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Karthika Muthukumaraswamy

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Climate Model Coverage: Far From Model Journalism

Posted: 12/27/2012 1:28 pm

With a less-than-stellar end to the Qatar climate talks, and with all eyes on the U.S. for more ambitious commitments ahead of the next round, it is more important than ever for the American public to be better educated on the dire implications of a rapidly warming world.

Despite a recent shift toward greater belief in anthropogenic climate change, perception of its risks remains low among the U.S. public.

A study published in the September issue of Nature Climate Change may help explain why. After analyzing climate coverage in major newspapers, and radio and television shows, the authors find a disproportionately large focus on op-ed and editorial topics in favor of actual explanations of science. The article concludes that the media not only provides insufficient scientific coverage, but also significantly undermines the reliability of climate models (in all news sources analyzed, almost two times the coverage of climate models was negative versus positive).

Rather than merely focus on their imprecise nature, the media should take some time to elaborate on the complexity of computer models and shed light on why they are imprecise, describing what we know along with what we don't know.

Reporting should emphasize that simulating the forces that drive climate, such as ocean circulation and heat exchanges between land, air and sea, and their interactions with living ecosystems requires very sophisticated mathematical analysis. Systems of differential equations based on the laws of physics, fluid movement, and atmospheric chemistry take data from satellite observations, ocean buoys and other environmental monitoring equipment, which are then solved on supercomputers.

More importantly, these models entail dividing the Earth's atmosphere into hundreds of thousands of grid points and predicting values for various physical factors, such as temperature, heat transfer, moisture content, and radiation at each grid point. The temperature at a given grid point is predicted five to 20 minutes at a time, until a projection far in the future, say the year 2100, is reached. Because of the short time-step of just a few minutes (which enables greater accuracy), even a one-year simulation would need to process this calculation tens of thousands of times; according to the World Meteorological Organization, for just one year, this would require processing 27,000 times for each of the 2.5 million grid points on Earth.

Climate models are by no means precise. Given their complexity, assumptions and simplifications have to be made to allow even supercomputers to generate projections in a reasonable amount of time. Nonetheless, they are rigorously mathematically tested, and data from past years have reliably been able to recreate the Ice Age and volcanic eruptions from past decades.

If the general public is given an intricate look at the processes that drive climate and the methods used to predict it, anyone with the ability to recall even a basic problem from middle school physics should begin to comprehend the sheer complexity of these projections. This will, perhaps, dispel the notion of climate scientists sitting in their labs and spewing conspiracy theories about a rapidly warming world.

In the aftermath of a political campaign where Republican candidates made a mockery of science, outrightly denying evolution, stem cell research, and human-induced climate change, it is even more important for the media to step up and defend science instead of continuing to insist that there are two sides to this issue.

The fact that the Nature study found that The Rush Limbaugh Show provided the most "explanation" of climate models among major news publications and programs should be disconcerting enough. More than a third of the articles and shows explaining models were also seen to be in political commentary outlets.

Previous studies have called for greater transparency on the part of computer modelers in order to increase public trust in modeling. A paper that argues this in the Communications of the ACM aptly quotes the "reasonable person doctrine": "Information givers should provide enough information to takers for reasonable people to make decisions."

Any less information is unacceptable, the authors state, since it does not give users the ability to make informed decisions, and instead forces them to place blind faith in the "black box" that is computer modeling. The general public are users of information with regard to global warming, no doubt, because they make decisions everyday on energy consumption and carbon footprints: reusable versus paper versus plastic bags, energy-efficient versus regular bulbs, cars versus public transportation, and so on and so forth.

While all scientific issues suffer from perfunctory reporting due to lack of time, resources and expertise of journalists, climate change particularly lends itself well to the "two sides to every issue" narrative, since so much of the research is still preliminary. And when the media encounters an event whose conclusion is unknown, it plays a guessing game, trying to predict a possible conclusion and argue for or against it, often based on little factual evidence (think presidential elections).

While this kind of coverage is corrosive anywhere, it's even more so in the case of scientific stories, where it is important to report on the uncertainty itself rather than using it as a launching pad for pet theories.

Another reason the media gets it wrong is its endless thirst for the sensational, the controversial and the dramatic. Which is why controversies like Climate Gate or Rick Perry's belief that global warming is a hoax make it to the front pages time and again.

Want dramatic?

Consider this reporting from Bloomberg Businessweek, accompanied by this very explicit cover page in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which took nearly 200 lives and left millions without power on the East Coast:

"Sandy featured a scary extra twist implicating climate change. An Atlantic hurricane moving up the East Coast crashed into cold air dipping south from Canada. The collision supercharged the storm's energy level and extended its geographical reach. Pushing that cold air south was an atmospheric pattern, known as a blocking high, above the Arctic Ocean. Climate scientists Charles Greene and Bruce Monger of Cornell University, writing earlier this year in Oceanography, provided evidence that Arctic icemelts linked to global warming contribute to the very atmospheric pattern that sent the frigid burst down across Canada and the eastern U.S."

Since long-form journalism with context and background is now passé, the media should at least take advantage of high-priority events like Sandy to shed light on the big picture. Unfortunately, these types of stories are exceedingly rare, but this is one way to educate audiences on the fact that computer models draw on the same logic that lies behind weather models, which most people rely on for their daily activities, and which are -- unreliable-weatherman jokes aside -- very close to accurate on a day-to-day basis.

Reporters could also make use of immersive multimedia technology to explain how models work, says Larry Pryor. Video games that allow people to "play" with real simulations can give them firsthand experience in working with computer models.

Games could be specifically designed to allow users to see causes and effects, and to analyze the impact of various factors that affect global warming. The video game, SimCity, has a new version with an additional climate change component to be released next year.

Citizen science and crowdsourcing projects to model and predict climate change can also be great ways to enable the public to not only acquire information, but to also take part in the research. Old Weather, for example, is a crowdsourced effort aimed at gathering meteorological data from naval logs of U.S. ships from as far back as the mid-19th century, which can be used in climate models.

Initiatives like the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication are also great approaches to get citizens interested and involved in the climate debate. By tracking public awareness of climate change, including American attitudes, risk perceptions, and views on policies, the project tests new and effective ways to involve the public in climate science research.

Recent efforts to push for the teaching of climate science in schools, where children could learn the nuances, complexities and multidisciplinary aspects of climate research would make the job of the media easier, even while preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers who will likely address these challenges head on.

Meanwhile, the media should do its job. It's the people's right to know. If there were an impending terrorist attack or dangerous epidemic that could affect millions of people, surely the media would use every channel to communicate that to the public? What about global warming -- a phenomenon that may cause entire coastlines to go under water and whole countries to disappear -- doesn't warrant communication?

This article is re-posted from Scientific American.

 

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