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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.

In a 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 headline. ' 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 ' Supreme irony'.

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 larger picture.

"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 Littlejohn opined:

"[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 up."

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.

Nature 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, earlier 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.

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