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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

13.01.2012 | 4:30pm
ScienceNew molecule from plants won’t ‘solve’ global warming
SCIENCE | January 13. 2012. 16:30
New molecule from plants won’t ‘solve’ global warming

Last night we wondered how the media and blogosphere would report a breakthrough Science paper, published online today, linking plants with a natural process that might be providing a braking mechanism for man-made climate change.

Well, it’s a mixed bag. There are some good pieces about the new research findings – the National Post piece is good –  this article is, too – and the content of most of the articles was pretty solid. But some pieces misinterpreted the research quite dramatically – for more on this, read on.

A quick reminder: Researchers suggested that a previously-undetected type of chemical (‘Criegee biradicals’) might play a big role in creating sulfate aerosols – tiny airborne droplets of sulfuric acid and water – in the atmosphere. They might even be the most important means of sulfate aerosols’ formation. Sulfate aerosols have a complicated effect on climate, both cooling and warming it in different ways. (For more detail, see here). In the past, scientists have speculated that sulfate aerosols might be slowing down man-made warming – and so this new paper is interesting because it links the new chemicals (which come from plants) to climate change.

The authors of the paper were very clear about the take-home message from the research. Dr Carl Percival, reader in atmospheric chemistry at the University of Manchester and one of the study’s co-authors,  said:

“The most important message here is that we need to protect the ecosystems we have left.”

Most bloggers and the media covering the story stuck closely to the press release accompanying the work. This is perhaps understandable, as the research was pretty complex.

But some of the headlines are misleading or inaccurate. Take, for example, this from the International Business Times, Global Warming may be Defeated by Molecule Discovery, or in the same vein from the the Indian Economic Times, New molecule could help rid the world of ‘global warming’, or from blog Smart Planet, New molecule may solve global warming. The Mail Online, meanwhile, plumped for  Newly discovered molecule ‘could reverse global warming’.

We checked in with Dr Percival today. He was surprised at the reaction to the study, saying:

“Some of the headlines exaggerate the implications of our findings.”

He said that the research does not reveal a ‘cure’ for man-made global warming. He told us:

“The Criegee biradical is already part of the Earth system story. We have found that natural ecosystems could already be playing a significant role in off-setting warming thus it is even more imperative that we strive to protect the natural ecosystems.”

So in fact, the ‘cooling’ process hypothesised in this research is already happening, and is probably already slowing down man-made global warming.

That’s very different to a story about a new particle that could ‘solve’ global warming – but the distinction appears to have escaped some headline writers.

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