Science into agitprop: “Climate Change Is Strangling Our Oceans”

Summary:  The public policy debate about climate science shows the dysfunctional nature of the US media. It’s one reason why making effective public policy has become difficult or impossible. Here’s another example of how propaganda has contaminated the news reporting of this vital subject, looking at stories about a new study of our oceans.

Oxygen loss in the oceans
Image courtesy Matthew Long, NCAR. It is freely available for media use.

NCAR’s press research accurately describes the paper: “Widespread loss of ocean oxygen to become noticeable in 2030s” (although it omits a crucial detail, mentioned below). Phil Plait at Slate turns this into agitprop:  “Climate Change Is Strangling Our Oceans“. His conclusion: ““messing with {the ocean} habitat is like setting fire to your own house. Which is pretty much what we’re doing.” Maddie Stone at Gizmodo also has a sensational headline “The Oceans Are Running Low on Oxygen” (the paper says nothing like that; for example, “detectable change” does not imply a “low” level).

To see how science becomes sensational propaganda let’s start by looking at the paper — “Finding forced trends in oceanic oxygen” by Matthew C. Long et al, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, February 2016. Ungated copy here. It is interesting and valuable research about climate dynamics. The abstract…

Global Biogeochemical Cycles

“Anthropogenically forced trends in oceanic dissolved oxygen are evaluated in Earth system models in the context of natural variability. A large ensemble of a single Earth system model is used to clearly identify the forced component of change in interior oxygen distributions and to evaluate the magnitude of this signal relative to noise generated by internal climate variability. The time of emergence of forced trends is quantified on the basis of anomalies in oxygen concentrations and trends.

“We find that the forced signal should already be evident in the southern Indian Ocean and parts of the eastern tropical Pacific and Atlantic basins; widespread detection of forced deoxygenation is possible by 2030–2040.

“In addition to considering spatially discrete metrics of detection, we evaluate the similarity of the spatial structures associated with natural variability and the forced trend. Outside of the subtropics, these patterns are not wholly distinct on the isopycnal surfaces considered, and therefore, this approach does not provide significantly advanced detection. Our results clearly demonstrate the strong impact of natural climate variability on interior oxygen distributions, providing an important context for interpreting observations.”

Note the difference between the paper and Slate’s agitprop. The climate scientists ran models and said “We find that the forced signal should already be evident” (not that it is evident). Their conclusions are similarly modest (i.e., we don’t have sufficiently detailed or long records to validate the model’s output)…

“Our results suggest that ocean deoxygenation might already be detectable on the basis of state anomalies and/or trends in regions within the southern Indian Ocean, as well as parts of the eastern tropical Pacific and Atlantic basins. Observations have insufficient spatiotemporal coverage, however, to adequately characterize the natural [O2] distribution, in the case of evaluating state anomalies. Furthermore, in most regions where early detection is possibly {sic}, relatively long records (>50 years) are required to assess the exceedance of a trend from the O2 variability generated in a stationary climate without external forcing.”

Slate sweeps all this away. Model outputs become definite observations of damage appearing today. Tentative conclusions become certainties. Those are Slate’s smaller misrepresentations of this paper.

Ministry of Propaganda

The big omission

The paper clearly states that the model was run using a specific scenario: “the CMIP5 Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5) for 2006–2100”. The nightmarish predictions of climate change that dominate the news almost all rely on this, the most severe of the four scenarios used by the Fifth Assessment Report (the IPCC’s most recent report). It describes a future in which much has gone wrong (details here), most importantly…

  • a slowdown in tech progress (e.g., coal becomes the major fuel of the late 21st century, as it was in the late 19thC), and
  • unusually rapid population growth (inexplicably, that fertility in sub-Saharan Africa does not decline or even crash as it has everywhere else).

RCP8.5 is a valuable scenario for planning, reminding us of the consequences if things go wrong. But presenting forecasts based on it without mentioning its unlikely assumptions is agitprop. The current bankruptcies of coal miners already suggests that the late 21st century will not be dominated by burning coal (details here). There is little evidence that fertility in Africa will remain high as their incomes grow.

Some journalists more accurately reported this paper. The WaPo wrote “Global warming could deplete the oceans’ oxygen – with severe consequences” — saying “could deplete”, not “is depleting” or “will deplete”. They also say “High levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the study reports, produce a ‘sharp acceleration of oceanic deoxygenation in the first half of the 21st century’” — a nod to the RCP8.5 scenario.

Conclusions

The steady flow of this kind of propaganda is already slowly shaping US public opinion. A few large extreme weather events — promptly (even if inaccurately) blamed on CO2 — and the course of US public policy might change radically.

Climate skeptics’ lack of strategy or coordination makes this kind of propaganda easy and effective. It’s one of the reasons I believe that skeptics will lose the US public policy debate about climate change (details here).

Other examples of sensationalist reporting of climate change

Clear vision

For More Information

See other posts showing science debunking other articles by Phil Plait at Slate.

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, My posts about climate change, all posts about our oceans, and especially these about the public policy debate…

  1. How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  2. My proposal: Climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
  3. We can end the climate policy wars: demand a test of the models.
  4. How climate change can help the GOP win in 2016.

WWF: Stop climate change

17 thoughts on “Science into agitprop: “Climate Change Is Strangling Our Oceans”

  1. CO2=Y2K²

    You libtards take girly-like pride in believing every single act of kindness no matter how misguided and destructive at the time is ultimately good and just. “Save the Planet” is not kindness, it’s a death threat to billion of innocent children.
    The price you fear mongers will pay will be in your children’s history books for eagerly goose stepping them to your exaggerated greenhouse gas ovens. You drama queens didn’t love the planet, you just hated yourselves and all of humanity.

  2. “A few large extreme weather events — promptly (even if inaccurately) blamed on CO2 — and the course of US public policy might change radically.”

    Or a single Katrina-like hurricane making US landfall. I just hope all the lessons learned make future emergency preparedness and response more effective.

    1. mpcraig,

      I agree. One big event might do it.

      “all the lessons learned make future emergency preparedness and response more effective.”

      They have — on a national level and in many (but not all) local areas. Plans are not enough. New Orleans had an excellent emergency plan, but when Katrina hit little of it was put into action. Since then there has been a surge in exercises and training.

      But in the face of an extreme weather event, all first-responders can do is mitigate the human suffering. cities such as New York and Miami, for example, remain quite vulnerable.

    2. I just have a bad feeling that we have been lucky with regard to a major hurricane making US landfall. The science I have read predicts that a La Nina is quickly developing and this could reduce wind shear in the hurricane forming region of the Atlantic. As a result there may be an active hurricane season in 2016 which greatly increases the chances of a major hurricane hitting the US.

      The cynical side of me thinks that warmists are actually hoping for a major event so they can spin their PR “magic” similar to what you have posted here. There have been many horrific extreme weather events in the past which have obviously been perfectly natural. They now claim extremes are not natural. It’s similar to ambulance chasing lawyers but on a much larger scale.

      I’m not entirely decided on the effect of CO2 on the climate. I am fairly certain though that its effects are being grossly exaggerated and the reason this can continue is that we do not know enough about the climate to counter these claims. It’s not a good situation IMHO.

    3. mpcraig,,

      “I just have a bad feeling that we have been lucky with regard to a major hurricane making US landfall. The science I have read predicts that a La Nina is quickly developing and this could reduce wind shear in the hurricane forming region of the Atlantic. … me thinks that warmists are actually hoping for a major event so they can spin their PR “magic” similar to what you have posted here.”

      I agree on all points.

  3. ” It describes a future in which much has gone wrong (details here), ”
    It seems to me that te two core assumptions of the scenario you have described seems quite possible:
    -sub-saharan africa is in a terrible shape. African population will doube by 2050 and the decline in fertility rate has been slower than expected. The future is pretty bleak especially in vulnerable areas like lake Tchad. Even South Africa is hardly a beacon of hope.
    – coal: There is two things to keep in mind. First, the fuel of chinese growth is coal. Second, the decline of the US coal industry is driven by the growth of non-conventionnal hydrocarbon AND specific environement policies that enjoy very weak institutionnal support. The former is vulnerable to all out competition from traditionnal OPEP producers and the latter could easily be reversed by an unfavorable USSC verdict.

    As far as I am concerned, assuming the worst is the safest course of action.

    1. ZI,

      I do not see a strong basis for any of your statements.

      “the fuel of chinese growth is coal.”

      False. There are indications that Chinese coal use has already peaked (given their stats, we will not know for sure for several years). A decade ago the Chinese government began a massive conversion program to shift away from coal. Their rapid growth in energy consumption has delayed this, but their slowing economy will put soon them back on track.

      “the decline of the US coal industry is driven by the growth of non-conventionnal hydrocarbon AND specific environement policies that enjoy very weak institutionnal support.”

      The decline of coal is a global event — taking place in many nations under a wide range of conditions. Also, the Clean Power Plan regulatory changes reducing coal use are part of a program to reduce air pollution that goes back to the first major air quality act in 1955. To say this multi-generational program has “shallow” support is just odd.

      “sub-saharan africa is in a terrible shape. African population will doube by 2050”

      That’s contradictory. An area with severe economic troubles, frequent epidemics, and persistent warfare (on all scales) is an unlikely candidate for a rapid (30 years) double in population. Second, stating that prediction as a fact is absurd.

      “decline in fertility rate has been slower than expected.”

      Fertility rates have dropped at varying rates. Iran’s was a stratospheric 6 at the Revolution — provoking similar claims that it would remain high, until it began to crash in the early 1980s. It’s now roughly 1.9, well-below replacement. Assuming that Africa will not follow the pattern of everybody else is (to be kind) speculative.

      “As far as I am concerned, assuming the worst is the safest course of action.”

      It has consequences. You want to “prepare for the worst” in one problem, which means diverting scarce resources from other urgent — and more certain — problems. To name just one, the oceans are dying — driven primarily by over-fishing, increasing pollution, and habitat destruction.

Leave a Reply