On Attribution, Global Warming and Disclosures

By Keith Kloor
Jun 29, 2011 6:33 PMNov 20, 2019 5:46 AM


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The issue of special interest/advocacy funding is ever present in the climate change debate. Several months ago, Matthew Nisbet challenged the conventional wisdom that environmental organizations were being vastly outspent by industry-affiliated associations and deep-pocketed conglomerates with an anti-regulatory bent. One of the things that perpetuates the monolithic climate skeptics-are-funded-by-industry meme is the lack of transparency by some contrarian scientists, as revealed in stories like this one from yesterday. Additionally, as Reuters reports, it's not just the considerable sum of money that climate skeptic and astrophysicist Willie Soon has received in the last few years, it's recent stuff like this:

Soon co-wrote a May 25 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal called "The Myth of Killer Mercury." In the piece, Soon was identified as a natural scientist from Harvard, but the newspaper did not disclose that he receives most of his funding from the energy industry.

Hell, I would have accepted even a simple acknowledgement that he receives some money from coal companies. I have to think that WSJ readers would have appreciated knowing this about someone who co-authors an op-ed claiming that mercury (emitted from coal-generated power plants) is not harmful to your health. Speaking of disclosures, on the same day the story broke on Wille Soon's lucrative side gigs with the energy industry, Scientific American put up a feature headlined,

Storm Warnings: Extreme Weather Is A Product Of Climate Change

The writer, John Carey, reports:

Scientists used to say, cautiously, that extreme weather events were "consistent" with the predictions of climate change. No more. "Now we can make the statement that particular events would not have happened the same way without global warming," says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo. That's a profound change"”the difference between predicting something and actually seeing it happen. The reason is simple: The signal of climate change is emerging from the "noise""”the huge amount of natural variability in weather.

If you read to the end of the piece, which is the first in a three part series, you'll also learn this:

Reporting for this story was funded by Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Now that's how you do a disclosure! Then again, I have to ask: why is a highly reputable science magazine letting a foundation-supported organization (whose "mission is to provide credible information, straight answers, and innovative solutions in the effort to address global climate change") financially underwrite a story about global warming and extreme weather? Don't get me wrong. It's not unheard of for foundations to help fund specific articles in magazines, but often those are for investigative or enterprise stories that require a significant expenditure of time and resources. And even then, these stories are usually published in political or advocacy-oriented magazines (such as Mother Jones or High Country News). And by the way, I don't have a problem with that. I see nothing wrong with grant funded journalism as a supplement to the traditional advertising and subscriber-based model, as it allows reporters to pursue stories that might otherwise not get written, especially given the tight budgets at many publications. I just question whether it's appropriate for a magazine like Scientific American, which I consider to be a top flight science journalism outlet without any stated political or ideological agenda. (Of course, they get periodically hammered from partisans that inhabit the polar ends of the climate debate, but that's par the course.) There's also another odd aspect about this SciAm story funded by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. It's advancing a controversial claim (for a global warming link to individual weather-related disasters) that is largely contradicted by a "white paper" issued yesterday by...you guessed it, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Here's from the paper's introduction (my emphasis):

The fact that 2010 was one of the warmest years on record as well as one of the most disastrous, begs the question: Is global warming causing more extreme weather? The short and simple answer is yes, at least for heat waves and heavy precipitation. But much of the public discussion of this relationship obscures the link behind a misplaced focus on causation of individual weather events. The questions we ask of science are critical: When we ask whether climate change "caused" a particular event, we pose a fundamentally unanswerable question. This fallacy assures that we will often fail to draw connections between individual weather events and climate change, leading us to disregard the real risks of more extreme weather due to global warming.

None of this is to say that Carey's SciAm story is without journalistic merit, even if it leans heavily on one source--Kevin Trenberth--who is known for unreservedly advancing the extreme weather event/global warming link. Trenberth is again a central source in part two of Carey's article that is posted today, but this time he is juxtaposed with another scientist with a counter view:

This science of attribution is not without controversies. Another case in point: the 2010 Russian heat wave, which wiped out one quarter of the nation's wheat crop and darkened the skies of Moscow with smoke from fires. The actual meteorological cause is not in doubt. "There was a blocking of the atmospheric circulation," explains Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at the NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, also in Boulder. "The jet stream shifted north, bringing a longer period of high pressure and stagnant weather conditions." But what caused the blocking? Hoerling looked for an underlying long-term temperature trend in western Russia that might have increased the odds of a heat wave, as Stott had done for the 2003 European event. He found nothing. "The best explanation is a rogue black swan"”something that came out of the blue," he says. Wrong, retorts NCAR's Trenberth. He sees a clear expansion of the hot, dry Mediterranean climate into western Russia that is consistent with climate change predictions"”and that also intensified the Pakistan monsoon. "I completely repudiate Marty"”and it doesn't help to have him saying you can't attribute the heat wave to climate change," he says. "What we can say is that, as with Katrina, this would not have happened the same way without global warming."

Hmm, this kind of dueling seems exactly the kind of counterproductive debate that Daniel Huber and Jay Gulledge caution against in their "white paper" for Pew. They conclude that,

it does not make sense to focus on whether individual events are supercharged by climate change. It does make sense, however, to take lessons from actual events about our current vulnerabilities and the risks to society caused in unabated greenhouse gas emissions that drive extreme weather risks ever higher as time passes.

The case they make for a "risk management framework" is well worth reading alongside Carey's SciAm articles exploring the evidence for a link between specific extreme weather events and climate change.

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