Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Don’t @ Me: What Happened When Climate Skeptics Misused My Work

A student who saw his climate research misrepresented in online forums shares the experience, as well as lessons learned and recommendations for how to counter efforts to distort climate science.

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When my first peer-reviewed scientific paper was published in Geophysical Research Letters in February 2019, I felt that I had passed a significant graduate school milestone, and I celebrated the way many early-career researchers do: I told my parents and had drinks with my coauthors. A few months later, a colleague let me know that she had cited my paper—another milestone—and for the first time I navigated to the “attention score” page attached to my article. There I found my friend’s citation as well as another, more sinister surprise.

My article’s attention score, an indicator of interest in a paper, was in the top 5% of all research tracked by Altmetric, largely because of a plethora of Twitter posts. Initially curious, I quickly became mortified as I scrolled through the page and found that something was wrong. Accounts with thousands of followers were using my article to substantiate their arguments that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the scientific establishment.

How Did This Happen?

The energy budget at Earth’s surface consists of several components: Incoming shortwave radiation from the Sun (mostly visible and ultraviolet light) and longwave (infrared) radiation emitted downward by clouds, water vapor, and other greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere are balanced largely by longwave radiation emitted upward by the surface and by evaporation of liquid water from Earth’s oceans. The paper in question, which I coauthored with two colleagues, concerned the longwave radiation emitted by the atmosphere toward Earth’s surface.

The amount of downward longwave radiation that reaches Earth’s surface is controlled by clouds, greenhouse gas concentrations, and temperatures in the atmosphere, and how these all vary with height. This height dependence means that not all parts of the atmosphere are equally important to the longwave radiation incident at Earth’s surface. Nearly all the water vapor in the atmosphere is located within a few kilometers of the surface; under this thick layer of water vapor, the surface is radiatively isolated from all but the lowest layer of the atmosphere. The temperature throughout this lower atmospheric layer is tightly coupled to that of Earth’s surface by turbulence that mixes air extremely efficiently. Any increase in the surface temperature is communicated very quickly via turbulence to the lower atmosphere, from where it is reflected back toward the surface in the form of enhanced downward longwave radiation that contributes to further surface warming. In other words, the system comprises a positive feedback loop.

By invoking this feedback, our work explained why, when climate models are forced with high atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, the increase in downward longwave radiation at the surface is much larger than the change one might expect from excess emissions alone.

In our abstract, my coauthors and I wrote that “surface downward longwave radiation is tightly coupled to surface temperature; therefore, it cannot be considered an independent component of the surface energy budget.” The community that promoted our paper on Twitter mistakenly took that to mean that global temperature change cannot be caused by changes in the longwave portion of the planetary energy budget, thus furthering their argument that greenhouse gas concentrations do not contribute to climate warming.

Is this a logical interpretation? Absolutely not. A strong feedback between surface temperature and downwelling longwave radiation does not mean that carbon dioxide emissions have no impact on the longwave component of the planetary energy budget. In fact, just the opposite is true: The strong feedback means that greenhouse emissions can have a substantial effect on longwave radiation. Yet I found myself scrolling through pages of posts jeering at climate scientists and dismissing science as politically motivated propaganda. I felt sick to my stomach that my work had become part of messaging targeting legitimate climate science.

Unfamiliar Territory

For several days, I felt demoralized, embarrassed, and frustrated. Like many young climate scientists, I came to graduate school because I have a passion for science and because I want to use what I learn to help society mitigate and adapt to the dangerous impacts of climate change. Instead of contributing, however, my work had been incorporated into a discourse that demonizes both the scientific consensus on climate change and the scientists who publicly speak out to defend it.

Worse, it felt like there was nothing I could do. As an early-career scientist with no social media following and little institutional credibility, I felt completely unequipped to address this problem on my own. It seemed that my only options were to jump into the fray on Twitter or to do nothing, ignoring those who misrepresented my work and going back to doing my research.

Engaging with those who misrepresented my research on their turf could play into their hands, serving only to raise their online profiles. But doing nothing widens the disconnect between science and society that is at least partially responsible for the success of campaigns to misrepresent the climate consensus in the first place. If the climate science community does not actively fight against the deliberate misuse of credible science, we run the risk of being outpaced in the battle for public opinion that has an important front on social media.

Unsure of how best to proceed, I asked for help. I talked with my adviser and other faculty members in my department, and one thing became clear: I was far from alone in having my research hijacked. One mentor had her work on carbon dioxide fertilization of plants picked up by a far-right magazine in Australia that claimed her research demonstrated the positive effects of fossil fuel emissions. Another had her work on climate sensitivity misused in a report published by the Heartland Institute, a think tank that has disseminated climate misinformation to schools across America. Although these stories helped me to realize that I am not the only one who has had his or her work misrepresented, I still had no constructive avenue to respond to the community that had misrepresented my research.

Climate scientists know that a vocal minority in the United States is skeptical about—and often antagonistic toward—the global warming consensus. But until I experienced my own work being misused, I did not fully appreciate how this skepticism and antagonism are manufactured in the context of an explicitly politicized discourse. By taking slivers of published scientific research out of context, anybody who can parse an abstract can launch an ideological crusade—masquerading as thoughtful scientific criticism—against the scientific consensus.

These crusades are always political. Criticism of the global warming consensus is motivated by criticism of policies informed by that consensus. This motivation is why producing more thoughtful and accurate science does not silence skeptics or convince them of the overwhelming scientific agreement about the reality of global warming and its causes and effects, which leaves scientists and their institutions in unfamiliar territory. The paradigm of scientific progress gradually inching toward truth (or slowly ruling out falsehood) is not sufficient to counter the political dimensions of climate science misinformation campaigns. Acknowledging this insufficiency on personal and institutional levels is the first step in addressing the manufactured controversy over climate science that is happening outside academia.

Lessons Learned

I still feel guilty for not engaging those who misrepresented my work on Twitter; maybe I was wrong to abdicate responsibility for standing up for my science. Regardless, the experience taught me valuable lessons that will inform my response—and that may be of help to other scientists, early career or otherwise—when similar episodes occur.

One lesson I learned is to anticipate how my science could potentially be distorted and to address these points explicitly in abstracts and in any public-facing components of my research. If I could go back and rewrite the abstract of my group’s paper, I would include a sentence that points out why a feedback between surface temperatures and downwelling longwave radiation does not preclude the existence of the greenhouse effect.

Journal editors can act as a second line of defense, directing authors to acknowledge and preemptively refute points in their papers that could be misrepresented. Such refutations will undoubtedly seem obvious to trained scientists, but they are still important. By explicitly refuting potential distortions in our publications, we acknowledge the presence of a controversy and help to address it on our own platforms that lend professional credibility to our statements. The clearer we are in our publications, the more difficult it is for skeptics to muddy the water, and the more difficult it becomes for politicians and corporations to disingenuously question consensus climate science.

Still, these steps do not address the significant public dialogue about science that now takes place on social media. The unprecedented dissemination of information (and misinformation) made possible by the Internet demands that scientists and their institutions evolve to meet the public’s growing appetite for credible science while also acknowledging political implications of their work.

Social media training offered by universities and membership organizations like AGU is important for preparing those who want to use social media to communicate science to the general public. Even though online ecosystems can feel alarmingly hostile to informed debate, we must all do our part to ensure that our work is as difficult as possible to misrepresent. By addressing head-on the fact that our public-facing communications about research will be scrutinized by those with political axes to grind against climate science, we can reduce the bandwidth across which skeptics can misrepresent science on Twitter and other platforms; ultimately, this practice will diminish their credibility.

The political dimensions of climate change guarantee that climate science will continue to be misrepresented by those with ideological agendas. Climate scientists have a responsibility to untangle fact from fiction and to communicate with society clearly about the dangers of climate change. If we do not actively take on that role, others will fill the vacuum that our silence creates.

Author Information

Lucas Vargas Zeppetello ([email protected]), University of Washington, Seattle

Citation: Zeppetello, L. V. (2020), Don’t @ me: What happened when climate skeptics misused my work, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO140098. Published on 17 February 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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