Publish and be wrong: Daily Mail prints article even after scientist says it "misrepresents" his work

  • 02 Apr 2012, 17:00
  • Ros Donald and Verity Payne

A scientist whose team wrote an interesting paper on a new climate proxy was rather surprised to see his findings trumpeted in the Daily Mail as the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic climate change theory, according to Climate Crock of the Week. He has come out to say that, contrary to the Mail's argument, his study does not prove that the so-called Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was global, or undermine mainstream climate science. 

The Daily Mail's piece is headlined ' Is this finally proof we're NOT causing global warming?'. This probably wasn't what Dr Zunli Lu and his team had in mind when they published their paper, which is about the discovery that ikaite, a mineral that forms in cold waters, can be used as a "reliable proxy for studying past climate conditions" because water that holds ikaite crystals together "traps information about temperatures present when the crystals formed", according to the paper's press release

The scientists compared the climate history revealed by the ikaite with climate patterns identified using other proxies - indirect indicators of past temperatures - from the Antarctic peninsula. The group looked at both the MWP and the cold period - the Little Ice Age - that scientists believe followed. According to the abstract:

"This ikaite record qualitatively supports that both the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age extended to the Antarctic Peninsula. [This is because the] Northern European climate events influence climate conditions in Antarctica". 

So is this the piece of scientific research which overturns what we will for the sake of brevity call the remarkably strong scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change? It seems like quite a leap, but here's the Mail's argument: 

"A team of scientists led by geochemist Zunli Lu from Syracuse University in New York state, has found that contrary to the 'consensus', the 'Medieval Warm Period' approximately 500 to 1,000 years ago wasn't just confined to Europe. 

"In fact, it extended all the way down to Antarctica - which means that the Earth has already experience [sic] global warming without the aid of human CO2 emissions.

"At present the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that the Medieval Warm Period was confined to Europe - therefore that the warming we're experiencing now is a man-made phenomenon."

Critically, the paper suggests that the MWP, a time of unusual climate conditions generally thought to span the 10th to 14th centuries, may have affected not just Europe, but also extended as far as Antarctica.

Off the back of this argument, the Mail claims "the Earth has already experience[d] global warming without the aid of human CO2 emissions." Hence, it concludes, this could "finally" be proof that human activities are not causing global warming.

So, what does Dr Lu think about all this? Climate Crocks' Peter Sinclair contacted him for his initial response, which was simply:

"The reporter of that Daily Mail article published it anyway, after we told him the angle  that he chose misrepresents our work." 

The Mail's angle echoes several skeptic blogs' take on the paper, which has has been knocking around in the blogosphere for a while. Anthony Watts - who has argued for a long time both that the MWP was global -  first covered it on his site. UK technology site The Register,  which takes a curious climate skeptic line on articles about climate change, then picked the story up. And it looks like the Mail got the story from The Register. This piece by Bob Ward in HuffPo today nicely describes the transmission of the story up the media food chain. Watts, incidentally, was rather sniffy about the Mail piece's lack of graphs

Why is the  Mail's angle on the paper such a leap? 

First, the Mail's presentation of this as conclusive proof that the MWP was global is a bit of a stretch. As Lu points out in a fuller statement: 

"We clearly state in our paper that we studied one site at the Antarctic Peninsula. The results should not be extrapolated to make assumptions about climate conditions across the entire globe." 

Climate scientists have been discussing whether the MWP was a global phenomenon or simply confined to some regions of the globe for fifty years now. They cannot yet be sure because climate proxy data, such as is used in this study, is still sparse, particularly from the tropics and the southern hemisphere, but the available evidence suggests that warming during the Medieval Warm Period was probably not as globally widespread as the warming seen since the 1970s. 

As we have discussed before, it's possible that temperatures in the MWP were comparable with today's - while the ikaite proxy is helpful in filling in the picture of what happened, uncertainties still remain. The National Academy of Sciences Report on Climate Reconstructions indicates that even in the Northern Hemisphere, where the majority of the evidence for warmer temperatures lies, temperatures today are probably higher than they were during the MWP. 

Anyway, the question of whether or not the MWP was a global phenomenon, or whether MWP were comparable to today's is beside the point.

Sinclair points out that the Mail's piece is a bit of a straw man argument . The Mail is arguing that "if there was [anywhere ] on the planet that experienced temperatures close to 20th Century warmth" at any time during the MWP, the warming temperatures we are experiencing today are just part of natural cycles, not a result of human activity. 

As Lu says, statements such as the Mail Online claim that the study "throws doubt on orthodoxies around global warming," 

"completely misrepresent our conclusions. Our study does not question the well-established anthropogenic warming trend."

The evidence strongly suggests that the previous warming was driven by different factors like higher than average solar radiation and less volcanic activity - not rising levels of carbon dioxide. It does not follow that the same factors are responsible for the rising temperatures we are currently observing.

The warming of the Earth since the 70s is consistent with the basic physics of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. Levels of greenhouse gases have been going up, and temperature have been rising. Other natural changes (like changes in the sun's activity) are not able to explain the observed changes.

So this is why Lu is probably perturbed at the Mail's coverage of his findings - though given that his clarification doesn't fit with the paper's usual line on climate change, it's safe to assume the skeptic media won't pay much attention to it.

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