid even the semblance of PR versus PR.

    Maybe invite some of the university science writing people to get involved.

    Maybe set out a tip jar to hire a competent reference librarian who could set up shop with a link on all the climate blogger sites and take questions (sigh).

  19. 119
    Mark says:

    Anders, 104, why 8 years? Surely 10 is the closest year that makes sense to pluck from the air.

    So do you maths voodoo on the 10 years temperatures and tell us if it’s cooling or not.

  20. 120
    RichardC says:

    94 Chip said, “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.”

    That’s like saying that if one spends his savings and goes into debt, he’s wealthier. Using fossil fuels for agricultural use temporarily boosts productivity, but in the long term it degrades carrying capacity. The hope is that another source of fertilizer and power can be developed in time to prevent the otherwise inevitable crash when the bill comes due. As you said, 9 billion people is difficult to support without seriously dipping into the carbon bank account.

  21. 121
    Mark says:

    RichardC, #120. Worse than that, it has been shown definitively that the increase in productivity by using oil-based fertilisers and all the modern gizmos only last a few years. After that, the benefits disappear slowly and you need MORE of the petrochemicals to keep up.

    It was shown.

    They stopped modern techniques in an african plantation and moved to local production methods with some assist from what is known to be able to work in that area from modern science. The productivity went UP from the earlier petro-based production methods. And, since they didn’t use foreign supplied petrochemicals, their costs were lower.

  22. 122
    Hank Roberts says:

    PS, I agree with both Gavin and Tamino about what should be.

    But what is, is. The PR departments apparently never heard of the requirement to check facts and present all relevant information. I’d bet university PR offices hire and write using the same criteria they’d use working in an industry or religion or mass marketing firm — and I’d love to be proved wrong on that.

    Do they have an ethics code in that business? If so does it say anything should be done differently writing about science?

  23. 123
    Hank Roberts says:

    Mark, for Anders, instead of suggesting a change from 8 to 10, I think that’s not the best help possible and may prolong confusion.

    Repeating my suggestion from another thread, suggest reading Bob Grumbine as well as Tamino’s postings on how to identify trends:

    In brief (in a journal paper, this would be the ‘abstract’):

    * You need 20-30 years of data to define a climate trend in global mean temperature
    * Forward and backward trends are markedly different
    * Therefore, to discuss climate trends in global mean temperature, you need to use 20-30 years of data centered on the date of interest.

    As with any abstract, it’s too brief to show you why any of these are true, just some simple declarations. Now, …. let’s take a look at the whys.

    —-end excerpt ———-

  24. 124
    kevin says:

    Anders: Tamino’s “You Bet” post describes IMO a really great crucial test of the continued warming vs. no warming (or cooling) hypotheses. Type “You Bet” into Tamino’s search box and go through a couple of pages of results until you find it. Sorry if this is redundant; I haven’t read all the responses in this thread.

  25. 125
    SecularAnimist says:

    Chip wrote: “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.”

    RichardC wrote: “As you said, 9 billion people is difficult to support without seriously dipping into the carbon bank account.”

    Aside from the question of whether 9 billion humans can be sustained with or without fossil fuels, without degrading, depleting and impoverishing the Earth’s biosphere, who says it is even desirable to have 9 billion humans living on the Earth?

    Maybe it is better, even in the narrow terms of human happiness and well-being, to have only a billion or two billion humans living on the Earth, in which case our challenge is find a way to peacefully and humanely reduce the human population, rather than to find more aggressive ways of exploiting the rest of the biosphere to support an endlessly growing human population. Is the “optimum” situation really to convert all of the Earth’s biomass to human flesh, and live on a diet of Soylent Green?

  26. 126
    tamino says:

    Re: #124 (kevin)

    The “you bet!” post can be found here.

  27. 127
    Dave Rado says:

    Re. Bob Ward’s comments at #90, #108 and #115:

    1) With regard to article by Michael McCarthy of The Independent, as others here have pointed out, I don’t think it is right for an environment correspondent to uncritically report on a claim about science made by a non-scientific body, and most especially it is wrong to do so when that body is a lobby group (which the National Trust is, albeit they are fairly well respected one). I think the journalist should certainly have contacted either his own climate scientist contacts, if he had any, to verify the story’s veracity, or if he had no contacts with the relevant expertise (unlikely in this instance), he could have contacted the Royal Society and asked them to put him in touch with someone appropriate. To me this is one of the basic rules of journalism, that one should always verify stories and put them into context, and especially when they come from lobby groups; and I don’t think lack of time is really an excuse.

    Reporting uncritically on the press releases of lobby groups (from either side of the “debate”) has been in my opinion one of the great failings of the media’s coverage of climate change (and of science in general), as it leads to the public being fed a constant diet of first one extreme non-scientific point of view and then the opposite extreme, with mainstream science rarely getting a look in.

    Even when the source is a scientist rather than a lobby group, lack of context in media reporting is a major problem – for instance, one minute red wine in moderation is claimed to be good for you, the next minute it’s claimed to be bad for you, with no context being provided in either report, and the public ends up with the strong impression that the entire scientific community is simply incompetent. But when the source is a non-scientific body, and especially when it is a lobby group, there is an especially strong duty for the journalist to verify its veracity, and to provide context.

    2) With respect to your suggestion that Chris Booker is a better target for criticism than Michael McCarthy, I think it is right that RealClimate should criticise misleading articles from both sides of the “debate”, and many would say that RC already reserves too high a proportion of its criticism for the Chris Bookers of this world (even if they haven’t yet covered Booker himself), and too little to the many press articles that support greenhouse warming theory but go way beyond what the science can justify.

    3) With respect to The Telegraph’s article, while the press release may have been poor, I can see nothing in it that claims or even gives the impression that high levels of CO2 caused an ice age. On the contrary, the press release states: “in a very severe ice age, even plenty of greenhouse gas cannot stop the world being covered in reflective ice and snow.” (Emphasis added).

    By contrast, not only does the Telegraph’s headline explicitly state that the ice age was caused by high levels of CO2, but the body of the article also strongly implies this, e.g. in the sentence: “Such glaciation could happen again if global warming is not curbed, the university’s school of geography, earth and environmental sciences warned.” Thus even if the headline itself was written by a scientifically illiterate sub-editor, I think the journalist bears most of the responsibility. And if Alleyne was at all uncertain about the meaning of the story, a 5 minute phone conversation with Ian Fairchild (who would surely have made sure he was available for interviews on the day of the press release) is all it would have taken for him to put himself right.

  28. 128
    Dave Rado says:

    re. Mark, #121, sources with links, please.

  29. 129
    Mark says:

    Hank, 123, the intent was to show that 8 years was cherry picked. Why pick 8? Because that makes the start of the period 2000. Which was really very far out of line.

    10 years would be a more normal number to pick, but those who cherry pick will wait until 2010/2011 to use it because 1998 as the start date doesn’t come close to “proving” their point.

    And if it’s been cooling for 8 years, why was 2008 warmest?

  30. 130
    Dave Rado says:

    re. Chip Knappenberger, #91:

    Al Gore’s … 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”

    That statement is in line with the IPCC reports, albeit the timescales are uncertain

    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.”

    The IPCC’s “best guess” is that we are likely to experience a 3C rise by 2100 (with an even higher rise under BAU), which would indeed mean a higher global mean temperature than humans have ever hitherto experienced. And it is certainly arguable, based on the best science, that at that level, if it persisted, conditions would be very different from those on which civilization has depended, with very serious implications, especially in the developing world. Agsin, this is fully in line with the IPCC reports.

    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).

    He doesn’t say earth could become Venus, he uses Venus to illustrate the fact (which many denialists deny) that CO2 levels can have a major effect on climate – and as Gavin points out, that the “saturation” argument is a fallacy.

    Clearly, Gore’s editorial is a “wilful deception” if there ever was one.

    I can see nothing deceptive about it at all, wilful or otherwise. The language is that of a politician who cares passionately about an issue, rather than of a scientist, but he doesn’t pretend to be a scientist, and there is nothing substantively misleading in his article that I can see.

  31. 131
  32. 132
    Jim Cross says:

    #123 Hank

    So I guess these last ten years or so of temperatures that everyone points to shouldn’t be regarded so highly?

  33. 133
    Bob Ward says:

    Gavin, I think part of the answer is to turn the spotlight on our colleagues in universities and other institutions who are responsible for generating the materials that are distributed to the media. I do not think it is a coincidence that the two examples featured in the original posting are both taken from the UK. I believe that UK science journalism is the best in the world – the science journalists generally display a very high degree of accuracy and integrity and reach a far greater proportion of the UK public than their counterparts in other countries, including the United States. However, the standard of media relations professionals promoting the work of researchers in UK universities and institutions is, I believe, of a woefully lower standard than that of their counterparts in the United States.

    I believe, therefore, that it helps for RealClimate to call out more often examples of press releases and other media relations that result in misleading and inaccurate media coverage. This will help make the case to universities that they should invest more in the professionalism of their media relations teams.

    Let me also declare here my various vested interests in this issue. I am currently employed as Policy and Communications Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, I am a member of the executive committee of the Association of British Science Writers and the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009, and I have previously worked as a health, science and technology reporter for The Daily Telegraph.

  34. 134
  35. 135
    gavin says:

    Also see Ben Goldacre’s article on the Telegraph story. Not a great moment in UK journalism.

  36. 136
    Mark says:

    Dave #128 I’d have to google it. It was a New Scientist or El Reg article a good two years ago. Do you have a reason for it to be false? That may be able to help me since I can look for that and see if the article turns up in a search for a rebuttal.

    Jim #132, 10 years is insignificant for climatology on the earth because you don’t average out several well known oscillations (El Nino/La Nina) so your signal is hidden by the fact you could have chosen a weak then strong (or reverse) cycle in your sample.

  37. 137
    Bob Ward says:

    Gavin, I’m glad you have provided a link to Ben Goldacre’s blog, because it cites the letter that the researchers sent to the newspaper to try to correct the original story. Unfortunately, the letter does not acknowledge that the errors originated from the researchers’ press office and instead implies that the fault entirely rests with the newspaper. That doesn’t seem very fair. It seems to me that mistakes were made by a number of people in the chain that led to the publication of the newspaper article, and they should each accept some responsibility instead of trying to lay all of the blame on the journalist.

  38. 138
    Dave Rado says:

    Re. Ben Goldacre’s article, I have emailed Ian Fairchild and suggested he report this to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission.

  39. 139
    Bob Ward says:

    Perhaps I should clarify my comments. I am not trying to absolve the Telegraph of all blame. For a start, it independently introduced the erroneous statement that “Such glaciation could happen again if global warming is not curbed”, which is not suggested or implied by the press release.

    However, I think the Telegraph’s confusion originated from the spin that the press release introduced by suggesting that the Science paper commented on the current warming and geoengineering proposals to counter it by pumping sulphate into the atmosphere – in fact, the paper does not mention that at all.

  40. 140
    Hank Roberts says:

    Jim Cross, “Hank So I guess …” followed by an odd opinion with no apparent connection to either the topic or the research. Can’t help ya.

  41. 141
    Hank Roberts says:

    I was with Ben Goldacre right up to where he wrote
    > It’s quite hard to understand both the intellectual
    > and moral reasoning behind this kind of behaviour.

    It’s not intellectual and it’s not moral, obviously.

    Does Britan have the same “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one” approach as the US? The US law is that the owners get to decide what the “news” media presents, it’s their opinion, not anything more. I know the Florida Supreme Court settled that for their newspapers; my recollection is the US FCC has said the same thing about cable channels. And there are only a handful of owners for all these media. Look up who owns the thing, it’s their behavior.

    You know the last word: “Profit!”
    You know the antepenultimate and penultimate words: “Short Term”

    I better go have coffee, maybe I’ll lighten up a bit. Is it dawn anywhere?

  42. 142
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Bob Ward, I always thought that a cardinal rule in journalism or intelligence was to never go with a single source. It seems to me that if the journalist had sent the story off for comment to any reliable climate scientist, they would have identified it properly as horse puckey. So, by all means, shame on the writer of the press release for exaggeration, on the researchers for not catching the exaggeration, but especially on the journalist for not covering his tuckus by getting expert comment before the story went out under his by-line.

  43. 143
    Hank Roberts says:

    Gack. Read the Telegraph’s Terms and Conditions; anyone using their site (would this include their own authors?) agrees among other things to:

    “4.3.6. not post, transmit, submit, refer to, make available or link to or from (or authorise or permit any other person to do the same) any material which:
    a) is untrue, fraudulent, inaccurate or misleading;…”

  44. 144

    Anders posts:

    Since there has been no increase in temp during the last 8 years ofcourse warming has stopped.

    Remove the hyphens and paste into your browser’s address window:

  45. 145
    dave p says:

    Re.96 I wasn’t saying 2 years proved anything. English summers have been contrary to the models for a decade. Surely in that time climate trends should be apparent above the background noise of weather.

    [Response: “Surely” you have some statistical analysis that backs that up? I would be surprised actually, because a decade isn’t long enough even in the global mean for temperature. The amount of variance in precipitation is much higher, as is the variance at regional (and more so for local) spatial scales. Detection of climate change requires a significant signal-to-noise ratio, and if the noise is much larger, it will take longer for detection to happen. – gavin]

  46. 146
    David B. Benson says:

    Jim Cross (132) — Regarding recent annual temperatures, see

  47. 147
    RichardC says:

    Secular Aminist asks, “Is the “optimum” situation really to convert all of the Earth’s biomass to human flesh, and live on a diet of Soylent Green?”

    I’d ask what type of opportunity one would like for ones OWN grandchildren. Most would like their grandkids to be able to own a number of acres, (or a nice condo), be able to travel, excellent healthcare, etc etc. Now put the caveat that one’s own grandchildren *will* be totally average. Compute the resulting population. It goes up all the time, but a billion seems to be a huge stretch at current technologies.

  48. 148
    Jim Cross says:

    #140, #146

    Hank and David,

    My statement was partly supportive of looking at more than 10 years and partly sarcastic.

    I like 30 years for looking at climate and I’ve looked at the Hadley data. With a 30 year moving average, warming HAS NOT stopped.

    On the other hand, many, many posts on this site have made a big deal out of the last 10 years of warming and Arctic ice loss. If climate is 20-30 years, you can’t make a big deal out of the last 10. You need to wait another 20 years or so and see if the trend continues at the same rate.

    [Response: There’s no magic number here. It is all dependent on the variability levels. Glaciers for instance have very small variability compared to the trends (because they integrate over a long time already) and so significant shifts can be seen over shorter time periods. Summer sea ice as well seems to be well out of the noise. – gavin]

  49. 149
    Jim Cross says:

    #148 Gavin

    You want to pick and choose, right?

    Glaciers seem to me to be the hardest argument to make since they are dependent not only on temperature but also on precipitation.

    And you want to look only at “summer” sea ice. And I guess that means only the Arctic too, right?

    [Response: I picked things where there were clear trends that didn’t need 30 year averages to see. Wasn’t that your point? There are lots of other obs where the noise is larger relative to any trends and where you might need even more than 30 years. The point is that ’30 years’ is not a magic number. It makes sense for temperatures, but any other field needs to be looked at individually. – gavin]

  50. 150
    tamino says:

    Re: #148, #149 (Jim Cross)

    Gavin is right, there’s no “magic number.” Whether or not one can identify a meaningful trend depends on the size of the trend, and on the size and character of the noise. It’s made harder by the fact that the noise in most geophysical data shows autocorrelation, and its structure of is complex enough that the usual (AR(1)) correction in trend analysis is insufficient.

    The arbiter of significance for trends is statistical analysis, not length of time span. For temperature under present conditions, 10 years is not enough. For summer Arctic sea ice, ten years is more than enough.