Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Hottest summer - what does this tell us?

The Guardian has a page 3 article today on reports that July 2016 was the hottest July ever. It is a good illustration of how information from the physical sciences is used to argue for urgent climate policy measures. It is a useful reminder of how the dominant framing of climate change plays out in everyday media communications. Readers of Klimazwiebel will know that I am no fan of this kind of approach, in fact none of the Klimazwiebel editors is.

So what does the article say, and why is it problematic to expect any positive policy effects based on reporting like this?

It starts with an alleged deadly outbreak of Anthrax in Siberia where 'melting permafrost released anthrax that had been frozen in a reindeer carcass for decades'. The source of information is an NBC news article from 27 July, pointing out that the deadly effect was on reindeer, not humans, as one might have suspected.

What is the reason for July being exceptionally hot?

The temperature increase last month was not all due to climate change. Part of the increase came from the tail end of the El Niño phenomenon, which spreads warm water across the Pacific, giving a boost to global temperatures.
But scientists said the July record, which came after a string of new month-high temperatures, was particularly striking because it came as the impact of El Niño faded, and added weight to fears that 2016 will go down in history as the hottest year since records began.
“Even if we have it augmented by El Niño, it’s quite concerning as a citizen to see that we are flirting with very high numbers, and a record is a record,” said Jean-Noël Thepaut, head of Europe’s Copernicus climate change service. 

Here we are given two causes for the exceptional temperatures, climate change and the El Niño phenomenon. But no quantification of their relative contribution is made. Is it 50-50? Or more like 80-20? And which of the two is more dominant? These are crucial pieces of information that are missing.

Then several paragraphs point out that the global rise in average temperatures may not be felt in every region of the planet, with the UK seeing 'manageable' changes. However, other regions are hit harder, especially the Mid East:

“If the global mean [average] increases a certain amount, the temperatures in this region in summer will increase even more,” said Jos Lelieveld, an atmospheric researcher at the Max Planck institute for chemistry, who earlier this year published a report on how climate change would affect the Middle East and North Africa.
He warned then that large areas could become so hot that they would be virtually uninhabitable for human beings, and could trigger an exodus of hundreds of millions of refugees. The July temperatures just underlined the urgency of the crisis, he said.
“This worries me a lot because we have a lot of problems there already; there is a documented drought that has been going on for fifteen years,” he said. “This is already one of the driest regions in the world.”
Some experts think those problems have already contributed to the violence in the region, with some researchers claiming drought fuelled Syria’s civil war.
But perhaps because of the huge security and humanitarian crises crippling many countries there, most governments have spared little thought to dealing with a problem that seems less urgent, even if its fallout could be just as devastating.

So climate change could lead to mass migration of hundreds  of millions of refugees. The civil war in Syria is mentioned as an example where climate change has played a role. This has become a standard formula from campaigning scientists and environmental activists, including well meaning media and global environmental organizations. The evidence for these claims is thin. But the story is used a reason to call for more decisive government action to deliver on the Paris commitments.

I wonder how long it will take for the fans of this approach to realize how impotent a weapon this is in the fight against climate change. It could be that we will hear a version of this script every year, for many years to come. Hottest summer, hottest winter... More action needed. This is how far the physical sciences can be taken to legitimize 'call for action' (whatever that means). It should not be surprising that unconvinced climate scientists will point to weaknesses in the argument, and more populist campaigners will surely grab any cold month as evidence for the belief that we do not have to do anything.

There are just a few lines buried in the middle of the article that indicate how tenuous the link between temperature records and local weather, and global average climate is:

Climate scientists say individual areas of extreme weather cannot be directly linked to global warming even as overall temperatures rise, but they give an indication of the challenges to come in a hotter world.

So what we get, according to scientists (are these the same that are quoted with more dramatic statements?) are 'indications' without being able to establish a direct link between global warming and extreme weather.


...and Then There's Physics said...

more populist campaigners will surely grab any cold month as evidence for the belief that we do not have to do anything.
Except this is so obviously stupid, that I'm amazed anyone with a basic understanding of the topic would possibly excuse it.

Middletown Insider said...

15,000 years ago, New England was covered by glaciers. "Global warming", i.e. "climate change" caused the climate to warm and the glaciers to retreat. This man-caused global warming crap is just that; crap.

Günter Heß said...


you ask too much for my experience. It is a rare quality to be able to consider you might be wrong, even though you are totally convinced you are right. It is easier to consider other people as being stupid.

Paul Matthews said...

" I wonder how long it will take for the fans of this approach to realize how impotent a weapon this is in the fight against climate change. "

I don't think they will ever learn. The same failing approach has been followed for many years, with cherry-picked, exaggerated, tenuous claims. If anything, it is getting worse, with more and more things being blamed on climate change.

A few wiser journalists (Andy Revkin perhaps is an example) do learn from their mistakes as they get older. But there is a steady stream of eager, naive, young activists determined to get the message out.

The unfortunate result of this type of journalism is that it merely increases polarisation on this issue - just look at the comments under the article. Those who are already very worried about climate change become increasingly hysterical (there's a comment suggesting that climate change is going to cause a re-emergence of smallpox) while those who are doubtful become more dismissive.

Paul Matthews said...

Here is the Revkin article I was thinking of:

"I’d written hundreds of newspaper and magazine stories as well as two books about global warming, burning rain forests, melting glaciers, and the rest. I was hitting the peak of my influence among Earth-loving activists and loving it."

"But then my underlying hunger for reality spoiled things.
I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation or strengthen the faltering 1992 climate change treaty. "

But he is in a very small minority.

Incidentally there is also a section in that article comparing CFCs and global warming that is very relevant to your previous blogpost.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Thanks Paul, will have a look at this. Revkin is outstanding, I agree. But is it really the age factor that explains the over the top reporting? There seem to be people of all ages who are convinced about this strategy.

...and Then There's Physics said...


So what does the article say, and why is it problematic to expect any positive policy effects based on reporting like this?

Given that your argument appears to be that the science-dominated narrative is unlikely to lead to positive policy effects, maybe you could indicate what would qualify - in your view - as a positive policy effect.

Anonymous said...

Let's imagine you are driving a car and approaching a cliff. You see a warning sign that says: Caution. Cliff. You drive on. You come to another sign saying CAUTION! Cliff! You drive on. You get to another sign which says in big red letters CAUTION! CLIFF! Please stop! You drive on saying to yourself "I wonder how long it will take for the fans of this approach to realize how impotent a weapon this is in the fight against...." people driving off that cliff.

Paul Matthews said...

Reiner, yes of course there are many senior journalists who have not learnt the lesson that Revkin has. A good example is John Vidal in the Guardian today, promoting the notorious arctic ice "death spiral" opinions of Peter Wadhams, a climate scientist so extreme that he has been publicly ridiculed by his peers.

I wonder if it would be possible to do a study of the age question. My conjecture would be that younger reporters would be slightly more prone to the naive approach that you criticise here, as some of the older ones (but not many) learn from experience.

Hans von Storch said...

So far, as main driver for more or less serious reporting in newspapers and other media the experience of the journlist has been considered. SInce experience grows with age, it was suggested that older journalist may be somewhat more serious than "newer" ones. This suggestion is based on the concept that journalists in general want to tell something like an objective truth (whatever this may be).
However, some journalists may have other legitimate motives - there want to have income, and thus will try to report about things, which their readers find interesting, and with an angle, the readers want to read. Soome ofus prfer TAZ because of their angle, while others prefer FAZ also because of their anle. The Guardian wants to please and entertain its readers, The BILD Zeitung also, I guess. In other words - we have the newspapers, and their quality, according to our preferences and wishes. If a newspaper reports about things in a way that most readers do not like it, then they will loose readers (and advertisers).

I would speculate that there are readers who want to have a one-fits it-all explanation for all kind of bad things, namely climate change. It makes the world easier and its supports the good case, one is committed to.

...and Then There's Physics said...

Hans raises a good point. What's being discussed here is how it is presented in the media. I assume that Reiner isn't really arguing that we somehow mandate how the media presents information; press freedom is very important. The alternative is that we influence how scientists communicate with the media. I think effective science communication is important, but I do think there is a fine line between being aware how best communicate information, and actively engineering what you say so as to promote some kind of hidden agenda. I would regard the latter as objectionable; ideally researchers should be open about their results and not carefully craft a narrative that suits their preferred policy options.

My own view, as I think that I have said before, is that if there are people (Reiner, for example) who think that the framing is wrong, then they're perfectly entitled to present information that demonstrates an alternative framing. Have at it.

@ReinerGrundmann said...


Positive effects can only come about from robust and credible information. On the level of reporting this would require an open acknowledgement of uncertainties: how much El Nino influence? Has the civil war in Syria really been caused by climate change? Haven't some regions in the world benefited from the warming observed so far? As Hans says each paper plays to a specific audience. Although I would go a step further and argue that the logic of alarm has produced a media script in which more and bigger threats are needed to sell such stories. The news value has to be more drama. A cynic might observe'If in doubt about some problem, blame it on climate change.'


What an unfortunate metaphor. Authorities who know of the existence of a cliff at the end of a road will a) have certain knowledge about this fact and b) make it physical impossible to drive there.

But accepting your example for the argument's sake: it depends how credible road signs appear to be. Like many motorists I know of plenty of cases where warning signs have been left in place with no hazard present, where warning signs and speed limits seem arbitrary or counter-intuitive and are therefore deliberately ignored. Readers of alarmist media reports will equally discount such messages, apart from the true believers.

Werner Krauss said...

Paul and Hans,

what about the age factor in science? To find out, I just replaced "journalists" with "scientists" (and a few other words) in Hans' ad hoc analysis #10. It reads like this:

"So far, as main driver for more or less serious reporting in climate science and other sciences the experience of the scientist has been considered. Since experience grows with age, it was suggested that older scientists may be somewhat more serious than "newer" ones. This suggestion is based on the concept that science in general wants to tell something like an objective truth (whatever this may be).
However, some scientists may have other legitimate motives - they want to have income, and thus will try to research about things, which their advisors and funders find interesting, and with an angle, the funders and advisors want to read. Some of us prefer PIK in Potsdam because of their angle, while others prefer CliSAP in Hamburg also because of their angle. The PIK wants to warn and to educate the public, Hamburgs CliSAP wants to rationalize and to educate, I guess. In other words - we have the institutes, and their quality, according to our preferences and wishes. If an Institute researches about things in a way that most media do not like it, then they will loose their visibility (and fundings)."

Which one do you consider more realistic, the journalist or the scientist version?

...and Then There's Physics said...

That doesn't really answer my question. You seem to be asserting that the manner in which it is currently presented will not lead to positive policy outcomes and yet you seem unable to define what you would regard as a positive policy outcome. If you can't define what would be positive, and what would not, how can you possibly be asserting that the current framing will not lead to positive policy outcomes?

David Young said...

Hans does raise a good point, but it is I think far beyond just the media wanting to keep readers interested. The media these days is I believe full of scare stories and pseudo-scientific exaggeration about virtually everything, from cancer to tropical diseases, from financial meltdown to debt crises, from climate change to fracking. Gross exaggeration of dangers and even the severity of the weather is a click bait strategy I fear, as Hans says. It is also a marketing strategy for products to ward off or affect those dangers. The media however, do seem to me to downplay the threat of Islamist terrorism. That's the one exception I can think of.

However, the problem for those who are trying to scare the public about climate change is that the boy who cried wolf syndrome has already set in big time. Many of our smartest citizens just automatically discount what the media tells them about dangers.

I would argue that the climate communication community is simply doing itself and its goals a disservice when they stoop to trying to compete in the "we're all going to die" sweepstakes.

Middletown Insider said...

A number of years ago, retreating glaciers in Norway (I think it was Norway), revealed primitive hand tools that had been abandoned, centuries ago. This indicates that there was a warm period when that land was habitable, followed by a cold period, which allowed glaciers to advance, followed by a warm period, which caused the glacier to retreat, to eventually be followed by a cool period, . . .

The climate has been changing since the beginning of time and will continue to do so until the end of time. Ice core samples from Antarctica prove this.

To the alarmists, I ask; "At what point in the history of the earth did the climate permanently stabilize, never to change again but for Man's influence?"

@ReinerGrundmann said...

I have addressed your question, perhaps not given the answer you wanted to hear from me, or the answer you would had given.

I do not have a special definition of what would count as positive outcome in this context --one could imagine very many complex criteria that would distract from the issue at hand. I would go with whatever the aims of the campaigners are. Presumably: create and sustain a sense of urgency, of public support for climate policies, of implementing policy measures, or initiating new policies to reduce emissions. The Guardian article is counterproductive in this regard.

Question to you: do you think the article is a good reflection of the state of knowledge? And, even if it is not, do you think it will help to achieve the above quoted aims?

...and Then There's Physics said...

I don't think you have answered the question. As far as I can tell, you're asserting that the current framing will not lead to a positive policy outcome. However, if you can't define what would be a positive policy outcome, it's hard to see how you can assert that the current framing will not lead to one.

Werner Krauss said...

Maybe one should not only focus on the "facts", but also on the semantic context in which they are presented. The article embeds the scientific facts into a myth; the current world is presented in the context of an apocalyptical narrative. It is like a religious sermon containing important (scientific) key words. The goal is to raise emotional and spiritual awareness - to be ready when "Zion's train is coming", for Judgment Day, to use some religious metaphors. This apocalyptic
state of mind raises awareness and heightens responsibility for the way we live, because it could be the last day. If we want to save the world, we should do it now. This way of speaking has a century long tradition in our culture.

Language does not simply transport information; it is always and necessarily "cultural". The journalist does not necessarily use this kind of apocalyptical language intentionally; everyone who writes, who tells a story about climate change - scientific or not - has to use a literary genre, a narrative style. Humans are symbolic animals; it is impossible to exchange information without making use of symbols.

This is also true for those who insist in presenting nothing but the facts. These critics deploy the techno-scientific narrative. It is based on the myth of the value-free, non-ideological, objective scientific-techno fix of the climate problem. Nuclear power, GMOs, social and geo-engineering will save the poor from hunger and the planet from overheating. It seeks to separate facts from values; in doing so, facts become the fetish of modernity - the modernity that is responsible for the problem it seeks to solve. Just open a newspaper and you will find a rubric called "fact-check" - facts are the magical symbol of a modernity lost in religious wars, techno-scientific imaginaries and neoliberal ideologies.

I guess it is impossible to separate information from context, science from culture, facts from values. We should keep this in mind when we judge or criticize this article or the opinions of other commentators. Maybe it helps to see it like an anthropologist: as cultural documents.

David Young said...

ATTP, Reiner answered your question. It might helpful if you would answer his.

David Young said...

A very relevant piece to Reiner's point is here, by the new editor of science,

Günter Heß said...

Reiner #17,

you ask:
"Question to you: do you think the article is a good reflection of the state of knowledge?"

I think this is too much to expect from an individual article or journalist. An article in the media presents a limited projection of facts, opinions and assumptions upon a topic or what the author believes is a fact, opinion or assumption and what he gets from his recherche.
The article at hand describes the discussion that is out there in the area of climate politics.
It contained also the regular amount of facts constructed and presented to serve the purpose of the article.

Therefore, I think this is a regular article. I guess even a better one than you get normally presented in the media.

@ReinerGrundmann said...


very true. But in order to make the apocalyptic narrative work only selected 'facts' can be built in.

I am not sure if this genre is employed subconsciously, maybe it is. As you know there is quite some literature showing that 'fear won't work' in climate change communication.

Anonymous said...

was ich besonders interssant finde: die Unterstellung von Leugnern wie die GPWF

Die GPWF behauptet, wie auch andere, dass das GISTEMP-Team die Daten manipuliert und die alle Betrüger sind. Ich finde das einfach nur krass.

Neben wir GISTEMP als Beispiel (gleiches gilt für alle anderen Datensätze, ausser für Spencers/Christys Daten, witzig oder?):

* Rohdaten frei
* Dokumentation frei
* alle Änderungen frei
* SourceCode frei
* unabhängige Re-Implementierungen vorhanden und frei
* völlig andere Verfahren zeigen dieselben Ergebnisse
* es gibt eine gute Zusammenarbeit mit "Citizen Scientists" (was auch immer das sein soll), kann ich auch aus eigener Erfahrung bestätigen.

Nun ich bin Informatiker, ich kapiere das, was die da machen und ich kann den Source Code auch lesen und verstehen. Passt schon alles.

All das wird ignoriert und behauptet: Betrug.

Ich möchte nun wissen, was ausser diesen Punkte kann ein Wissenschaftler oder eine wissenschaftliche Organisation tun kann? Sie keine PR-Menschen. Sie haben alles offengelegt und doch wird von Betrug oder was auch immer gefaselt. Erklären sie mir das. Sie sind die Social Scientists. Ich bin nur Informatiker. Ich sehe die Fakten. Ich bin am Thema interessiert. Ich kann sie auch einordnen, aber irgendwas muss ich ja übersehen. Ich fühle mich nicht besonders gebildet oder intelligent, aber wer sich seit 10-15 Jahren mit dem Thema beschäftigt, kann die Fakten oben nicht ignorieren, außer man leugnet sie.


Anonymous said...

Why is the article called 'apocalyptic'? It's quite factual reporting.
What should the journalist have said instead?

@ReinerGrundmann said...


the analogy between journalists and scientists is a fascinating one, alas we cannot discuss this in the limits given here. So just a brief note: Both are dealing with representation and interpretation of the world, revealing things that are not obvious. Because journalists reach larger audiences, including (but not limited to) the power elites, they tend to have more influence in society. And the direct power relation between journo and scientist is asymmetric.

Where does truth come in (oder bleibt die Wahrheit auf der Strecke)?

Journalists operate in an environment where sales of news counts, hence they need to write good news stories that will attract readers.

Scientists operate in an environment where number and visibility of publications count, so they need to get published in good academic journals.

Truth may be a value orientation for individual journalists and scientists, but it is difficult to see how this is achieved on the institutional level, apart from procedures such as peer review. While peer review may help weeding out obvious errors it does not guarantee truth. Journalists will be quickly attacked by other journalists if they get things wrong.

You will of course always find support for the value of truth-seeking when asking individual scientists directly. But there are other values as well, like producing socially useful knowledge, or knowledge that leads to technical innovations and thus increases wealth production. These values are often in tension with each other.

Hans von Storch said...

Ob GWPF von Betrug spricht oder nicht, weiss ich nicht, weil ich deren Äusserungen nicht verfolge. Allerdings gab es vor einiger Zeit das BEST (Berkley Earth Surface Temperature) Projekt, das von Skeptikern geleitet wurde. Deren Überprüfung lieferte für die Zeit ab ca. 1860 Ergbnisse, die die anderer Grupppen bestätigte. Damit sollte diese Diskussion eigentlich vorbei sein. Dieser Teil, die Manifestation des KLimawandels (ob natürlich oder menschgemacht) fanden wir (Bray und ich) auch in unserer 2015/16-Umfrage akzeptiert von mehr als 95% der von uns befragten Wissenschaftler.

Aber - Was ist der Unterschied von Spencer/Christy zu der CRU-Reihe? Ist mit "Spencer/Christy" die tropospheric temp-series gemeint, die im Wessentlichen auf Satellitendaten beruht?

Der behauptete Betrug bezog sich übrigens auf angeblich veränderte räumliche Verteilungen von Beobachtungsstationen und die Wiirkung von Korrekturen der allgegenwärtigen Inhomogenitäten in längeren Beobachtungsreihen. Das ist keine Frage an die Informatik sondern an Praktiker, die sich auseinandersetzeen mit der Art der Beobachtung. Man nennt solche Leute Meteorologen (wenn es um die Atmospphäre geht) und Ozeanographen (wenn es um das Meer geht).

Anonymous said...

Reiner says: "While peer review may help weeding out obvious errors it does not guarantee truth. Journalists will be quickly attacked by other journalists if they get things wrong."
What about science blogs, PubPeer etc., all helping to weed out errors in the natural sciences very quickly.
Who weeds out errors in social sciences? And who establishes 'truths'?

Anonymous said...

just one more article under millions, telling us that our mild and wonderfull climate over the last decades is dagerous, is killig life an will become worst.
This ist post normal science in a post normal world.

heidruns hønseri said...

Ladies & Gentlemen, Meine Damen und Herren

"Hottest summer,... what does it tell us?"

Ich sitze meistens mit dem Eindruck dass sowas wie Kurven- lesen und Servographie und auch noch elementärste analytische Geometrie soviel wie klassen- feindlich, fremd- religiös, und auf jedem fall bisher sozial- liturgisch verpöhnt und verboten bei den Klimasurrealisten gewesen sein muss.

Dort fehlt offenbar aus politisch sozial liturgish militant fachidiotischen Ursachen die Mittlere Reife. Es ist ja soviel wie politisher Kampf und Krieg gegen Rene Descartes ( ein franzose... aber immerhin...), die Kartesische Ebene.

Scheinbar wurde nichts ausser Börse und Das Kapital und Lotto und Partei und Fiussball- Data und Statistiken studiert. Eine empirische Temperaturkurve ist einem dann offenbar ganz neu, besonders Klassenfeindlich, und soviel wie wiederlich und lächerlich.

Etwa 11-12 Jahre alt habe ich zum ersten Mal in mein Leben ein Servograph gesehen oder "Ein papierschreiber" wie man sagte. Das war im Gewächshaus der Landwirtschaftlichen Hochschule , wo es auch besonders schwül warm war.

Ich konnte auf stehendem Fuss schon als Volksschüler noch ganz ohne Mittlere Reife das ganze Ding durchschauen, denn ich erkannte den Zylinder, das Papier, die Koordinaten, der Schreibstift und die Kurve,.... und sah eine Uhrmaschiene.

Ausserdem und dazu kannte ich schon das Termometer, das Barometer, und das Hygrometer, denn das war alles pflichtpenzum in der Staatschule.

Dann muss man auch aufpassen dass man kein Quatsch darüber redet oder schreibt..., denn das ist soviel wie blasphämisch und Majestäts- verunglimpfung.

Oder in anderen Wörtern besonders schlechtes Benehmen, weswegen man aus der Situation herausgewiesen werden kann! Ich wiederhole....!

Und was etwa The Guardian daruber meint, dass interessiert einem kaum mehr, denn sie sind in den letzten Jahren zu propagandistisch geworden. Sie belehren und berichten kaum mehr Natur oder apparat- wissenschaftlich.

Es gibt tatsächlich Menschen heutzutage, die es ganz übel aufnehmen, auf die Barriquaden steigen und zur Kampf und Krieg dagegen rufen, wenn man entsprechende klassisch wissenschaftliche Metoden mit graphische darstellung ¨für die Klimaparameter der Welt beziehen und aufstellen und veröffentlichen, wie damals schon obligatorisch im wissenschaftlichen Gewächshaus.

Aber jene besondere Blutgruppe oder "Chemie" gab es auch damals schon.

Es gab damals schon Kinder, die besonders viel Krach dagegen, in den wissenschaftlichen Unterrichtsstunden der Orientierungs und Naturkunde gemacht haben.

Und sie waren auch nicht die "christen".