Climate Change and the Power of Narrative

By Keith Kloor | March 14, 2015 12:50 pm

In 2013, a psychology professor reviewing Malcolm Gladwell’s latest best-selling book was critical of the author’s modus operandi:

He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.

That charge had been percolating for a while, but people were suddenly paying more attention to it, including science journalists. After the WSJ review triggered a larger debate on Gladwell, longtime science journalist Paul Raeburn weighed in at MIT’s Science Tracker (recently shuttered), a journalism watchdog site that had monitored how science was covered in the media. Raeburn picked up on the mounting criticisms of Gladwell to make some important points, such as this one:

It’s the power of narrative that makes it so dangerous: Seductive storytelling robs us of our critical skills.

I’ve periodically discussed in this space how seductive qualities have helped certain climate change narratives take hold. For example, I’ve tracked how nearly every major severe weather event has in the media become linked to or associated with climate change. That narrative gave rise to a meme called “the new normal.”

The severe weather disaster = climate change is a seductive storyline for those who want to increase attention to the very real threats posed by global warming. Whether the media has conveniently embraced that framing is a question I’ll leave for others to debate.

Another similar example of a seductive narrative for those concerned about a warming planet is the “climate wars” story, which I’ve also tracked. Here is a recent unwitting demonstration from one climate change writer on how that storyline has solidified (my emphasis):

For the last couple years, Middle East experts have pointed to the ongoing civil war in Syria as a prime example of how climate change can contribute to violent conflict. The country’s worst drought on record arrived just as widespread outrage with President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime was reaching critical mass; as crops failed, an estimated 1.5 million people were driven off rural farms and into cities. While grievances with the Assad regime are many, from economic stagnation to violent crackdowns on protesters, the impacts of the drought were likely the final straw.

The narrative in Syria fit perfectly with what many top military leaders, including at the Pentagon, were beginning to project: In parts of the world where tensions are already high, the impacts of natural disasters and competition for resources are increasingly likely to ignite violence.

Yes, and when a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) linked climate change to the civil war now tearing apart Syria, many in mainstream media (and in climate messaging circles) jumped all over it. The narrative fit perfectly. Global warming had “hastened,” “fueled,” or “helped trigger” the Syrian conflict, and even, according to one prominent climate communicator, “spawned” the rise of ISIS or ISIL, the group of savage Islamic militants that have taken control of and terrorized parts of Iraq.

I discussed the largely uncritical press coverage of the PNAS study in this post. It’s worth mentioning that most of the media stories did a good job emphasizing the multi-causal nature of the Syrian conflict. The study itself laid out the socio-political factors responsible for the country’s uprising. And the press coverage reflected this nuanced aspect of the study. But the authors of the study also fingered climate change-fueled drought as a “catalytic” trigger. Only a few reporters bothered to closely examine the merits of that claim.

In a follow-up post, I reviewed what a number of experts in the multi-disciplinary environmental security field were saying about the study. I also solicited responses from several of them. In short, they did not think highly of the study. Since then, additional reactions have filtered out, including this essay by Halvard Buhaug, Research Director and Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), who noted:

Recent research has reported a strong effect of climate extremes on violent conflict, yet many researchers question the robustness of such a link. Some even argue the relationship between climate and conflict is so complex that it can never fully be captured and understood.

Freelance journalist Amy Westervelt, writing in the Guardian several days ago, discusses this quandary:

Any attempt by scholars over the past several years to link climate change with conflict has been hotly contested, and not just by climate deniers. Many respected conflict researchers believe that climate change is happening, that humans are contributing to it, and that it’s a big problem, but that focusing on it as a cause of war may be wrongheaded.

The problem is both scientific and social. “If you want to show that climate change has contributed to an increase in civil violence, then you need to control for other factors,” explains Andrew Solow, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. “This is a fundamental scientific principle. But it is difficult to do.”

He also expressed other misgivings about the PNAS study in an article published in Nature:

Solow worries that focusing on the effects of climate change in the hopes of preventing conflict may be a distraction. “You don’t have to cut CO2 emissions by 80% to provide clean water to poor people living in Africa or [implement] better agricultural practices,” he says. “So to me the clearest policy issue is how do we strengthen civil institutions and bring people up in their standard of living so they’re not living on the edge.”

When I was soliciting scholarly responses to the PNAS study, one came in after I published my last post on the topic. It’s from Thomas Bernauer, a Switzerland-based political scientist with an expertise in climate and environmental policy issues. Here are seven bullet points he emailed to me:

1. This PNAS paper echoes earlier claims by some policy-analysts that climate change may have been a factor in the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.

2. This claim is, therefore, not new. But is it scientifically more convincing than earlier, similar claims? A careful reading of the paper tells me: NO!

3. I trust that the geophysical (climate science) part of the paper is fine. It shows that climatic changes are likely to have contributed to the severe drought in Syria, with obvious implications for agriculture. But what I take issue with is the second part of the paper’s argument, that the drought has contributed to the outbreak of war in Syria, and that there is thus a causal effect of climate change on armed conflict in that particular case. The fact that the paper makes this climate-conflict claim very prominently up front and motivates the entire paper in those terms makes the whole paper very problematic, and it is actually a bad service to good climate science.

4. What’s the problem with this climate-conflict claim? In contrast to what the authors say studies comparing many countries over many years have NOT been able to show that there is a systematic (meaning statistically significant and substantively strong) relationship between climatic changes or climatic variability and armed conflict. Kelley et al. essentially side with findings of one single research group in this regard (Hsiang et al.), and those findings differ strongly from what many other research groups have found and have been strongly questioned on methodological grounds. Most conflict researchers worldwide agree, and this is also reflected in the IPCC reports, that any effect of climate change on armed conflict will not be direct, but will, IF IT EXISTS AT ALL, only operate via negative effects on economic performance and via migration. But I have not seen any scientific study that has come up with robust scientific evidence for such an effect.

5. Statistical comparisons of many countries over many years tell us something about average effects. So even if we DO NOT find a direct or indirect effect of climate change on armed conflict on average, could it be that Syria is an important exception and that climate change, in that single and perhaps highly unusual case, has in fact contributed to civil war there?

6. The Kelley et al [PNAS] study makes that point quite prominently up front in the paper, but when you read the rest of the paper carefully it becomes clear – judging from the authors’ own words – that this part of the argument is highly speculative. My reading of the existing evidence, and also of the authors’ evidence – if one does not get blinded by their bold claims at some points in the paper, but pays attention to the empirical evidence they present – is that the Syrian civil war was caused by a whole range of factors that have nothing to do with climate change: decades long political repression, ethnic and religious fragmentation, the worst possible agricultural and economic policy, huge influx of refugees from war-torn neighbor countries, and contagion effects of the Arab spring.

7. To be clear: There are many very good environmental and economic reasons to cut greenhouse gas emissions and move towards a carbon-free energy system. We don’t need scientifically very weak claims about climate change causing wars to motivate ambitious climate policies.

I sent this detailed critique from Bernaur, along with the other afore-mentioned criticisms, to the authors of the PNAS study. I told them that I would like to publish their response in full. Here is the email I received from Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and one of the paper’s coauthors:

We read the critiques and comments. For those that are reasonable and substantive, the answers may be found in the PNAS paper itself. For those that are unreasonable, the answers are to be found in a modicum of common sense.

We respect Dr. Solow’s opinion, but we are not aware of any evidence that this paper or others about climate impacts diminish awareness of the importance of poverty and poor governance as causes of civil conflict. Our argument calls these out as essential elements in the Syrian conflict.

As for the suggestion that the paper has no policy relevance [made here by one researcher I contacted], we are already aware of the paper being discussed in policy circles.

If true, this discussion of their paper in policy circles doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In other words, never underestimate the power of a narrative.

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  • Tom Scharf

    This was a good post.

    I think the Syria and extreme events memes are classic examples of pumping out questionable science for short term gain (media exposure, the “narrative”) that have long term negative consequences on credibility.

    From my point of view I sit back and wonder how advocates believe this is helpful to their cause. Easy targets for skeptics. It isn’t so much that this type of science is produced, there is plenty of bad science out there, it is that it is embraced and highlighted by the media when it should simply be ignored. I think many in the media must have an “I want to believe” poster on their office wall.

    The long term effects are that all claims start to be ignored even when they are highlighted by the media. As an example take the recent mega drought prediction. Totally ignored after a typical news cycle. Climate fatigue. Keep beating the war drums.

    http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/02/12/science/ap-us-sci-worse-droughts.html

    Nobody is surprised, right? Now imagine if physicists or astronomers produced a report that a large comet impact may take place in the next 50 years according to observations and models. It would be taken very seriously. Not only that, but journalists would attempt to validate this story before publishing it. It’s a *** serious *** story.

    Environmental journalism’s standards are so far in the gutter now it might as well be astrology (KK and Revkin as exceptions). They operate now like The National Enquirer, if somebody said it, it is good enough for print. They make celebrities out of those who make the most outlandish claims. Their plausible deniability – they are not scientists and can’t qualify the claims – remind you of a particular party’s talking point? Ahem….KK on extreme events….the irony.

    These stories are not helpful to AGW advocates or science journalism in my opinion.

    • ThisNameInUse

      Zero substance to back up your “opinion” about the study. You could have said the same thing in a mere handful of words: “I don’t like what they found” and it would have been just as meaningful.

    • DavidAppell

      Warming always makes droughts worse, because evaporation rates increase with temperature, exponentially.

    • DavidAppell

      You’re comparing climate science projections to astronomical calculations of a comet’s trajectory? The former cannot be nearly as precise as the latter can be, and may never be able to do so. But then, the former system is immensely more complicated than the latter system.

      “As an example take the recent mega drought prediction. Totally ignored after a typical news cycle. Climate fatigue.”

      Who exactly does that hurt? Not climate science. Ultimately it hurts society — a pain that denial is making worse. I don’t understand why you think that means you or society get the last laugh. Nature gets the last laugh.

      • Tom Scharf

        I am comparing one branch of science making a very serious assertion about the well being of earth to another branch and how the public reacts. I think it is beyond dispute that many of the assertions made in climate studies are ignored by the public because the environmental sector has low credibility. Even 50% of Democrats agreed the affects of global warming were exaggerated. They won’t say that about physics and astronomy.

        The number of predictions of doom and gloom that have been made are mind numbing. The IPCC has tried to sort that out but the media will run to tomorrow’s Ehrlich want to be like a moth to a flame anyway. It is counterproductive.

        • DavidAppell

          There’s no inherent reason to expect two branches of science to make predictions on the same level. Few of the sciences are as simple as gravity, or (therefore) as amenable to direct calculation. Especially Newtonian gravity.

          I can’t think of any media that would run a blinkered article about Ehrich claiming everything he’s said has been right. Scientific American certainly didn’t.

          I think you like to make up vague claims and attribute them to the “media,” without, as someone else said here, any evidence.

  • David Skurnick

    It’s not even clear whether climate change contributed to the drought in Syria. The IPCC says there is not sufficient evidence to demonstrate that climate change has contributed to severe weather events, other than heat (although it may do so in the future). Worldwide droughts have not been increasing. See http://blog.drwile.com/?p=12552

    • ThisNameInUse

      Worldwide droughts have indeed been decreasing, and the IPCC says as much.

      • DavidAppell

        Worldwide, but not regionally. See the IPCC 5AR SPM Table SPM.1 pg 7. For the question “Increases in intensity and/or duration of drought,” the assessment is

        “Low confidence on a global scale
        Likely changes in some regions
        Medium confidence in some regions”
        and “Likely in many regions, since 1970”

        with the footnote, “The frequency and intensity of drought has likely increased in the Mediterranean and West Africa, and likely decreased in central North America and north-west Australia.”

        There is “low confidence” humans have contributed to any global change, but “medium confidence” it has contributed to regional changes, and “more likely than not” in “many regions.”

        • David Skurnick

          David — if climate change had already caused worse droughts, there would have been an increase worldwide. Instead there’s natural variation — droughts got worse in some areas and better in others. A model that says droughts will get worse in some unspecified regions is no model at all. That’s what droughts do.
          We don’t know what will happen in the future. However, there’s good reason to expect global warming to lead to greater evaporation, thus more rainfall, and fewer droughts. Time will tell.

          • DavidAppell

            What is the evidence that changes in droughts is natural?

          • DaveJR

            A few billion years worth of history.
            What is the evidence that changes in droughts are not natural?

          • DavidAppell

            Obviously I mean recent changes in droughts. What is the evidence they are natural?

          • David Skurnick

            David — Evaporation comes primarily from the oceans. A bit less water in the oceans doesn’t cause drought. Your knowledge of history tells you that extreme droughts have occurred naturally in unspecified areas. E.g., recall the Dust Bowl in the American Southwest in the 1930’s. That wasn’t caused by man-made climate change. However, If that identical weather pattern repeated today, I can just imagine what catastrophists would make of it.

          • DavidAppell

            Reservoirs of liquid water don’t evaporate? Who knew?

            A study found Lake Mead lost 720 M cubic meters a year in 2010 and 2011. That’s about 4% of its average volume over that time.

            http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2013/5229/

          • David Skurnick

            David — The increase in evaporated water from the oceans that later turns into rain falling on land is incomparably greater than the amount of increased evaporation from reservoirs. Please confirm that you understand this. If you’re not a math person, then I need to find some other way to communicate with you.

          • David Skurnick

            Let me add: the surface of Lake Mead is 247 sq. miles. The surface of the Pacific Ocean is 64 million square miles. It’s about 269,000 times as big.

          • DavidAppell

            “The increase in evaporated water from the oceans that later turns into rain falling on land is incomparably greater than the amount of increased evaporation from reservoirs.”

            That’s of no use if the rain isn’t falling where the drought is, or if the rain is evaporating before it hits the ground.

            Reservoirs hold water that people use to drink and irrigate. When that water evaporates faster, water availability goes down. If there’s not enough rain to compensate for that evaporation, water levels drop. Lake Mead evaporates about 2 meters a year. If less than that comes in, water levels drop — and they’re now at their lowest there since the dam was filling up in the 1930.

            Droughts aren’t only about rainfall.

          • DavidAppell

            You’re citing just one drought, the Dust Bowl, as evidence for your claim?

            The Dust Bowl *was* mostly caused by humans, though. And look how much damage that did.

          • David Skurnick

            Yes, farming methods were a big factor, but the rains stopped around 1932 and didn’t resume until 1939. See http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/dust-bowl-cause.htm The terrible damage done by the Dust Bowl illustrates why it’s brutally cruel and inhumane to devote large amounts of resources to useless reductions in CO2 emissions. That money should be spent on adapting to whatever changes in climate actually take place, regardless of whether these changes are natural or anthropogenic.

          • DavidAppell

            The Dust Bowl farmers adapted pretty good, didn’t they? By leaving their homes and struggling to get by in California.

            “That money should be spent on adapting to whatever changes in climate actually take place, regardless of whether these changes are natural or anthropogenic.”

            CO2 emissions change the climate for over 100,000 years. That’s a whole lot of adaptation we’re foisting on the future.

            And not everyone has money to “adapt,” especially the world’s poor, who will unfairly bear the brunt of the carbon emitters actions. Nor are we likely to help them to “adapt.” The US is easily rich enough now to use only clean energy. Anything other is selfish and greedy.

          • David Skurnick

            David — John Kerry is preaching the idea of discouraging the world’s poor from improving their lives by using fossil fuels. So much for the idea that people want to reduce CO2 emissions for the sake of the world’s poor. On the contrary, they’re actively working to keep the poor in poverty.
            You may think that mitigating our CO2 emissions is an alternative to adapting to climate change. It isn’t a real alternative. At least, not under current technology. The feasible amount of CO2 reductions isn’t nearly sufficient to cause atmospheric CO2 to stop rising. It’s like bailing the Titanic with tea spoons.
            I don’t know what you mean by “clean energy”. It doesn’t matter how rich the US is. Wind and solar energy could produce only a small portion of US energy needs. Conceivably, we might build a very large number of nuclear reactors to fill all our energy needs. As you know, there’s no political will to do so. And, I don’t know if you’d call thousands of nuclear reactors “clean energy”.
            Even if the US stabilizes our CO2 emissions, the rest of the world won’t. As poor countries get richer, they will inevitably want to use more carbon-based energy. Bottom line: Adaptation is a real solution, albeit an imperfect one. Mitigating our CO2 emissions simply won’t work. It’s a cruel fantasy.

          • DavidAppell

            Where did Kerry says anything remotely like that?

          • DavidAppell

            “I don’t know what you mean by “clean energy”. ”

            Anything that doesn’t emit carbon — including, to span the gap, nuclear energy.

          • DavidAppell

            “Even if the US stabilizes our CO2 emissions, the rest of the world won’t.”

            Then explain how China’s CO2 emissions went down 2% last year, while their economy grew.

          • DavidAppell

            Under what scenario can the very poor going to benefit from fossil fuels? How are poor countries supposed to afford the infrastructure needed — good roads, pipelines, power plants? It’s much quicker and cheaper for them to buypass fossil fuels, the way cell phones bypassed land lines. Rooftop solar, community solar, community wind, mini-grids.

            It’s also be cheaper:
            http://rabett.blogspot.com/2015/03/if-not-fire-then-freezer.html

          • David Skurnick

            Power isn’t analogous to cell phones, because cell phones can indeed supply phone coverage for the entire population of Africa, say. By comparison, wind + hydro + solar could never supply more than a relatively tiny bit of energy for sub-Saharan Africa. Oil, gas and coal are their only hope of moving in the direction of modern western standards of wealth. Poor countries can build electric generating plants powered by imported coal or oil. They can use imported oil to power their motor vehicles.
            I’m too busy to google Kerry’s statement. You can find it yourself.
            China’s 2% reduction in emissions is a 1-year glitch in a long-term, rapid rise. Also, even if worldwide annual emissions were somehow to stabilize at current level, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would continue rise.

          • DavidAppell

            I didn’t think Kerry made such a statement.

            Coal will never be imported in massive quantities by the poor countries in Africa — it is too expensive compared to local solutions. Solar is already nearly competitive with fossil fuels, and will definitely be in just a few years time. Solar energy is clearly their path forward, and insisting they use fossil fuels is expensive, uncaring and environmentally dangerous (coal is too dangerous even without considerations of climate change).

            What is the evidence China’s 2% reduction in emissions was a “1-year glitch?”

          • DaveJR

            What is the evidence they’re not natural? Are these areas not historically prone to drought?

          • DavidAppell

            You said the droughts are natural. What’s your evidence? What natural factors in the climate system are causing trends in drought?

          • Tom Scharf

            I had hoped you would be able to work out for yourself that the null model is that the influences on drought inclusive have not changed and the observational evidence that there are no global changes in drought trends support this null model.

          • DavidAppell

            The IPCC 5AR says “low confidence” of “increases in intensity and/or duration of drought.” That is not evidence for the null hypothesis, it’s a statement about the level of confidence in “increases….”

          • Tom Scharf

            Changes in droughts are natural is the null model. It needs to be proven it is not.

          • DavidAppell

            Not so. You are attributing causation to drought trends. What natural factors are causing those trends?

            It’s the same for global warming — there are no observed changes in natural factors to account for it. (And there’s also evidence humans are causing it.)

          • DavidAppell

            “However, there’s good reason to expect global warming to lead to greater evaporation, thus more rainfall, and fewer droughts”

            Your argument is circular — where do you think the evaporation comes from?

            Evaporation itself exacerbates droughts.

        • Tom Scharf

          Of course there are regional changes in extreme events over short periods, that is how erratic low probability statistics work. You need to overcome this certainty of localized chaotic behavior with either larger numbers (global) or longer trends.

          The question is whether these regional changes are predictive or are they just “typical randomness”, will these changes be sustained?

          The exact same assertions were made after the 2004-2005 hurricane seasons and those changes were not only not sustained, they have reversed.

          How long is long enough? Certainly decades, but since we don’t have good enough detailed climate data from the past several centuries it is difficult to assess how long a trend we need to eliminate chaotic influences.

          The Syria region may be returning to it’s historic norms instead of exiting them. Paleo is some help, but that view is pretty obscured.

          • DavidAppell

            “The exact same assertions were made after the 2004-2005 hurricane seasons and those changes were not only not sustained, they have reversed.”

            Really? Tell that to the people of the western Pacific region. (Historically, only 18% of hurricanes have occurred in the North Atlantic.) Then explain why that’s all due to chaos and randomness, but not affected by warming waters in the western Pacific.

          • Tom Scharf

            Wow, it’s almost like different regions chaotically have increases and decreases in extreme events, and if you add it all up it looks like business as usual.

            This didn’t stop people from claiming the US was going to see stronger and more frequent hurricanes 10 years ago. Curiously they aren’t claiming the recent decline in hurricanes is indicative of anything. We know the formula: Extreme events up = global warming, extreme events down = normal chaotic behavior.

            You need to understand the characteristics of noisy data better. This exact same mistaken mentality was used to identify “cancer clusters” back in the 1970’s.

            Asserting a theory is the first step. Showing the correlation numerically is step 2. Proving causality is step 3. You aren’t past step 2 yet, and step 3 is very difficult.

          • DavidAppell

            From NOAA GFDL: “It is premature to conclude that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane activity.”
            http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/global-warming-and-hurricanes

          • DavidAppell

            “Wow, it’s almost like different regions chaotically have increases and decreases in extreme events, and if you add it all up it looks like business as usual.”

            Where have been the decreases to offset the global total? Note: The North Atlantic only has 17% of global ACE (which, let’s note, is a lousy metric, because it doesn’t include the size of storms). SInce 1970, global ACE’s trend is +1% per decade; global PDI is +3% per decade. Some studies suggest hurricane damage actually scales as the 8th power of wind speed.

          • DavidAppell

            Then there is the clear upward trend since 1970 of both tropical storms and major hurricanes in the North Atlantic:
            http://policlimate.com/tropical/north_atlantic_hurricane.png

          • DavidAppell

            “…it is difficult to assess how long a trend we need to eliminate chaotic influences.”

            You can never eliminate chaotic influences. Chaos will always influence the climate. But it doesn’t *create* global warming on its own, unless there are corresponding changes somewhere else in the climate system. Energy is still conserved.

    • DavidAppell

      Warming makes droughts worse, even at the same level of precipitation, because more water evaporates at higher temperatures. (It’s an exponential relationship.)

      • JH

        David: there was 0.6°C if warming in the 20th century. If we’re to accept basic ideas about warming, *most* of that warming should have occurred at the poles, where CO2 can play the biggest role in storing heat during the winter.

        So how does 0.6°C of total earth warming cause a drought in Syria at 30°N lat? It doesn’t. It could contribute a *very small* percentage to that drought in Syria. But the drought in Syria is almost exclusively natural.

        You continue to be a poster boy for the skeptical cause.

        • DavidAppell

          Actually it was 0.7 C of global warming in the 20th century, according to GISS, which matters because of the exponential dependence.

          Also, CO2 does not “store heat.” You should at least know that much. The higher polar warming is called “polar amplification” — look it up.

          Did Syria warm by 0.7 C in the 20th century? Where are those data?

        • DavidAppell

          In the Supplemental Information to the Kelley et al PNAS paper Keith links to, near-surface temperature trends for Syria are given in Figure S2. From 1900 to 2010, the warming was

          summer (May-Oct): +1.2 C
          winter (Nov-Apr): +1.0 C

        • DavidAppell

          Because I can’t leave anything well enough alone, I went to the KNMI Explorer and looked up the temperature station data for Aleppo, Syria, the country’s largest city.

          From 1950-2012, the surface warming trend was +0.18 C/decade, and the warming in that time comes to +1.1 C.

          That’s just in 60 years. (The GISS global number of +0.7 C I gave earlier is for 1880-2000.)

        • DavidAppell

          Here you go:

          “Noah S. Diffenbaugh and colleagues examined historical California climate records to examine the relationship between precipitation and temperature in drought periods. The authors found that lower-than-normal precipitation was more than twice as likely to lead to drought conditions if the precipitation deficit occurred during warm conditions, compared with cool conditions.”

          – From a 2015 paper in PNAS
          http://chinese.eurekalert.org/en/pub_releases/2015-03/aaft-cca022715.php

  • ThisNameInUse

    “But the authors of the study also fingered climate change-fueled drought as a “catalytic” trigger. Only a few reporters bothered to closely examine the merits of that claim.”

    Good grief this is a reach. It’s not the job of news outlet journalists with no more science education than James Inhofe (or similar societal waste products) to “closely examine the merits” of a scientific paper. That’s the job of PhD scientists with the appropriate background. And they did.

    It sounds like you don’t like the “narrative” that the facts of this study – and the several others that reached the same conclusion – naturally lead to.

    I see Discover is letting that new breed of Doubt Merchants – the “I don’t doubt climate change is serious but now please swallow this offering of pureed red herring to discredit peer reviewed science I find inconvenient” piggback off its credibility on its pages. That’s really a shame.

    • David Skurnick

      ThisNameInUse — you say, “It’s not the job of news outlet journalists … to ‘closely examine the merits’ of a scientific paper.” However, dozens of climate papers are published each month in scientific journals. Some of these papers point to disaster, Others point out weaknesses or flaws in conventional climate models. How does the media decide which papers deserve attention? IMHO their choice is not based on the paper’s scientific merits nor its significance. The news outlet’s decision is pretty much based on how well the paper follows the preferred narrative.

    • JH

      ‘It’s not the job of news outlet journalists…to “closely examine the merits” of a scientific paper.'”

      I couldn’t disagree more.

      It’s *definitely* their job to:

      a) ask questions
      b) report the answers to those questions
      c) assess whether the answers actually answer the question
      d) get other opinions.

      Their job overall is to translate *and interpret* the science for the general public, and anything they need to do to accomplish that mission is part of their job – even if those questions are uncomfortable for the source.

      IMO, journalism is in a deep hole because most reporters don’t dig or ask uncomfortable questions about science or anything else. Journalists today seem to believe that extensive “fact checking” is the process of finding the source of the quote. They’re in danger of becoming little more than scribes.

  • Buddy199

    Really good post. I find objective, even handed analysis a lot more interesting – and convincing – than ideological blab, from either end. Good stuff, keep it coming.

  • jfreed27

    I know it’s tempting to debate the deniers. I used to do it
    all the time. But consider: One second spent debating with deniers is one
    second lost forever, and this is just what they want: disputation, distraction, and endless delay.

    Denial (aka delay) equals huge profits to ff corporations.

    But, in that one second the earth’s oceans and atmosphere gain an extra ‘4 Hiroshima atom bombs’ of energy, due to increased greenhouse gases. Each second.

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/4-Hiroshima-bombs-worth-of-heat-per-second.html

    So, I rarely answer denier comments.

    • OWilson

      Some 2700 “Hiroshima Bombs” are emitted every second by the sun, not to mention the 62,000 “Hiroshima” Bombs that an earthquake like Fuki can produce.

      Or even the 14,000 “Hiroshima Bombs” that an average volcano can produce.

      And you got what, 4 due to man?

      Lol

      • jfreed27

        LOL? “How cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition” Herman Melville

        • OWilson

          “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” – FDR

          • jfreed27

            I would add “and inaction in the face of a real existential threat, such as Nazi Germany”

          • OWilson

            You equate weather with Fascist totalitarianism?

            My, you really are a paranoid “chicken little”

            By the way, totalitarians don’t allow dissent :)

          • jfreed27

            Not acting in the face of the growing danger of climate change is just dumb. Spin this as you wish..

          • OWilson

            What “growing danger”?

            At the rate the earth is warming according to satellite data there is no danger.

            In fact it’s scientifically and statistically insignificant “noise”. 0.71 degrees by 2100, less that the IPCC target.

            Global sea ice cover is also remarkably stable according to satellite data during this period, some 36 years.

            (There is no natural law that says ice must be stable at both poles at the same time) :)

          • jfreed27

            yeah, right. Deniers are complicit.
            I will go with the experts, not arm chair scientists.

          • OWilson

            OK, you convinced me! :)

          • jfreed27

            Really?. I doubt that anything would :)

          • OWilson

            So, pointing out scientific facts, makes me colluding and conniving in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children?

            It’s easy to see why your brand of scientific “modeling” is never, ever right.

            Lol

          • jfreed27

            It is the misdirection, the cherry picking, the distortions, the purposeful ignorance, the ‘putting stumbling blocks before the blind’, the misinformation, the delay and the failure to act on sufficient scientific expertise for the last 30 years that is killing people.

            This is at the behest of fossil fuel corporations who spend billions to do all of the above. And if you further their aims, then, yes, you are complicit.

            But, supply all the facts you like..it’s a free country.

  • OWilson

    The fact is weather (climate change) affects every event in the history of the world.

    A hurricane in Sarajevo in 1914 would almost certainly have prevented the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand which caused the Great War.

    Cold weather prevented Germans (twice) and Napoleon (once) from overrunning Russia.

    It’s been blamed for everything from Superbowl losses to cancelling global warming protests.

    Only low info voters are impressed by this junk science!

    • Mike Richardson

      Weather and climate aren’t the same thing, which you’ve pointed out yourself sometimes. But attributing any one event to the changing climate is something that needs to carefully considered, which is the point of this article.

      • OWilson

        The last time I checked, the definition of “climate” was “long term weather”, but it’s hard to keep up with you guys sometimes.

        • Mike Richardson

          Noted. Would it help if we typed more slowly, or used fewer syllables?

  • cardigan

    “There are many very good environmental and economic reasons to cut greenhouse gas emissions and move towards a carbon-free energy system.”

    Really? Many of the alternatives damage the environment, such as wind turbines, bird and bat mortality, solar panels, acreages of panels destroy habitat, some hyper systems have been frying birds in flight. Economically, alternatives push up the cost of energy through subsidy.

    Carbon free is a myth. How does the steel for these things get to be made? Where do the plastics come from?

    • DavidAppell

      Don’t you love how fossil fuel addicts suddenly became bird lovers as soon as wind turbines and solar farms went up.

      Fact is, buildings kill orders of magnitude more birds than do wind turbines. Cars, too.

      “Where do the plastics come from?”

      You do realize, I hope, that the oil in plastics STAYS IN THE PLASTIC and doesn’t pollute the atmosphere and ocean? (Well, the oil’s carbon doesn’t; plastic itself is, of course, a huge polluter of the ocean.)

      • Tom Scharf

        Cats are the real enemy, ha ha.

        • DavidAppell

          My cats have only killed 2 birds in their collective time here, and one of those flew through my apartment and crashed into a window on the opposite side and, I think, broke its neck. My car has killed one (that I know of).

          • Mike Richardson

            Two birds that you know of… Remember, cats are very stealthy and efficient. Unless you watch them 24/7, you might be surprised at how many small feathered and furry critters they take out. Not that I’m saying your cats are bad — they’re just, well, cats.

          • DavidAppell

            They have always seen proud of their kill, and insist on dragging the bird into the house, whether it’s dead or not.

          • Mike Richardson

            Okay, they rank pretty low as feline serial killers of birds go. David, your kitties are off the hook. But to get back to the subject of avian deaths from alternative energy sources, Pop Sci had an online article a few weeks back about how one of the solar concentrator plants was unintentionally flash frying birds that flew too close to the boiler, where the beams were concentrated. Some solutions proposed were similar to the sound deterrents used at airports, but I was thinking, don’t birds often see at UV wavelengths we can’t? Couldn’t you paint the boiler a bright color that might drive away birds? By the same token, why not paint wind turbine blades in a color that reflects more brightly at UV spectrums? And for bats, just make the windblades noisy at an ultrasonic frequency. If concern for flying animals is the justification for opposing these projects, it seems like the fixes wouldn’t be that expensive.

          • DavidAppell

            What numbers did Popular Science give for birth deaths from the solar plant in the desert?
            How does that compare to deaths from buildings?
            From car strikes?

            I’m not an expert on birds. So I can’t comment on any proposed solutions without doing more research. I’d be surprised if what you propose is workable, since it would likely have been done for buildings long ago. Is there even such a thing as UV paint? Or visible paint that also emits strongly in the UV?

          • DavidAppell

            Uh, that should be “bird deaths,” not “birth deaths.”

          • Mike Richardson

            No worries, I was pretty sure we were still talking birds, even if I’ve taken things off on a tangent. But I opened this can of worms, so to answer your questions from your previous post, I did a little quick research: From the Pop Sci online article dated Feb. 20, 2015, “Solar Power Towers Are ‘Vaporizing’ Birds”-the Crescent Dunes plant in Nevada reported vapor trails from about 130 unfortunate avians during a six-hour test run in January of this year. Ivanpah power plant reports an average of about one roasted bird every 2 minutes. Sounds bad, but you should see the charts where they compare the different energy sources and resulting bird deaths — both in totals and per megawatt hour, the biggest killer by far is coal. That’s a little fact to point out for any more “concerned” global warming denier who’s suddenly become a bird lover.
            Sibley Guides online shows about 70 million birds killed annually in the US and Canada by cars, nearly a billion by windows (buildings),
            and about 500 million from cats (feral – not your cats). Wind turbines were listed as less than 10 million, but this was compiled in 2003, and I’m sure that’s higher now. In May 2014, USA Today reported bird deaths from cars in the US at about 340 million, with owls particularly hard hit.
            Back to the question of bird vision, birds do indeed see in part of the UV spectrum, and there are now coatings and films on the market to make windows safe for birds (the Humane Society has a nice online article about this), so someone’s already thought of a potential solution for windows that might apply to turbines, if it proves economical and environmentalists demand safer wind power for birds. There are also methods for keeping birds away from wind and solar plants using sound and other deterrents, such as at airports. So solutions do exist that can make alternative energy even safer for wildlife, though it still outperforms traditional fossil fuels for environmental impact. In the meantime, stay away from any rotisserie chicken joints within a mile of solar tower stations — you never know when someone might see a problem as an opportunity. Just sayin’.

          • DavidAppell

            Thanks for all this information. I agree, roasting ~100,000 birds/yr at a solar plant is large enough to raise concern, even though it’s a small percentage of all accidental or energy-related bird deaths. [Maybe they can hang foil pie plates all around the perimeter, that twist in the wind. When I grew up that’s what some people put around their gardens.] Not to be flippant; I suspect people are thinking about this problem now.

        • Mike Richardson

          Actually, from published statistics, this is true. Casualties in the billions, all due to felis domesticus. Of course, cats do much more damage to the songbird species, not so much to raptors, sea birds, and crows, which are probably smarter than cats anyway.

  • SScottJ

    “We respect Dr. Solow’s opinion, but we are not aware of any evidence
    that this paper or others about climate impacts diminish awareness of
    the importance of poverty and poor governance as causes of civil
    conflict. Our argument calls these out as essential elements in the
    Syrian conflict.”

    It’s a convenient disclaimer. They can promote a reductionist narrative, but if called on it simply point to places in their work where they acknowledge that environment-society interactions are far too complex to say that climate change causes any single event.

    They say climate change “contributed”, that it’s “implicated” in the conflict, etc…(Kind of hedging their bets.) But the main objective behind the climate-triggers-conflict research to persuade people that climate change will acquire (is acquiring) the power to create more warfare, that climate models can be used as predictors of future conflict. If primary factors shaping climate impacts are social, political and economic – which they seem to acknowledge – why place so much emphasis on climate change?

    The same goes for claims often made by charities and NGOs that climate change will cause much of the world’s poor to starve to death, even though those same organizations would rightly acknowledge that poverty stems primarily from socially unjust global economic policies, maldistrubution of resources, lack of access to food, money, etc.. So isn’t arguing that climate change is, for instance, triggering famine rather like pushing someone off a boat, who then drowns, and then claiming that the water killed them?

    • DavidAppell

      “They say climate change “contributed”, that it’s “implicated” in the conflict, etc…(Kind of hedging their bets.)”

      How? They don’t conclude climate change was the ONLY factor that contributed to Syrian unrest. Why is it dishonest to say so?

      • SScottJ

        I didn’t say it was dishonest. I said they acknowledge other factors. The question is why place drought and other environmental changes at the center of their analysis? Surely the only way to really understand conflicts and how to resolve them is through a comprehensive understanding of the underlying social, political and economic forces and histories. The PNAS study’s discussion these factors is almost non-existent.

        A political scientist at Oxford wrote a very good critique about this regarding Darfur, probably the first conflict to be labelled a “climate war”: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7660.2011.01707.x/full

        • DavidAppell

          “The question is why place drought and other environmental changes at the center of their analysis?”

          Did they say they placed climate change at the center of the reasons for Syrian unrest? No — their paper is about the impact of climate change, not a complete treatise on all aspects of the Syrian conflict.

          You are blaming them for something they never wrote. Their title says “implications,” not “sole causation.”

          • SScottJ

            “Did they say they placed climate change at the center of the reasons for
            Syrian unrest? No — their paper is about the impact of climate change,
            not a complete treatise on all aspects of the Syrian conflict.”

            I didn’t say they did. But that’s the point. How useful is the study if they don’t explore the very social factors they acknowledge are “essential elements”?

          • DavidAppell

            It’s NOT the point. The point is to study the influence of drought in Syria’s unrest. If you want a complete analysis of every factor, you’ll have to look elsewhere. That’s how it should be for a paper from a scientific journal about Syrian unrest.

          • SScottJ

            Sure, I get that their intention is simply to tease out the causal significance of a specific variable, i.e. drought. And I’m not arguing that drought does not have a role. But they are treading into what is very much non-scientific territory, areas of theorizing best left to geographers, political ecologists and other social scientists. It’s not like they are studying bacteria through a microscope. These are political problems and attempts to “scientifically” isolate environmental variables in such complex situations has been repeatedly demonstrated as analytically and empirically deficient. (Halvard Buhaug mentioned above, but others as well Jeroen Klomp and Erwin Bulte http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/agec.12051/abstract; Peluso’s and Watt’s book Violent Environments is also very good.)

            I’m not being pedantic. This kind of work influences political discourse and reframes the way people
            think about conflict. Whatever their intentions, studies such as these
            that attempt to isolate the role of the environment from the
            complexities of social, political and economic are unavoidably reductive
            and they used for political ends.

            As the above article notes, the authors proudly proclaim that their work is being discussed in policy circles. And the Pentagon is using these kinds of studies in order to justify its military arsenal (see the latest Quadrennial Defense Review and a slew of reports from government-backed think tanks such as CNAS and CSIS that provide scenarios of climate-driven conflict). This is where much of the demand for these studies comes from – for instance a study commissioned by the US Treasury Department ( http://www.pnas.org/content/107/32/14257.abstract ) using climate science to estimate how many more immigrants they can expect from Mexico over the coming decades due to drought. That’ll go well…

            I simply think that people who are concerned about social justice issues and climate change should be very careful about taking this kind of work at face value. Whatever it is, it is not science. And it is not ideology-free,

          • DavidAppell

            Political problems often have environmental stressors. One factor behind the French Revolution was a food scarity in the 1780, due to a series of crop failures, that might be linked to a large El Nino. See:

            Richard H. Grove (1998). “Global Impact of the 1789–93 El Niño”. Nature 393: 318–319. doi:10.1038/30636

          • DavidAppell

            “Whatever their intentions, studies such as these that attempt to isolate the role of the environment from the complexities of social, political and economic are unavoidably reductive and they used for political ends.”

            Again you’re misrepresenting the paper. Read it! The concluding paragraph begins, “An abundance of history books on the subject tell us that civil unrest can never be said to have a simple or unique cause. The Syrian conflict, now civil war, is no exception.”

    • DavidAppell

      “But the main objective behind the climate-triggers-conflict research to persuade people that climate change will acquire (is acquiring) the power to create more warfare, that climate models can be used as predictors of future conflict.”

      Which modelers are saying climate models can be used to predict future conflicts?

      The paper says, “There is evidence that the 2007−2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria. It was the worst drought in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers.”

      Why WOULDN’T widespread crop failures make civil unrest worse?

      “So isn’t arguing that climate change is, for instance, triggering famine rather like pushing someone off a boat, who then drowns, and then claiming that the water killed them?”

      No. Unless you get rid of the water. The world hasn’t yet found a way to counter many of the socio-political-economic forces that create famines. GIven that, the potential for climate change to make the situation worse is definitely there.

      • SScottJ

        “No. Unless you get rid of the water. The world hasn’t yet found a way to
        counter many of the socio-political-economic forces that create
        famines. GIven that, the potential for climate change to make the
        situation worse is definitely there.”

        Don’t disagree that climate change can make the situation worse. But if I accept the argument that it WILL make things such as poverty and famine worse, I have to accept that the maldistrubution of food and wealth will also remain the same for the foreseeable future. There’s enough of food in the world to feed people, they just don’t have access to it. The wealthy countries of North America and Western Europe throw away 40% of the food they produce and import, and staggering amounts of grain are grown for the sole purpose of feeding a billion cows which are sold to wealthier countries. Given this, I find the argument that climate change is starving people morally problematic! :-/

        I guess I worry about what I see as an implicit fatalism in such arguments, not only about climate change but also about the prospects for political change.

        • DavidAppell

          I don’t disagree with anything you wrote. But I don’t see claims that climate change is “starving people” per se. I see claims it’s making food situations worse in some places. I see claims that it’s already lowering crop yields. But, so far at least, not claims it’s the sole agent.

          • SScottJ

            Yeah, to be fair, these authors are more cautious about their language. They don’t say climate change is “causing” the conflict. But it’s easy enough to find such arguments – like: “more than 300,000 die due to climate change every year” http://www.ghf-ge.org/human-impact-report.pdf

            Sorry, I juggle – and maybe liberally lump together! – much of this literature… it’s in my head because I write about it every day!

          • DavidAppell

            Is the 300,000 number obviously wrong? How so?

      • Tom Scharf

        An argument that a model’s efficacy is adequate to determine climate change’s impact on a historic specific conflict in a specific region but yet has no predictive power makes little sense.

        It’s convenient to be sure.

        Similar statements are made occasionally that “a model” predicted that flood or this drought. I’m sure that may be accurate but the question is whether it also reliably predicted other historic floods and droughts (i.e. was it just lucky?). If it reliably predicted historic events it should be useful for prediction. That would be a good thing. Of course there a large number of models in the dustbin that were over fitted to historic data and had little predictive power.

        • DavidAppell

          “An argument that a model’s efficacy is adequate to determine climate change’s impact on a historic specific conflict in a specific region but yet has no predictive power makes little sense.”

          Who said climate models are adequate to determine climate impacts on a conflict? Not me. So who?

        • DavidAppell

          “Of course there are a large number of models in the dustbin that were over fitted to historic data and had little predictive power.”

          And there are models used every day in ways that are vital to society.

          By the way, how well does your climate model do?

  • Wander Jager

    Instead of ‘statistical proof’, which is obviously difficult to obtain because you cannot really experiment with earth on a large scale, a good scientific analysis should come up with causal explanations. Narratives may serve an important goal in developing an understanding of the causal mechanisms in the complex systems that we are dealing with. And obviously they will not find an absolute truth, but a statistical analysis with a p <.05 is most certainly not going to help you here

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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