You Ought to Have a Look: Climate Change Subtleties, Hurricanes, and Chocolate Bunnies

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

We highlight a couple of headlines this week that made us chuckle a bit, although what they portend is far from funny.

The first was from the always amusing “Energy and Environment” section of the Washington Post. Climate change beat writer Chris Mooney penned a piece headlined “The subtle — but real — relationship between global warming and extreme weather events” that was a hit-you-over-the-head piece about how human-caused global warming could be linked to various weather disasters of the past week, including the floods in Houston, the heatwave in India and hurricanes in general.

Mooney starts out, lamenting:

Last week, some people got really mad at Bill Nye the Science Guy. How come? Because he had the gall to say this on Twitter:

Billion$$ in damage in Texas & Oklahoma. Still no weather-caster may utter the phrase Climate Change.

Nye’s comments, and the reaction to them, raise a perennial issue: How do we accurately parse the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events, as they occur in real time?

It’s a particularly pressing question of late, following not only catastrophic floods in Texas and Oklahoma, but also a historic heatwave in India that has killed over 2,000 people so far, and President Obama’s recent trip to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, where he explicitly invoked the idea that global warming will make these storms worse (which also drew criticism).

As the Nye case indicates, there is still a lot of pushback whenever anyone dares to link climate change to extreme weather events. But we don’t have to be afraid to talk about this relationship. We merely have to be scrupulously accurate in doing so, and let scientists lead the way.

We must read different papers than Mr. Mooney. What little pushback there is (with a lot of it coming from us) has done little to impede the ubiquitous and speculative talk (or at the very least, insinuation) that global warming is involved in some material way in (or should we say, “made worse”) each and every extreme weather event. When it comes right down to it, adding significant quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere (which we have done) does impact the flow of radiation through the atmosphere and in some way, ultimately, the weather. But the precise role that it plays in each weather event (extreme or otherwise) and whether or not such an impact is detectable, noticeable, or significant is far from scientifically understood—and almost certainly dwarfed by natural variability. This is true subtlety of the situation. Trotting out some scientist to say, “while we can’t definitively link global warming in to individual weather events, this is the sort of thing that is consistent with our expectations” is hogwash devoid of meaning. Such a statement underplays the scientific complexities involved and almost certainly overplays the role of human-caused climate change. If Mooney were accurately quantifying the subtleties, he’d have no business inserting them into his stories at all.

The fact of the matter is we examined the flooding situation in a 2004 article in the International Journal of Climatology[1] and in the Texas region there was no statistically significant change in the rainfall on the heaviest day of the year. Given that earth’s surface temperature hasn’t budged since then, the same should hold today.

The next piece wasn’t really a headline, but rather a tweet. Dr. Chris Landsea, a multi-talented hurricane specialist (researcher, forecaster, historian) from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) sent out this tweet after President Obama stopped by the NHC last week and made a few comments about, what else, the tie-in between human-caused global warming and hurricanes:

The link in Landsea’s tweet points to his article a few years ago that summarizes his well-studied opinion as to the current state of the science of hurricanes and climate change. Unlike many popular press/government stories, Landsea doesn’t shy away from the complexities and the confounding factors—which in fact aren’t subtle at all.

For example, when it comes to global warming’s role in modifying the strength of hurricanes, Landsea has this to say:

It is likely - in my opinion - that manmade global warming has indeed caused hurricanes to be stronger today. However, such a linkage without answering the more important question of - by how much? - is, at best, incomplete and, at worst, a misleading statement. The 1-2 mph change currently in the peak winds of strong hurricane due to manmade global warming is so tiny that it is not measureable by our aircraft and satellite technologies available today, which are only accurate to about 10 mph (~15 kph) for major hurricanes.

Landsea touches on topics of hurricane strength, number, lifespan, tracking, monitoring, demographics, damages, and, most importantly, implications. For example:

So after straightforward consideration of the non-meteorological factors of inflation, wealth increases, and population change, there remains no indication that there has been a long-term pick up of U.S. hurricane losses that could be related to global warming today. There have been no peer-reviewed studies published anywhere that refute this.

As an easy-to-read and extremely informative and insightful piece by one of the world’s leading hurricane researchers, this article is not to be missed. What’s more frightening than hurricanes themselves, is how far apart the opinion of leading scientists is from that of leading politicians.

But perhaps our favorite was this headline “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How” which tells the tale of how a team of conspirators showed how easy it is to get completely meaningless research findings into the scientific literature and then generating front page headlines and articles in diverse media sources from around the world.

The article, by science reporter-cum-dietary health researcher John Bohannon, is a must read. Laid out in chapters like the screenplay for The Sting, Bohannon describes how the whole thing went down, from “The Setup,” to “The Con,” from “The Hook,” to “The Mark” to “The Score.” Even more disconcerting than how they got the bad science in the literature—which is worrisome enough—is Bohannon’s description of the state of scientific reporting. While his remarks are made about science reporters covering diet, they apply, in spades, to many on the climate change beat. From Bohannon:

We journalists have to feed the daily news beast, and diet science is our horn of plenty. Readers just can’t get enough stories about the benefits of red wine or the dangers of fructose. Not only is it universally relevant—it pertains to decisions we all make at least three times a day—but it’s science! We don’t even have to leave home to do any reporting. We just dip our cups into the daily stream of scientific press releases flowing through our inboxes. Tack on a snappy stock photo and you’re done.

The only problem with the diet science beat is that it’s science. You have to know how to read a scientific paper—and actually bother to do it. For far too long, the people who cover this beat have treated it like gossip, echoing whatever they find in press releases. Hopefully our little experiment will make reporters and readers alike more skeptical.

If a study doesn’t even list how many people took part in it, or makes a bold diet claim that’s “statistically significant” but doesn’t say how big the effect size is, you should wonder why. But for the most part, we don’t. Which is a pity, because journalists are becoming the de facto peer review system. And when we fail, the world is awash in junk science.

There’s a lot more really juicy stuff in this piece. You ought to have a look—but your trust in science and the media will certainly be shaken, if it’s not crumbled already.


[1] Michaels, P.J., et al, 2004. Trends in Precipitation on the Wettest Days of the Year across the Contiguous United States.  Int. J. Climatology 24, 1873-1882.