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Scientist’s caution about caution distorted by distorters

February 12th, 2009 · 9 Comments

Dr Vicky Pope, the head of climate change advice at the Met Office Hadley Centre, wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian. Scientists must rein in misleading climate change claims

News headlines vie for attention and it is easy for scientists to grab this attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction. But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted. The reality is that extreme events arise when natural variations in the weather and climate combine with long-term climate change. This message is more difficult to get heard. Scientists and journalists need to find ways to help to make this clear without the wider audience switching off.

Pope is absolutely accurate that this is a complex situation, difficult to explain, “difficult to get heard”. However, rather than challenging bad reporting on global warming impacts or simply not even suggesting that global warming has a relationship to severe weather events/situations, it is sad that Pope has chosen to use 15 minutes of fame to attack those trying to raise the alarm about global warming’s quite serious implications and the need for action as some equal to global warming deniers in their distortion of the science. The fact is that, almost without exception, the changes that we have actually seen over the past twenty years have outpaced the predictions from climate scientists. If anyone had been stating, 15 years ago, that we would have seen 10,000s die in a European heat wave, the massive heat wave and fires in Australia, Hurricane Katrina’s wrath (well, that was predicted), the extent of Arctic ice retreat, how far north birds have shifted, insect-infested boreal forests, etc, there seems no question that Pope would have called them ‘alarmists’ or distorting the science. And now?

Sadly, Pope provides little direct evidence as to the exaggerations and doesn’t point to any specific person that merits being sent to the same circles of Hell reserved for global warming deniers willfully seeking to forestall sensible action to mitigate global warming. And, actually, the one case that she points to, what is going on with the Arctic ice cap, she seems to be challenging the results from the real ‘ice experts’ at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), which are quite apocalytic themselves. As Joe Romm put it,

In any case, Hadley thinks the Arctic will be ice free later this century on our current emissions path — so I guess it is a case of Apocalypse now versus Apocalypse later.

Let us be clear about Pope’s views. Her question and issue seems to be how to discuss global warming, how to discuss global warming’s relationship to specific events, and whether people are overstating near term effects. But, on global warming itself:

When climate scientists like me explain to people what we do for a living we are increasingly asked whether we “believe in climate change”. Quite simply it is not a matter of belief. Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence that humanity’s activities are leading to changes in our climate. The scientific evidence is overwhelming.

“The scientific evidence is overwhelming …”

Despite this clearly stated end, to be honest, as above, I find Pope’s discussion misguided in some of the tone, which not surprisingly is providing ammunition for those fighting against any action to reduce global warming’s impact and fighting, with all their strength, to confuse people about science and promote ASS (anti-science syndrome).

Misleading reporting within The Guardian

So, following the Pope’s reasoned and restrained OPED, of course her words were discussed with restraint and reason, ensuring the people understood that she was not calling into question whether global warming existed or whether humanity has a role. Of course …

In The Guardian, itself, David Adams authored ‘Apocalyptic climate predictions’ mislead the public, say experts

Experts at Britain’s top climate research centre have launched a blistering attack on scientific colleagues and journalists who exaggerate the effects of global warming.

I’m sorry, but reading that OPED doesn’t get me to “blistering attack …”

And, the equivalency argument is one that Adams emphasizes

The Met Office Hadley Centre, one of the most prestigious research facilities in the world, says recent “apocalyptic predictions” about Arctic ice melt and soaring temperatures are as bad as claims that global warming does not exist.

Yes, those who read the scientific evidence differently and seek to make a clarion call for action based on their concerns are equivalent to those who call for an absolute rejection of science, who reject the Theory of Global Warming, and who knowlingly distort evidence — and do not honestly deal with those who callenge them.

Sigh …

“Having to rein in extraordinary claims that the latest extreme [event] is all due to climate change is at best hugely frustrating and at worse enormously distracting. Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.”

Let us be clear, it is insane to write that any event was “all due to climate change”. People who are serious about global warming simply don’t say or write that.

And, are “extraordinary claims” anywhere as well funded or as assiduously distributed as the deniers’ material?

In reality, where is Pope’s balance? Adams at least provides this:

“Both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically.”

Thus, while Adams includes material, buried in the center of the article, for understanding that Pope is no skeptic, but is concerned about how people speak re the issue of climate change, her strong statement re the reality of Global Warming doesn’t make it into Adams’ article.

But, even that hint of Pope’s science falls out of the discussion

Senator James Inhofe (R-Exxon) and side-kick Marc Morano certainly couldn’t have let this pass. And, Adams write-up provided sweet material to work with. Thus, the press release

Climate of Change: UK Met Office Issues ‘Blistering Attack on Scientific Colleagues’ For ‘Apocalyptic Climate Predictions’

Inhofe / Morano then add

“The record-breaking losses in the past couple of years could easily be due to natural fluctuations in the weather, with summer ice increasing again over the next few years,” Pope explained.

Of course, perhaps it was due to space constraints, Inhofe and Morano forgot to provide any indication that Pope doesn’t question Global Warming, that she rejects their rejection of science. Since they couldn’t find the electrons to bring that to readers’ attention, lets revisit Pope’s conclusion:

Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence that humanity’s activities are leading to changes in our climate. The scientific evidence is overwhelming.

“The scientific evidence is overwhelming …”

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Tags: climate change · climate delayers · Energy

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 WashPost: Complicit in Disformation (or explicit collaboration)? // Feb 15, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    […] ← Scientist’s caution about caution distorted by distorters […]

  • 2 Scientists issue powerful statement // May 7, 2010 at 4:48 am

    […] and I will mode the diary to make a comment about. One of the best comments re this came from Dr Vicky Pope, the head of climate change advice at the Met Office Hadley Centre in a Feb 09 oped: When climate scientists like me explain to people what we do for a living we are increasingly […]

  • 3 Not an “Orange” Cent! // Jun 10, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    […] it is absurd — even in a tweet — to talk about “believe” … As Dr Vicky Pope, the head of climate change advice at the Met Office Hadley Centre, put it: When climate scientists like me explain to people what we do for a living we are increasingly […]

  • 4 A. Siegel: A Bipartisan Understanding of Basic Climate Reality? – - ScienceNewsX - Science News AggregatorScienceNewsX – Science News Aggregator // Feb 29, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    […] scientific evidence”) rather than an affirmation of belief in, for example, God? As Dr Vicky Hope put it so well “When climate scientists like me explain to people what we do for a living we are […]

  • 5 NY Times reporter asks President question that NY Times deems not newsworthy // Nov 14, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    […] wording of his commentary, however, subtly undermine that.  For example, science is not a question of “belief” even if the Merchants of Doubt wish to make this the public discussion.  As UK scientist Vicky […]

  • 6 Start saying everything is related to #climate change. Just start it. // Jan 2, 2016 at 9:08 am

    […] diary “I believe that climate change is real.” (Note “believe”: there is a problem of using the term “belief” related to science.)    No, climate disruption is not “the” reason for any specific weather event but, […]

  • 7 When it comes to news writing, do scientists “say” or “conclude”? – Science Communication Media // Feb 29, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    […] matters of fact with matters of opinion and faith. [Edit: Siegel just pointed me to one of his own posts on this very […]

  • 8 Understanding climate change is not a matter of faith, but science … note to #DNC / #DemsiInPhilly // Jul 25, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    […] And, for political discuss, the mindset (the framing) created by specific word choice often matters … For example, crossing the other way, people often use wording and phrases that conflate science and religion.  “Belief” provides a prime example as discussed by Dr. Vicky Pope: […]

  • 9 Aaron Huertas // Jul 25, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    The idea of “believing” in climate science is a very deep, pervasive problem with how politicians communicate about climate change.

    Saying one “believes” or “doesn’t believe” in climate science reduces scientific knowledge to the level of yet another political position, which makes it seem easily contestable, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

    The differences between scientific knowledge and political belief lead to a curious finding in polls, which is that some people 1) correctly recognize what scientists KNOW about climate and 2) reject that knowledge as matter of political BELIEF.

    There’s an ideal where perceptions of climate science are just baked into what people do. E.g. a city planner does not choose to believe or disbelieve in climate change; it merely IS and he or she plans for it. Similarly, folks who work for the Navy and the Coast Guard will be happy to tell you that sea-level rise and melting Arctic ice are no matter of belief either; they are operational conditions for their jobs.

    I would love it if politicians said they accepted the science, while arguing vigorously about their beliefs regarding what should be done in response to it. Of course, we’re often a long way from that world, at least in the United States. In the interim, there is thankfully a much greater deal of agreement in the market that clean energy is winning and there are occasional hopeful signs that even our Congress can give a policy thumbs up to solar, wind, efficiency, batteries and geothermal, even when policymakers remain worlds apart when it comes to their views about climate science.