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Parallel realities: media reports on climate change research

by on 2017/09/28

Reducing carbon emissions to minimise climate change is a global challenge, which 195 of world’s countries have agreed to work towards. Unlike most human modifications of the planet, the effect of carbon emissions is truly global, and can only be avoided through global cooperation. Based on overwhelming scientific evidence and substantial negotiations, the Paris agreement set the target of keeping global average temperature increase below 2°C, while attempting to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The agreement opens scientific questions as to whether this target is achievable, and, if so, how it could be achieved. This study set out to answer these questions using carbon cycle models and emissions scenarios. The results caused a media storm of divergent reports.

The study

Human caused warming is determined by the accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This means, that even if we completely stopped emitting CO2 overnight, we would still be committed to a certain level of warming because of past emissions. There are, therefore, two mechanisms to limit warming: emitting less CO2; and mitigating emissions through the use of carbon sinks, like forests, that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This paper estimates what could be achieved if ambitious mitigation measures were put in place alongside strict reductions in emissions. The results are positive, in that they show that meeting the targets set by the Paris agreement is still geophysically possible. It is hard, but not too late, to limit warming to 1.5ºC if we commit to decisive action now.

The media reports

The paper caught the media attention, much of it portraying the study accurately in saying that the Paris agreement is still achievable if urgent emission reductions are enacted. However, many media reports distorted the results considerably with headlines saying that “IPCC climate models were wrong” that “climate alarmists admit they were wrong” and that “climate models have been questioned”. Reading through these reports, I wonder if the people who wrote them read the same paper I did. I reread the paper multiple times and find it hard to reconcile their findings with these media reports. The paper updates and fine tunes estimates of climate change, an important and desirable process in science, but the results in no way question the urgency of tackling human caused climate change.

The distortion was such that the authors of the paper, Myles Allen and Richard Millar, called out how some media were misrepresenting their science. In this excellent piece published in the Guardian, they say the experience “feels a bit like discussing how best to steer a spacecraft into orbit around Saturn while [climate denialists] are urging their readers to question whether the Earth goes round the Sun.”

This level of misrepresentation surrounding climate change research is neither new nor random. It is part of ongoing ‘information warfare’ among climate change interest groups whereby information is distorted and propagated with the goal of driving agendas. For example, an analysis of Exxonmobil (one of the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations) climate change documentation recently published shows the company actively and knowingly misled the public. The company promoted doubt regarding human cause and seriousness of climate change in public documents, while acknowledging both in peer reviewed and internal documents.

The take home message

When media reports distort scientific publications, authors should call them out to correct public perception of their science, as Allen and Miller did. However, the audience of different media outlets is not the same. The response text came out in the Guardian, where the initial reports were accurate to begin with, rather than in the media outlets that distorted the study’s findings. Despite the authors’ best efforts, different perceptions among the readerships of different media providers regarding climate change science are perpetuated. The result is sections of society living on parallel realities with regard to climate change.

References

Millar, R., J. Fuglestvedt, Pierre Friedlingstein, Joeri Rogelj, M. Grubb, H. Damon Matthews, Ragnhild B. Skeie, Piers M. Forster, David J. Frame, and Myles R. Allen. “Emission budgets and pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5° C.” Nature Geoscience (2017)

MacKay, B, and I Munro. “Information warfare and new organizational landscapes: An inquiry into the ExxonMobil–Greenpeace dispute over climate change.” Organization Studies33, no. 11 (2012): 1507-1536.

Supran, Geoffrey, and Naomi Oreskes. “Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014).” (2017).

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