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.