A media relations mistake and inaccurate reporting about climate change

Climate scientists often berate journalists for producing misleading articles about their work, but sometimes the research community should share the blame for inaccurate coverage.

For instance, take the media reports of a scientific paper that was published last week by the ‘Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences’, which suggested that an increase in the atmospheric concentrations of sulphate aerosols, mainly due to the burning of coal in China, may have counteracted the effect of rising greenhouse gas levels, causing a “hiatus in warming” between 1998 and 2008.

The authors of the paper, led by Professor Robert Kaufmann of Boston University, pointed out that “data for global surface temperature indicate little warming between 1998 and 2008”, citing the record compiled by Professor Phil Jones and colleagues at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia.

These research findings were widely reported in the UK media, and most newspapers, such as ‘The Guardian’, gave them accurate coverage.

Not so the ‘Daily Mail’ and the ‘Daily Express’.

An opinion piece about the research paper in the ‘Daily Mail’ by Christopher Booker, who writes a weekly ‘sceptical’ columns for ‘The Sunday Telegraph’, was headlined “Global warming? A new ice age? The only certainty is that YOU’RE paying for the hysteria of our politicians”.

Booker claimed: “The latest news is that the world may be threatened by a sharp drop in temperatures, possibly so severe that it could herald a new mini ice age”. Bizarrely, the ‘Daily Mail’ had the previous day published a short news story about the same journal paper, pointing out that global warming had “halted”, rather than reversed.

The headline of the report in the ‘Daily Express’ was “So much for global warming as Planet Earth gets cooler” and its opening paragraph led with: “The controversy over global warming hotted up last night after US scientists revealed that the Earth’s temperature declined over the past decade”.

The news report was picked up by its leading article which called it “just another bewildering detail in the ongoing story that we know as climate change”, and declared “the truth is that there are very few certainties and man’s attempts to stage-manage the environment are generally doomed to failure”.

So why did the ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘Daily Express’ make such claims when nowhere in the scientific paper do the authors state that the Earth cooled between 1998 and 2008?

Are these just the latest examples of the campaigns being conducted by these newspapers to present their readers with a distorted picture of the evidence for climate change? In this case, however, they are not entirely to blame.

The press office of the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ distributed a media release to journalists to promote the scientific paper, starting with the statement: “The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide increased steadily between 1998 and 2008 even as the Earth’s temperature declined, consistent with climate change resulting from both natural and human causes, researchers find.”

Although the scientific paper does not mention any decline in temperature, the journal’s press office has confirmed in an e-mail to me that the media release was approved by the paper’s authors before its distribution to journalists. And so both they and the journal’s press office share some responsibility for the inaccurate coverage by the ‘Daily Express’ and ‘Daily Mail’.

For the record, the CRU temperature data for the period between 1998 and 2008 do show a very slight negative trend, equivalent to a fall of less than six one-thousandths of a Centigrade degree over those ten years, but it is nowhere near statistically significant. And choosing the eleven-year periods on either side, 1997 to 2007 or 1999 to 2009, yield warming trends, although again not statistically significant.

Indeed, as Professor Jones pointed out recently in a BBC interview, it is difficult to find any statistically significant trend in temperature data for such a short period. One has to include all of the annual data from 1995 to 2010, a full 16 years, before this criteria is fulfilled, and unsurprisingly it shows a warming trend.

On shorter timescales, the noise created by short-term fluctuations in the annual temperature of the Earth obscure the underlying signal due to global warming, a fact that is often exploited by self-proclaimed ‘sceptics’ who like to claim that the Earth has been cooling since 1998.

While journalists should indeed be alert to the statistical shenanigans of the so-called ‘sceptics’, it is clear that they also need to be wary of the sloppy outreach efforts of climate researchers and academic journals.