The Met Office’s Hadley Centre, one of the world’s leading research centres on climate change, has issued an appeal to journalists to be more careful with their headlines.
“News headlines vie for attention and it is easy for scientists to grab this attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction” says Dr Vicky Pope, the Met Office’s head of climate change. “But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted.”
One of the biggest problems is the simple confusion between long term climate change, and weather patterns, something the Met Office knows plenty about. The earth’s weather systems have many cycles of their own, which can be easily misinterpreted as evidence for or against climate change.
For example, some skeptics reported that 2008 was ‘the coolest year of the decade‘, and then derided those who explained that was due to the ‘la nina’ weather pattern as making excuses. But la nina is well known and regular, and for the record, here’s what the Met Office predicted in January 2008: “2008 is set to be cooler globally than recent years, but is still forecast to be one of the top-ten warmest years.”
Those who agree with global warming theory are no better than the skeptics. Arctic ice melt has been widely reported over this last twelve months, with panicky headlines that the summer’s melt was evidence of a climate change tipping point. If the expanse of ice is greater next year, which it is likely to be, those headlines will look foolish, and confidence in climate change theory will be undermined. The headlines should not have been written, says Vicky Pope. “The record-breaking losses in the past couple of years could easily be due to natural fluctuations in the weather, with summer sea ice increasing again over the next few years. This diverts attention from the real, longer-term issues.”
Long term is the key word here. Climate change is a slow-motion disaster, and that unfortunately doesn’t generate sensational headlines. It is massively important, but perhaps the least exciting crisis you could imagine. When everything happens over decades, it is hard to capture attention and motivate action. We can’t live in permanent crisis mode, so building momentum for the climate change movement is proving difficult. Little wonder that many campaigners resort to sensationalising their claims, or quickly associate the latest weather to climate change.
“For climate scientists, having to continually rein in extraordinary claims that the latest extreme is all due to climate change is, at best, hugely frustrating and, at worst, enormously distracting” says Pope. “Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of the science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening. Both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically and swiftly over the coming decades.”
- The Met Office climate change pages