Why you should take hyperventilating headlines about CO2 with a grain of salt — but still be quite concerned

By Tom Yulsman | May 15, 2017 12:11 pm
The graph shows recent monthly mean carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. The last four complete years of the Mauna Loa CO2 record plus the current year are shown. (Source: NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory)

This graph shows carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The last four complete years of the record plus the current year are shown. The dashed red line red line shows monthly mean values, and reveals a natural, up-and-down season cycle. The black line shows the trend after correcting for the average seasonal cycle.  (Source: NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory)

Back in late April, there was a spate of hyperventilating headlines and news reports about the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

This one in particular, from Think Progress, should have made its author so light-headed that she passed out:

The Earth just reached a CO2 level not seen in 3 million years

Levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide hit record concentrations.

That story and others were prompted by measurements at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory showing that the concentration of heat-trapping CO2 in the atmosphere had exceeded 410 parts per million.

Some of you might be thinking this: Since rising levels of greenhouse gases are causing global warming, and myriad climate changes like melting ice sheets and glaciers, then this really was big news story.

And the highest CO2 level in 3 million years? WOW! That certainly justifies the hyperventilating hed, right?

I don’t think so. That’s because the headline is inaccurate, and the story hypes the crossing of a purely artificial CO2 threshold. This may rile up the readers of Think Progress, but it does little to encourage broader public engagement on the issue of climate change. In fact, it probably does the opposite. Why do I think this? 

First, consider that four years ago, there was this headline on a Live Science story:

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Breaks 3-Million-Year Record

That story was published in 2013, when CO2 exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time. So which is it? Then or now?

And also consider this: Fully eight years ago, when the CO2 concentration stood at 387 ppm, research showed that you had to go back roughly 14 million to 16 million years to find a time when CO2 was higher.

Which brings me back to the Think Progress story that made a very big deal about CO2 reaching 410 parts per million. Why did they consider that number to be an important threshold — so important that they felt justified in dusting off that old figure of 3 million years and using it again?

There’s nothing particularly scientific about that threshold. The climate certainly didn’t turn into a pumpkin on that day. And I have to wonder: Why didn’t they do a story when it hit 405 ppm? Or why not publish something with every rise of 1 ppm?

Atmospheric CO2 concentration, as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory. (Source: NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory)

Atmospheric CO2 concentration, as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory. (Source: NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory)

And here’s something else to consider: While daily CO2 readings at Mauna Loa reached 412.63 ppm on April 26th, that data point was something of an outlier, as the graphic at right illustrates. The average for that entire week was lower: 409.92 ppm. Since then, the weekly average has dropped even further.

In fact, it’s likely that CO2 has already reached it’s peak for 2017 and will be declining through the Northern Hemisphere spring and summer. This naturally occurs every year, as growing vegetation draws CO2 from the air. (The Northern Hemisphere dominates the annual natural cycle of atmospheric CO2 because there is more land and thus greater vegetation there.)

In September, as the leaves fall, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will begin to rise again. And then come next May we’ll see a new peak in CO2 that will exceed this year’s.

That’s because the natural annual CO2 cycle rides atop the longer-term trend — the one that we humans drive largely through our burning of fossil fuels.

My point is not that we shouldn’t be concerned about continuing to use the atmosphere as a dumping ground for the byproducts of fossil fuel burning. Quite the opposite. We should be moving more aggressively to do something about it. If you have any doubts, check out the trend in sea level since 1880:

Cumulative changes in sea level for the world’s oceans since 1880, based on a combination of long-term tide gauge measurements and recent satellite measurements. (Source: EPA.)

Cumulative changes in sea level for the world’s oceans since 1880, based on a combination of long-term tide gauge measurements and recent satellite measurements. (Source: EPA.)

Moreover, sea level rise isn’t something that only future generations will have to deal with. It’s already causing significant challenges. If you doubt that, check out what’s happening in Miami right now.

So yes, we absolutely should be concerned about the rising tide of CO2 in the atmosphere, and doing something over the long run to transition away from fossil fuels.

But hanging on every little uptick in CO2, and hyping multiple artificial milestones with appeals to fear, is journalistically suspect. Yes, CO2 probably is higher today than it has been for millions of years. But that was probably true back in 2009, as it was in 2013 as well. So why is this suddenly news again?

Moreover, a large body of social science research shows that this approach can be decidedly counterproductive. For example, research published in the journal Science Communication found that “fearful representations of climate change” can produce these unfortunate outcomes:

  • People become desensitized to fear appeals
  • Fear erodes public trust in organizations making those appeals
  • Fear messages may cause people to believe that they are incapable of doing anything meaningful, leading them to deny what they are hearing, or to become apathetic.

I’m not saying that journalists should avoid writing stories about rising CO2 concentrations, how that is causing the climate to change, and what we should expect in the future. We should provide a clear and unflinching picture of what’s happening, as well as information about possible solutions. In this way, we can help provide citizens with the resources they need to make up their own minds about the issues.

But slapping an inaccurate, hyperventilating headline on a non-story to rile up readers is no way to do it.

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  • Cliff Clavin

    There is so much much hype when it comes to climate change, global warming, global cooling, whatever you want to call it, that I just ignore it all.

    We are all going to die, there’s no getting around that. And we will adapt to whatever situation comes up, unless of course we get hit by a GammaRay burst which will be a serious problem I know and there won’t be anybody around to write about it.

    I don’t have to worry about rising sea levels. I wasn’t stupid enough to buy a home on the beach.

    • John C

      Or rich enough, which kind of makes me even less sympathetic.

    • Tom Aaron

      True. Humans thrive in all types of niches in the world. The reality is that as a percent there has never been fewer deaths due to natural disasters, famine, war, environmental diseases.

      But…’The end is nigh!’

      • OWilson

        But if you “Repent AND give up your worldly goods, Ye shall be saved”.

        The line forms to the right!. :)

  • John C

    Good article. It looks like a pretty straight arithmetic line on the chart. About 1 inch of sea level rise per 14 years. IF… it continues as such, the point at which the following cities would be submerged is:

    (Average elevations of major U.S. cities)

    Miami 5.9 ft. above sea – 991 years

    New York 13 ft. above sea – 2,184 years

    San Diego 62 ft. above sea – 10,416 years

    New Orleans 1.5 ft BELOW seal level – Why would you build a city below sea level in the first place??

    Given that the useful life of modern commercial buildings and public works is certainly not measured in centuries, that seems to give plenty of time for residents to, say – MOVE.

    From your link: “Sea levels in South Florida could rise up to two feet over the next four decades”. That seems to be an example of the type of scientifically inaccurate mass media story you’re talking about. How does Florida suffer 2 ft. of sea level rise when the rest of the world experiences 2.85 inches?
    Not that climate change isn’t a problem, but as you say, examine the data in perspective because crying wolf just makes most people not believe in wolves after a while.

    • steven

      Not quite the same. First, when dealing with damage from sea level rise, a coastal city’s average elevation is irrelevant. The important factor is the rate of elevation rise at the coast.

      Also, the sea level is not constant around the world. The value you hear is the global average rise, just like global temperature. Sea level rise will vary from region to region.

      • John C

        The average and median elevation are different, yes. There are a lot of local variables but even so, a 1 inch overall global rise every 14 years – your index finger is 3 inches long / 42 years, 2 generations – seems like a pretty easy problem to plan around.

        • steven

          Again, the city’s average or median elevations are irrelevant. What matters is at what distance from the coast does the elevation rise above the sea level rise. Who cares if Miami’s average elevation is 5.9 feet if, for example, the elevation 6 blocks from the coast is still only 1 ft.

          Regarding the rate of rise, you are making some simple assumptions (that the rate is linear), extrapolating, and then making some grand statements. In actuality, that plot of rise vs year is not linear. Put a straight edge next to it and it becomes obvious. And in case the graphic just makes it look that way I took the data and quickly entered into excel. The trendline is exponential, not very much, but it is. Based on the data, the rise in 42 more years would be an additional 34 inches, not 3.

          Now I am not saying it will remain rising at this exponential rate, but if you take the middle between linear and exponential the rise becomes 17″ over 42 more years. That comes pretty close to the estimate in the articles.

          So please, don’t make some gross assumptions then pronounce your simple arithmetic as scientific.

          • John C

            I agree, the average – or mean – elevation is different from the median (1/2 way point in the data series).

            I don’t have the data series so I eyeballed it, but even so 550 years gives you more than a little lead time I would think. My point is that buildings and roads aren’t constructed to last centuries, and people migrate routinely nowadays for work and other reasons, so I think the problem will more or less take care of itself over the long scale of time we’re talking about. Unless of course, the Antarctic Ice Sheet slides off its cracker, which we have absolutely no way of accurately predicting as of today either way.

    • HenryC

      Latitude actually plays a part in the degree of sea level change due to water temperatures. The temperature is actually changing less in the warmer climes than it is in the colder climes. It is interesting though that the tidal gauges and the satellite data is beginning to deviate.

      • John C

        why would that be I wonder, you’d think they would corroborate eachother

        • HenryC

          Don’t really know, but it was true in geologic times as well, the temperatures at the in geologic times were the same.

  • Tom Aaron

    I cant stand this type of article. The author trips over himself to remind us how he is in the ‘correct’ ideological box and is just pointing out …

    Don’t worry. You will keep your position as long as you drink the Global Warming Kool-Ade.

    • OWilson

      Some jump a burning ship, other step down the gangplank gracefully.

      Then there are the poor rodents, that get left behind!

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      • Tom Yulsman

        What a bitter old man you must be.

        • OWilson

          Cheer up!

          It is just a metaphor!

          (I’m sure most of us know the difference between optimism and pessimism! :)

    • Tom Yulsman

      Mr. Aaron: I didn’t trip when writing this commentary, and I certainly didn’t say anything about any “ideological boxes.” I simply voiced my opinion about a spate of hyped stories on CO2. If you don’t like what I have to say, go somewhere else — someplace where writers will say exactly what you want to hear and never challenge you to think.

  • Emmette Davidson

    I suspect the orthodoxy will regret “settled science” pronouncements and “denier” labeling? Those epithets are hard to walk back.

    • OWilson

      We will constantly remind them of their flawed beliefs! :)

  • OWilson

    Love the term “hyperventilating”. It has fit the current “narrative” in popular culture, like a glove for far too long.

    The Chicken Little syndrome, and the Boy Who Cried Wolf just too often, as “Tipping Points” come, go, and are arbitrarily reset at another nebulous time in the future. have reached saturation point. Critical mass.

    Individuals are now starting to second guess the government and the MSM that have been whipping up public hysteria over a slight, scientifically statistically insignificant, global warming.

    We were told that the science was “settled”, when there is a healthy debate going on every day, a contrived 97% ‘consensus” that has never stood up to rigorous scientific statistical analysis.

    We have all seen the pictures plastered over popular magazines showing photoshopped, major cities under 30 or 50 feet of water. Sad looking polar bears on tiny rafts of ice, every every natural flood on low lying land, drought in desert areas, any even just normal bad weather, blamed on global warming (and of course the “deplorable” right wing criminal “deniers”, and “shills for Big Oil, as they are officially called by left wing governments).

    The true believers have been literally worked into a frenzied mob by the political cheerleaders of the movement. The Industrial Revolution that has single handedly brought enlightened people out of the dark ages is to be dismantled along withe the Western Capitalistic political structure it has fueled.

    Then suddenly it’s a new day. The sun rises, world food production is setting records, people wonder if their beautiful bio diverse natural valleys turned into National Parks, would really be more disirable under a mile of dirty ice.

    Technology available to everyone is showing that ALL major world waterfront cities are growing, NOT retreating, and the money spent on land fill is creating some of the most expensive real estate the world has ever known, including docks, parks, residential, commercial, Industrial, even whole new cities, and airports.

    Folks who choose top live in low lying areas, beaches, sand spits, barrier islands, natural flood plains, will be more and more seen as responsible for their own predicament and government efforts to “help them rebuild” will eventually give way to sensible programs to help them move out of harm’s way.

    Likewise residents of known earthquake zones, volcano towns will not be encouraged to proliferate.

    All these efforts, which man has been dealing with since he left his tree and his cave, will be seen once again as the cost of human progress, and not the cost of “climate change”.

    All of a sudden, and helped by a fear of true radicals, Iran, North Korea, and Islamists, it will be morning in America again, and the naked Emperor will once again be laughed at.

    The sun will shine, the birds will sing and those beautiful glacial valleys will bloom brighter than ever!

    Even the true believers do not quote Al Gore anymore (in public anyway) they now say, “Why listen to him?, he’s not a scientist!”

    Amen!

  • RhesusPeaceus

    To me it is less a matter of “confusion” than “suspicion.”

  • LibertyIsTheAnswer

    The federal government has caused sea level rise to be a problem.

    The government provides artificially low insurance rates to people living in homes on the beach. This constitutes a massive subsidy to mostly rich people living near beaches.

    It’s welfare for the rich. It encourages building homes and businesses in very dangerous areas, and puts the risk on everyone else. It’s stupid.

    • Tom Yulsman
      • OWilson

        Bangladesh, like Haiti, suffers from terminal political corruption that “affects every sphere of life”.

        There’s lots to be done there, besides blaming weather!

        I hate the way millions like that are just consigned to hopeless victimhood!

      • LibertyIsTheAnswer

        Ok. My post should have had “in the US” appended to the first sentence.

        But why does it seem like you start out with the assumption that every settlement near a body of water is permanent and timeless?

        It has always been risky to make a settlement near a body of water. Add that to the fact that rising seas are only part of the problem in Bangladesh and you run into a problem that was going to occur regardless.

        If things are as bad as some alarmists say, there will be real strife. But there has always been strife and people adapt.

  • Mike Richardson

    It’s certainly true that exaggerating the effects of climate change or running with data which hasn’t been corroborated hurts efforts at raising awareness of the actual problems we have facing us. We should be quick to point out when stories have gone from informative to sensational. But bear in mind that Think Progress has its own viewpoint to promote, just as The National Review does. That’s not to say that either source is worthless, but you should always look at the primary sources referenced in their articles and see how credible they are. Critical thinking and researching the information presented is far more important than partisan purity. Otherwise, you could end up conflating uncertainty over the degree of warming and sea level rise with doubt over whether or not there is climate change due to greenhouse gases (which is well over 97% certainty in the scientific community). There’s no need to provide ammunition, however weak, to those who ironically ascribe political motivations to climate scientists while engaging in long-winded tirades about how any effort to address climate change plays into the hands of communists, Islamists, and any other “-ists” who are plotting to bring down capitalism and western civilization. Reason, logic, and objectivity serve humanity far better than any unyielding belief system, be it religious or political.

  • burntorangenavyblue

    Ok, just shooting from the hips here since I am not a scientist, but I am wondering:

    Wouldn’t the data gathering from this site be skewered from being in a region that has some of the most regular volcanic activities on Earth which the gases that are emitted would also be the most effective at spewing greenhouse gases?

  • Rick20112

    A well-written article about the danger (with a slightly smaller “d”) that will befall us. The sky is not falling; but it is being lowered.

    I may have to stop reading Dr. Joe and his merry band of alarmists at Climate Progress.

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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