Last fall, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory ecosystem scientist Trevor Keenan had the kind of high-profile, global-scale research results that scientists dream of: He found that plants had absorbed more carbon dioxide than expected between 2002 and 2014.
Keenan was generally pleased with the media coverage his Nature Communications paper got, most of which conveyed his caveat that increased carbon uptake by plants will not stave off long-term climate change. But he also noticed that some blogs and media outlets cited his paper while falsely implying that climate change had slowed or stopped. The popular U.S. right-wing website Breitbart embellished upon the unexpected nature of the results by describing Keenan and his colleagues as “amazed” [Williams, 2016].
“It’s everybody’s fear that their results will be used as something that they’re not,” Keenan said. However, he said he felt there was little he could have done to prevent the misleading reports and hoped they would have limited impact.
Such an attitude didn’t sit well with Keenan’s friend and colleague Thomas Crowther who has since moved from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Wageningen to ETH Zurich in Switzerland. Crowther thought Keenan should have more explicitly framed his finding as a temporary fluctuation in a long-term trend to prevent misinterpretations of his paper, Crowther said in an interview.
Climate skeptics are “increasingly in power and making decisions about the world. And I would like to give them as little ammunition as possible,” Crowther explained. Keenan noted, however, that those skeptics’ “arguments are not based on logic but on passion.” “You’re not going to change their minds,” he said.
For years, climate change doubters have sought to discredit climate science with niche websites like Climate Depot and blogs like Watts Up With That? that are devoted to the topic of global warming (see https://history.aip.org/climate/20ctrend.htm#S6). They have also issued misleading think tank reports, some dating back to the 1980s [Oreskes, 2011].
Today, however, the rise of well-funded “alt-right” websites like Breitbart and an elaborate fake news ecosystem supercharged by social media has climate skepticism reaching a general audience. As a result, many climate scientists find the broader media landscape becoming a minefield. Climate science skepticism “has become weaponized on a mass scale, when before it was more of a boutique industry,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.
As a result, some researchers have begun to shy away from the public eye. These scientists worry that biased reporters could twist their findings to add to misinformation about their field and make them targets of unwanted attention or even attacks. Others, however, say that developing a thick skin can make the hostile environment tolerable. Some are using the same modern communication tools deployed by fake news purveyors to counter the influence of those deceptive voices. A few even are taking the battle to the hard-core skeptics, challenging them on their own turf.
An Industry of Confusion
Blogs that distort climate science have thrived for more than a decade. In an extreme trend a few years ago, the United Kingdom even saw a rash of fake meteorological forecasts. Those appear to be on the wane, however, as audiences have wised up to the tactic, according to Adam Scaife, head of monthly to decadal prediction at the Met Office Hadley Centre in Devon.
The blogs often follow a standard playbook, said Jeff Harvey, an ecologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology who has studied how climate skeptic bloggers operate. Typical tactics, he explained, include trying to discredit all of climate science by focusing on a niche issue such as polar bear habitat and citing one or a small number of supposed “experts” (who are often not actually experts in the relevant field) to provide a veneer of authority.
What’s new is that these writers are moving beyond blogging into increasing use of the conventions of mainstream journalism. The daily news mix at well-funded, ideology-driven sites such as Breitbart and Infowars in the United States and conservative tabloids in the United Kingdom often includes stories on high-profile climate science papers, reports, and other developments. However, the media outlets that publish these stories may not follow journalistic practices that guard against biased or inaccurate reporting.
A recent example was a Breitbart story that featured a paper in Nature Communications by University of Southampton, United Kingdom, geochemist Gavin Foster. Breitbart gave its story the headline “Scientists Warn of Climate Apocalypse: CO2 Emissions Will Send Earth Back to ‘Triassic Period’” [Williams, 2017]—sensational, perhaps, but not inaccurate.
After describing the study, however, the writer segued into an extended discussion about the supposed unreliability of climate proxies such as those that Foster had used, which included carbon deposits in ancient ice, sediments, and fossils. Next, the writer referred back to Breitbart’s prior coverage of Trevor Keenan’s alleged amazement at his finding of a larger than expected uptake of carbon dioxide by plants.
The article ended with a quote from William Happer, a physicist who disagrees with the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. (Happer has been floated as a possible science adviser to Donald Trump.)
Although appearing in Breitbart surprised Foster, who was not interviewed for the article, he said he actually welcomes the coverage, even if he disagrees with the way the outlet framed his results. “I think it’s great that these sorts of outlets picked up the story,” he said. “It means the people you need to convince are actually reading it.”
Climate skeptics have also mastered social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which makes sharing misleading stories as easy as clicking a mouse. Through these channels, they can even incite more-respected institutions to amplify a message. For instance, many were appalled late last year when the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology tweeted a Breitbart article, which itself cited an article in the U.K.-based Mail on Sunday that falsely claimed that global temperatures had “plummeted.”
Predict and Prepare
Increasingly aware of outlets ready and waiting to distort climate science findings, many researchers are devising tactics to counter the threat. One is to predict and prepare for misleading stories.
For example, many expect the fake news industry to pounce if, as seems likely, the average global temperature dips this year compared to last because the powerful El Niño that gave 2016 temperatures an extra boost has waned. (According to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate outlook, 2017 looks on track to be the second-warmest year on record.)
To get out in front of potentially misleading stories, the United Kingdom’s Met Office publicly released a prediction at the end of 2016 that 2017 would probably be a bit colder; Schmidt made a similar forecast in an article for the website FiveThirtyEight. Scientists plan to point back to these predictions to show that a cooler 2017 is consistent with the consensus view. “Making these forecasts well ahead of time gives us a sound foundation to go back to, when people talk about these small fluctuations from one year to the next,” Scaife said.
Expanding the media’s focus from global temperature to metrics such as sea level and land and sea ice, some of which fluctuate less on an annual basis, could also help bolster the case that global warming is a one-way trend, added Deke Arndt of NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information in Asheville, N.C. These indicators are “all singing the same song, even if they hit different notes from year to year.”
Directly confronting misleading coverage is another tactic that at least one climate change research organization in the United Kingdom has tried, with some recent success. On 5 February 2017, the UK’s Mail on Sunday published an article entitled “Exposed: How World Leaders Were Duped over Global Warming.” Once again, Breitbart covered the Mail story and the House Science Committee tweeted Breitbart’s coverage. Bob Ward, the policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in London, then lodged a formal complaint of inaccurate reporting. In July the UK’s Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO) ruled in Ward’s favor, and the Mail on Sunday article now carries a long preamble summarizing IPSO’s findings of inaccuracies.
A Tough Choice
The new media environment can be particularly challenging for young scientists, who need to promote their work but often receive little media training or guidance.
When the journal Global Change Biology accepted Martijn Slot’s recent paper on tropical forests’ ability to acclimate to higher temperatures, he thought about having a press release written. Slot, a plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, is a postdoc who hopes to eventually land a permanent research job; he could certainly have used the recognition.
But having seen findings like his get twisted to make climate change seem less dire, he said he decided to let the paper appear without fanfare. “I don’t want to be misrepresented,” he said. “The nuance of your science [can get] lost, it becomes a one-liner, things get taken out of context; people can run with it.”
Abigail Swann, an assistant professor of atmospheric science and biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, shares Slot’s worries. Several of her team’s recent results could, in the hands of someone looking for fodder to create confusion, be used to make deforestation appear beneficial. For example, a modeling study Swann and her colleagues published in 2016 found that forest loss in the southwestern United States and the Amazon could actually cause trees to grow faster in the southeastern United States and eastern South America. “It’s a difficult line to walk,” she said. “You could try to construe this as that trees are bad in some way.”
Instead of shying away from press exposure, however, Swann has armed herself with talking points on non-climate-related benefits of trees—that forests are essential for protecting local biodiversity and water sources, for example. She said that so far, to her knowledge, only one right-wing newspaper in Australia has written a misleading article about her work.
Some scientists also try to head off misleading coverage by putting their own interpretation forward for the public. Foster, for example, published an essay in the online venue The Conversation on the same day his Nature Communications paper came out. “We thought [the study] might have some press interest, and we wanted to lay out [our case] in easy language for people,” he said. Although the essay didn’t prevent Breitbart’s misleading report, it gave interested readers Foster’s side of the story in a readily understood form.
Developing a Thick Skin
Climate scientists who insert themselves into the public dialogue need to be prepared for uncomfortable interactions, say some veterans of the fray. Nearly every climate researcher interviewed for this article had received angry or unsettling emails. In the spring of 2016, Swann endured a lecture from a customs official dismissive of climate change. Scaife collects in a binder his letters from those who think that human-induced climate change is a hoax. Michael Mann, a well-known climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, has even received death threats.
But most say that with a thick skin, the online smears are tolerable. “People have to understand it’s not personal,” Schmidt said. “You’re just a name that can be used to make a political point.”
A few, such as Harvey, even dive into debates in the comments sections of blogs. He described the experience as “a basic street fight or mud wrestling match” and said that he doesn’t expect to convert those who vehemently deny climate change. But he has also found that many blog readers are genuinely confused and appreciate an expert’s perspective.
“I’ve met some very good people on these blogs,” he said. “People have written me emails afterwards and thanked me personally for teaching them about a process that they didn’t understand. And I thought, I’m doing my job as a scientist.”
—Gabriel Popkin (email: email@example.com), Freelance Science Journalist
Editor’s Note, 2 October 2017: This article has been updated to remove text involving a blogger’s comments on a source’s research. Eos could not verify these comments.
Oreskes, N. (2011), Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, pp. 186-190, 244-247, Bloomsbury, New York.
Williams, T. D. (2016), Scientists amazed at plants’ increasing ability to absorb carbon, Breitbart (website), 21 Nov.
Williams, T. D. (2017), Scientists warn of climate apocalypse: CO2 emissions will send Earth back to ‘Triassic period,’ Breitbart (website), 8 April.
Popkin, G. (2017), Rise of distorted news puts climate scientists on their guard, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO083163. Published on 02 October 2017.
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