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(not) News: Solar cooling won’t solve climate change

February 5th, 2018 · 1 Comment

Press releases are often designed to spin, to put things in as favorable a light as possible, and to (by their very nature) boost visibility.  Putting aside those intended to deceive, the “profession” of public affairs tends to that spin and even the most well-intentioned spin can inadvertently deceive (especially against a larger context).  For example, as discussed before, breathless press releases about a laboratory advance with batteries or solar cell efficiency or making fuel from air can lead to viral ‘we’ve solved the world’s problems’ commentary.  While vulnerable, myself, to this sort of techno-optimism, these viruses (viral events) typically ignore the realities of the challenges of transformation from laboratory success to mass commercial deployment: everything from the simple truth that the lab test might not prove true with more extensive testing; to the very long timelines from lab invention to marketplace; and to the obstacles placed before innovation in the market place itself.

Sometimes, the press release writers strive, seriously, to avoid the potential for misunderstanding and unreasonable use of the press release and the underlying work. Regretfully, this effort doesn’t necessarily prevent misuse. I fear a recent press release will be misrepresented as a ‘don’t worry, be happy’ story re climate change when, well, that is not the case. A moment for truth before discussing the Scripp’s press release that sparked this post:

With significant reductions in solar radiation hitting the Earth (a Grand Solar Minimum), global warming (climate change) would continue.  Against any scenario of human emissions (from business as usual to even dramatic reductions in emissions), the reduced solar emissions would have marginal impact on warming.

Now, Scripps’ researchers have done work to try to quantify, with some detail, how much solar radiation might decrease in the coming decades and the impact of this on climate change.  The press release author, Robert Monroe, is quite careful to emphasize that any such ‘cooling’ due to reduced solar radiation will not ‘solve’ climate change.

Here is the opening sentence:

The Sun might emit less radiation by mid-century, giving planet Earth a chance to warm a bit more slowly but not halt the trend of human-induced climate change.

And, the closing words:

a main conclusion of the study is that “a future grand solar minimum could slow down but not stop global warming.”

Now, knowing that Donald Trump, Devin Nunes, and other climate-science deniers have no tendency to skew — or outright misrepresent and/or lie — data, is it unreasonable that the ‘movie critic’ clip and representation of this report and press release might be something like …

grand solar minimum … increases risk of dangerous global cooling if warming is reduced …

Consider those words … that is (a) absolutely not what the press release author nor study’ author’s concluded and/or emphasized but (b) is actually just a twisted variation on that conclusion.  Implausible (that ‘if warming is reduced’ such that we might have ‘dangerous global cooling’) but not outright false (by definition, if there is reduced solar radiation AND reduced human pollution that then creates a greater chance of cooling — even if that ‘greater chance’ is somewhere in range of a null probability).

UPDATE: And, well, such predicted (ab)use of the press release and study is occurring.

On a more benign level, what is the chance of the casual journalist (that casual tweeter) emphasizing something like “scientist predict sun will warm less by mid-century and reduce climate change risks” — not intending to mislead but, in a casual or character limited effort to communicate, misleading nonetheless?

Honestly, how far should a press release author go in striving to structure language to avoid those who will, shamelessly, manipulate the language and misrepresent the fundamental work?  What wording forestalls the ‘casual’, unthinking, misrepresentation? Perhaps, in this case, how about this headline:

Climate change will not be stopped by cooler sun

In this world of ‘tweet shares’, that headline is what the vast majority of people would see and would the opening words to frame the thinking of anyone who read past the headline (including reporters and bloggers) thinking of doing a story.

Would that be better science communication and reduce risks of (intentional or unintentional) misleading others?  Perhaps …

Update: As noted in update in the post’s body, predicted (ab)use is occurring:

UPDATE 2: For some excellent points about how much science (mis)reporting errors (hype) originate with the press release, see this thread and linked material:


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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 John Egan // Feb 5, 2018 at 11:20 pm

    The very definition of hubris.
    It is comforting to know that the sun has less impact on global temperatures than humans.

    An excellent example of how you are not honest in your engagement.
    Anything in this post that says that “sun has less impact on global temperatures than humans”. Well, in fact, no.
    The discussion is related to the ‘thumb on the scales’ that is human contributions of greenhouse gases and other warming (land-use change) that is driving global warming/climate change. When it comes to the skewing of the climate, putting the climate on steroids, it is humanity’s impacts that are so strong that even postulated solar minimums will not significantly change the course of warming.

    As with so much of your online commentary, this snide attacking commentary is not truthful.

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