February 03, 2010

Mis-communicating Global Warming

As many of you know from my previous blogs, I believe that anthropogenic global warming (AGW)--warming due to mankind's emissions of greenhouse gases--is a very serious issue. The world's climate will warm up substantially if we continue our current course. I also believe that there has been considerable hype of past and current effects of man-produced warming, and not a little exaggeration in some quarters) of the AGW effects during the next few decades. I believe my profession has not been clear enough about the mechanisms of climate change and have not provided sufficient information on the uncertainties in our predictions.

But sometimes I am driven to distraction by the crazy claims of some individuals and organizations who feel it is necessary to "enhance" the threat or to make dire threats without any scientific basis. Perhaps such individuals and groups do it out of some idealistic drive to "save the world," but in reality they are damaging the credibility of the scientific community. And the media who mindlessly repeat this fluff deserve particular opprobrium.

Want an example? A recent release by the National Wildlife Federation is a prime example of misinformation (http://www.nwf.org/Global-Warming/What-is-Global-Warming/Global-Warming-is-Causing-Extreme-Weather/~/media/PDFs/Global%20Warming/Reports/NWF_WinterWeather_Optimized.ashx).

In this wacky report they claim that global warming is causing "oddball" weather across North America. Check out this figure from their brochure:

Heavy rain in the Northwest. A sign of global warming!
Lack of snow in Colorado: Global warming!
Record snowfall back east: Global warming.
You get the message. These folks blame every type of extreme weather, cold or warm, dry or wet, snowy or not....on global warming produced by mankind.

Now as someone who is working on this very issue and has read the literature extensively, let me tell you that this is all nonsense. Furthermore, none of this has passed the review process to get into the refereed journals.

Now this would be worth a few chuckles if no one paid attention to such scarester material, but I am afraid the mainstream media picked it up and published it. Hard to believe, but true. The Washington Post ran it, plus dozens of newspapers around the U.S. Media outlets such as MSNBC gave it air time. This is not the first time that our national media picked up baseless press releases or scarester stories, and probably won't be the last. For example, there was an unreviewed article in 2007 that stated that Chinese pollution was making Pacific storms stronger. This one got on the front pages of newspapers throughout the U.S., including the Seattle Times. And a quick read revealed that work was baseless, and it never got into the refereed literature.

The U.S. mass media does not have the time or interest in carefully screening the material they print or show, so the unfortunate message is: don't believe everything you read and view. Check it out yourself if you have the time.

Finally, Global Warming hype is found on plenty of blogs. My recent favorite is one describing the recent major low off the West Coast as a "Frankenstorm"--the kind that will be more frequent as the earth warms due to mankind's influence:
http://climateprogress.org/2010/01/26/preparing-for-frankenstorms-the-most-powerful-low-pressure-system-in-140-years-of-record-keeping-slams-the-southwest/ It is completely without any basis in fact.

Now today's blog has taken on the global warming scaresters and hypers, but even more ridiculous are the claims of some organizations and websites that that GW is some plot by the liberals and leftists or that there is no science between the threat. But this is for another time.

Finally, let me recommend a wonderful lecture by one of the UW's premier scientists and public communicators, Peter Ward. Last week he gave a talk on what paleontology teaches us about the threat of CO2-induced climate change and at the end he provided a stirring call to arms regarding the need for more emphasis on public outreach by the scientific community. I highly recommend you view his presentation:

This guy is a local treasure and his books are wonderful.


  1. Hey Cliff,

    I took your Weather 101 class fall of 2003. Got the second highest grade in the class! But I'd always appreciated your scientific balanced view of climate change back then to today. Pretty rare in your field!

  2. What of the recent NASA/NOAA study showing that mid-atmospheric moisture has a huge effect on temperatures near the surface? Please see: http://www.usnews.com/science/articles/2010/02/01/water-vapor-slowed-recent-global-warming-trend.html (the implication of which seems to be that changes based on surface conditions (no matter if they are higher or lower than "average") are small potatoes compared to what can happen when the mid-atmosphere changes it's mind.

  3. Thanks for the post Cliff. Equally annoying are those who use, for example, the recent cold weather in the Southeast as an argument against AGW.

  4. Excellent review of the hype surrounding global climate change. As you have pointed out that people, in general, don't understand the difference between climate and weather. The idea that we can't see trends in the climate if we can't accurately predict what the temperature will be a week out shows a gross misunderstanding of the science.

    I don't remember who I took Atmos101 from back in fall '81, but he was great as well. Weather is a fascinating subject.

  5. Solomon's paper doesn't change anything in the bigger picture. Everyone already knew that ENSO cycles were important in decadal variability of warming. Sorry, this isn't the refutation of global warming that some have been looking for. Doesn't appear that this is the long-awaited negative feedback mechanism either... Most of the comments on the web about this paper are equally as silly as the 'frankenstorm' comment by Romm...

  6. Interesting article... however the organization erroneously refers to the National Wildlife Federation as "World Wildlife Federation". Possibly you are confusing it with World Wildlife Fund?

    NWF is not really a leading environmental group as it has a "lifestyle" emphasis (hunting, etc.)

    WWF is top notch.

  7. In defense of Romm, he is a veteran of the DOE and is no doubt intimately familiar with the lengths deniers (AEI, API etc..) will go to prevent or delay AGW mitigation. He probably goes a little far in adopting their methods, and I could be persuaded that what he does is counterproductive to an effective AGW response, but I can't get too upset at the man seeing as how he is at least on the correct side of the issue. I'd say his main problem is that he publishes about ten posts a day, probably making quality control a bit of an issue. Looking forward to the next post Cliff.

  8. All true. But also true is that the hard data coming over the last few years is all at the upper bounds of the IPCC predictions. In other words, in our concern to be moderate and not scare people with 'hysteria' and 'hyperbole', we seem to have substantially under-estimated the problem, especially the rate of change. That has its own serious problems.

  9. As a person who made numerous comments on the referenced "Frankenstorm" post at Climate Progress, I would like to make a few comments in our defense. Joe Romm did not coin the term "Frankenstorm." That was quoted from a News report. We are not trained meteorologists, thou some are, and are dealing with the worst of the anti-science misinformers on a daily bases. For the most part we do attempt to separate weather from climate and do not attempt to marry every extreme event to global climatic disruption. I must confess to frustration driving me over the top in doomsday predictions from time to time. In my defense, I feel that short coming could be checked in large part by the professional folks that are in the know to speak more openly on the subject of AGW. I must assume from your statements above that you accept the IPCC findings for the most part. Comments from you would be most welcomed. Thank you for stopping by even for criticism.

  10. Thanks for being the voice of reason Cliff. I take the same approach when communicating AGW to folks. The climate change issue of so full of PEOPLE YELLING ALL THE TIME that it can be hard to use any nuance in talking about it. Bravo.

  11. Thank you for the great link to Dr Ward's talk- YES we need more science literacy!! YES YES YES!!!
    and thanks for including Portland, Oregon in your weather comments from time to time!

  12. As a scientist in another field (genetics) I can say that this isn't a problem limited to climate science. We as a scientific community need to work on making science accessible to our neighbors

  13. Cliff, people may not be getting it on Global Warming, but they are starting to get it on probability. Look at the Weather blog from the Washington Post: http://blog.washingtonpost.com/capitalweathergang/2008/01/frequent_questions.html#how_should_i That's the guide to interpreting their reports.

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/capitalweathergang/2010/02/forecast_another_major_weekend.html?hpid=artslot Here's the current DC forecast -- 16-20" of snow in the next 48 hours, with another winter storm on the way Tuesday! (That's where to go if you're looking for snow this winter, who would have guessed that?) :-)

  14. Tomorrow Feb 5th is National Weatherman's(persons?)day


    February 5th is National Weatherman's Day, commemorating the birth of John Jeffries in 1744. Jeffries, one of America's first weather observers, began taking daily weather observations in Boston in 1774 and he took the first balloon observation in 1784. This is a day to recognize the men and women who collectively provide Americans with the best weather, water, and climate forecasts and warning services of any nation.

  15. Cliff:
    Human's tend to get hyperbolic and extreme when arguing about issues where they have an emotional or financial stake. The examples of this are everywhere. Your pages dealing with coastal weather and the math book issue reflect that and people who agree with you applaud your extreme positions rather than fault you for them. Given the cause both your hyperbole and their support can be seen as good things.
    That is not to say the NWF is overselling their issue but I would at least recognize just how common this happens to all of us.
    Displaying a picture of downed power poles (that would have still fallen down with coastal radar) is but one example.
    Knowing that you filter content I am hoping you are reasonable enough to not filter this.

  16. spock said " [...] however the organization erroneously refers to the National Wildlife Federation as "World Wildlife Federation". Possibly you are confusing it with World Wildlife Fund? NWF is not really a leading environmental group as it has a "lifestyle" emphasis (hunting, etc.)"

    Nope. It's the NWF. This is a link to the news item on their web site


    And the NWF is not a "hunting or lifestyle organization". Read their About Us web page


    Their mission "To inspire Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future."


    "The National Wildlife Federation is America's largest conservation organization. We work with more than 4 million members, partners and supporters in communities across the country to protect and restore wildlife habitat, confront global warming and connect with nature."

    I have couple of NWF books: a new photographic field guide to Birds (not a hunting book) and the other a guide to field craft and animal observation. They don't exclude hunters and hunting as some other conservation organizations do either explicitly or implicitly.

    They're a good group overall but I agree with Cliff in this case they turned on advocacy mode (as a lot do) and ignore the actual peer-reviewed evidence because scare-mongering gets them in the news.

    Note that this is a fundamental problem with a lot of advocacy groups: they'll use science only when it matches their ideology but ignore it when it doesn't.

    You can see this behavior with a number of other environmental groups along with anti-AGW groups and numerous other "cause-based" groups e.g. women's breast cancer advocates that select (and omit parts of statistics) to enhance their advocacy even when other (more mundane and less gender related) issues are more significant (i.e. more women die of lung cancer and heart attacks than breast cancer).

  17. Ah, so refreshing to have a balanced and reasonable view espoused. Particularly in the Pacific NW.

  18. Thank you and congratulations on the text book decision!

  19. Another success for you, and for all of us, Cliff! Congratulations, and thanks for standing up for our kids.

    Judge rejects Seattle high school math program

  20. Civilizations cannot keep pumping filth into the atmosphere and expect atmospheric "drinkability" to remain fine... Asia does that and we regularly detect that noxious plume on this side of the Pacific. That said, I remain highly skeptical of someone screaming that because of "global warming" I now have to do A, B, & C. I also know that the main job of news organizations is to "sell" their news. Grain of salt time required when you read their inflammatory headlines. More research is required - and always will be. But looking back on the huge improvement in weather forecasts over the past 40 years means the research will provide answers (and of course, more questions). Great discussion Dr Mass, keep it coming. And don't let the school system weasel out of their math teaching responsibilities... again Thanks!

  21. Its amazing how often that...when I read in the news about a particular story or issue that I am very familiar with (thru my work for instance) how wrong the story often is. The message is...our media often does a very poor job of fact checking or presenting a balanced and accurate view of issues. Often, they just go for the headline. Many news stories are often shallow, incomplete or biased unfortunately even in respected sources such as the NY Times. Need to take everything you read with a grain of salt and be skeptical.

  22. The strong polarities between fundamentalist scientists and fundamentalist Christians makes it difficult to examine the limits of science in this debate (yes there are still things we don't know) One would be labeled "unscientific" based in "religious ideology" if he where to question some of the assumptions that respected scientist have made. (I am not talking about your weekend scientist but respected published folks in the community)

    We have made great strides in scientific advances in the learning of our climate and the consequences we are creating.I do believe we are changing the outcome. But growing evidence of the limits of reductionist science show that a number of theories are in fact not as bullet proof as we would like to think.

    A noble scientist said once that by the end of the twentieth century humanity would see the "virtual elimination of infectious disease" due to advances in medicine and especially antibiotics. I wonder what that professional scientist would say today.

    Bottom line. Scientist are unwilling to "openly" explore their problems of the structure of their equations because of the ramifications of fox news or Focus on the Family. They have gone into fight mode and are afraid to communicate with the public about their incredible advances and or disappointments.

  23. Cliff;

    Which is more serious, the instances of hype or inaccuracy by those overstating the threat OR the denialism in different stripes from Bjorn Lomborg, the Competitive Enerprise Insitute, James Inhoffe, Exxon, etc. ? Which lobby has more power? Which is farther from the truth?

    Interestingly, you seem to spend more time, when discussing AGW on this blog bashing those who overstate the case. In the face of what is an absolute crisis (witness the very good ice sheet science suggesting a rapid melt of greenland or antartica is very possible, or that methane is increasingly coming out of the melting permafrost) why is it that you choose to focus on this?

    I can't say I am a regular enough reader here to know for sure the distribution of your comments on the topic, but my sometimes visits here suggest you are drawn toward critiquing those who in your opinion are "overstating the case". If the science does not support them it is all fair and has journalistic value, but it seems to be an interesting habit of yours.

    I think you are one of the if not the most respected voice in Meteorology in the PNW and your statements on the issue will be shortened/summarized by others for their use. Would "the case for currently observed observed climate change is being overstated" pretty much sum up your opinion? Is that the sound-bite you would like associated with your name?

    When I look at the fact that the 00' decade was the hottest on record (NASA data), that there is a lag in temperatures catching up to the current 380 PPM in the atmosphere, that only 3-5% of our energy infrastructure is currently renewable, that oil supply is near peak, that glacial melt is accelerating, that the amount of multi year ice at the northern polar cap is collapsing, etc. etc. I am pretty damn concerned for the continuation of civilization. That may seem to be an extreme opinion but I will stick with it.

    Keep up your excellent work, but I would leave most of this work to the denailists... they will make sure its covered.

  24. Personally, I think that trying to get the news to educate people about actual climate science is futile. I tend to also think that getting the bulk of people educated about science is reasonably futile (but probably a worthwhile fight).

    I think you'd have more success in just teaching people that everything they see on TV is entertainment, and to stop trying to stay informed through an entertainment medium.

    And if you actually started to get traction on this issue, it will get spun as Cliff Mass vs. Global Warming, which I don't think is what you want.

    I tend to drink deeply from the waters of cynicism, though...

  25. Cliff, This kind of scientific BS is a major contributor to the skepticism surrounding this issue. Radicals right and left and very little reason, let alone sanity, in the middle. Thank you for your effort! Tom

  26. I think the best quote I have read about all this is, "If those who are concerned about climate change and want to take action are wrong, we end up with a cleaner planet. If those who deny there is a problem are wrong, we end up with an unlivable planet.

    I would rather err on the side of cleaning up our act.

  27. I attended Dr. Ward's lecture and would second Cliff's recommendation to check it out on UWTV. Ward uses Deep Time to examine patterns, very interesting.

    Ward made an impassioned case for greatly improving how scientists communicate their findings with the general public. Get the info out there in a way that the general public can understand it. Can't just count on the "media" doing it right, or at all.

  28. Cliff, I hope your reference to Phil Ward's presentation isn't intended as an endorsement of Michael Mann's discredited "hockey stick" (or, as Al Gore calls it, Dr. Thompson's Thermometer). Surely you don't endorse the appending of instrument readings to dodgy proxy records with data deletion and filtering to "hide the decline"?
    There's good reason this graph (prominent in the IPCC Summary for Policy Makers in 2001) was deleted in the 2007 IPCC Summary for Policy Makers.

  29. Cliff,

    As a regular reader of your blog, I tend to agree with Bill Reiswig above.

    You tend to be overly concerned with the occasional connection of an extreme weather event with global warming made in the press. Joe Romm takes some particularly hard hits in this respect which I think are mostly undeserved and play into the hands of the skeptic crowd.

    The IPCC and most climate scientists, you included, I presume predict increasing frequency in some cases, intensity in others and both in others depending on event and region due to global warming.

    Do you think it would be irresponsible to note this consensus when discussing a particular event and that this might be an example of what we would be seeing more of in the future?

    Paul Middents
    Relishing our snow free winter regardless of what is causing it!

  30. Paul,
    I think it is essential that scientists like myself give people the straight story and not hype or exaggerate threats. Only then can people of all political persuasions believe us. In fact, it is not true that there is clear evidence for more extremes in all locations due to global warming. As an example, extreme precip events are decreasing in Oregon. In short, I am scientist and I feel it is important to speak to my colleagues about this key issue...cliff

  31. Cliff,

    Thanks for your reply. I greatly value your professionalism and expertise.

    I fully appreciate your concern that scientists speak clearly, accurately and without hype. Almost all do and the few that don't tend to the skeptic persuasion. This is evident in some of the press releases and blog posts they use in advance of their peer reviewed publications that appeal to the skeptic side.

    The press is another matter and requires constant effort on the part of scientists to set the record straight. The Wall Street Journal and George Will's depredations come most readily to mind.

    A careful reading of my statement above does not in any way imply that extreme events will occur in all locations as a result of global warming. I understand that our current state of knowledge is still limited on a regional basis. But I stand by my contention that extreme events in some locations will increase in either severity or intensity or both. Whether or not they already are is still a signal well buried in the weather noise. I think this is a very important point to emphasize whenever you take on apparent hype in the media of an individual weather event.

    Paul Middents

  32. Cliff, please explain how the challenges likely to be wrought by global warming (further pressure on already rapidly diminishing biodiversity, sea level rise, changes in hydrology that only the richest nations will be equipped to deal with, etc.) will not cause problems for humanity that are a lot more worthy of "hype" than most things you see on the local news. You seem to me to be more concerned about the people truly worried about global warming than people who deny its existence? Is that a fair characterization of your position?

  33. Cliff,

    I'm a little behind on my reading lately, but thanks for the post. A lot has come to light since this post which may warrant an update.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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