Global warming ‘hiatus’ row offers lessons to scientists

COMMENT: Climate scientists need to realise that scientifically prudent but publicly ill-conceived formulations can be of huge consequence in a fast-changing media landscape

(Pic: Chris Martin/Flickr)

(Pic: Chris Martin/Flickr)

By Tim Isaksson 

Cutting-edge climate research is often deliberately misinterpreted.

This may not surprise you. There is a clear agenda from some in the media to spread the acceptance of ‘waiting and seeing’ – otherwise known as doing nothing for as long as possible.

It permeates all levels of politics and journalism. The “anti-consensus media” often deliberately misquote reports or cherry-pick comments to back up their claims.

But there is also a case that climate scientists frequently make life easy for them.

Take a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, ‘Making sense of the early 2000s warming slowdown’.

This gained wide traction across the media, but it’s the reporting of one website that warrants further scrutiny. It’s called The Rebel.

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Unashamedly Conservative, it’s a Canadian news site that also sells caps urging Ottawa’s leaders to scrap plans for a carbon tax, and t-shirts with former PM Stephen Harper’s face on them.

Readers are asked to sign a petition demanding governments to halt investments meant to tackle climate disruption.

It’s position on climate change is clear, but The Rebel’s treatment of this paper was instructive. The site claims that the study found that “global warming stopped in 1998” and repeatedly uses the phrase ‘climate pause’.

That’s odd, because the article does the opposite, lamenting “the way in which the recent changes have been framed in terms of [Global Mean Surface Temperatures] having “‘stalled’, ‘stopped’, ‘paused’, or entered a ‘hiatus’””.

Rebel

In contrast with studies which have not found support for a lessened rate of warming, the study found that the century’s first decade did see a ‘slowdown’, which may now be coming to an end.

It did not say there is or has been a complete halt.

The temporary reduced rate of warming is linked to combined effects of internal decadal variability, volcanic and solar activity, and decadal changes in anthropogenic aerosol forcing. In other words, nothing new.

This particular fluctuation just happens to be sufficiently strong to have masked the effects of the current unprecedentedly large man-made greenhouse emissions.

Although not surprising, it is disturbing that The Rebel and other sowers of simultaneous doubt and false hope attempt to hijack climate research on a regular basis.

Evidently they believe that people won’t go to the sources for context and the actual findings.

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But this is nothing new, either. I called lead author John Fyfe, who’s a senior research scientist with Environment Canada.

“It is unfortunate that our science gets distorted and misrepresented, but not uncommon,” he told me. Still, it’s also a fact that manipulating scientific reports in the media is often easier than it looks.

In this case the task was simplified by the article’s abstract, which lacks context or analysis on the ‘hiatus’ framing:

“It has been claimed that the early-2000s global warming slowdown or hiatus, characterized by a reduced rate of global surface warming, has been overstated, lacks sound scientific basis, or is unsupported by observations. The evidence presented here contradicts these claims.”

Even if an average reader follows the site’s link and reaches the paper, how likely is she or he to continue reading beyond this?

Especially when the article’s language is meant for scientists and thus difficult for non-scientists to comprehend. And especially if the message fits well into the person’s worldview.

I should add here I did contact The Rebel for a comment, but it has not replied.

Where does this leave us?

Concise scientific language is important, but climate scientists need to realise that scientifically prudent but publicly ill-conceived formulations can be of huge consequence, not least in high-stakes debates such as the one over the temporary slowdown.

The authors could plausibly have added a sentence to the abstract which clearly stated that framings such as “pause”, “hiatus”, and “stop” are erroneous and that natural variability caused the slowdown.

In hindsight, John Fyfe told me “it was predictable” that findings in this particular article were hijacked and that the authors could have started out the article with a clear statement on there being no pause.

“However”, he added (a little wearily) “to be honest with you, it doesn’t matter what you say, people are going to distort it. It is very hard to guard against hijacking.”

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So it may be. But the internet (and the increasing trend of free access to journal content) has made sure that the days are long gone when scientists wrote only for other scientists.

Dishonesty thus needs to be met with clear messages in order to counter the relentless and effective daily preying of The Rebel and similar outlets.

People live busy lives, many lack understanding of scientific jargon and a similar number may be disillusioned with politicians and the policies needed to address global warming.

The damage control that John Fyfe and fellow authors will attempt in an upcoming letter to the general public is good, but an insufficient strategy going forward.

Climate communicators, journal editors, and scientists should cooperate more on their collective messaging.

In the past 20 years there has been no sign of a hiatus in misfiring climate communication strategies – and it cannot continue. Let’s instead start to communicate climate disruption in ways that bring us together.

The author is working towards a Masters in Applied Climate Strategy at Lund University, Sweden. Follow him on twitter @Tim_Isak

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