Connecting the dots of a vicious circle

It is amazing to see that we exactly get what we were hoping for all along, but yet scientists and the media always seem to find new causes for alarm. No observation seem to sooth the alarmist mind. Now they don’t have that much ammunition (low storm frequency, pause in global temperatures, colder winters, more snow,… despite the “unprecedented” amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere) they seem to go for more virtual treats. The media, gullible as ever, reports on it without questioning it and even takes it a step further. This post will look into an instructive example of such a synergy between science and media…

It was an item on the VRT (Flemish Radio and Television) news of August 15, 2013 called “Global Warming – Vicious Circle”. I did miss it when it appeared on television, I was still bickering on one of previous posts at that time. Later when it caught my attention, it was already removed from the VRT newssite, but the link to the video was still available on other news sites. For example Het Nieuwblad or De Standaard (video is in Dutch, but translation in English is below).

I found it was related to this press release and based on a Nature article from which this is the abstract. The article had a whopping 18 authors.

This is how the news was presented:

[News anchor]
Due to climate change there will be more and more intense heat waves, bigger droughts and severe storms and the consequences will also further accelerate climate change. According to research from which the results are in Nature today and in which the University of Antwerp also cooperated.

Wow. That’s quite a misrepresentation. Unless the scientists did an entire parallel investigation which they didn’t feel necessary to put in the abstract, this was NOT the object of the study at all. They studied the effects of storms and heath waves on the CO2 uptake of the ecosystem in a climate model. They didn’t study the effect of climate change on heat waves, droughts or severe storms. In fact, it was the other way around. It was their assumption that those events would increase. Everything else follows from that assumption.

[Journalist, about the images of someone working in dusty, dry soil, cueing into the back of two legs on a cracked soil]
We see these images more and more worldwide: drought due to global warming.

Vicious Circle: Back of legs of someone walking over a cracked soil

Vicious Circle: Back of legs of someone walking over a cracked soil

Sure, but we got also a lot more communication tools than ever before. When I was little we also got loads of images of drought in the Horn of Africa. Now there are much more images of course. Not necessarily because there is more drought, but because we get more media coverage than ever before.

[Journalist]
And that warming is caused in part by CO2 we emit. Up to now nature could save a part of these human emissions.

“Up to now”. Meaning not anymore???

[Scientist: Sara Vicca]
Previously, the ecosystems served as a buffer for CO2 emissions. Without this buffer, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would much higher than it is now.

[Journalist, again the back of two legs over a barren soil]
An international team has now discovered that nature is losing the possibility to buffer, as a result of global warming.

Vicious Circle: Again someone walking over barren land

Vicious Circle: Again someone walking over barren land

“Discovered” is a strong term for what was investigated, from the Nature abstract (my bolding):

But evidence is mounting that climate extremes such as droughts or storms can lead to a decrease in regional ecosystem carbon stocks and therefore have the potential to negate an expected increase in terrestrial carbon uptake.

That is a lot of if’s and but’s. That is not even close to “discovering”. To me, discovering means finding something new, not mounting a bunch of possible outcomes on a stack.

[Scientist: Sara Vicca]
When it is too dry, plants will close the stomata (the leaves have small holes which absorbs CO2, but also loses water) and when it becomes too dry then that stomata will close and CO2 uptake decreases.

But, but…the last years climate scientists in the media have exhausted themselves in explaining us that a warmer world means a wetter world. The science was soooo incredibly clear. Higher temperatures means more evaporation, more evaporation means more clouds and more clouds means more precipitation. That also what we see in reality, you know, the real data. Didn’t those guys and gals received the memo? Or did the science suddenly changed and are they the first to report it?

[Journalist, with dramatic images of a forest fire threatening a house, cueing into an image of a storm]
Beside this there will also be more forest fires due to the drought and more storms due to climate change. And yet another loss of nature and buffer. Scientists fear that the damage is irreversible soon.

Vicious Circle: Forest Fire threatening a house

Vicious Circle: Forest Fire threatening a house

Vicious Circle: Storm

Vicious Circle: Storm

[Scientist: Sara Vicca]
This means that the ecosystem itself will increase the CO2 concentration in the air and that man really can not intervene anymore. So that the ecosystem itself stampedes out of control.

There is that pesky death spiral again. By growing older, I became more familiar with it. About any climate scare had it, the coming ice age, the ozone hole, acid rain, now global warming a.k.a. climate change or climate disruption has many of those death spirals. At their time they were taken seriously, but after the scare they were only ridiculed.

[Journalist]
And then we better get used to a more extreme climate and this kind of images of the Belgian coast.

Vicious Circle: Thundercloud over the beach

Vicious Circle: Thundercloud over the beach

vicieuzecirkel12_small

Vicious Circle: Storm at the coast

That is a rather weak ending compared to the graphic images of the rest of this item. They could at least show some real extreme events in stead of a rainy cloud at the coast and happily strolling people. I have no idea why they do it like this, but I have seen this before (reporting of global warming mostly somewhere else).

In conclusion they said that climate change will increase the number of droughts/storms/forest fires and the ecosystem that takes up an amount of CO2 will be less able to do so and even contributes to the CO2 output (forest fires means more CO2 in the air and less carbon sequestered in the ecosystem). If I would hear this as an unprepared layman, I would certainly connect the dots and think this is yet more evidence building up that we humans are causing all these events.

The question to ask of course: are droughts, storms and forest fires actually increasing? We hear the media breathlessly reporting that they are increasing without a doubt and we are the ones responsible for it. With every storm we hear the media using it as an example of extreme weather and we hear these types of events are on the increase because of global warming. The same with droughts. They are connected to global warming/climate change due to greenhouse gases and we should do something about it. We hear a lot about forest fires, also in connection with these “increasing droughts”. They are being reported as more frequent and over a larger area than ever.

According to the special report of the IPCC “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” (2012), there is not much confidence that droughts and storms are increasing. In their press release they don’t even mention droughts or storms!

That is exactly what the real world data seem to say. The global tropical cyclone frequency seems to go slowly downwards. The Accumulated Cyclone Energy decreased tremendously in the last seven years. There seems to be a small decrease in frequency over time and a large decrease in intensity. We are at the bottom part of the observed trend.

From Tropical Cyclone Activity Dr. Ryan N. Maue


Global ACE

Global Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE)

What about the forest fires in North America that are on the increase? Contrary to the common perception North America’s forest fires seem to decrease in frequency as well as in area. When one looks at the data this seems to be a perception problem rather than a forest fire problem. Most probably because of more people living in the areas prone to forest fires and more media attention.

The same with drought. We hear from the media that these forest fires are increasing because the drought is increasing, but when we look at the data there is not much of a trend. If there is one it is slightly becoming wetter. Also here, more a perception problem than an increase in drought problem.

Via the GHCN viewer (negative values mean dryer conditions, positive values wetter conditions)


Palmer Hydrological Drought Index (PHDI)

Palmer Hydrological Drought Index (PHDI)

But how do we known then that these events will increase if it is not from the observed data? Not everybody checks the data. The journalists of the VRT news obviously didn’t and assumed that what most scientists and activists said must (still) be true. Not much people do their homework and the same things are perpetuated in the media. Which makes other people get the impression this is ever increasing mounting of evidence. Another reason could be the models, something that is not understood well by the layman. The output of climate models is not “evidence” as we assume it is. Models offer “what if” scenarios on the assumption put in by the scientists. The results are various “scenario’s” of things that could happen (if the assumptions made were correct).

This story illustrates the issues with not checking facts. Scientists ran a climate model, took some scary scenarios, brought it to the media that didn’t even questioning it and dressed it up a bit with emotional charged images. I found this example from the VRT news rather extreme, but that is how it works.

What is the result? The public has again a doses of global-warming-is-caused-by-us-and-getting-worse meme, although this is not suggested by the observational data. That is how the momentum is (still) being build. And that’s the REAL vicious circle…

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