This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
The amount by which the global temperature record has allegedly been broken is minuscule. Two one-hundredths of one degree isn’t what the public imagines when reporters talk about surging temperatures.
As I begin year six writing about climate change, my heart despairs. The central arguments haven’t changed much in half a decade. This year’s over-heated rhetoric, as activists ramp up for December’s Paris UN climate summit, faithfully echo 2009, when the Copenhagen summit was coming into view.
Then, as now, the media is failing abysmally at its core mission: giving the public useful information. Here in Canada, our government-funded news source, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), produced this headline last November: ‘Hottest year’ record likely for 2014 after warmest October.
Followed by this one in December: 2014 on track to be hottest year on record: UN agency.
Followed by this one, just three days ago: 2014 was hottest year in modern record.
Only reporters cowed by peer pressure and blinded by group-think could write these articles. Only editors too rushed to think straight could possibly run them.
These stories tell us that “the globe is rushing hell-bent,” is “surging ahead,” and has “sizzled” toward record-breaking heat – and that the oceans are showing “incredible warmth.”
What they don’t do is report plain facts in plain language. They don’t point out that the amount by which the global temperature record has allegedly been broken is minuscule. Two one-hundredths of a degree is not what the public imagines when journalists use words such surge and sizzle – but that’s what we’re talking about here.
In 2012, Canada phased out its one-cent coin as legal tender because keeping track of 1/100s of a dollar was judged to be a costly distraction.
Similarly, when your child has a fever, even modern, high-tech digital thermometers only record changes of one tenth of a degree. A change one fifth that size – 2/100s – is too small to be meaningful.
Yet the geniuses at CBC think that this particular 2/100s warrants not just one news story, but an ongoing series.
Between them, these three articles use the word “record” 48 times. The first news story includes the phrase “the warmest year on record” in a quote. The second uses the words “since record-keeping began in the 19th century.” To its credit, the third talks about 2014 being the hottest “in 135 years of record-keeping” twice – in the caption beneath an accompanying photograph, and in the first paragraph.
None of these stories point out that, 135 years ago, thermometers were considerably less reliable. Which means that today’s scientists may be comparing apples to pears.
None of these stories point out that 135 years is a mere blink of an eye, geologically speaking. We’re being asked to believe that something unusual is happening on a 4.5-billion-year-old planet based on a mere 135 years of data.
Nor do any of these stories alert us to the fact that the average global temperature has been called a mathematical impossibility. It is an abstraction, nothing more. While it amuses academics and impresses journalists, in the real world there’s no such thing as a global average temperature. It doesn’t actually exist.
All of which boils down to this: the media is publishing breathless stories about a miniscule change in an imaginary number.
In a blog post on this topic, meteorologist Roy Spencer declares that he is “embarrassed by the scientific community’s behavior” on this subject. I am similarly embarrassed by my journalistic colleagues.
With the benefit of a few decades of hindsight, it will seem as though 95% of today’s journalists were the recipients of lobotomies. Their ability to see beyond the press release in climate matters appears to be non-existent.
A list of resources for those wishing to better understand the “hottest year” claims:
Two instances in which scientific bodies admit that a few one-hundreths of a degree are meaningless. Nevertheless, when a press release is issued, the media runs with it.