Last week it was the abuse of a 140-character context-free nano-report on an hour-long discussion on the challenges of communicating science. This week it’s the credulous coverage of a 50-page report on climate change. Seems that no matter the length of the material at hand, there are plenty of people eager to jump to conclusions without having the decency to stop and think first.
At least there was no slander this time. But damage has been done to the credibility of climatology, thanks to that old adage, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Now claims of unwarranted alarms have that much extra traction. I was going to write at length on this case, but as is often the case, Gavin Schmidt at Real Climate has already done the heavy lifting, and I strongly recommend reading his post instead of relying on my precis.
Not that this sort of remedial science constitutes anything like a serious workout for Gavin and the RC gang, of course. Which is my entire point.
Basically, what we have here is a small, previously unknown NGO in Argentina releasing a report that warns of serious threats to the global food supply if climate change continues apace. The only thing that made this report particularly interesting — and therefore newsworthy — was the alleged fact that the warming expected by 2020 is 2.4 °C above pre-industrial levels. Which is crazy talk, as any climatologist would have pointed out had the authors of the study bothered to ask.
This little piece of nonsense means the entire report’s fundamental conclusions are highly suspect, and should have consigned it to the dust bins of history. But the mainstream media being what it is, journalists who don’t even know the very simplest of the basics about climatology were assigned the task of covering of the report’s release. Even the AAAS cranked out a non-critical release, although it was subsequently retracted. Worse, Scientific American bought the story, and continued to get the facts wrong even after the problem was brought to the editors’ attention. The Guardian runs down the whole sordid tale.
How easy was it to tell that the report’s nightmarish scenario is bonkers? Well, given that the world has warmed about 0.8 °C since the start of the industrial revolution a couple of centuries back, the idea that it would warm twice as much in just 9 years doesn’t pass even the most liberal of smell tests. The report’s authors came up with that number by confusing — or conflating as academics like to say — two different ways to measure carbon-dioxide equivalency. There’s a Real Climate post from three years back that explains the science, the basic upshot of which is, you need to take into account the warming and cooling effects of all fossil-fuel emissions, not just those that increase warming, to get an idea of just how all the different outputs will effect the climate. This the Argentinians did not do.
Carbon-dioxide equivalency can be tricky. I took me an embarrassingly long time to get my head around it and better minds than I have found it difficult to grok. It tripped up George Monbiot in his otherwise excellent primer on the challenge of dealing with climate change, Heat. It has led NASA’s chief climatologist, James Hansen to steer clear of the minefield in his papers. A footnote to a draft version of his latest thinking (which, concidentially, he made available about the same time as the troublesome report) warns thusly:
Note that our numbers for CO2, here and elsewhere, always refer to actual CO2, not the less precise and sometimes confusing “CO2 equivalent”. Besides its imprecision, use of CO2 equivalence has another major disadvantage: it promotes the concept of “offsets” to avoid the one essential near-term requirement, reduction of CO2 emissions.
Again, at least there was no slander this time. Both the apocryphal report’s authors and the journalists meant well, and it is nice to see someone paying attention the threats posed by global warming to agriculture as well as media outlets willing to devote more attention to the same. But both the academics and the journalists were crippled by knowing not enough about the subject at hand. Next time, guys, pick up the phone and ask someone whose job it is to be informed before beginning to write.