Whipping up the AR5 Summary for Policy Makers

Journalism is obviously not an exact science. Journalists are not necessarily scientifically savvy. Yet they are the connection between (climate) science and the public. The understanding of the issue of the public depends on the ability of the media to correctly translates the science. Some journalists solve this by just printing what the scientists put in their mouth, without investigate it further. This is not difficult to understand. Journalists have to work with a deadline and that doesn’t facilitate investigative work on the issue, especially when the work was already done by “experts” in the field.

There are also journalists who put their own twist to their article based on what they know of the story. That doesn’t always fare well. See the ecosystems that were spiraling out of control. The AR5 Summary for Policy Makers release was a high profile subject. That message was bound to getting exaggerated.

In previous post I mentioned already the VRT news of September 27, 2013 about the press release of the AR5 Summary for Policy Makers. Beside the conclusions stated by Thomas Stocker in the press release, the journalist cranked the volume button up. Here are some extracts (Translated from Dutch):

[News anchor]
Our earth continues to heat up faster and faster as a result of greenhouse gas emissions by humans so. That is the conclusion of the five-yearly report by the UN’s about the climate. Because of that warming the polar ice will melt faster. Also, the water level of seas and oceans will rise.

That’s not true. It gives the impression that the temperatures went increasingly up, adding even more speed now. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is a pause in temperatures in the last decade/decade and a half, some even say a slight decrease.

I can imagine where the misconception comes from. Somewhat later in the news, there is the IPCC co chair that said the following:

[Thomas Stocker, co chair IPCC]
It is just not one decade that it is warmer. But a succession of multiple decades that provides us with a robust signal of a change in climate.

Although this is technically true, it is quite misleading. Yes, it is not just one decade (the temperature increase started somewhere in the 1980s and lasted until the end of the 1990s/start of 2000s), but the last decade the temperatures were completely flat. Of course, these decades followed each other (1980s increase, 1990s increase, 2000s flat). The misleading part of it is that the different decades didn’t have a steady increase. But that is what one would expect when hearing such a statement. There is a difference between “warm” and “getting warmer” that escaped attention. It fooled the VRT journalists, it certainly will fool many others too.

The polar ice was a clever diversion from the flat temperatures. Now the word was out that there was a standstill in temperatures, something else threatening had to be found:

[Thomas Stocker, co chair IPCC]
We are tasked to look at all aspects of climate change. Not only the warming, which is so evident to everybody, but more importantly changes in the water cycle and changes in sea level.

This put the focus away from temperatures and giving the impression that it is even worse than before. What temperature increase are we talking about in the long run?

(Translated from Dutch):

[Journalist]
According to the most conservative predictions, the end of this century will be on average 1.5 degrees warmer than 100 years ago. In the worst case the temperature rises by 2 degrees Celsius. And this has consequences.

That’s less than the minimum 2.0 °C that was projected in the previous report! So 1.5 °C is a step BACK, cleverly disguised as a step forward… This was brought as something significant. When the journalist would have compared the conclusions of this report with the previous one(s), he/she would find it a retreat from the previous position, not an advance.

Some images were recycled from the vicious circle story. We got the same images of someone working in dusty, dry soil and the shot of the two legs on a cracked soil. A pity they didn’t read the report, because they would have found out that not much is told about drought and with low confidence globally (likely in some regions), while it was implied as a fully-fledged part.

Then they switched to the Arctic ice, some scare stories could be found there (Translated from Dutch):

[Journalist]
For example, if we look at the surface Arctic ice in September, then the oldest predictions (in gray), have been overtaken by reality (the blue line). According to the latest forecasts (in light blue), there will be no ice in the summer by the end of this century. The last reports were sometimes criticized. Undeserved, says the IPCC. Our conclusions are confirmed.

Arctic Sea Ice extent

Arctic Sea Ice extent projection – AR4

Arctic Sea Ice extent - difference AR4 - AR5

Arctic Sea Ice extent projection – difference AR4 – AR5

First, look at the date of the minimum: 2012. They forgot that the minimum extent in September 2013 is already passed and it was considerably higher than 2012. It clocked at 5.1 million km2. That would make it about in the range of the minimum value. Now it is at 5.4 km2.

It is true that the Arctic ice is decreasing, but why only focus on the Arctic? Global sea ice doesn’t fluctuate that much because of the seesaw effect. What if the Arctic/Antarctic extent are cyclical events? Then the fall of Arctic sea ice would not be unusual, considering the seesaw effect together with the Antarctic ice extent.

Beside the last minimum date, the graphs that were shown are misleading. The predictions (they translated it that way in the graph) are in the gray area. But in reality there are many models that project ice extent. The original graph would have a maximum value, a minimum value and a median (probably this the representation of the gray area). The lowest value was below the minimum value, but not that much. By only giving a median value, the observations look much lower than when the maximum and minimum value were also drawn.

Plus, this is made on the assumption that the climate models of the Arctic area are correct.

I don’t know what they mean with the last reports are sometimes criticized and our conclusions are confirmed. Did they mean the Glaciergate blunder? They were indeed criticized for it and rightfully so. The IPCC stated in their previous report that the Himalayan glaciers would have melted by 2035. This was inserted into the report by a non scientific source (2 interviews). The sole purpose of insertion was putting political pressure on India.

Or does the journalist mean the conclusion: that Man is responsible for the warming? If so, it looks like it, but they chose to ignore the pause, the discrepancy between models/observations and climate cycles. Would their conclusion still stand when these issues were addressed head on? At least they would have to adjust their certainty DOWN in stead of up.

The IPCC obviously don’t want to give attention to the discrepancy between models and observations. That is not hard to understand. That would question the projections made in the report. Also a lot of climate policies start from the assumptions that the models are right, as well as financial and business schemes. They exactly knew there are issues that are not addressed in this report, but chose to ignore it.

From this, the journalists that didn’t check the story, brew something which made the message even stronger, even more convincing for the public, policy makers, entrepreneurs and activists alike. These are professionals that know how to bring a story and how to stir the emotions so the message will stick. In this case this was done by dramatic shots of calving ice, a farmer desperately preparing his dusty field, many fuming chimneys and the tailpipe of a car. The combination and succession of this all implied that “we are the culprit”.

There is a lot of momentum build into the system. We think this is all about a rational message, while it is in fact an emotional message that is being spread.

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