Commentary: AP climate change story moves the goal posts

FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2018, file photo, residences leveled by the wildfire line a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif. The massive wildfire that killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes has been fully contained after burning for more than two weeks, authorities said Sunday, Nov. 25. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

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How are we supposed to have a coherent public debate about climate change when we get reporting like the following Associated Press article?

I am merely a news consumer who tries to pay attention to the political rather than scientific calculations of the on-going climate change debate. I have no scientific expertise whatsoever.

But what's troublesome about the following Associated Press story is that it completely moves the goal posts for any sort of informed debate about the issue.

The heart of this AP story today is that current climate scientists are now claiming they were too conservative on their predictions about climate from 20+ years ago and as a result, they conclude threats to our climate are much worse today. Yet when they point to worse wildfires, storms, hurricanes, rain and flooding they fail to measure for increases in human population and construction sprawl. Was the (generic) hurricane flooding more devastating because more impervious surfaces were created since 1995? Did more houses get built in forested areas affected by wildfire?

For some reason their science (and this article) fails to account for that, allowing the climate scientists to pronounce the situation much more dire than previously believed. Its exasperating and it comes off looking like climate scientists are merely trying to make excuses for their work.

I don't want to come off like a Pollyanna. I don't doubt that extensive carbon (air) pollution is harmful. I grew up in Tacoma WA and when I was a kid there was no brown cloud around the base of Mt. Rainier on summer days. That brown cloud is now common in summer conditions. Most of it is probably caused by Puget Sound politicians who have notoriously opposed freeway/highway expansion--leading to more congestion with idling engines--in favor of mass transit systems that move a fraction of the people and take a generation to build out while technology is about to simultaneously bring us zero emission vehicles in a similar time horizon.

And wildfires could be prevented a number of ways, yet our state and federal governments don't have the spine to fund preparations (fire personnel and equipment) to do so. That is a matter of priority, not climate change.

Take this early graph in the AP story: That global annual temperature increase is slightly lower than some early 1990s forecasts. Yet more than a dozen climate scientists told The Associated Press that without the data currently available and today's improved understanding of the climate, researchers decades ago were too conservative and couldn't come close to realizing how global warming would affect daily lives.

This is the perfect reply to win your argument about climate change! 'Remember all that info we had 25 years ago? Forget that. It doesn't count. We didn't know what we were talking about.' This is akin to the scene in the movie Terminator where the police psychologist explains how clever it is that John Connor from the future doesn't require a shred of proof for his story about the threat from Terminator.

And if these same climate scientists were wrong 25 years ago, why should we be so quick to believe their pronouncements now? How many times can they be incorrect and we're still obliged to believe them?

The other thing that's really strange about this AP article is that it quotes climate scientist Michael Mann from Penn State University who has already been the source of controversy about publishing dubious climate data results. If you're an AP science reporter and you're trying to present your story with as much credibility as possible, why would you quote someone with a checkered scientific background?

Give it a read and see if you are buying what the AP is trying to sell.


Climate change is more extensive and worse than once thought

BC-Climate--Just Plain Worse,2nd Ld-Writethru

Nov 29, 2018 10:28AM (GMT 18:28) - 1282 words

By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer

Eds: Adds link to more AP climate coverage. With AP Photos.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Climate scientists missed a lot about a quarter century ago when they predicted how bad global warming would be.

They missed how bad wildfires, droughts, downpours and hurricanes would get. They missed how much ice sheets in West Antarctica and Greenland would melt and contribute to sea level rise. They missed much of the myriad public health problems and global security issues.

Global warming is faster, more extensive and just plain worse than they once thought it would be, scientists say now.

International negotiators meet next week in Poland to discuss how to ratchet up the fight against climate change in what's called the Conference of Parties . The world's understanding of global warming has changed dramatically since the first conference in March 1995. Since then the globe on average has warmed nearly three-quarters of a degree (0.41 degrees Celsius) but that's not even half the story.

That global annual temperature increase is slightly lower than some early 1990s forecasts. Yet more than a dozen climate scientists told The Associated Press that without the data currently available and today's improved understanding of the climate, researchers decades ago were too conservative and couldn't come close to realizing how global warming would affect daily lives.

One scientific study this month counted up the ways — both direct and indirect — that warming has already changed Earth and society. The total was 467 .

"I don't think any of us imagined that it would be as bad as it's already gotten," said University of Illinois climate scientist Donald Wuebbles, a co-author of the recent U.S. National Climate Assessment . "For example, the intensity of severe weather. We didn't know any of that back then. And those things are pretty scary."

In the 1990s, when scientists talked about warming they focused on the average annual global temperature and sea level rise. The problem is that people don't live all over the globe and they don't feel average temperatures. They feel extremes — heat, rain and drought — that hit them at home on a given day or week, said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Richard Alley.

"The younger generations are growing up where there is no normal," University of Washington public health and climate scientist Kristie Ebi said, pointing out that there have been 406 consecutive months when the world was warmer than the 20th century average.

More recently economists have joined scientists in forecasting a costly future. Yale economist William Nordhaus, who won the 2018 Nobel prize for economics for his work on climate change and other environmental issues, told the Associated Press that his calculations show climate change would cost the United States $4 trillion a year at the end of the century with a reasonable projection of warming.

The way science has looked at global warming has changed over the last quarter century because of better knowledge, better computers, better observations, more data — and in large part because researchers are looking more closely at what affects people most. Add to that what many scientists see as an acceleration of climate change and the picture is much bleaker than in the 1990s.

Back then, Michael Mann was a graduate student exploring global warming.

"I honestly didn't think that in my mid-career we would be watching the impacts of climate change play out on my television" nor that they would be so strong, said Mann, now a prominent climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. It is playing out with wildfires, rain-soaked hurricanes, flooding, drought, heat waves and other extreme weather, he said.

Scientists now better understand how changes in currents in the air — such as the Jetstream — and the rain cycle can cause more extreme weather. And recent research shows how climate change is altering those natural factors.

The biggest change in the science in the last quarter century is "we can now attribute changes in global temperatures and even some extreme events to human activity," said Sir Robert Watson, a former top NASA and British climate scientist who chaired the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 1997 to 2002.

With improved knowledge and tools, scientists can better understand extreme weather such as hurricanes and droughts, and they can run complex computer simulations that attribute extremes to human-caused warming from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, Watson said.

Scientists attribute extreme events to human-caused warming by comparing what happened in real life to simulations without heat-trapping gases from fossil fuels. They've concluded climate change has caused more rain in hurricanes Harvey , Maria , Katrina and others .

Studies have shown climate change has worsened droughts, downpours and heat waves, such as the Russian one in 2010, that have killed thousands of people. And they have linked climate change to the growing amount of land in the western United States burned by wildfire, which wasn't considered a big climate issue a couple decades ago, said University of Utah fire scientist Phil Dennison.

From air pollution triggered by wildfires that caused people in Northern California to don breathing masks to increased asthma attacks that send children to the hospital, medical experts said climate change is hurting people's bodies.

"We're seeing surprises," public health professor Ebi said. "We're projecting changes and we're seeing them sooner than we expected."

That includes once-tropical disease carrying mosquitoes in Canada and warm water shellfish bacteria showing up in Alaska , she said.

Massachusetts General Hospital emergency room physician Dr. Renee Salas, who wrote a chapter in the medical journal Lancet's annual climate health effects reports, said these aren't abstract statistics, but real patients.

"When I had to tell a tearful mother that I needed to admit her 4-year-old daughter for an asthma attack, her fourth visit in a week, climate change was truly top of my mind because I knew her disease was due to rising pollen levels," Salas said.

Massive ice sheets in western Antarctica and Greenland are melting much faster than scientists figured a quarter century ago.

Antarctica has lost nearly 3 trillion tons of ice since 1992, enough to cover Texas nearly 13 feet (4 meters) deep, scientists reported in June. Greenland has lost more than 5 trillion tons in the same period.

Melting in Antarctica and Greenland in the last few years "literally doubled our projections of the sea level rise at the end of this century," said Mann of Penn State.

Non-experts who reject mainstream science often call scientists "alarmists," yet most researchers said they tend to shy away from worst case scenarios. By nature, scientists said they are overly conservative.

In nearly every case, when scientists were off the mark on something, it was by underestimating a problem not overestimating, said Watson, the British climate scientist.

But there are ultimate worst cases. These are called tipping points, after which change accelerates and you can't go back. Ice sheet collapses. Massive changes in ocean circulation. Extinctions around the world.

"In the early 1990s we only had hints that we could drive the climate system over tipping points," said Jonathan Overpeck, environment dean at University of Michigan. "We now know we might actually be witnessing the start of a mass extinction that could lead to our wiping out as much as half the species on Earth."

Read more stories on climate issues by The Associated Press at


Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears .


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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