Analysis

Overconfident predictions risk damaging trust in climate science, prominent scientists warn

  • 02 Jul 2014, 18:15
  • Roz Pidcock

There's a heated academic tussle going on over climate predictions. A high profile group of scientists has criticised the results of a paper published in Nature last year, which made some very precise forecasts for when different parts of the planet would feel the effects of climate change.

Last year's paper predicted to within a year or two when different regions would consistently see temperatures exceeding the bounds of natural variability. Writing in Nature today, the paper's critics say that's a level of confidence that can't be supported by our current understanding of climate science.

What may sound like a fairly technical dispute raises some tricky questions about the limits of science, and the way journals choose what to publish.

"Unprecedented" climate change

In October last year a Nature  paper got quite a bit of attention from the media with some bold statements about when different regions of the world can expect to enter the realms of "unprecedented" climate change. We covered it, here.

Reuters talked about a "shift to a new climate", while the  Daily Mail opted for the punchier ''Apocalypse Now: Unstoppable man-made climate change will become reality by the end of the decade'.

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Government defends its climate science communication, but sets out a new strategy to improve it anyway

  • 01 Jul 2014, 13:40
  • Ros Donald

Is the government doing a good enough job of communicating climate science? In a response to a critical report by MPs on Parliament's Science and Technology Committee, the government has defended the way it communicates climate change, but it has also set out how it plans to improve. 

In April, the committee told the government it must  up its game in communicating the science of climate change. Its  report   'Communicating climate science', followed months of evidence sessions with experts and government and media representatives. Now the government has  responded to the committee's recommendations.

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Academics urge scientists to do more to engage the public on climate change

  • 24 Jun 2014, 14:30
  • Roz Pidcock

David Adamec, ABC News

There's something amiss with the public's understanding of climate change - and it's got a lot to do with scientists' inability, ill-preparedness or unwillingness to take on the role of communicators. Those are the conclusions of a new report out today that may just ruffle a few feathers in the science community.

A call to arms

The  new report from the UCL Policy Commission on the Communication of Climate Science examines the role of climate scientists in public engagement, society and policy making.

Entitled 'Time for change? Climate science reconsidered', the report makes several recommendations for how scientists can up their game on all these fronts.

Top priorities, according to the report, are increasing the transparency of the scientific process and matching up what scientists do to what society needs to better appreciate the scale and urgency of climate change.

The challenge

Climate science finds itself "mismatched to societal needs", the report claims. The information society needs to get a handle on the climate challenge is not getting through, say the authors:

"There is widespread public acceptance of the reality of climate change, but not of the urgency and scale of the challenges that the science indicates it represents".

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Dispelling myths and silently shaping progress: What consensus means to climate scientists

  • 23 Jun 2014, 10:45
  • Roz Pidcock

In the 2000s, the question of how strong agreement is among climate scientists that climate change is happening and that it's human-caused began to gain prominence.

few papers sought to  answer the question using various different approaches, ultimately pinning the level of consensus at around 97 or 98 per cent.

Last year, a study by University of Queensland climate scientist and founder of the Skeptical Science website, John Cook, revisited consensus on climate change within the scientific literature.

The researchers examined 12,000 studies. Similar to other studies, Cook et al.  concluded that 97 per cent of the papers that expressed a position on the causes of climate change pointed to human activity as the main driver.

The study received a lot of media coverage at the time, ranking 11th among new science papers receiving the most attention online in 2012, and even earning a mention from the US president. But it's alsoprompted some heated discussion.

Most recently, economics professor Richard Tol published a  critique of the paper in the journal Energy Policy. Tol takes no issue with the paper's conclusion about an overwhelming scientific consensus in the literature. Instead, the crux of his argument is with specifics of the methodology.

Consensus is complicated. And reducing a complex question to a simple number is going to be fraught. So why do it? We asked climate scientists what consensus means to them, if it can be measured and how they use consensus in their own work.

Why measure consensus?

Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that recent warming is being driven by human activity rather than by naturally occurring processes. That's typically what people mean when they talk about a 'scientific consensus' on climate change.

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Rain-obsessed: Brits concerned about climate change likely to think weather has got worse

  • 13 Jun 2014, 12:15
  • Mat Hope

CC: Oasty40

Does the weather affect people's views on climate change? A  new paper looks at how people link the two, and finds the British public focus on wet weather rather than rising temperatures when worrying about climate change.

But working out whether people revise their concern about climate change based on the weather is a more complicated task.

Existing attitudes

The researchers from Leeds University asked people whether they thought the weather had become more changeable and, if so, in what way. They then asked the same people about the seriousness of climate change in order to compare their responses.

They found that people who were already concerned about climate change tended to think the weather had become more changeable. This was true regardless of the respondents age, gender, or educational background. Co-author Dr Andrea Taylor tells Carbon Brief:

"We observed an association between perceptions of changes in weather and beliefs about climate change, which may indicate that experience of recent weather does impact on people's concerns about climate change."

That finding led the BBC to report that the research shows extreme weather changes people's perception of climate change.

But that conclusion is slightly premature. The people who thought the weather had become more changeable already had strong views on climate change. 

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Analysis: Newspapers less interested in climate impacts of shale oil than gas

  • 02 Jun 2014, 15:20
  • Mat Hope

Credit: David Hawgood

There could be a wealth of shale oil resources in the south of England, according to a report released last month. But despite the increased greenhouse gas emissions associated with ramping up oil production, the report barely featured in print newspapers' climate change coverage.

That's in stark contrast to a similar report on shale gas released almost 12 months ago.  

Trends

In late May, the British Geological Survey (BGS) released a report suggesting there could be as much as  4.4 billion barrels of oil locked in the UK's shale rock.

Shale gas has been a big story, and you might expect news of the report to filter into climate change coverage, particularly since the climate implications of a BGS report on shale gas last June had a significant impact.

But that hasn't been the case. This just wasn't a climate change story - and the lack of shale gas made it a much smaller media moment that earlier in the year. Our analysis of all articles printed in the UK's major papers shows there were 349 mentioning climate change in April, significantly down on last year.

UK Newspaper Coverage Total May 14

That's not to say climate change wasn't mentioned at all in relation to the report.

The  Guardian notes that a key objection to fracking - the method for extracting fuel from shale rock - is that it can "accelerate climate change" as potent greenhouse gases leak from the wells. Likewise, the  Daily Mail carries a quote from a Greenpeace activist objecting to the practice as it adds to "carbon pollution" - an alternative term for increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

None of the other major daily newspapers reported the climate implications of the report's findings, however. Instead, they focused on a set of  accompanying  policies to compensate homeowners near fracking sites.

Oil is principally used for heating or as a transport, not for power generation. As such, there isn't any debate about it displacing more carbon intensive fossil fuels in the power sector, as there is with shale gas. The community payoffs announced alongside BGS's estimate may simply have been a more obvious angle.

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Does evidence suggest the words "global warming" make people care more about "climate change"?

  • 28 May 2014, 12:15
  • Mat Hope

Does giving a problem a different name increase public support for solving it? It depends which poll you look at. Yesterday, the  Guardian reported a new survey showing people care more about climate change when it's called "global warming". But two weeks ago,  Mother Jones said polling shows "it doesn't matter" which label is used.

The Guardian story is based on a  Yale Project on Climate Change Communication survey. Mother Jones looked at Gallup  polling data.

So why the difference? And does it actually matter which terms are used?

It doesn't matter

With polling, you get out what you put in - the questions asked in polls affect the answers people give. In this case, differences in the polling questions, and the focus of the polls themselves, have meant the two polls come to different, but complementary conclusions.

Gallup asked two different questions. The first asked how people how worried they were about a list of eight issues, of which "climate change" and "global warming" were two. The polling found no significantly significant difference between the two terms in how worried people said they were.

To probe further, in a separate poll Gallup asked different people how serious they thought both "climate change" and "global warming" were. Again, the differences were slight.

These findings led Mother Jones - via Gallup's own  analyst - to conclude that "The public responds to [the terms] global warming and climate change in a similar fashion..."

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Enabling the messenger: How can the IPCC get its message across to the public?

  • 23 May 2014, 13:30
  • Ros Donald

cazstar

The pages of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s new reports tells a range of compelling stories about the huge changes humans and our environment face as the planet warms. 

Trouble is, these narratives are couched in fairly inaccessible language.

We look at two new pieces of research aimed at analysing the way the IPCC communicates and improving the panel's rapport with the public.

Bringing the IPCC to life

For its new  report, 'Science & stories: Bringing the IPCC to life', communications group Climate Outreach & Information Network (COIN) interviewed 16 communications experts from UK media organisations and NGOs.

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What Google searches can (and can’t) reveal about climate skepticism

  • 22 May 2014, 15:20
  • Mat Hope

epa.gov

Do controversies about the trustworthiness of climate science lead to greater levels of climate skepticism? A new study turns to people's internet searches to try and find out.

In 2009, a hacker attained emails between scientists at the University of East Anglia. Subsequent reports claimed the email's contents undermined the trustworthiness of climate science, and the episode became high profile enough to warrant its own moniker: climategate. A few months later, the discovery a data error regarding Himalayan glacier melt in a major UN report catalysed similar headlines.

A study published Environmental Research Letters this week shows such controversies can cause a brief spike in public interest, but the attention quickly fizzles out. So does that mean climategate's impact on skepticism was only fleeting, as  some  reports  suggest? A closer look at the data suggests it's not so clear cut.

Search trends

The researchers looked at Google searches around the time of the controversies.They found searches for "global warming" (the black line on the graph below) and "global warming hoax" (the blue line) both increased when the stories broke.

The impact of climategate was notably stronger than the effect of the Himalayan glaciers story, the researchers say - though the latter also caused a small spike.

Climate skeptic google searches

It's not just negative stories that got people Googling. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases a series of reports on the state of climate science every six or seven years. Searches for "global warming" spiked around the reports' releases, the researchers found. The release of Al Gore's film on the scientific basis of climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, also had an impact.

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It’s a bit like a tree: How comparing geoengineering to the natural world bolsters support

  • 22 May 2014, 10:49
  • Ros Donald

cc. Katie Walker

Using pipes to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and storing it underground: doesn't sound very natural. But what if you were encouraged to think of the process as similar to the role trees perform in nature? A new study finds likening geoengineering to bits of the natural world is more likely to make people feel supportive of technologies that change the climate.

Most people are very attached to nature, and  strongly opposed to processes that appear to tamper with it - like so-called geoengineering, which aims to artificially cool the climate. Working from this starting point, a new  study from Cardiff University tests whether likening geoengineering to natural processes might reverse some of that negative feeling.

Because geoengineering is a relatively new idea, researchers talking about it have to find ways to explain what it is. Using analogies is one easy way, as Dr Adam Corner, a co-author of the research, says:

"Scientists and researchers talking about geoengineering are looking for analogies to describe their research. They may describe sucking carbon dioxide out of the air as similar to the workings of an artificial tree, or pumping particles into the air to reflect heat away in terms of how volcanoes work."

These analogies can be suggested by the way some geoengineering processes are supposed to work, he says:

"Lots of this language makes sense in some ways - for example, the idea of pumping sulphate particles into the air comes from the study of volcanoes, which naturally cool the climate. Our question was that given people care so much about nature - and they see natural things as less of a threat than artificial things - how do these analogies affect our perception of geoengineering?"

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