Changing the Headlines: Riffing on Revkin

Published: 7:23 AM GMT on January 26, 2015

Changing the Headlines: Riffing on Revkin

I want to revisit the strategies of communication that we use when writing and talking about climate change. Back in 2011, Christine Shearer and I wrote, “Changing the Media Discussion on Climate and Extreme Weather.” A point that we made was that scientists needed to view their interactions with the press and public as more than an expert voice answering questions. We are also active participants in a conversation, listening and speaking. As part of our participation, we have the opportunity to advance the larger societal discussions in positive and progressive directions.

A headline that caught my attention this week was “How ‘Warmest Ever’ Headlines and Debates Can Obscure What Matters About Climate Change.” This is a Dot Earth Opinion Piece by Andrew Revkin. The piece focuses on the how the message that is delivered by focusing on records is not only simplistic, but fuels the most public part of the political and denialist arguments. The fuel comes in the form of the fundamentally meaningless arguments over the measurements and methodology of determining whether or not a particular month or year is hottest. It is reminiscent of arguments of rankings from football and basketball polls.

I want to take Revkin’s headline and explore it from a different point of view. Since May of 2014, I have been writing that 2014 would likely be a record hot year, and, implicitly, that should be more expected than extraordinary. We are living in a time of unabated warming. We have knowledge to substantiate that this warming will continue for decades. We have no knowledge to suggest that the warming will cease. Therefore, we should be expecting record warm years. More reliably, we expect record-warm decades and, even more reliably, record-warm thirty-year intervals. What would be extraordinary, remarkable, would be a month or year that was colder than the twentieth century average. If our game is to count record warmth, then we will soon have record fatigue.

There is another thread in Revkin’s piece about the backlash from reporting records and his back and forth with Gavin Schmidt. In 2010, I wrote a piece called Politics and Knowledge, What to Do. (Here is the whole What To Do Collection) In that piece I discuss Brendan Nyhan’s and Jason Reifler’s study The Persistence of Political Misconceptions. They find through case studies that the correction of incorrect information in polarized political issues did not lead to a rationalization of factual knowledge. In fact, they found that the correction of factually incorrect information could backfire, leading to more polarization. In more recent work, Nyhan et al. have confirmed this phenomenon with respect to vaccination, which is having influence in the vaccination field. The point, we have these social science findings, which we seem to dismiss and prove we are what we repeatedly do.

We can, in fact, conclude that our quest for simple messages and smothering evidence of global change hands control of the headline conversation to the denial interested. Here is a concrete example.

Much of the public discussion forms around figures such as this one from the 2001 IPCC Third Assessment Report. This is a figure of variations of a global average of surface temperature – air temperature.




Figure 1: From 2001 IPCC Third Assessment Report Variations of the Earth’s surface temperature: year 1000 to year 2100. (More description of figure and my markups)

This figure (along with its older and newer versions) was designed to communicate, especially to policy makers, the scale and uncertainty of average planetary warming to be expected. The figure is one of many figures that, as a whole, tell a convincing story of the Earth warming due to increased greenhouse gases and changes to the Earth’s surface. This is warming that is overwhelming natural variability. From a scientist's perspective, it is poor scientific methodology to pose this figure as an up or down vote on the veracity of our body of knowledge about climate change. However, if your goal is to sprout and grow doubt, it is an excellent figure to isolate, pose as credentialed and fundamental, and, then, perpetuate news and response.

The figure was never meant to stand alone as the descriptor and the convincer of global warming. It was part of a whole. The surface air temperature is a measure of climate and weather that is intuitive. It is important to humans. It follows naturally from our attention to the weather, and from our history that quantitative climate science followed from the study of weather – of the atmosphere. Not only is the surface air temperature an incomplete measure of the Earth’s climate, it is not a very good summary measure of the Earth’s climate.

The Earth is warming – the Earth, not just the air. The Earth is accumulating a larger portion of the energy that the Sun provides. The oceans play the dominant role in the Earth’s climate with regard to heat storage and transport. As 2014 shows explicitly, the oceans have a central role in the air temperature. That the heat goes first to the ocean, then to the air, does not excuse us of the fact that the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the root cause of a warming Earth.

Heat also goes into melting the ice sheets and the glaciers. If the heat is doing that work, then it is not going into warming the air.

Air temperature is, therefore, neither a complete nor an especially good measure of climate. Yet, we continue to let it drive headlines for climate change.

Return to the figure. The whole silly warming pause, warming hiatus thing follows from this type of figure. If you extract a segment from say 1990-2020, then the model projections and observations align with discrepancies that are large enough to allow the proposal of doubt and to fuel its growth. That is, if you take this figure in isolation and make it the core of arguments and headlines.

This figure, however, was designed to communicate an intuitive and important aspect of climate change, not to represent all of climate change. The models used for the figure were designed to frame the range of possible future warming, and place that warming in context of the past century. They were not designed to predict the bumps and wiggles associated with a particular year or decade. In fact, the figure uses a large collection of models, averaged together to remove those bumps and wiggles. In early versions of the figure, the models did not have the ability to represent the melting of ice. Nor did they have the oceans represented with sufficient robustness to represent the air-temperature variability associated with the ocean. Hence, if the observations aligned, strongly, with the figure, then that would be far more suspect, scientifically, than the discrepancies that have been realized.

Hence, we have a figure that was designed to communicate one aspect of the changing climate. This figure is of a climate measure that does not singularly represent climate. The models used to construct the figure were designed to frame the future, not to predict the months and years of 2010s. Yet, the figure has been used to frame and dominate the headlines, by focusing on the failures of observations to match the figure and the arcane science-based corrections to rationalize the discrepancies. This keeps the most present of public discussion nonproductive.

A few years ago I was talking with an executive from a power company. He was not ignorant or dismissive of climate change. He assured me, however, that it was his job to challenge in court any regulation of emissions that would be proposed. This buys time to develop strategies, to amortize current capacity and to influence policy. It buys time for competitive advantage. The Earth’s climate is not simple, and neither are the reasons to sustain doubt and tumultuous headlines. There is reason, even, for the knowing to maintain an inconclusive conversation.

No doubt, “warmest ever” headlines obscure what is important about climate change. It takes what is expected and makes it into inconsequential headlines. It is simplistic in many ways to make this persistently premiere news. It plays into maintaining a conversation that is isolating of the subject of climate change. It consumes the energy and resources of scientists in fundamentally nonproductive ways. It helps the denialists frame the conversation. We need to learn to embrace the complexity, simply, rather that trying to communicate the complexity simplistically.

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About The Author
I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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