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New Scientist: How worried should we be about climate change?

Dr David Whitehouse

How worried should we be, asks New Scientist in a Climate Change Special Issue. The 19th August issue is billed as a guide to a year of extreme weather – “a year of extremes,” when 2023 is barely half way over.

In a New Scientist Climate Special Report senior reporter Michael Le Page asks if climate change is worse than we thought it would be? Well, it depends upon who you ask – and New Scientist usually asks the same experts for their unwavering opinions which, as we shall see, are sometimes just a premonition they have.

The article in question quotes the usual crew: Peter Stott of the UK Met Office, Piers Forster of the University of Leeds, Zeke Hausfather of Berkeley Earth and Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. Together they have been quoted in the New Scientist 109 times.

According to New Scientist: “Here are the key facts you need to know.”

It’s first question is: Is the world is warming faster than expected?

In short, the conclusion the article draws is no, it isn’t; the temperatures we’re seeing are “well within the range” of climate model predictions. New Scientist adds that even the models of the 1970’s were “pretty close,” presumably before a great deal of time and money was expended making them more complicated but not more accurate.

But it’s actually not quite like that. The article quotes Zeke Hausfather of Berkeley Earth who says: “If anything, temperatures have been a bit on the low end.” So the answer to the first question is just the inverse of the habitual media narrative — the world is not warming faster than expected or predicted. The article emphasises that to put July’s weather extremes into context will take “a decade or so,” so that’s a memo for the New Scientist’s’s August 2033 Climate Special, if it’s still around by then.

Next comes the question, are we seeing more extreme weather than predicted?

The answer to this also depends upon who you ask. They asked Piers Forster who said he hasn’t seen any physical evidence for more extreme weather … although he thinks it might be possible. New Scientist then asked Peter Stott who said he thinks there is some evidence that the IPCC may have underestimated … “but the jury is still out.” So, scientifically speaking that would be another no.

Opinions not evidence

Next up: Have the impacts of our current level of warming been underestimated?

Le Page writes that “coral bleaching and die-off events have been more extensive.” As evidence for this he refers to a March 2022 article by fellow New Scientist journalist Adam Vaughan who wrote that “unusually warm ocean temperatures have turned corals white on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef the first ever mass bleaching created by the La Nina weather event.”

The link to the news release produced by the Australian Government Reef Authority on which this article was based is no longer available. But if you look on the same website at more up to date information you will find on 9th August 2023 “Coral Cover – Dynamic and Still Resistant Reef.” Last November it also carried a story, “Coral Spawning – key to reef’s remarkable recovery.”

In order to illustrate how dire things are at the New Scientist, the once respected science journal cherry-picks bad news from last March and ignores good news from just a few days ago. As a reference here is the Reef Authority’s Coral Bleaching true or false page.

Then the magazine asks: Are we closer to tipping points than anticipated?

New Scientist says “Yes, we are, though a great deal of uncertainty remains.” In other words, the answer might equally be: No, we aren’t, or We actually don’t know.

New Scientist then claims that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is slowing down faster than thought. The consequences of this would be dramatic. It’s something we have covered previously – and concluded there is a very low probability of this happening. Despite the low odds, Stefan Rahmstorf thinks the danger of the AMOC collapsing this century is larger than 10 per cent. He’s entitled to his opinion. Other opinions are available.

Unsurprisingly, important data and factors are omitted from the article. Nowhere does it mention observations that show that more heat from the Sun is being retained. There has been an increase of 0.3 W/m2 since 2019 as the Sun surges to its current solar maximum. Also the new regulations reducing the emission of sulphur particulates from ship fuels seems to have made a significant difference since incoming radiation is less reflected by cleaner air over the shipping lanes. In fact over the Northern Hemisphere shipping corridor (a region where the recent heating has been particularly strong) it is estimated that there has been a very large decrease of 2 W/m2 of outgoing shortwave radiation.

In its “key facts that you need to know” New Scientist also omits that Arctic sea ice appears to have stabilised in recent years; Greenland’s ice mass balance is higher than average, and the recent global spikes in temperature are very similar to previous spikes in 2016 and 1998 based on land and satellite data. Antarctic ice however is very low, with Judy Curry publishing an excellent analysis of the various factors contributing to these developments.

A knee-jerk reaction to the weather events we have seen can result in poor articles that don’t give a fair and accurate overall picture of what is really going on. I expect we might review and assess this year’s weather events quite differently once more data is available and more reliable analyses have been done than a rushed and one-sided job done during the heat of the moment.