Scare Tactics: Study Explores the Misleading Reporting on Global Warming

August 23, 2006

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WASHINGTON — The past two years have seen a flood of news reports about global warming, largely concentrating on melting ice caps, hurricanes and mass extinctions.  A new study by the Cato Institute examines these stories and shows that many of them, including scientific reports, are remarkably flawed.

In the Policy Analysis “Is the Sky Really Falling?: A Review of Recent Global Warming Scare Stories,” Patrick J. Michaels, a Cato senior fellow in environmental studies, argues that many stories about hurricanes, the melting of polar ice and extinctions “are riddled with self-inconsistencies, are inconsistent with other findings, and are reported — as much by scientists themselves as by reporters — in extreme or misleading fashions that do not accurately portray the actual research.”

Once a commonly-exceeded temperature threshold is reached, there is no relationship between observed hurricane severity and ocean-surface temperatures, writes Michaels.  Actually, the frequency of intense and extreme hurricanes in both the Atlantic and the Western Pacific (the most active regions on earth) was the same in the 1940s and 50s as in the mid-1990s.

“Reports of rapid disintegration of Greenland’s ice ignore the fact that the region was warmer than it is now for several decades in the early 20th century, before humans could have had much influence on climate,” the paper points out.  Furthermore, Antarctica is gaining, not losing ice, and that is predicted to continue for at least the next 100 years by all modern models.

Stories about mass species extinction rates as a result of global warming turn out to be demonstrably wrong, as well.  According to Michaels, reports about extinctions of butterfly populations in Europe ignore the fact that warming has increased the geographic range of most species, resulting in more, not less, biodiversity.

This collection of half-truths and misstatements about global warming are “a predictable consequence of the way that science is now conducted, where issues compete with each other for public support,” Michaels concludes.  “Unfortunately, this creates a culture of negativity that is reflected in the recent spate of global warming reports.”

Policy Analysis Paper no. 576