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Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

This article of mine was published in the newsletter of Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, a Catholic group that is doing a great deal of work in sustainability issues. Enjoy!

The mainstream media portrays the existence of human-caused climate change as a much fiercer scientific debate than it actually is. Scientists are still working out the details of how much warming we can expect, how it will be distributed, and what the consequences will be. However, the “big questions” have very solid answers. The idea that emissions of carbon dioxide from human activities would eventually warm the planet was first proposed in 1896, and since then, agreement on the issue has grown to a staggering level: 97.6% of publishing climatologists, 100% of studies in scientific journals, and every scientific organization in the world now agree that humans are changing the climate.

Compare this to the media coverage of climate change. The majority of articles in respected newspapers like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal give roughly equal time to the “two sides” of the so-called “scientific debate”. Balance in journalism is all very well when the issue is one of political or social nature, but for matters of science, giving fringe opinions the same weight as a robust consensus is misleading. Being objective is not always the same as being neutral.

Over the past year, climate change reporting has taken a disturbing turn, as attacks on the integrity of individual scientists have been spread by nearly every media outlet in the developed world. Private correspondence taken out of context (in which the scientists involved have subsequently been cleared of any wrongdoing, by five independent investigations) as well as minor referencing errors in a scientific report (the worst of which gave the wrong date for when a specific glacier was expected to melt) led to widespread accusations of fraud and conspiracy by advocacy groups opposed to climate change action. Rather than investigate these potentially libellous claims, the media repeated them. As a result, many scientists have received death threats, and countless others have been subject to hate mail. One scientist in particular has had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep, and now travels with a bodyguard. Although their scientific reputations have not been damaged, the personal lives of these innocent men and women have been forever altered.

As the popular press reinforces myths and misconceptions about climate change, public understanding of the issue has fallen apart. Only 61% of American adults think that the Earth is warming, and only 50% think that it is caused by human activity (up-to-date Canadian statistics are not available). Most worryingly, only 34% are aware that most scientists think climate change is happening. A vast chasm has opened between scientific and public understanding of climate change, and powerful forces are at work to keep it open.

As we live in a democracy, action on climate change will only happen when voters demand it – and they won’t demand a solution if they don’t understand the problem. The best thing that you and I can do to stop climate change is to spread around accurate information. Scientific reports are often too technical for easy understanding, but major journals, such as Nature, often have a news section where they summarize new studies for the public. Many scientists are also stepping up to the challenge of climate change communication, and casting light on common misconceptions. A website called Skeptical Science is one of the best sources. There are many people working to fix this problem, but we need many more. Slowly but surely, the tide will turn.

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I’ve really been enjoying the Advanced versions of Skeptical Science’s rebuttals to common misconceptions about climate change. So far, they have all been written by someone going by the name of dana1981, who I would like to give a huge shout-out to. I am a new B.Sc. student who is interested in pursuing a career in climate change research, and these articles have been very helpful in giving me a taste of basic atmospheric science.

In “How do we know more CO2 is causing warming?”, I was introduced to the relatively simple equation required to calculate the radiative forcing of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, as well as the expected equilibrium temperature change from CO2, using the range of values for climate sensitivity provided by the IPCC (as calculating climate sensitivity is not quite so simple!)

In “The human fingerprint in global warming”, dana1981 discussed different attribution studies, and explained how anthropogenic warming has certain “fingerprints” – more warming at night than during the day, a cooling of the stratosphere, and a rise in tropopause height – all of which have been observed. I had a basic understanding of these fingerprints and why they occurred, but it was great to read about the current research in attribution studies, with impeccable citations.

“How sensitive is our climate?” was similar to the first article, but also addressed the common misconception that climate sensitivity is specific to different forcings. If the climate has low sensitivity to CO2, it also has low sensitivity to solar radiation, cosmic ray feedback, etc. The equilibrium temperature change doesn’t care if the extra few W/m2 is from the greenhouse effect or planetary albedo – it changes with the same speed either way, which disproves many skeptical arguments. Additionally, since the prehistoric record shows large swings in climate resulting from relatively small forcings, scientists are confident that climate sensitivity is not very low.

“Solar activity & climate: is the sun causing global warming?” was absolutely fascinating. The equations required to calculate solar forcing using total solar irradiance were new to me, and dana1981 went so far as to analyze early 20th-century warming, calculating how much was due to an upswing in solar irradiance and how much was due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. During the latter half of the 20th century, solar irradiance has dropped back down, but warming has only accelerated.

Skeptical Science’s recent efforts to expand their rebuttals to include beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels of explanation were inspired by a RealClimate post written by Dr. Gavin Schimdt. He thoughtfully wrote,

I think we should be explicitly thinking about information levels and explicitly catering to different audiences with different needs and capabilities. One metaphor that might work well is that of an alpine ski hill. There we have (in the US for instance) green runs for beginners wanting a gentle introduction and where hopefully nothing too bad can happen. Blue runs where the technical level is a little more ambitious and a little more care needs to be taken. Black expert runs for those who know what they are doing and are doing it well, and finally, double black diamond runs for the true masters. No-one accuses ski resorts of being patronising when they have green runs interspersed with the more difficult ones, and neither do they get accused of elitism when one peak has only black runs going down (as I recall all too painfully on my first ski outing). People self-segregate and generally find their way to the level at which the feel comfortable – whether they want a easy or challenging ride – and there is nothing stopping them varying the levels as their mood or inclination takes them.

Skeptical Science took up this challenge, and although their efforts have largely been focused on creating “plain-English” beginner articles, as a huge target audience for climate change communication is the general public, I’m extremely grateful that they’re also catering to new science enthusiasts such as myself with the advanced articles. Please, keep them coming!

While we’re on the topic, I should also mention a great new post by Skeptical Science, which is not part of their argument database – “The contradictory nature of global warming skepticism”. You can’t hold the objection that the world isn’t warming and then turn around and say that global warming is natural, but these and other self-disproving arguments reach us on a daily basis. Deniers can’t seem to agree on a single unified objection to anthropogenic global climate change, and some individuals, as the post shows, contradict themselves up to five times in six months.

And hey, I just realized right now – that post was also written by dana1981. Whoever this writer is, he or she is doing a great job.

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I’m sick of all the politics surrounding climate science.

I wish it could go back to just being science, the way it was in the 1970s, without all these people trying to sabotage it for us. I wish we could concentrate on the joy and fascination we feel when we learn about the climate system, without having to deal with hate mail and quotes taken out of context.

I’m tired of the game of Broken Telephone in science journalism, the game that somehow always allows Fox News to make claims like “melting Arctic sea ice isn’t caused by warming temperatures”. I’m tired of the outright falsehoods that are permitted to circulate around the world, in respected publications, without consequences.

I’m tired of unnecessary investigations into the integrity of climatology researchers and organizations. I’m tired of the accusations of “whitewash” when these investigations invariably come up clear. I’m tired of scientists being portrayed as frauds if they don’t achieve a 100% success rate in their projections.

I’m tired of the politicians that attempt to subject innocent scientists to criminal prosecution. They’re so unwilling to accept the reality of anthropogenic global climate change that they think scientific fraud on an unprecedented scale is more likely than well-established properties of physics playing out as expected. It frightens and astounds me that people with such an upside-down understanding of the scientific process hold immense power in the American government.

I first became interested in climate science because of the science, not because of all the politics surrounding it. The earliest thing I can remember sparking my interest is learning about the different isotopes of oxygen, and how they can be used to reconstruct temperature.

These days, however, it’s nearly impossible to learn about climate science without running into silly arguments and widespread misconceptions and stubborn denialism. I started writing this blog so that I would have an outlet to keep myself sane as I waded through all the muddle. As time went on, an element of public education developed, along with priceless learning opportunities and collaboration. This blog has grown to so much more than I ever anticipated.

I don’t really have the heart to read Naomi Oreskes’ new book quite yet, or to re-read Climate Cover-Up, or to scroll down to the comment section when CBC publishes online articles about climate change. I know what a dire situation we are in, not only ecologically and climatologically, but also socially – in terms of public understanding and science communication. I know what a mess we’re in, and I don’t need reminding. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of the mess, but I try to do my part by continuing to pour my sociological musings into this sanity-inducing and morale-raising outlet.

I just want to work my way through David Archer’s book, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, and learn how to use all the atmospheric science equations within it. I want to download papers from Nature and Science and read them on the bus. I want to keep a close eye on the “Advanced” versions of Skeptical Science rebuttals, because isn’t it just amazing that we have a simple logarithmic equation for the relationship between radiative forcing and atmospheric CO2 concentration?

Many people might find it strange that I see straight science as a break, some sort of retreat from that which is more difficult to stomach. But then, we’re in a strange situation here.

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A comment from Steve Bloom several months ago got me thinking about a new kind of post that would be a lot of fun: interviewing top climate scientists, both on their research and their views of climate science journalism and communication. When I emailed Dr. Kevin Trenberth to see if he would be interested in such an interview, he responded with an entire essay that he had written about recent events in climate change communication. Although this essay is unpublished as of yet, he graciously suggested that I quote it for a post here.

It’s no surprise that Dr. Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, is angry about the way stolen emails between researchers were trumpeted around the world in an attempt to make them seem like something they were not. He was “involved in just over 100″ of the emails, and from the looks of things, hasn’t heard the end of it since they were stolen.

One oft-quoted statement of his went viral: The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. Climate change deniers portrayed this quote as an admission that the world wasn’t warming after all, or even that scientists were trying to cover up a cooling trend. Taken in the full context of the email in which it was written, however, it’s clear that Trenberth was referring to a recent paper of his, which discussed our incomplete understanding of the factors affecting short-term variability in the Earth’s temperature. There were a couple years between 2004 and 2008 that weren’t quite as warm as scientists expected after looking at all the forcings, such as solar irradiance and ENSO. The paper and the subsequent email in no way mean that global warming has stopped. In fact, we’re well on our way to the warmest year on record. “It is amazing to see this particular quote lambasted so often,” says Trenberth.

Another quote, this time from a stolen email he was not even a recipient of, was written by Phil Jones, the director of CRU. I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report, wrote Jones, referring to several studies that were not regarded very highly by the climate science community, one of which was later retracted. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-reviewed literature is!

Dr. Trenberth offers an insight for this comment that was previously unknown to me. The IPCC’s 2007 report “was the first time Jones was on the writing team of an IPCC Assessment,” he says. “The comment was naive and sent before he understood the process and before any lead author meetings were held…As a veteran of 3 previous IPCC assessments, I was well aware that we do not keep any papers out, and none were kept out.” Indeed, both studies were discussed in the 2007 report, offering proof that the private emails of scientists do not always correspond to their ultimate actions.

To date, four independent investigations (five if you count the two Penn State reports as separate) “have confirmed what climate scientists have never seriously doubted: established scientists depend on their credibility and have no motivation in purposely misleading the public and their colleagues.” Referring to the only major criticism that the investigations had for CRU, Trenberth notes that scientists “are also understandably, but inadvisably, reluctant to share complex data sets with non-experts that they perceive as charlatans.”

Despite the complete absence of evidence for scientific fraud, the fact that no papers were changed or retracted due to these emails, and the obvious innocence of scientists like Dr. Trenberth, public confusion over climate change has grown in recent months. Almost everyone who keeps up with the news will remember hearing something about climate researchers accused of malpractice. “There should be condemnation of the abuse, misuse and downright lies about the emails,” says Trenberth. “That should be the real ClimateGate!”

After all this experience as the subject of libelous attacks and campaigns of misinformation, Kevin Trenberth can offer suggestions for other scientists in the same position. He does not recommend debating the conclusions of climate change research in the public sphere, as “scientific facts are not open to debate and opinion because they are evidence and/or physically based.” He has learned, like so many of us here at ClimateSight, that “in a debate it is impossible to counter lies [and] loudly proclaimed confident statements that often have little or no basis.”

“Moreover,” he adds, “a debate actually gives alternative views credibility,” something that climate change deniers haven’t earned. He and his colleagues “find it disturbing that blogs by uninformed members of the public are given equal weight with carefully researched information backed up with extensive observational facts and physical understanding.”

Much of the online climate change community has lost faith with climate journalism in recent months, and Dr. Trenberth is no exception. He asserts that the mass media has been “complicit in this disinformation campaign of the deniers”, and has some explanations as to why. “Climate varies slowly,” he says, “and so the message remains similar, year after year — something not exciting for journalists as it is not “news”.” He also notes the stubborn phenomenon of artificial balance, as “controversy is the fodder of the media, not truth, and so the media amplify the view that there are two sides and give unwarranted attention to views of a small minority or those with vested interests or ideologies.”

“The media are a part of the problem,” says Trenberth. “But they have to be part of the solution.”

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This list could be applied to any area of science. I chose climate science because it’s what I’m interested in, and because its reporting is the most obviously abysmal at present.

  1. Try to get hired as a specialized science reporter. It might not be as cost-effective for a  media outlet as having general reporters cover everything – but what kind of a price are they willing to put on accuracy? As Stephen Schneider wrote in his last book, newspapers would never allow general reporters to cover the Super Bowl, so why would they allow them to cover recent topics in science, which are far more complex than football?
  2. Keep up with the scientific literature. Subscribe to Science, Nature, and PNAS. Many important papers are published in one of these three journals. See if the media outlet you work for can cover the cost.
  3. Learn about common climate change misconceptions. The best website to help with this is Skeptical Science. Their database of arguments and rebuttals is detailed, comprehensive, and impeccably cited. It’s also available as an app for various smartphones, so you can read it on the bus.
  4. Get to know the local climate scientists. At virtually every university, there is someone who studies some aspect of climate change, usually in the geography department. In my experience, climate science professors are easy to get a hold of (email is usually their favourite mode of communication) and more than willing to discuss their work  (although that might just be because I’m an over-enthusiastic student). Don’t just email them when you’re writing a story about climate change – try to keep up a steady thread of conversation. You will learn an incredible amount.
  5. Talk to people you know about climate change and find out what confuses them. This will give you more direction as to what to focus on in your stories.
  6. Be diligent about assessing credibility. In a topic such as climate change, where there are people out there trying to mislead you, this is more important than ever. Refer to the credibility spectrum for more.
  7. Be very, very careful with quotes. Try to only quote primary sources. If you’re quoting a secondary source – usually a quote that was published in another newspaper somewhere – contact the person who said it, so you can double-check the accuracy as well as get some more quotes from them while you’re at it. If the quote is from a written source, such as scientific reports or stolen emails, try to find it in its original context. You might be surprised.
  8. Send the finished article to the scientists you quote before it’s printed. If the British media had done this before they started the Whatevergate rumours, a lot of confusion would have been avoided. Remember that the reputations of scientists could be on the line if you misrepresent what they say.
  9. Don’t let the hate mail get to you. Honest reporting of climate science will doubtlessly lead to lots of angry emails and letters to the editor about how global warming is a vast conspiracy because it’s not happening, it’s caused by the sun, the climate has changed before, and the climate has internal negative feedbacks which prevent it from changing. You’ll also receive personal attacks about how you are a pathological liar, a Communist, and a quasi-religious zealot. I have endured a lot of this myself, and I have found that the most effective way of dealing with it is by looking at the humorous side. Some of it is just priceless. My favourite is the comment from the guy who stocked up on incandescent lightbulbs just to spite me.
  10. Remember the importance of what you’re doing. This is the best motivator for improving your climate change journalism. Maybe you won’t be around for the worst of climate change, but your kids will, and their kids will, and all these future generations will look back at ours, as the time when this problem could have been solved and wasn’t. Even though we can’t completely solve it at this point, as some amount of future warming is guaranteed, we can always stop it from getting worse. Riding our bikes and composting isn’t enough any more. We need major international action if we want to have a chance to keep this problem at bay. However, because we live in a democracy, action will only be taken if voters demand it, and voters won’t demand a solution if they don’t understand the problem. And they won’t understand the problem unless dedicated people like you show them the way.

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Over the past year, I have seen far too many political cartoons on the editorial pages of newspapers accusing climate scientists of fraud. It amazes me what is allowed to be published without evidence in respected media publications.

However, there are still some great cartoons about climate change, sans libel. Here are two of my favourite, that I haven’t seen featured on any other blogs.

From Lee Judge of Cartoonist Group:

From Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle:

Please comment with your thoughts on these cartoons, and include your favourites! If you would like them embedded directly in the comment (img tags require administrator rights, as Colin Reynolds discovered) include the link and I’ll embed it for you.

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The New York Times deserves a clap too. Thanks to toby and Eli for the hat tip.

An article just as good as the Associated Press piece made the front page of the New York Times. Justin Gillis wrote In Weather Chaos, a Case for Global Warming, and, as Eli pointed out, there wasn’t even a question mark in the title.

Gillis does a great job explaining how, for example, there will still be record cold days with climate change – just fewer of them. Here’s one of my favourite passages from the article:

The warming has moved in fits and starts, and the cumulative increase may sound modest. But it is an average over the entire planet, representing an immense amount of added heat, and is only the beginning of a trend that most experts believe will worsen substantially.

If the earth were not warming, random variations in the weather should cause about the same number of record-breaking high temperatures and record-breaking low temperatures over a given period. But climatologists have long theorized that in a warming world, the added heat would cause more record highs and fewer record lows.

The statistics suggest that is exactly what is happening. In the United States these days, about two record highs are being set for every record low, telltale evidence that amid all the random variation of weather, the trend is toward a warmer climate.

Read the full article here.

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It’s been quite the summer. Moscow has experienced several months of weather more akin to Texas, and is literally burning up. Floods in China have killed more than a thousand and left countless others displaced. Pakistan has experienced similar floods due to a massive monsoon season, and now they have to deal with cholera, too. The Arctic sea ice extent is not much larger than 2007, and, so far, it’s been the warmest year on record globally.

We can’t tie a single extreme event to climate change. We can tie long-term trends, like 30 years of declining Arctic sea ice, to a warming world, but we don’t yet have the technology to attribute a single anomalous season to a particular cause. In 2007, for example, factors other than high temperatures contributed to the lowest Arctic sea ice extent on record.

However, these events are exactly what we expect from anthropogenic climate change. We shouldn’t look at them as evidence for global warming, but as examples of what is to come. This is an important warning that most newspapers have been shying away from. After nearly a year of terrible climate change journalism across the board, they didn’t even mention the connection between extreme events and climate change, or the fact that this summer is a very real glimpse into our future.

I gave up on my local newspaper months ago, and I don’t regret that decision. On the handful of mornings that I’ve flipped through the paper instead of reading the Globe and Mail on the Internet (journalism of much higher quality, and it saves money and paper), I’ve seen far too many op-eds and letters to the editor saying very strange things about climate science.

However, a headline yesterday caught my eye. A fantastic article by Charles J. Hanley, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was distributed by the Associated Press and, consequently, picked up by dozens of newspapers across the continent – including my local paper.

I became more and more pleasantly surprised as I began to read through the article:

Floods, fires, melting ice and feverish heat: From smoke-choked Moscow to water-soaked Iowa and the High Arctic, the planet seems to be having a midsummer breakdown. It’s not just a portent of things to come, scientists say, but a sign of troubling climate change already under way.
The weather-related cataclysms of July and August fit patterns predicted by climate scientists, the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization says – although those scientists always shy from tying individual disasters directly to global warming.

Read the whole article here.

Hanley does a fantastic job of distinguishing between weather and climate, and stressing that we can’t yet attribute extreme events to specific causes while acknowledging that this summer’s wild weather fits with IPCC predictions and will become a lot more common in the future. He interviews our good friend Gavin Schmidt, and explains how rising greenhouse gases are “loading the climate dice” – changing the relative odds of different extremes, rather than eliminating all cold days entirely.

I stood there and clapped. I was so proud of the Associated Press, and of my local paper, that I clapped for them. I feel like there is a smidgen of hope for climate change journalism and public understanding of this issue again. Or perhaps it just comes in waves, and we’re riding our way to the top again.

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I really enjoyed reading “Global Surface Temperature Change“, by James Hansen and his team at GISS. Keep in mind that it’s still in the draft stages – they haven’t submitted to a journal yet, but they certainly plan to, and it’s a very credible team of scientists that will almost definitely get it published.

The paper is mostly about the methods of global temperature analysis. It’s more of a review paper than an account of a single experiment. However, their main discussion point was that even by using the same data, problems can be addressed in different ways. The two main problems with temperature analysis are:

  • “incomplete spatial and temporal coverage” (sparse data)
  • “non-climatic influences on measurement station environment” (urban heat island effect).

The authors explain the methods they use and why, and explore the impacts that different methods have on their results.

GISS measures anomalies in the temperatures, largely because they are much smoother and more consistent, geographically, than absolute temperatures. In 1987, they determined that anomalies could be safely extrapolated for a radius of 1200 km from a station and still be accurate. GISS smooths the whole map out by extrapolating everything and averaging the overlapping bits.

Extrapolating is also very useful in areas with very few stations, such as the polar regions and parts of Africa. In this map, grey indicates missing data:



The Arctic is particularly problematic, not only because its data is so sparse, but also because it has the largest anomaly of any region in the world. If you have incomplete coverage of an area that is warming so dramatically, it won’t pull its full weight in the global trend, and your result will almost certainly be too low.

This difficulty with the Arctic is the reason that GISS says 2005 is the warmest year on record, while HadCRUT, the team in England, says that 1998 is. GISS extrapolates from the stations they have, and end up getting pretty good coverage of the Arctic:

They’re assuming that areas with missing data have the same anomaly as whatever temperature stations are within 1200 km, which, as they determined in 1987, is a pretty fair assumption.

However, HadCRUT doesn’t do this extrapolating thing. When they don’t have data for an area, they just leave it out:

This might sound safer, in a way, but this method also makes an assumption. It assumes that the area has the same anomaly as the global average. And as we all know, the Arctic is warming a lot more and a lot faster than the global average. So it’s quite possible that GISS is right on this one.

Another adjustment that NASA makes is for local, anthropogenic, non-climatic effects on temperature data. The most obvious of these is the urban heat island effect. As an area becomes more urban, it gets more pavement, less vegetation, and its albedo goes down – it absorbs more heat. This often makes cities substantially warmer than the surrounding rural areas, which can obviously contaminate the temperature record. However, there are ways of eliminating urban influences from the data so we can see what the real trend is.

The first step is determining what stations are considered urban. The obvious way to do this is through population, but that’s actually not very accurate. Think of somewhere like Africa, where, even if there are thousands of people living in a small area, the urban influences such as concrete, absence of vegetation, or exhaust aren’t usually present. A much better indication is energy use, and a good proxy for energy use, that’s easy to measure, is lights at night-time.

So GISS put a bit of code into their analysis that singles out stations where nightlight brightness is greater than 32 µW/m2/sr/µm, and adjusts their trends to agree with rural stations within 1200 km. If there aren’t enough rural stations within that radius, they’ll just exclude the station from the analysis.

They did an even more rigorous test for this paper, to test just how much urban influences were contaminating the long-term trend, and it was pretty interesting.

There were enough stations considered “pitch-dark” at night, where they couldn’t detect any light, to run a global analysis all by themselves. The trend that came out was <0.01 °C/century smaller than GISS’s normal calculation, an amount of error that they described as “immeasurably small”.

The result of all this temperature analysis is a graph, with one new point every year, that is “eagerly awaited by some members of the public and the media”:

However, this graph isn’t actually as useful as this one – the 12-month running mean:

“From a climate standpoint there is nothing special about the time  of year at which the calendar begins”, so instead of only measuring January-December, you can also do February-January, March-February, and so on. This way, you get a data point every month instead of every year, and more data means more accuracy. It also solves problems with short-term influences, such as El Nino, La Nina, and volcanic eruptions, that the annual graph was having. These fleeting, but fairly substantial, influences can fall completely into one calendar year or be split between two – so their influence on global temperature could be overestimated or underestimated, depending on the starting month of the calendar. The 12-month running mean is much less misleading in this fashion.

As it is, we just set a new record for the 12-month running mean, and unless La Nina really takes off, 2010 will likely set a new record for the annual graph as well. But the authors argue that we need to start moving away from the annual graph, because it isn’t as useful.

The authors also discuss public perception of climate change, and media coverage of the issue. They say, “Our comments here about communication of this climate science to the public are our opinion…[We offer it] because it seems inappropriate to ignore the vast range of claims appearing in the media and in hopes that open discussion of these matters may help people distinguish the reality of global change sooner than would otherwise be the case.”

They make the very good point that “Lay people’s perception tends to be strongly influenced by the latest local fluctuation”, and use this winter as a case study, where a strongly negative Arctic Oscillation index caused significantly cooler-than-normal conditions across the United States and Europe. Consequently, a lot of people, especially in the US, began to doubt the reality of global warming – even though, in the world as a whole, it was the second warmest winter on record:

The authors also talk about data sharing. GISS likes to make everything freely available to the public – temperature station data, computer code, everything. However, putting it out there immediately, so that anyone can help check for flaws, has “a practical disadvantage: it allows any data flaws to be interpreted and misrepresented as machinations.” Multiple times in the past few years, when there have been minor errors that didn’t actually change anything, GISS was widely accused of making these mistakes deliberately, to “intentionally exaggerate the magnitude of global warming”. They realized this wasn’t working, so they changed their system: Before releasing the data to everyone, they first put it up on a private site so that only select scientists can examine it for flaws. And, of course, this “has resulted in the criticism that GISS now “hides” their data”.

Personally, I find the range and prevalence of these accusations against scientists absolutely terrifying. Look at what has become mainstream:

Scientific fraud is a very serious allegation, and it’s one thing for citizens to make it without evidence, but it’s another thing altogether for the media to repeat such claims without first investigating their validity:

I have been disgusted by the media coverage of climate science, especially over the past year, especially in the United States, and I worry what this will mean for our ability to solve the problem.

However, there is still fantastic science going on that is absolutely fascinating and essential to our understanding of global climate change. This paper was a very interesting read, and it helped me to better understand a lot of aspects of global temperature analysis.

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Of all the books I have read about climate change, Snowball Earth, by Gabrielle Walker, is definitely one of the best – and it’s not even about the current climate change.

Part of what makes it so good is the style of writing. As the Los Angeles Times said about her later book, An Ocean of Air, “Walker has a Ph.D. in chemistry, but she writes like a poet.” And, indeed, after an education at Cambridge, Walker has spent most of her career as a science journalist. It’s sort of sad that this doesn’t happen more often. Usually, those who understand a subject best are not the ones who communicate it. Walker is the exception to this rule.

Take, for example, this passage about the history of life on Earth:

Stretch your arms out wide to encompass all the time on Earth. Let’s say that time runs from left to right, so Earth was born at the tip of the middle finger on your left hand. Slime arose just before your left elbow and ruled for the remaining length of your left arm, across to the right, past your right shoulder, your right elbow, on down your forearm, and eventually ceded somewhere around your right wrist. For sheer Earth-gripping longevity, nothing else comes close. The dinosaurs reigned for barely a finger’s length. And a judicious swipe of a nail file on the middle finger of your right hand would wipe out the whole of human history.

Another impressive aspect of Walker’s writing is her characterization. Wacky, stubborn, and exuberant scientists are brought to life. Instead of just hearing about their work and accomplishments, you feel like you’re getting to know them as people. She writes about arguing scientists particularly well. Arguing scientists are so much fun to read about – that’s one reason I loved The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle.

However, the best part of this book, by far, is the subject matter. The theory of Snowball Earth is possibly the most awesome thing I have ever heard about. Here’s how the story goes:

From what paleontologists can see preserved in fossils, complex life arose at a very specific point in prehistory: the end of the Precambrian. For several billion years before that, the only thing that lived on Earth was unicellular goop. But then, suddenly, all at once, complex organisms burst onto the evolutionary stage.

Something must have caused this dramatic appearance, and a series of scientists from the 1940s on – most prominently, Paul Hoffman – likely have discovered what. At the end of the Precambrian, there are signs of ice in rocks all over the world – scratches, rock deposits, everything that led Agassiz to discover the ice ages.

Because plate tectonics moves everything around so much, though, rocks were not necessarily formed at the location they sit today. Their magnetic field is what discloses their birthplace. Tiny bits of magnetic material, such as iron, line their field up with the Earth’s. The Earth’s magnetic field is perpendicular to the surface at the poles and parallel to the surface at the Equator, like this:

So, if a rock’s magnetic field is vertical, it was formed at the poles. If it is horizontal, it was formed at the equator. Incredibly, scientists found Precambrian rocks, with signs of ice, with horizontal magnetic fields. During that period of prehistory, the equator was covered in ice – and, therefore, the whole planet, because it’s not really possible to freeze the equator without freezing all the other latitudes too.

The scientists determined that, for several instances on the Precambrian, the continents were arranged in a way that was very conducive to ice-albedo feedback. With the smallest trigger, ice from the poles would creep across the temperature zones and meet at the equator. Frozen oceans, frozen land, the whole bit.

And now CO2 comes into the story. Volcanic eruptions naturally release carbon dioxide, but the amount is so small that the oceans have no trouble soaking them up – unless they’re frozen on the surface and cut off from the air. CO2 would gradually build up, in that case, and millions of years later, the greenhouse effect would be so strong that all the ice would melt and the planet would plunge into a state referred to as Hothouse Earth. Then the oceans would start absorbing all the extra CO2, and ice would reappear at the poles, and the cycle would begin again.

Many scientists believe that these Precambrian cycles of extreme heat and extreme cold provided such a strong pressure on organisms that natural selection was pushed to new boundaries. Complex life had an advantage in these extreme conditions, and it flourished. The most catastrophic climatic event our planet has ever experienced, in our knowledge, was what led to the evolution of multicellular organisms, and eventually, us.

It makes me feel very small, the same way that attempting to comprehend the vastness of the universe makes me feel very small. The life we see all around us only exists because of a series of coincidences. Human beings, one of the youngest of the millions of animal species that have ever existed, are alive because of continental drift lining things up in the right way. And who knows what would have happened if things had been slightly different?

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