Distilling the Essence of Climate Change Complexity

I am teaching two journalism classes this semester, with climate change being a main focus these past few weeks. We had an obvious news peg in Sunday’s big climate march and the gathering of world leaders this week in NYC.

Students in both classes have received climate change 101 lessons from me–where the body of science stands, who the largest carbon emitters are, the known and projected impacts, the tricky (global) politics, the wicked nature of the problem, and so on.

It’s a lot to take in for the uninitiated, which includes nearly all my students. Additionally, they have to navigate the shouty public conversation. So imagine what happens when they come across an op-ed (in a major newspaper) headlined, “Climate Science is Not Settled.” The Wall Street Journal commentary by a respected scientist generated finger-wagging reactions and a stern rebuke from some in the climate science community. Others were more measured.

To someone who is already struggling to make sense of a complex science, the WSJ article is puzzling. At least this was the response from one of my students who emailed the class listserv yesterday:

I would be interested to know everyone’s thoughts on this article about climate science. Everything I read seems to make the issue more confusing/complicated!

I did not assign the WSJ op-ed, which emphasizes the mysteries still haunting climate science. The student came across it on her own. But I am sure many can identify with her overall sentiment.  Climate science is a complicated field. Just think how much bandwidth has been devoted to the “pause“–I mean “hiatus“–wait, I mean “slowdown.”

You get the idea.

Fortunately, for guidance I can direct my student to this stellar essay  just published by Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist and excellent science communicator. (Follow her on Twitter.) Edwards notes:

Complexity and uncertainty create extra difficulty for experts in explaining their results, and for non-experts in understanding them. Climate science is not sound bite science.

For a quick understanding of what we know about climate change–and what we don’t know–this lucid essay by Edwards is a terrific primer.

19 Responses to “Distilling the Essence of Climate Change Complexity”

  1. Steve Crook says:

    “Climate science is not sound bite science”

    Ahhhh bless, an idealist. Climate science *is* soundbite science because the MSM and politicians think we’re thick, have an attention span measured in seconds and will defer to authority. It’s compounded by MSM churnalism by press release.

    I’m actually quite shocked your students appear to have such a poor grasp of the complexity of climate change and the associated politics and economics. These are the people we’re going to be relying on to distil information and inform us about what’s going on in the world. They have a lot of growing up to do…

  2. Tom Scharf says:

    Tasmin Edwards is always very good in my experience, and the WSJ article was also a pretty decent reflection of the current state of the science.

    It is certainly a ridiculous soundbite to say the science is settled or not when you don’t mention which part of the science you are speaking of. The “pro-science” side is guilty of continuously conflating the issues of whether the world has warmed (settled) with whether future warming will be dangerous (unsettled).

    The fact that Joe Romm disagrees with anything has absolutely zero reflection on whether it is valid or not, you can’t possible pick a more rabid partisan attack dog than Romm. You are going to get some very mixed signals if you give students info from Romm and Nuccitelli, and then have them compare that to info from the WSJ article.

    Climate Progress and Skeptical Science both put out propaganda, as in only telling one side of the story. Much of what they write is true, but they obfuscate and hand wave when it comes to some of the most important points. Magnitude of impacts, cost of mitigation, reliability of projections, extreme event linkage, separating human and natural influences, etc. Their overt demeaning of opponents should raise red flags with any reasonable person. WUWT is similar, but from the opposite side. I know of zero neutral sites, but my opinion is Climate Etc. is the closest and has the most useful message threads.

    The rebuttals to the WSJ pointed to here roll out the appeal to emotion morality playbook, the “less knowledge makes decision making more certain” fallacy, and the most recent trendy talking point that fixing climate change will be free, even promote growth. I’ve got a bridge to sell for people who believe that last one…

    The most important statement included here IMO is from Tasmin: “In short, each media outlet told the story it wanted to tell.”

  3. Matt B says:

    This was a nice essay by Dr Edwards & struck a reasonable tone. But, it is tough to take her position as an impartial voice, when right from the get-go she says:

    “There are certainly plenty of things climate scientists are certain
    about: Humans are tipping the earth’s energy balance, so the world is
    warming and sea level is rising. The earth will continue to warm,
    rainfall will become heavier in many places (such as wet tropical
    regions), and sea level will continue to rise.”

    Human tipping the energy balance? Check

    World warming over the last say 100 years? Check

    Sea level is rising? Well OK but hasn’t it been rising at approximately the same rate for at least the 130 years or so?

    The earth will continue to warm? Well there are certainly reasons to believe it will, but is this a certainty?

    Rainfall will become heavier in many places? Well OK but hasn’t that always happened? That statement implies a static worldwide rainfall pattern & I cannot believe that would be seen as a “certainty”

    Sea level will continue to rise? Well OK let’s give that a certainty for now, but if it just following an established trend that pre-dates any major environmental changes made by mankind, is that much of a point?

    So, the issue of communication of uncertainty becomes difficult when someone as intelligent as Dr Tamsin makes statements of certainty that can be see as, well not so certain.

  4. bobito says:

    I found the WSJ article to be a very fair state of the science. A welcome change from “We are all doomed” and “Nothing to see here”. It gave me warm and fuzzies…

    Then I read some of the comments, and about two in I see, to paraphrase, “Don’t believe any of this! The author works for BP!!!!”. The comment was in reference to the credential at the bottom of the page ~former scientific advisor for green energy at BP~. Also certainly many comments from ‘deniers’ spinning the article far beyond it’s content and intent.

    Sigh… I hope you are also teaching your students about confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and tribalism as well. If students learn nothing else, the world will be a better place for it…

  5. Buddy199 says:

    Life is confusing/complicated. Anybody who tells you “the _______ is settled!” in politics, economics, social policy, but especially science is naive at best and duplicitous at worst. That should be the main take away for students. “The Truth” is slippery, never 100% clear, arrived at only after a difficult intellectual search and evaluation – basically, nothing like the cookie cutter simplicity dogmatists try to sell you.

  6. Ian Blanchard says:

    Some thoughts based on your student’s comment (limited to the scientific side AGW – the politics, especially in the US is a whole different ball game).
    Climate change science has several key factors that make it complex, both from the perspective of further research and with regard to the understanding of the general public. The main ones are:
    1 – Time. The purported changes occur at a rate that is imperceptible within a normal human frame of reference – a <1 degree C change in temperature over 100 years can only be determined by instrumentation, not perception. Anyone saying they can 'see the effects of climate change' are either observing an unusual weather phenomenon or mis-characterising other enviromental deterioration (or over-selling). This is especially the case for 'extreme weather events', which by their very nature as so rare that showing a statistically significant change in their frequency will take many decades to centuries.
    2 – Inadequacy of existing data. We know with reasonable certainty how CO2 in the atmosphere has evolved since the late 1950s, and have a reasonable extrapolation back to the start of the 20th century. Similarly, we have good temperature data from satellites (so from 1979) and somewhat less well constrained data from surface stations going back at least into the 19th century (somewhat confounded by changes in land use, station moves, equipment changes and the quality of record keeping), while sea temperature data prior to Argos buoy deployment is (to be kind) patchy at best. And then you have to consider such things as aerosol data (which at least exists), cloud cover and perhaps solar activity data. Even without touching on the issues with proxy data, climate scientists are having to try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
    3 – Difficulty / impossibility? of running control experiments to validate the model results. While it is easy enough to demonstrate the IR absorption properties of CO2 in the laboratory, it is much more complex to derive an experiment that demonstrates what effect this has in the real atmosphere, confounded by the effects of water (evaporation, vapour, cloud nucleation, precipitation), convection and turbulence. Currently, GCMs are the only tool purporting to account for these factors, but these are limited by the grid size and hence computational power requirements, meaning that some key factors are necessarily parameterised rather than based on 'first principle' physics.
    That certain people, including some climate scientists but mostly politicians, NGOs and members of the media, have presented an overly simplistic picture of the issue is unfortunate.

  7. Buddy199 says:

    That certain people, including some climate scientists but mostly politicians, NGOs and members of the media, have presented an overly simplistic picture of the issue is unfortunate.
    Yes, but when you consider that climate science has been hijacked and turned into a vehicle to advance a political agenda for these folks their simplistic and scary messaging makes more sense. Without a crisis mentality it’s impossible to implement the enormous political and economic central planning, anti-capitalist agenda they seek, which is just as much of a goal as saving the planet from extreme weather events that haven’t yet occurred but might, some day.

  8. Jerome says:

    The WSJ article is so close to a good article but is misleading in what it implies. It is misleading in that it implies that uncertainties are ignored, but uncertainties are an important part of any climate science publication. It is true that there are uncertainties in the projections but what is left out is that the range of prediction is from bad to catastrophic. I think this is what confuses your students: an article of mostly true statements but misleading by implication and omission.

  9. Uncle Al says:

    “Composing more than 7.7 million km^2 of the Atlantic Ocean, the Sargasso” “Because the ocean temperature was unseasonably cold”

    Tremendous unsupport for the preceding communication.

    Klimate Kaos eludes even the most perfidious advocates. “The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool.” Stephen King.

  10. Jerome says:

    This is an issue of scale. It is entirely possible for one area of the ocean to be colder than normal while another area is warmer than normal. The EPA article refers to total ocean heat content while the science article refers to the temperature of one location in the ocean.

  11. iFred says:

    It basically boils down to: “Do you believe in climate models, or do you believe in reality”.
    Climate models say we are gonna be fried in 2100, whilst reality says there’s no sign at all that that will happen, in fact it appears to slow down and climate sensitivity (where it’s all about) is scaled down every year.
    All the tipping points (like an ice free Arctic in 2015) have been or will be met soon without any repercussion, in fact the earth is greener than 25 years ago.
    So, do you believe Mother Earth or my blue eyes….

  12. Uncle Al says:

    OK…the emperor is wearing a banana hammock.

  13. JH says:

    Tamsin’s essay is disappointing. I would not assign it to a student.

    [we know we’re right because] “…predictions like these are based in fundamental science
    involving observations and physical understanding that date back up to
    200 years.”

    Well friggin’ duh! 🙂 All scientific hypotheses rely on piles of observations and theory dating back hundreds of years. 🙂 That doesn’t mean that they’re correct! The fact that you used Newton’s or Maxwell’s or Gibb’s equations means exactly jack sheet! Holy cripes, what a friggin’ howler!

    Her “science communication” isn’t communication about science at all. It’s the standard RealClimate Team line: “you can’t understand it. It’s real hard. Don’t bother trying. Just leave it to us”. We all know how effective the RealClimate Team has been in communicating the science. 🙂

    Why not just explain the science? Because its not that convincing?

  14. JH says:

    I don’t think it’s misleading at all.

    The writer means to imply that uncertainty is left out of the policy discussion, not individual research publications.

    You miss-state the range of climate impacts. At the low end, there is little impact and much of what is claimed as “climate change impact” at the low end would probably occur anyway.

  15. JonFrum says:

    “Just think how much bandwidth has been devoted to the “pause“–I mean “hiatus“–wait, I mean “slowdown.””
    I don’t know about you, but where I live, the red traffic light is called a ‘stop’ light. Not a ‘pause,’ or a ‘hiatus’ or a ‘slowdown’ light.
    The observed increase in global average surface temperature that we saw at the end of the 20th century has…. stopped. It may start up again. And it may not. Until it does, I call a stop a stop.

  16. Tom C says:

    Yes. Koonin is a respected scientist. Abraham is a civil engineer who teaches at a small private college and has zero experience in climate science. Nuccitelli barely qualifies to be called a climate scientist. Romm is, frankly, insane. Round goes to Koonin!

  17. laursaurus says:

    they are asking questions, not forming conclusions. A know-it-all at 20 yrs old would be a scarier thought. They are taking a class because they don’t know. That’s kind of the point.
    Thank God they’re getting to understand nuance. Black and white thinking is indoctrination. Too many college professors are doing just that. I’m happy Keith isn’t pushing a political or ideological agenda.

  18. BarryWoods says:

    Tamsin: “Not everyone knows this, but more and more climate sceptics agree with us too”

    Dr Paul Matthews


    This is a recent fairy story in the climate community. In fact studies repeatedly show that people are getting more sceptical about climate change, not less.

    Climate sceptics are getting more confident that they are right (that the climate scare has been greatly exaggerated), as each climate prediction fails.

    In fact it is the climate scientists who are coming round to agreeing with the sceptics. After years of denying that there was any slow-down or pause in warming, it is now one of their main topics of research. Similarly, after insisting that natural variation of the climate is small compared with man-made “forcing”, they are now acknowledging, as sceptics have been saying for years, that chaotic fluctuations and natural cycles are an important factor.

  19. Steve Crook says:

    I dunno. Seemed to me that they just weren’t very questioning.

    But then I actually thought that Bush and Blair really had genuine evidence that Saddam had WMD because, no matter how flimsy it seemed, they wouldn’t lie to us. Would they? I was definitely old enough to know better.

    So perhaps I was being harsh…

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