Are scientists doing a good job of warning us about climate change?

Summary:  The March 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change has two articles and an editorial discussing the public discussion about the pause in surface atmosphere warming. These are quite sad, showing their tribalism and the modern American unwillingness to accept any responsibility.  It’s a wasted opportunity for improvement in handling of this vital issue. These articles are open with free registration.

Climate Change hourglass

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(a) Media discourse on the climate slowdown“, Maxwell T. Boykoff — “We must not fall victim to decontextualized and ahistorical media accounting of climate trends.” Excerpt:

Discourses are essentially sets of categories, ideas and concepts that give meaning to phenomena. Maarten Hajer has pointed out that they can “frame certain problems … [and can] dominate the way a society conceptualizes the world”2. Through media representations, framing processes have had important effects on marginalizing some discourses while contributing to the amplification of others.

Boykoff looks at the Right’s use of this issue:

In particular, social movements from the ideological right seized on this notion of a pause or hiatus in the public sphere and amplified claims of a global warming myth in the process.

… even though these outlier claims were overwhelmingly dismissed through mainstream media accounts, coverage served to spotlight contrarian individuals and climate counter-movement pressure-group messages, while influencing larger public opinion. In other words, media attention on the slowdown may have inadvertently swelled the ranks of adherents to contrarian views of wider climate changes. While recent polling has found that the proportion of US citizens who believe that climate change is not happening has increased by 7 percentage points since April 2013, study co-authors Anthony Leiserowitz and Edward Maibach have both commented that media coverage of the pause has contributed to the trends they detected.

In a 2013 study, Shawn Olson and I16 explored the role of climate contrarianism, emitted from actors of the ideological right who have drawn culturally from anti-regulatory, anti-environmental and neoliberal environmental perspectives traced back to the US-based Wise Use movements — coalitions of groups promoting the expansion of private property rights and reduction of government intervention.

Like almost all writings in the climate science literature on this subject, the authors appear blind to similarly political use of this issue by the Left, despite the high profile of such use in the news media (a far higher profile in the mainstream media than the Right’s). Frequently those on the Left make extreme claims for the effects of warming beyond projections of the IPCC or other major climate agencies, plus attribution of normal weather (normal on decadal or generational time scales) to anthropogenic CO2 emissions — misrepresenting or exaggerating the relevant climate science literature.

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Another example: alarmists often attribute the entire warming since the mid-19th Century to anthropogenic CO2, despite the IPCC and climate science literature putting the start date a century later:

“It is extremely likely (95 – 100% certain) that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.”
— conclusion of the IPCC’s AR5 Working Group I (for more about this see When did we start global warming? See the surprising answer.)

What might be the effects of this narrow view by scientists of climate change politics? Their criticism of the Right but not the Left has untethered the Left from climate science, allowing increasing shrill and unsupported claims of imminent disaster — up to extinction of humanity. By ignoring these they create an impression of tacit approval of such scenarios, which has diminished their credibility as the pause nears the two-decade long mark. Furthermore this de facto partisanship further reduces their credibility with conservatives (even those that might otherwise be supportive).

This de facto tie to the Left might not work well for the climate science field as claims of the Left become more extreme and the pause continues. For more about this see:

  1. One of the most important questions we face: when will the pause in global warming end?, 25 August 2013
  2. Possible political effects of the pause in global warming, 26 August 2013

(b) Pause for thought“, Ed Hawkins — Abstract:

The recent slowdown (or ‘pause’) in global surface temperature rise is a hot topic for climate scientists and the wider public. We discuss how climate scientists have tried to communicate the pause and suggest that ‘many-to-many’ communication offers a key opportunity to directly engage with the public.

Excerpt (red emphasis added):

Since the late 1990s, global mean surface temperature increased more slowly than during the preceding two decades. The reasons for this ‘pause’ are being actively debated by the climate science community. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report (AR5) concluded in their Summary for Policymakers (SPM) that this slowdown “is due in roughly equal measure to a reduced trend in radiative forcing and a cooling contribution from natural internal variability”

Did the climate science community do enough in communicating the slowdown, and how could it do better in the future?

… First, it is possible that the chance of a slowdown was communicated effectively to the media, and subsequently ignored as not newsworthy. Alternatively, previous communications may have focused on long-term changes to inform mitigation discussions, whereas there is now more focus on near-term adaptation issues, for which climate variability is more important.

That is a great question. Too bad the authors didn’t pursue it in depth. They say this, then drop the subject:

Although several papers have estimated the probability of a pause, they were published after it had started. Also note that the IPCC has not included a clear statement of the chance of a slowdown in any of its SPMs.

Successful predictions are one of the most important means for laypeople to validate science theories. While the pause is not inconsistent with the major climate models, the failure of scientists to even mention the 15+ year-long pause as a possible scenario before it happened provides a reasonable basis for skepticism about their future forecasts. That’s the harsh logic of life.

Also note the important point they make in this paragraph:

The communication of the slowdown and its implications is complex. Although the most recent decade is the warmest since 1850, this does not mean there is no pause, as some have seemed to suggest. To overcome these communication challenges, some have discussed the overall energy budget of the Earth, which has been suggested as a more robust indicator of climate change than surface temperature alone. However, surface warming impacts people directly, is readily understood by the public and is also the canonical example of climate change which has been iconic for many years.

This is the closest the authors get to rebuking climate alarmists’ massive effort to convince people there is no pause, and their denouncing anyone who points to the relevant science literature as a “climate denier”.  If this is the most balanced a view climate scientists can provide they’re likely to be seen by many as enrolling themselves in the Left’s crusade, however poorly grounded in science it is — and suffer a severe loss in credibility if the Left’s doomster forecasts prove false during the next decade.

(c)  Editorial: “Scientist communicators” — “The slowdown in Earth’s surface temperature increase has made headlines worldwide — but mainly to dismiss climate science.”

Standard institutional self-justification, plus political bias — a nice demonstration of the weaknesses in climate science structures today.  It starts well:

Man-made climate change has been in the news for many years. Previously the message presented to the public was clear: climate change is global warming and that means the temperatures are going to rise unless we do something. This claim seemed to be supported by measurements of continuous increases of atmospheric CO2 — at a rate not seen before in the historical record — and associated temperature increases. Additionally, projections from climate models seemed to confirm that this was the new normal.

It quickly goes off into the blue.

The media reporting of a ‘hiatus’ came as a surprise to the public. Prior to this, the message had been of continuous warming — to be suddenly told that this was not true led to confusion. Questions started to arise as to whether the previous message had been incorrect — was global warming not happening? This, at least, was the take of sceptics.

First, the record shows that the hiatus came as a surprise to climate scientists, not just the public. This is an essential point, and their amnesia about this is inexcusable. There is no mention of a possible pause in the literature before the pause (that I’ve seen). Early mentions of the pause by climate scientists were not well received by their peers (e.g., “Is the climate warming or cooling?“, Daid R. Easterling and Michael F. Wehner, Geophysical Research Letters, April 2009).

Second, the concerns they mention of “skeptics” are quite reasonable. Scientists are not due unthinking acceptance by the public. Plus, there is a long history of well-established theories being proven false.

The authors end on a mixed note.

Researchers should have reiterated that the science on long-term climate change is solid and widely agreed on — 97% of scientists working in the subject support the principle of anthropogenic climate change (W. R. L. Anderegg, J. W. Prall, J. Harold and S. H. Schneider, Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 12107–12109; 2010). Then, the questions about why the timing of the hiatus had not been predicted should have been addressed.

Invoking the “97%” by now spreads confusion rather than light. The debate is not longer “if” there is some degree of anthropogenic climate change, but how much and how fast. Effective public policy decisions, especially on the large scale some advocate, requires reliable estimates of magnitude and timing. The Editors’ statement implies that there is a consensus on these matters, which the reports of the IPCC and major climate agencies show to be false. It’s an imprecision unworthy of the Editors of Climate Change.

Also in this issue of Nature Climate Change

This issue has two articles exploring causes of the pause (here are links to other papers about this):

  1. Heat hide and seek“, Lisa Goddard — “Natural variability can explain fluctuations in surface temperatures but can it account for the current slowdown in warming?”
  2. Recent intensification of wind-driven circulation in the Pacific and the ongoing warming hiatus“, Matthew H. England et al,

For More Information

(a)  About the consensus of climate scientists:

  1. Puncturing the false picture of a scientific consensus about the causes and effects of global warming, 20 September 2010
  2. Climate scientists speak to us. What is their consensus opinion?, 19 February 2014

(b)  About the Left’s crusade about climate change:

  1. Possible political effects of the pause in global warming, 26 August 2013
  2. Climate change sinks the Left, while scientists unravel mysteries we must solve, 24 January 2014
  3. Watch the Left burn away more of its credibility, then wonder why the Right wins, 29 January 2014
  4. Apocalyptic thinking on the Left about climate change risks burning their credibility, 4 February 2014
  5. Why the Left is losing: another example of incompetent marketing, 26 February 2014

(c)  Examples of the Left’s exaggerations and misinformation about climate change:

  1. Mother Jones sounds the alarm about global warming! This time about the north pole., 10 December 2012
  2. Kevin Drum talks about global warming, illustrating the collapse of the Left’s credibility, 17 December 2012
  3. Lessons the Left can learn from the Right when writing about climate change, 12 December 2012 — More from Phil Plait
  4. Fierce words about those “wacky professional climate change deniers”, 20 January 2013
  5. A powerful story about global warming in Alaska that has set Twitter aflame, 23 June 2013
  6. The North Pole is now a lake! Are you afraid yet?, 3 August 2013
  7. Climate science deniers on the Left, captured for viewing, 29 September 2013

Truth Will Make You Free

(3)  Some important things to know about global warming

While cheering for their faction of scientists, laypeople often lose sight of the big picture — the key elements for making public policy about this important issue.

(a)  The work of the IPCC and the major science institutes are the best guides for information about these issues.

(b)  The world has been warming during the past two centuries, in a succession of warming, cooling, and pauses. As for our influence:

“It is extremely likely (95 – 100% certain) that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.”
— conclusion of the IPCC’s AR5 Working Group I

For research about the 1951 date see When did we start global warming? See the surprising answer., 18 October 2012

(c)  There is a debate about the attribution (causes) of past warming — which probably varied over time — between natural drivers (e.g., rebound from the Little Ice Age, solar influences) and anthropogenic drivers (eg, CO2, aerosols, land use changes). Other that that stated in (b), the IPCC’s reports make few claims about attribution of climate activity. This remains actively debated in the literature:  Scientists explore causes of the pause in warming, perhaps the most important research of the decade, 17 January 2014

(d)  Warming of the surface atmosphere paused sometime during 1998-2000:  Still good news: global temperatures remain stable, at least for now., 14 October 2012.

(e)  There is also debate about climate forecasts, both the extent of future CO2 emissions and the net effects of the various natural and anthropogenic drivers.

(f)  For the past five years my recommendations have been the same:

  1. More funding for climate sciences. Many key aspects (e.g., global temperature data collection and analysis) are grossly underfunded.
  2. Wider involvement of relevant experts in this debate. For example, geologists, statisticians and software engineers have been largely excluded — although their fields of knowledge are deeply involved.
  3. Start today a well-funded conversion to non-carbon-based energy sources by the second half of the 21st century; for both environmental and economic reasons (see these posts for details).

(g)  Posts about preparing for climate change:

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