Skip to content

Climate Scientists Shoot The Messenger

Dr David Whitehouse, GWPF Science Editor

Blaming the news media is another low for climate science.  Journalists reported accurately that climate models have been running hot — because that’s what climate scientists actually told the press, and there was nothing wrong with the headlines.


Monday 18th September was to be an especially busy day for some scientists. Many were arriving in Oxford to attend a conference called, “1.5 degrees, Meeting the Challenges of the Paris Climate Agreement,” organised by Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. A paper was coordinated with Nature Geoscience to coincide with the Oxford meeting. 

Two of its authors – Prof Myles Allen of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and Professor Michael Grubb of University College London – attended a press conference at London’s Science Media Centre to tell the media about its implications and conclusions. By all accounts, the press conference went well and the media returned to their desks with the scientists’ comments and quotes while the scientists went to their meeting with a hot paper on the very subject of the conference.

For most who read the paper, or attended the press conference, the conclusion was clear. It was supported by what the scientists had actually told the press. Although the IPCC’s so-called carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5C has almost been spent, global temperatures have not risen accordingly in recent years and are unlikely to reach that level by 2022. Coupled with a slowdown in global warming seen this century – the climate models predicted a world that was too hot – it meant that this was the rare global warming good news story. In short, things were not quite as bad as the IPCC’s carbon budget had previously predicted.

The following day, Ben Webster of The Times reported;

We were wrong — worst effects of climate change can be avoided, say experts. Scientists admit that world is warming more slowly than predicted.”

The news story continued;

“The worst impacts of climate change can still be avoided, senior scientists have said after revising their previous predictions. The world has warmed more slowly than had been forecast by computer models, which were “on the hot side” and overstated the impact of emissions, a new study has found. Its projections suggest that the world has a better chance than previously claimed of meeting the goal set by the Paris agreement on climate change to limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.The study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, makes clear that rapid reductions in emissions will still be required but suggests that the world has more time to make the changes. Michael Grubb, professor of international energy and climate change at University College London and one of the study’s authors, admitted that his past prediction had been wrong.”

Here is the Times’ conclusion:

“When 194 nations met in Paris in 2015 and agreed to try to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5C, many scientists dismissed the goal as unattainable. They said it would be politically and economically impossible to cut emissions fast enough and that the world would have to prepare for worse droughts and heatwaves and islands disappearing beneath rising seas. Now it turns out the scientists were being too pessimistic and had been led astray by computer models. Other factors have also contributed to the new, more optimistic assessment, including the cost of renewable energy and China’s emissions growth both falling faster than almost anyone had predicted.”

I can see immediately how some would object to the good news. After all, that’s what the GWPF has been saying for years.

“On The Hot Side”

The Independent also covered the press conference.

“Professor Grubb told The Times yesterday: “When the facts change, I change my mind, as [John Maynard] Keynes said. It’s still likely to be very difficult to achieve these kind of changes quickly enough but we are in a better place than I thought.”

Myles Allen, professor of geosystem science at the University of Oxford and another author, said: “We haven’t seen that rapid acceleration in warming after 2000 that we see in the models. We haven’t seen that in the observations.” He added that the group of about a dozen computer models, produced by government institutes and universities around the world, had been assembled a decade ago “so it’s not that surprising that it’s starting to divert a little bit from observations”. Too many of the models used “were on the hot side”, meaning they forecast too much warming. “That’s about 20 years of emissions before temperatures are likely to cross 1.5C,” Professor Allen said. “It’s the difference between being not doable and being just doable.”

The Independent concluded:

“Computer models remain the best way to work out how quickly we need to cut emissions to avoid climate change, but scientists could be nimbler at revising them when actual readings diverge from predictions.”

Again, that’s what the GWPF has been saying.

In the Daily Telegraph Henry Bodkin, who writes about science but rarely about climate change, also reported the story straightforwardly.

He wrote that new research suggested that climate change is not as threatening to our planet as previously thought:

“Climate change poses less of an immediate threat to the planet than previously thought because scientists got their modelling wrong, a new study has found. New research by British scientists reveals the world is being polluted and warming up less quickly than 10-year-old forecasts predicted, giving countries more time to get a grip on their carbon output.”

These articles were perfectly justifiable. They drew the important points from the paper, used the main quotes from the what scientists had said at the press conference and reached the obvious conclusions. The headlines in particular, subsequently critisised by the scientists, were also justified.

Immature Science

The Washington Post took it on as well and introduced some critical comments.

“New climate change calculations could buy the Earth some time — if they’re right.”

A group of prominent scientists on Monday created a potential whiplash moment for climate policy, suggesting that humanity could have considerably more time than previously thought to avoid a “dangerous” level of global warming. But the new calculation diverged so much from what had gone before that other experts were still trying to figure out what to make of it. “When it’s such a substantial difference, you really need to sit back and ponder what that actually means,” Glen Peters, an expert on climate and emissions trajectories at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, said of the paper. He was not involved in the research. “The implications are pretty profound,” Peters continued. “But because of that, you’re going to have some extra eyes really scrutinizing that this is a robust result.”

“It is very hard to see how we could still have a substantial CO2 emissions budget left for 1.5 °C, given we’re already at 1 °C, thermal inertia means we’ll catch up with some more warming even without increased radiative forcing, and any CO2 emissions reductions inevitably comes with reduced aerosol load as well, the latter reduction causing some further warming,Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany said by email. Any substantial revision to the carbon budget would have major implications, changing our ideas of how rapidly countries will need to ratchet down their greenhouse gas emissions in coming years and, thus, the very workings of global climate policymaking.

Study co-author Joeri Rogelj of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria said that because warming has been somewhat less than forecast by climate models, and because emissions have been somewhat more than expected;

“The most complex Earth system models that provided input to [the IPCC] tend to slightly overestimate historical warming, and at the same time underestimate compatible historical CO2 emissions,” he said by email. “These two small discrepancies accumulate over time and lead to an slight underestimation of the remaining carbon budget. What we did in this study is to reset the uncertainties, starting from where we are today.” 

Pierre Friedlingstein, another author of the study and a professor at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, added at the news briefing that “the models end up with a warming which is larger than the observed warming for the current emissions. … So, therefore, they derive a budget which is much lower.”

The new research, thus, seems to strengthen a critique of climate alarm that has raised by skeptics, doubters and “lukewarmers” for years. These critics have been arguing that warming is shaping up to be less than climate models have predicted. But Rahmstorf, for one, finds this to be part of the problem. “They appear to have adjusted the budget upward based on the idea that there has been less observed warming than suggested by the climate models, but that is not actually true if you do the comparison properly,” he wrote, citing the need to measure the warming of the Arctic properly and account for the effect of aerosols.

Nonetheless, even with the new revision, the latest research finds that keeping warming below 1.5 degrees C will be quite hard. “Even with the largest estimates of the remaining carbon budget, this path is extremely challenging, starting reductions immediately and then reducing emissions to zero over 40 years,” Millar said at the press event. Overall, the dispute raises questions about how widely the carbon-budget concept has proliferated — and just how much we actually understand it. “It goes to show, this carbon-budget approach is still much more, let’s say, immature scientifically than what we often assume,” Peters said.

This is clearly an interesting story. The world is in a slightly better position than thought. Climate models aren’t that good and climate scientists are arguing in public about important aspects of their science using phrases like “immature scientifically.” Clearly the picture being painted here is a more revealing one than the “settled science” mantra many would want it to be portrayed. This is healthy, real science being debated, real, fundamental uncertainties being aired.

For those who know the way good news stories go, what happened next was predictable. Ian Johnston, the environment correspondent for the Independent, demonstrated no independent thinking and had to put things right for he was in no doubt about what had happened.

“For a section of the right-wing media,” he wrote, “it was too good to miss, an opportunity to cast doubt on one of their favourite bugbears – climate change.

In a disjointed article he said that Dr Millar told The Independent he had noticed a problem with the media coverage of the research.

“These headlines had a clear spin in what they were trying to put across, but the articles themselves were less bad,” he said.”

“Dr Millar said this budget represented about 20 years of emissions at the current rate, giving humanity more time than some other estimates and, therefore, a greater hope of meeting the Paris Agreement target. But he said a more sensible way of spending this budget would be to start making cuts now with a view to hitting a zero-carbon world in about 40 years.”  That must be true, it’s what the other news outlets had already said!

Johnston concluded; “Are climate models always wrong? Yes. Climate models incorporate the laws of physics to try to make sense of what is happening, but they will never be 100 per cent accurate. “All models are wrong,” goes a saying in science, “but that doesn’t mean they are not useful”.

As Dr Millar explained: “By definition, a model is not the real world … it’s called a climate model for a reason. But they can do an incredibly good job at capturing some incredibly complex physics.”

I have read that passage several times, and it still doesn’t really say anything, and even gets the famous quote wrong.

Subsequently, in the Guardian the scientists involved in the news story wrote one of their several clarifications…except it wasn’t really.

Millar and Allen said:

“It was a relatively technical paper, so we prepared as best we could, wrote a non-technical blog post and organised a press briefing with the Science Media Centre. Almost all of the initial coverage on Monday and Tuesday was accurate: both the Times and Telegraph had headlines about ‘wrong’ or ‘faulty’ models, but in the articles beneath them, Ben Webster and Henry Bodkin were careful not to say there was any evidence the models were systematically over-responding to CO2. We took pains at the briefing to stress the discrepancy was likely due to other, more transient, factors. Those who were there evidently understood.”

Well, no. The Times and the Telegraph did report that the climate models were running hot — because that’s what Myles Allen had actually told the press, and there was nothing wrong with the headlines. They went on to criticise articles on Breitbart and the Sun, both written by James Delingpole, and one in the Daily Mail by Labour MP Graham Stringer. Neither of these articles were inaccurate, not least because they simply quoted the scientists in question.  They were written in a more colourful style than the Times, but the fundamentals were the same.

The Guardian continued:

“These are important questions. For such a tight target, the actual remaining carbon budget is sensitive to a number of assumptions, including even how we define global average temperature. Significant uncertainties remain, and while we believe our paper improves on previous estimates, it is by no means the last word. But debating the current level of human-induced warming and how it relates to the 1.5C goal feels a bit like discussing how best to steer a spacecraft into orbit around Saturn while Delingpole and Stringer are urging their readers to question whether the Earth goes round the Sun. Critics of mainstream climate policy frequently complain that they feel excluded. The real problem is that they exclude themselves, and their readers, from the discussion as soon as it starts to get interesting.”

The final three sentences are nonsense.

Harming The Public

A further counterattack on so-called journalist nonsense was made by Zeke Hausfather who tweeted a graph of climate model outputs vs actual temperature observations. Given that the big 2015/16 El Nino weather event makes climate models look much better than they are, it didn’t do his case any good. Later he tweeted another graph that used inappropriate scales that was even more misleading.

But perhaps the worst comment came from the “And Then Theres Physics” blog:

Click on image to enlarge.

When scientists suggest it would be better to suppress research findings that do not support the cause of extremist climate communication we are in real trouble. No one who holds, or promotes such a view can be called a scientist or a supporter of science.

These debates amongst climate scientists happen all the time, but usually in private. In public, many pretend that the science is more certain, presenting a false image of what is going on behind closed doors. What this episode has revealed is that some scientists don’t like their science debated in public because it comes across as less certain, with many different views and controversies. For some, it is not politically convenient to air such views as it clouds the message and the call to action. Anyone who reveals or highlights such internal doubts is labeled a contrarian or “denier.”

The Nature Geoscience affair has mixed science and politics into a unsatisfactory cocktail. There is nothing wrong in writing papers on climate change that ask questions, that annoy advocates and alarmists. There is something demeaning for science when scientists try to “clarify” a message that they made clear in the first place. There is something antiscientific about suppressing debate.