Standards of climate reporting

Today the NZ Herald published the following:

Polar warming manmade

A British-led group of climate researchers claim that their research has demonstrated for the first time that human activity is responsible for significant warming in both polar regions.

Rising Arctic temperatures and the accelerating retreat of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean had been widely reported but the changes not formally attributed to human influence because of sparse observations and natural variability.

Temperature trends had been less clear over the Antarctic. Now a paper published in Nature GeoScience has suggested that observed changes in both regions were not consistent with natural climate variability.

The scientists claim human activities had caused significant global warming in both regions, along with likely impacts on polar biology, indigenous communities, ice-sheet mass balance and global sea level.

This story undermines the Herald’s reputation. Its only reference is to “Nature GeoScience”; thoughtful readers require more than that, such as the name of the university and the lead author—that is the least one can expect. There are also obvious questions a good journalist will anticipate and answer in the story, such as the observations which made this conclusion possible. Even in general terms, that would be helpful, since the writer tells us in the second paragraph that observations have been “sparse”. So the first question is: ‘What’s changed?’

But, worse than all of that, anyone with a short-term memory of longer than five seconds notices with suspicion the progression of uncertainty—it’s hard to miss in such a short piece. The heading unequivocally tells us there has been “manmade” [sic] polar warming. Then the first paragraph waters this down a fraction in saying research has “demonstrated” that humans are responsible for “significant warming”. This is ambiguous, but might mean that we are not responsible for all the warming, only a part of it.

Then astonishingly, the third paragraph directly contradicts the bold headline by merely “suggesting” that observed polar changes were “not consistent with natural climate variability”.

Well, whoopee!

That doesn’t blame human beings at all; it only says the scientists don’t understand the changes, because they don’t match what they know about the polar regions. But they might not know very much.

The final paragraph reverts to the headline’s allegation that man is responsible for global warming “in both regions”. But whoever wrote this is scientifically challenged, for, when studying a region, it may be found that it has warmed; it may be possible to assign a cause to that warming; but it is entirely impossible, from studying a region, to find the cause of global warming. For that one must study global influences.

So it may be misreported but is certainly incorrect that the scientists claim human activities have “caused significant global warming in both regions”. If the study does indeed uncover proof of human-caused ‘global warming’ it would be the first; it would be of immense significance and huge interest. We definitely deserve to hear more of it—why such a little story? And it seems so glib—as though the author doesn’t know what he is saying. We wait with baited breath to hear how previously “sparse” observations allow these truly earth-shattering conclusions.

So it may have been “demonstrated” that we’re responsible for polar warming (of course, without proper references we cannot be sure and without explanations we certainly cannot comprehend), but the final allegation of “impacts on polar biology, indigenous communities, ice-sheet mass balance and global sea level” is, they say, only “likely”. Which is no demonstration whatsoever.

This article is not a news report; instead, it is clearly an opinion piece with an agenda; it wants us to believe we’ve warmed the polar regions and in so doing caused them harm. It gives us no reason to believe we’ve done that. Not one. The article ought to be labelled as someone’s opinion; the fact that it isn’t so labelled is suspicious.

Even though it’s the Herald, one is hard-pressed to avoid a conclusion of deliberate deception in this demonstrably shoddy piece of journalism. Let us hope her editors do their duty towards not only the author of this unmitigated nonsense, but also her readers. Or it’s off to the Press Council for this unhappy bunny!

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