Climate news demands a critical eye
There is a lot on the table as politicians struggle to change the climate. In the U.S. proponents of government climate action put forward the Green New Deal policy that would affect housing, transportation, jobs and many other aspects of daily life.
Elsewhere, national governments, at the urgings of the United Nations, have made massive commitments to reach what they call carbon neutrality.
Daily there are news and television reports on climate, and they mostly predict bad things.
In order to evaluate this flood of climate information, the average citizen must adopt a critical attitude because some of the reports and characterizations of scientific studies are designed to grab headlines and not report facts.
Here are some suggestions:
1. Any news story or report on climate change should contain raw data showing exactly how the climate has changed. A mention of the current average temperature as opposed to the long-term average would be sufficient. If the topic is sea-level rise or melting Arctic or Antarctic ice, the data also is easily available online.
Too many reports blame such and so on climate change without stating if or how the climate has changed or how much.
2. Climate predictions, historically, have been incorrect. In the 1970s climate change meant the return of freezing temperatures and the glaciers. A magazine even featured a cover graphic of New York City frozen in ice. Today the predictions are generally based on the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere and the average world temperature. There have been many bold and incorrect predictions. Telling the future is an inexact science.
Even getting a world temperature today is difficult because data is lacking from so much geography. That was more true historically when the bulk of the accurate readings were from the United States, Europe and some parts of the British Empire.
Still, if a writer or television presenter blames climate change but cannot show that the climate has changed more than a tiny bit, the report is suspect.
3. Truncated graphs can deceive. Such graphs mostly are for effect. If someone’s body temperature goes up half a degree, they can be shown incorrectly to be in big trouble if the graph only covers one degree. It would show a massive spike taking in half the graph. A lot of climate graphs of temperature only have one or a few degrees on the Y axis, so minor changes in temperature appear to be large.
The same is true of graphs that ignore history. Typically, temperature graphs accompanying news stories and television reports begin sometime in the 1970s when data reflected a cold spell. U.S. temperatures in the 1930s were frequently warmer than today. So by ignoring history, a climate graph can show a temperature spike instead of normal variations.
4. Certainly the origin of the information should be considered. Climate discussions today are so political that the origin of data is as important as the content. There are a number of neutral-sounding organizations funded by highly partisan groups. That goes double for the current U.S. administration which has fully embraced the concept of human-caused global warming.
5. Some news reports do not survive logical analysis. Reputable academics in the past have incorrectly predicted worldwide famine, massive shortages of water and prolonged droughts. The world has been witness to thousands of droughts, floods, famines, heat waves, forest fires and plagues. Some of these have been the results of long-term climate changes. There is no reason similar problems should not continue to occur. Yet specific predictions usually have been incorrect, and humans have a way of making the best of a bad situation. So specific predictions of future disasters should be viewed critically.
6. The benefits of a changing climate must be considered. There is little doubt that the world is warming slightly. Glaciers a mile thick used to dominate what is now Canada and the northern United States. Sea levels used to be about 420 feet lower. Plenty of productive land has been lost to the sea, and more will be. Yet a warmer climate is what vacationers seek when they jet to the Caribbean today.
If the world warms dramatically by a few degrees winners and losers will emerge. No one really knows which will be which. There are competing predictions of drought and of more rain. Plants seem to like the additional carbon dioxide in today’s atmosphere. A warmer climate might increase agricultural production. There are plenty of predictions of a downside. Yet there is little chance New York residents soon will be harvesting bananas in their back yards.
7. Proponents of government action have yet to show success. The critical reader and voter must ask what solutions have been proposed that worked. A string of government agreements to limit carbon dioxide has had no effect. No one really can say how much of the historic warming of the earth is natural and how much can be attributed to human activity. Calling the causal agent carbon dioxide is still speculative. The coronavirus epidemic showed the inability of governments to overturn natural trends.
8. A lot of money is at play, so the truth sometimes is shrouded by propaganda. Certainly coal, oil and gas interests have a lot at stake. On the other side of the argument are those pushing a tax on carbon and massive subsidies for green industries. The United Nations itself sees the climate controversy as a way to shift large sums from the First World to developing countries. Academics benefit when their climate change research ends up in a peer-reviewed journal. Non-profits stress climate emergencies to raise funds for their narrow interests.
That’s why average citizens need to evaluate climate information with a sharp, critical mind because in one way or another they or their children will be paying the bill.