New molecule from plants won’t 'solve' global warming
- 13 Jan 2012, 16:30
- Verity Payne
we wondered how the media and blogosphere would report a
breakthrough Science paper, published
online today, linking plants with a natural process that might
be providing a braking mechanism for man-made climate change.
Well, it's a mixed bag. There are some good pieces about the new
research findings - the
National Post piece is good -
this article is, too - and the content of most of the
articles was pretty solid. But some pieces misinterpreted the
research quite dramatically - for more on this, read on.
A quick reminder: Researchers suggested that a
previously-undetected type of chemical ('Criegee biradicals') might
play a big role in creating sulfate aerosols - tiny airborne
droplets of sulfuric acid and water - in the atmosphere. They might
even be the most important means of sulfate aerosols' formation.
Sulfate aerosols have a complicated effect on climate, both cooling
and warming it in different ways. (For more detail, see
here). In the past, scientists have speculated that sulfate
aerosols might be slowing
down man-made warming - and so this new paper is interesting
because it links the new chemicals (which come from plants) to
The authors of the paper were very clear about the take-home
message from the research. Dr Carl Percival, reader in atmospheric
chemistry at the University of Manchester and one of the study's
"The most important message here is that
we need to protect the ecosystems we have left."
Most bloggers and the media covering the story stuck closely to
press release accompanying the work. This is perhaps
understandable, as the research was pretty complex.
But some of the headlines are misleading or inaccurate. Take,
for example, this from the International Business Times,
Global Warming may be Defeated by Molecule Discovery, or in the
same vein from the the Indian Economic Times,
New molecule could help rid the world of 'global warming', or
from blog Smart Planet,
New molecule may solve global warming. The Mail Online,
meanwhile, plumped for
Newly discovered molecule 'could reverse global warming'.
We checked in with Dr Percival today. He was surprised at the
reaction to the study, saying:
"Some of the headlines exaggerate the
implications of our findings."
He said that the research does not reveal a 'cure' for man-made
global warming. He told us:
"The Criegee biradical is already part
of the Earth system story. We have found that natural ecosystems
could already be playing a significant role in off-setting warming
thus it is even more imperative that we strive to protect the
So in fact, the 'cooling' process hypothesised in this research
is already happening, and is probably already slowing down man-made
That's very different to a story about a new particle that could
'solve' global warming - but the distinction appears to have
escaped some headline writers.