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November 27, 2010

How NOT to Convince Anyone about Global Warming

Obvious spin and propaganda increase skepticism. Two stories published on the eve of COP16, the 16th edition of Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are good illustrations of how NOT to be convincing about climate change or its possible anthropogenic (man-made) causes. (Duly note that clumsy propaganda doesn't prove the opposite of its contentions).

"Front-Line City in Virginia Tackles Rise in Sea" is the headline of a front page New York Times story. "As sea levels rise, tidal flooding is increasingly disrupting life here and all along the East Coast, a development many climate scientists link to global warming," says paragraph 4 (used to be the subhead in the electronic edition but got demoted).

It's not until you get to paragraph six that you find out what actually happened: "Like many other cities, Norfolk was built on filled-in marsh. Now that fill is settling and compacting. In addition, the city is in an area where significant natural sinking of land is occurring. The result is that Norfolk has experienced the highest relative [emphasis mine] increase in sea level on the East Coast — 14.5 inches since 1930, according to readings by the Sewells Point naval station here."

Nowhere in the article does America's newspaper of record attempt to estimate how much of the RELATIVE increase in sea level is due to the sea actually rising and how much due to Norfolk sinking back into the swamp it was built on. In case you're wondering, even using aggressive numbers for rising sea levels from skepticalscience.com (a site devoted to refuting the arguments of climate change skeptics), the sea hasn't actually risen more than six inches since 1930 and hasn't risen at all in the last four years (not significant statistically one way or the other but relevant to a story about Norfolk's current woes).

Blithely ignoring the inconvenient truth that the city is sinking, the story goes on to quote Jim Schultz, a local science and technology writer: ""We are the front lines of climate change. No one who has a house here is a skeptic." The closing paragraph is another quote from Mr. Schultz: ""The fact is that there is not enough engineering to go around to mitigate the rising sea. For us, it is the bitter reality of trying to live in a world that is getting warmer and wetter."

Quite rightly, the readers of the story skewered the Times for its sloppy reporting and repeated use of the phrase "sea-level rising" to describe a city which is sinking.

It fell to the UK Met Office Hadley Center to report the inconvenient truth that observations show that the rate of global warming has slowed by more than 50% in the last decade (their number, not mine). Their lead is "Ahead of the latest UN talks on climate change in Mexico, the Met Office analyses long- and short-term trends in climate and reveals that the evidence for man-made warming has grown even stronger in the last year." Imagine what they would have said if global warming had actually accelerated as predicted and had matched the increase in greenhouse gases during the last decade.

Way down in the article they get around to discussing why warming was less than predicted:

"Natural variability within the climate system could explain all of this recent decrease. Other factors could have contributed.

  • Changes in stratospheric water vapour
  • Solar variability
  • Increased aerosol emissions from Asia"

These speculations raise some interesting questions, especially since they have apparently not been accounted for in apocalyptic climate change models. Could there be a negative feedback loop involving water vapor which damps or even limits warming? Haven't anthropogenic climate change skeptics been pointing to solar cycles as the cause of recent warming? Is increased coal burning and the resulting particulate emissions causing cooling? It would be helpful to have the Met Office follow up on the implications of their own speculations rather than try to spin the data away.

One decade of data does NOT disprove anthropogenic theories of global warming. There is no reason to expect climate change to follow a neat, straight line. But this data does not strengthen faith in the models which tell us that both increased CO2 and positive feedback loops should result in an increase in the rate of global warming. The unscientific attempts to spin instead of analyze the data do weaken faith in the Met Office. The sloppy reporting in the Times makes it seem as if they started with a point to prove rather than a truth to find.

Skepticism, especially about your own theories, is essential to science. Spin is for marketers and politicians.

Related posts:

A Question Which Should Be Asked

Pictures Trump Words

Contrary Views at Telecosm – Part 1

The Ice-Free Arctic – Excellent Coverage in the NY Times

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