Wind turbine bites dog: Wind farms and global warming
- 02 May 2012, 16:30
- Christian Hunt and Ros Donald
"Wind turbines cause global warming." It's both the biggest
climate science story of the week, and a fairly straightforward
example of headlines and media coverage of a scientific paper not
matching up with the conclusions.
Q&A on the study, updated after the story had already
received wide coverage, the authors wrote that the warming they
observed was "local and small compared to strong background
year-to-year land surface temperature changes." In other words,
it's not global warming.
A lot of attention is been expended on a short paper, which
shows wind farms probably move the warm air near them around.
How did this paper get such a lot of misguided attention?
Wind turbine bites dog
First, and most obviously, the media loves a counter-intuitive
Wind turbines can cause climate change' is firmly in 'Man
bites Dog' territory. Climate skeptic blog Wattsupwiththat went
so far as to headline its blog post '
When you're trying to get people to buy a paper or click a link
it's all about the headline, and while
"Wind farms circulate hot air" might be more accurate, it's
hardly going to create a stir.
There's a great deal of license in how closely headlines need to
reflect the details of a story. As an example, here are paragraphs
7 and 8 from a piece by
Tim Worstall in Forbes:
"However, amusing as this is, being able
to point to one of the proposed solutions for climate change as
being a cause of it, it's not actually anything that affects the
"We're not changing the amount of heat
that is disappearing off into space with this and thus not changing
the basic energy balance of the planet. We're just moving it around
a bit, that's all."
Very reasonable - if you get that far. But it rather jars with
the piece's headline:
"Wind Farms Cause Global Warming!"
This illustrates what science writer Ben Goldacre calls "
the caveat in paragraph 19". Why ruin a perfectly good headline
with some inconvenient details when you can stash them away at the
end of the article?
Not just a better story
Of course, reporting of climate science doesn't just get
distorted because it makes a better story, it can also be a smart
campaign move to fudge the details of the latest research. In this
case, if wind farms really were driving global warming, this would
mean many of the arguments that have been made for building them to
address climate change would be wrong.
Perhaps this explains why the Telegraph - which is particularly
unenthusiastic about wind turbines - put the study on its
front page and ran it inside the paper next to news that the
Campaign to Protect Rural England was
warning about the number of planned UK wind turbines. Of
course, if you read Louise Gray's generally sensible article you'd
get the full picture, caveats and all, but in general the sum total
of human confusion is increased.
And full-blown misrepresentation is just a short hop away - in
this case a day later and in an
opinion piece for the Daily Mail, where columnist Richard
"[A] new study has shown that in areas
where windmills operate, average temperatures have risen by one
degree Centigrade. So not only are they inefficient and ugly, they
actually contribute to global warming. You couldn't make it
Except, as illustrated, you could.
Journals and making a splash
Finally it's not just the media and campaigners sexing up
stories beyond their logical conclusions - there are other
processes at play behind the scenes.
Climate Change appears to have been created (about a year ago)
to publish more accessible papers that will be of interest to the
'climate debate'. The journal sends embargoed press
releases out trailing papers it thinks the media will be
interested in - most of which receive press treatment. Supporting
information - such as the Q&A that accompanies the wind farm
study - is also produced when papers are published, to help people
understand the implications of the work. This PR process makes it
easier for journalists to produce stories, and that increases the
likelihood of coverage in a media space where expert reporters,
money and time are all at a premium.
But perhaps the journals are still not fully anticipating what
tends to happen when a piece of research ticks the media's
'controversy' boxes. In this case, it was only after reporting
strayed into the "
Wind farms make climate change WORSE" territory that the
journal produced an updated Q&A specifically addressing why the
study doesn't show net global warming.
Nature Climate Change's press briefing on the paper had this
line in it:
"[T]he warming effect reported in this
study is local and is small compared to the strong background
year-to-year land surface temperature change [...]."
But the end, it seems this caveat wasn't clear enough to stave
off a slew of inaccurate reporting. Perhaps the journal really
wasn't expecting the reaction the paper got. But having said that,
coverage of similar work should have given it a clue.
At least in this case, the relatively obvious disjuncture
between the paper's conclusions and the headlines it inspired seems
to have promoted a
second wave of articles which fact-checked the sensationalist
coverage the paper got, and took the time to explain what the
research actually said. This is heartening, but in all probability
many more people will have seen the original inaccurate headlines
than will ever see the fact checks. And so the sum of human
confusion has probably increased, slightly, again.