Factcheck: Aerosols research misinterpreted to 'alarming extent’, says study author

  • 05 Oct 2015, 16:45
  • Robert McSweeney
Evening sun behind clouds above the sea, Hermaness, Unst, Shetland Islands

© Matthias Graben/Corbis

In its online edition on Friday, the  Express claimed that the discovery of a new "natural coolant" by scientists has thrown "previous estimates of rising temperatures into doubt".

The story followed in the footsteps of similar articles on the  Register and  Breitbart, two websites which have a history of publishing climate sceptic articles. The Register said the new research meant "there isn't as much urgency about the matter [climate change] as had been thought". While a Breibart article by James Delingpole claimed it presents "further proof" that "the reason that all that predicted 'global warming' has failed to materialise is that it has been countered by the planet's natural cooling effects."

The Express and Breitbart quoted Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate sceptic lobby group, as saying: "Here is more evidence...that climate models...should never have been trusted in the first place."

But a co-author of the study tells Carbon Brief the researchers "completely disagree" with the way their study has been reported, and that these articles are a "misuse of our research".

Theexpress Isoprene

The Express, online edition, Friday 2 October.


The new study, published last week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, concerns natural emissions of a compound called "isoprene". Despite sounding like a material a keen cyclist would wear, isoprene is actually a gas that helps aerosols form in our atmosphere.

Aerosols are tiny liquid or solid particles in the air. They have a direct effect on temperature by scattering sunlight, and an indirect effect by stimulating clouds to form, affecting how much sunlight reaches the Earth's surface. Overall, they generally cool the Earth's surface, counteracting - but not offsetting - the warming impact of rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Aerosols have natural sources, such as  volcanic emissions and  plant vapours, and manmade sources, such as car exhausts, factories and power plants.

Isoprene isn't an aerosol in its own right, but combines with other chemicals in the atmosphere,  such as oxygen, to create them. These particles are big enough for water vapour to condense onto, allowing clouds to form.

Scientists know that isoprene is produced by plants and trees on land and by plankton in the oceans. But the new study finds that it is also produced by the interaction of sunlight with chemicals in the top tenth of a millimetre of the ocean surface.

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Are National Trust libraries at risk from climate change?

  • 24 Mar 2015, 17:15
  • Sophie Yeo

Library | Flickr

The National Trust delivered bad news for bibliophiles yesterday: its historic collection of around 230,000 books could become victim to the impacts of climate change.

Launching its  10-year strategy, National Trust leader Dame Helen Ghosh said that climate change is the biggest challenge faced by the conservation charity. In particular, she said, the rise in pests poses a threat to its libraries.

"Some of the bugs that we get in our furniture and in our books, for example silverfish, we used to only get those in the summer. They used to be killed off in winter. But because the winters have got warmer and wetter we get those kinds of bugs all year round," she  said.

Carbon Brief takes a look at what risks lie ahead for the National Trust's literary collections.

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Polar bears and climate change: What does the science say?

  • 04 Mar 2015, 13:45
  • Roz Pidcock

We've all seen the pictures of polar bears stranded on sea ice. They're  all too often used as the iconic poster animals of a rapidly changing climate.

Every now and again, claims emerge in the media that polar bears' plight might not be so serious after all. Just recently, Peter Hitchens said in the  Mail on Sunday polar bears are "doing extremely well right now" and that claims otherwise are "just hot air".

Carbon Brief has dug through the literature and spoken to polar bear experts. While little is known about some remote bear populations, it's clear there's no scientific basis for such optimism. As temperatures rise, polar bears face a bleak future ahead, scientists tell us.

Claims about polar bears on the up

The crux of Hitchens' argument is that polar bear numbers are rising around the world, not falling. He quotes biologist  Dr Susan Crockford, who says:

"On almost every measure, things are looking good for polar bears ... It really is time for the doom and gloom about polar bears to stop."

                                       Screenshot 2015-03-04 14.42.14

Source: Ben Webster, The Times,  Feb 27th 2015

This stems from a report authored by Crockford and published last week by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate skeptic think tank. Entitled, "  20 good reasons not to worry about polar bears", the report describes itself as a "resource for cooling the polar bear spin".

The Times quoted the report's conclusion that:

"Polar bears are not currently threatened with extinction due to declining sea ice, despite the hue and cry from activist scientists and environmental organisations."

Similarly, a Mail on Sunday  article from last September, also featuring Crockford, claimed: "The poster boys of climate change thrive in the icy Arctic: Polar bears defy concerns about their extinction."

So, what is the evidence for the claims? And do other scientists agree there's no cause for alarm?

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Factcheck: The Times claims climate-related deaths estimate is ‘exaggerated’

  • 01 Dec 2014, 13:10
  • Mat Hope

Mosquito | Shutterstock

Earlier this year, the UN's World Health Organisation released a  report suggesting climate change could cause an extra 250,000 deaths annually between 2030 and 2050. Today, The Times claims that figure has  been 'exaggerated'.

The Times's headline was based on comments by an analyst for for the climate skeptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). The GWPF told the paper that the WHO's estimates were "based on false assumptions" which led to the supposedly inflated headline figure.

But the GWPF's critique has a number of flaws. Despite the GWPF's claims, the WHO's report takes care to outline its assumptions in detail, and explicitly states that projections about climate change-related deaths remain uncertain.

Climate change-related deaths

The WHO modeled how rising temperatures, emissions and sea levels impact nutrition, malaria, dengue fever, diarrhoeal disease, and heat-related deaths.

Alongside the report, the WHO produced a factsheet, summarising its key findings. The WHO's modelling suggests there could be "approximately 250,000 additional deaths due to climate change per year between 2030 and 2050."

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 13.03.22.png

Source:  World Health Organisation. Graph by Carbon Brief.

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Factcheck: Will climate change lead to giant, man-eating snakes, tiny horses and shrunken goats?

  • 22 Oct 2014, 14:01
  • Robert McSweeney

The film 'Anaconda'. Time

Rising temperatures have caused mountain goats in the Alps to 'shrink' by up to 25 per cent, according to new research . The news follows on from recent stories of how climate change could bring us huge spiders, tiny horses and giant snakes.

Despite the slightly ridiculous headlines such research prompts, there is actually some science behind it all.

Behavioural change

So, first things first; rising temperatures haven't actually caused any goats to shrink per se. Rather the research, published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology, finds that young goats aren't as big as they were 30 years ago.

Scientists analysed records of the Alpine Chamois goat in the Italian Alps and found they were as much as 25 per cent smaller than goats of the same age in the 1980s.

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Climate change and the extinction of the Aldabran banded snail

  • 13 Oct 2014, 11:45
  • Professor Georgina Mace

Aldabra banded snail | Wikicommons

On September 20th 2014, The Times published  an article, "Snail 'wiped out by climate change' is alive and well."

It reported the rediscovery of the Aldabran banded snail (Rhachistia aldabrae), which was declared extinct in 2009 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), after repeated searches in its known habitat found no sign of the snail for over a decade.

In 2007,  a scientific paper had pieced together the recent history of the snail population and the climate, and concluded that the snails extinction could be explained by the increasing frequency of dry years, leading to lower survival and reproduction.

But an expedition in August 2014 rediscovered the species in dense mixed scrub of a little-visited part of Aldabra.  Conservationists celebrated the rediscovery, while also noting that the species is still extremely rare and its persistence by no means assured.

The Times article developed the story in a completely different direction, using it to challenge the basis for conclusions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published earlier this year on species extinctions under climate change.

The Times claims that the Aldabran banded snail was cited in another paper (which I infer to be  Cahill et al. 2013), a review of existing evidence, as "the clearest example of man-made climate change causing an extinction". It states that this was a major strand of evidence in the IPCC's conclusions on future extinction risks, which were summarised as: "A large fraction of both terrestrial and freshwater species faces increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century".

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Your questions on climate sensitivity answered

  • 26 Sep 2014, 16:00
  • Roz Pidcock

How sensitive is the earth to carbon dioxide? It's a question that's at the heart of climate science.

It's also complicated, and scientists have been grappling with pinning down the exact number for a while now.

But while the exact value of climate sensitivity presents a fascinating and important scientific question, it has little relevance for climate policy while greenhouse emissions stay as high as they are.

Nevertheless, each time a new research paper comes out suggesting climate sensitivity might be low it's misused by parts of the media to argue cutting emissions aren't so urgent after all.

The latest example comes in an  article in today's Times, which claims a new low climate sensitivity estimate means "Climate change could be slower than forecast".

So what is climate sensitivity? What does and doesn't it tell us about future warming?

               Times Climate Sensitivity

Source:  The Times, 26th September 2014

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Climate snails study shows peer review continues to function as expected

  • 22 Sep 2014, 15:10
  • Roz Pidcock

Something is amiss in the world of scientific publishing, claimed The Times this weekend. And not for the first time. This is the latest in a  series  of articles suggesting research downplaying the seriousness of climate change impacts is being suppressed by top scientific journals.

Last time, scientists dismissed the Times' story as a case of peer review in action. It's difficult to see what the difference is this time.

"False alarm"

Seven years ago, a conservation scientist in the Seychelles published a paper in one of the Royal Society's journals, Biological Letters. It concluded the only known population of a type of snail was now thought to be extinct, after declining rapidly in the late 20th century.

In Saturday's Times article, journalist Ben Webster said:

"[The research] was presented as shocking evidence of the damage being done by climate change: a species driven to extinction because of a decline in rainfall in its only habitat."

In its recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned the fast pace of climate change could have consequences for many species. It concluded:

"A large fraction of both terrestrial and freshwater species faces increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century."

Well, the snail has apparently been rediscovered on a remote island. The Times suggests this "prompts questions" over the Royal Society "raising false alarm" about climate change.

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Factcheck: Telegraph wrongly accuses BBC of “blatantly untrue” climate reporting

  • 15 Sep 2014, 15:25
  • Roz Pidcock

In yesterday's Telegraph, climate skeptic commentator Christopher Booker argues a recent BBC News piece makes claims about rising carbon dioxide that are "blatantly untrue".

He also accuses the broadcaster of repeating theories about ocean warming that scientists have "ridiculed as make-believe". But a quick look shows his accusations don't stand up.

Carbon rising

In an article  criticising the broadcaster for its climate science coverage, Booker cites a BBC radio news article on a recent World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) report.

The report looked in detail at carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and how they're changing. It found greenhouse gases reached a record high of 396 parts per million (ppm) in 2013 - that's 42 per cent higher than pre-industrial levels.

Global carbon dioxide concentrations rose by nearly 3 ppm from 2012 to 2013 - the largest annual increase since 1984, the report also found.


Global growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide from 1984 to 2013 (shaded columns are annual averages). Source: WMO annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin for 2013

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Why undersea fracking is unlikely to give Scotland a £600 billion windfall

  • 05 Sep 2014, 13:30
  • Mat Hope

Scotland flag waving | Shutterstock

As Scotland prepares to decide whether to vote 'yes' for independence, the North Sea oil and gas industry's economic prospects have become something of a political football.

Today, a new report backed by the 'Yes' campaign claims the industry's taxes could be worth over £600 billion. But other experts have been quick to cast doubt on the findings.

Geologists think there's still plenty of oil and gas under the North Sea. The problem is that companies have extracted most of the easy-to-reach resources. Uncertainty around the fate of the remaining oil and gas has created space for speculation over how much the industry is worth.

That's where today's  report from consultancy N-56, founded by  a Yes campaign board member, fits in. It claims there could be around 45 billion barrels of oil and gas remaining - almost double previous estimates - worth £665 billion in tax receipts.

Conventional oil and gas

The North Sea's oil and gas reserves are becoming depleted, with companies extracting fewer and fewer barrels each year. Experts believe the industry could persist for  a few more decades, but only if companies are willing to explore hard to reach spots.

Whether they will - or even can - access such resources is very open to debate, however.

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