How the Right Distorts the Science of Climate Change

I was struck last week by a perfect example of how the Right in the United States and elsewhere manages to continue to play the role of climate change denier in the face of overwhelming scientific agreement as to its nature and the extent of its threat.

In one of the daily climate change newsletters I read, there was a link to an article that appeared on the UK Express, an admittedly right-wing news outlet, headlined, “Has Climate Change Been Disproved?”. Since I make it my business to be informed about the beliefs and tactics of the anti-climate change crowd, I clicked on the link and read the piece.

The gist of the article was to cite a study done by the Large Hadron Collider staff, which this “newspaper” interpreted as meaning that “mankind’s burning of fossil fuels may not be the primary cause of global warming.”

climate_change_clock2So, of course, I looked up the study cited in the article  in the Journal “Nature”. The headline on the Journal article was, unsurprisingly, quite different in tone. “Cloud-Seeding Surprise Could Improve Climate Predictions,” it read. It turned out that the study in question determined that molecules released by trees can seed clouds. This finding contradicts a long-held assumption that sulfuric acid, a serious pollutant, is required to create certain types of cloud formations. Clouds have always been a source of major uncertainty for scientists attempting to predict with precision where climate change might be headed. Clouds reflect sunlight away from the planet, acting to counter some of the heat we might otherwise experience.

The bottom line of this study is that, “the warming effects of carbon dioxide, might have been overestimated.” However the scientists who wrote the study are quick to point out that cloud formations are but one uncertainty of many. They also reminded readers that this is just one experiment which is difficult to project into a known fact without more detailed analysis and repeated experimentation.

One of the lead scientists said, “our best estimate of future levels and impacts of global climate change are probably still the same.”

So how does a journal article describing a preliminary finding that we may have more accurate information on which to base past performance and future outcomes of global climate change get turned into a piece declaring global climate change disproved?

There are only two logical explanations.

Either the reporters and editors at the Express were woefully ignorant of the subject matter and really didn’t understand what the study had discovered and its meaning, or they have an agenda whose purpose could only be served by a tortuous twisting of the facts and conclusions of a reputable scientific study. Either way, they did their readers a disservice by not acting as factual gatekeepers on the information highway.

We often hear that scientists are at least partly to blame for what public ignorance about climate change remains. They don’t explain things clearly, we hear. They always coach their findings in careful cautions, making them hard to treat as “facts”. True. But that is what science always does. If we expected them to wait until they had 100% certainty about their experiments, no science would ever get done. It is by nature a trial-and-error business.

But that’s no excuse for the indefensible misinterpretation of scientific information on the part of the journalism community.

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