Reporting on climate science

A visit home to Australia is always interesting when it comes to climate change reporting in the media, simply because of the controversy around this issue here. Australia has been trying to implement meaningful policy for nearly a decade and has made little progress.

On this visit, my first perusal of a newspaper highlighted the controversy that exists. The Weekend Australian reported on a recent paper in Nature Geoscience that examined the differences in model and satellite measured tropospheric warming rates. The paper focussed particularly on the early 21st century when model warming exceeded observed warming, raising the possibility of a pause in the warming trend.The Weekend Australian opened the article with the words “Climate models were wrong . . . ” and continued with the words “The admission . . . . “, as if there was guilt attached to the finding. This approach sets the tone of the discussion as being negative towards and sceptical of climate science, even though this isn’t the direction being taken by the Nature paper itself. Rather, the paper is about the divergence in model output and observational data presenting an opportunity to better understand the variability of the climate system and therefore improve modelling science.

On a similar note, but at the other end of the spectrum, The Guardian almost gleefully reports a few days after the Weekend Australian that “Hopes . . . . have been dashed by new research.” that longer term warming will be less than expected if based on the temperature rises seen in recent decades. Rather, it explains that longer term warming will be much higher and likely closer to model expectations based on the findings of the paper that they chose to select and discuss.

Both the research papers in question represent different but equally valid attempts by the science community to better understand the underlying climate sensitivity and the reasons for variability. Both papers help advance that understanding and both have proposed reasons why there is divergence between models and observations. This is important work, but the reporting of it leaves much to be desired.
Picking and choosing particular pieces of work and then amplifying one aspect of those stories with hyperbole isn’t helping inform the public on the reality of the climate issue and the scale of the job in front of society to tackle global emissions. It adds to the divisions that exist rather than attempting to bring the sides together. In both cases, the more informed reporting would have been to tell the reader that the science community is building a better understanding of climate sensitivity and the reasons for variability. But perhaps that’s just a bit too dull for modern reporters!