A Case of False False Balance, or Global Warming as a Drag on Progress

January 30, 2015 7:28 pm2 comments

Media Matters for America cannot be accused of false balance.  It’s one-sided.  It’s dedicated, as its website reports, to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.

It’s entirely possible to be both one-sided and accurate.  But in this post, I’m going to look at a case where I say Media Matters was wrong.

The False False Balance

Kevin Kalhoefer reports on a Media Matters analysis of climate coverage by the major news media.  Coverage of climate change issues increased for the third year in a row. However, even though issues regarding the science of climate change often come up in news stories and Sunday talk shows, only 16% of guests or interviewees were scientists.

The report generally makes for good reading.  However, there’s a passage in a section on false balance that caught my eye.

False balance consists of giving something close to equal time to persons representing both sides of an issue, even though the vast majority share a particular point of view.  One can see how that would apply to climate change: many aspects are well-established and agreed upon near-unanimously by experts (such as that the globe is undergoing long-term warming and man is substantially the cause of it), even as other areas of climate science are very active areas of research (such as the size of climate sensitivity).

Do Patrick Michaels and the IPCC agree?

The Media Matters report listed four examples.  One, from NBC’s Meet the Press was described as follows:

A …segment … featured the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels denying the impacts of climate change on extreme weather. Michaels claimed that once adjustments are made for increased global population, “there’s no change in weather-related damages” attributable to climate change.

The full transcript segment is:

GREGORY: The extreme weather is not limited to the United States. Massive flooding has left large parts of England under water over the past two months. The chief scientist of UK’s National Weather Service said all the evidence suggests climate change is to blame. Skeptics say the forecasts of doom and gloom are overblown.

MR. PATRICK MICHAELS (Director, Center for the Study of Science, CATO Institute): After you adjust for the fact that there are so many more people living in so many more places, there’s no change in weather-related damages.

Okay, so here’s Patrick Michaels “denying” that climate change has caused an increase in weather-related damages.   The UK guy was talking about an individual storm.  This is sort of false balance, but the two statements don’t quite address the same issue.  What we need, if we’re going to have precise false balance (sic), is someone from mainstream science who can present, authoritatively, the conclusion drawn by the IPCC’s special report on severe weather a few years ago.

Okay, I’ll quote from the IPCC report myself:

Increasing exposure of people and economic assets has been the major cause of long-term increases in economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters (high confidence). Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded (high agreement, medium evidence).

To translate from IPCC lingo, the observed increases in damages caused by weather-related disasters has been caused mainly by more people and infrastructure in more vulnerable areas.  The evidence is not good enough to say whether climate change has made even a minor contribution to increased damages.

Take that, Pat!

Oh, wait, the IPCC’s position is almost exactly Patrick Michaels’ position.

That’s not false balance, that’s true balance.

If NBC was going to indulge in false balance, it would have needed a scientist (or preferably a non-scientist, since Patrick Michaels is a scientist) arguing, contrary to the evidence, that climate change was causing a dramatic increase in weather-related damage around the world.  But that’s not the false balance Media Matters was looking for.

You know, it’s okay to be a denier if something is not happening.  Just like it’s okay to be paranoid if everyone is out to get you.

Getting Worse, or Not Getting Better Fast Enough?

How can it be that scientists keep finding that climate change has contributed to the intensity of at least half of all extreme weather events studied over the past few years, yet there’s no solid evidence of increasing damages?  For example, another IPCC finding from the same report says that the type of heavy rainfall event that can cause flooding has probably become more common globally:

There have been statistically significant trends in the number of heavy precipitation events in some regions. It is likely that more of these regions have experienced increases than decreases, although there are strong regional and subregional variations in these trends.

I can think of three good possibilities.  One, extreme weather is so erratic, even on a global scale, that contributions from climate change are easy to overlook amid the noise.  Second, we’re getting better about forecasting and warning about extreme weather, and adaptations such as flood control measures continue to improve, so maybe technology is easily keeping up with climate change’s effects.  Third, maybe studying individual extreme weather events gives a skewed picture, since nobody knows what extreme weather events were prevented by climate change.

Maybe all three possibilities contribute part of the answer.  Maybe there’s something else I’m missing.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that flood-producing rainfall is intensifying but floods (controlling for increased population and infrastructure) are not. Does that mean climate change is having no effect on flooding?   No!  As my possibility #2 illustrates, it is quite possible for some things to worsen flooding (all else being equal) and other things to lessen flooding (all else being equal) such that when you put them all together, they neutralize each other.

You see, not all contributions are positive contributions.  This is the same sort of misconception that I explored in a different context here.

The question that really matters, though, is how different is our flooding world now compared to if global warming was not happening.  If, hypothetically, flood-induced damages are flat, but (as the evidence shows) flood-producing rainfall is increasing, then it seems pretty obvious that flood-induced damages would have declined if not for global warming.  So what if global warming is not leading to an increase?

Consider the following:

Hypothetical world A: Flood damage 50 years ago: 100 units.  Flood damage today: 100 units.  Flood damage today without global warming: 50 units.

Hypothetical world B: Flood damage 50 years ago: 100 units.  Flood damage today: 150 units.  Flood damage today without global warming: 100 units.

World A is consistent with the claims of Patrick Michaels and the IPCC.  World B is consistent with my hypothetical false-balance non-scientist.  Yet, in both worlds, global warming is just as damaging.

The same sort of thing arises in lots of contexts.  Another example, this one simpler but no less important:

Ozone pollution levels have declined dramatically in the United States, mainly due to government regulations.  Ozone pollution is made worse by rising temperatures.  So, has global warming make ozone pollution worse?   Clearly no, since ozone pollution has not in fact gotten worse.  Clearly yes, since ozone pollution would have declined even more without global warming.

These semantic stumbling blocks make it easy to argue opposing positions and be correct both ways.  To see how both statements can be correct, we have to unpack the question a little more.  Has global warming made ozone pollution worse?  Worse relative to what?

Question and answer #1: Worse relative to before global warming?  No, at least not in the developed world.  Other factors affecting ozone pollution have easily overcome global warming’s influence.

Question and answer #2: Worse relative to what would have happened without global warming?  Yes, as far as we know.  Model simulations indicate that warmer temperatures make ozone worse.

This is a tricky semantic trap.  Here are the first four paragraphs from a recent news release on ozone pollution and global warming:

Ozone pollution across the continental United States will become far more difficult to keep in check as temperatures rise, according to new research led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The detailed study shows that Americans face the risk of a 70 percent increase in unhealthy summertime ozone events by 2050.

This is because warmer temperatures and other changes in the atmosphere related to a changing climate, including higher atmospheric levels of methane, spur chemical reactions that lead to ozone.

Unless emissions of specific pollutants that are associated with the formation of ozone are sharply cut, almost all of the continental United States will experience at least a few days with unhealthy air during the summers, the research shows. Heavily polluted locations in parts of the East, Midwest, and West Coast in which ozone already frequently exceeds recommended levels could face unhealthy air during most of the summer.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in the United States—climate change has the potential to make your air worse,” said NCAR scientist Gabriele Pfister, the lead author of the new study. “A warming planet doesn’t just mean rising temperatures, it also means risking more summertime pollution and the health impacts that come with it.”

So in 2050 ozone pollution will be much worse, right?  Worse than it is now, right?  It sure sounds that way.  But wait, there’s more.   Here’s the next paragraph:

However, the research also showed that a sharp reduction in the emissions of certain pollutants would lead to dramatically decreased levels of ozone even as temperatures warm.

So in 2050 ozone polllution will be much better, right?  Better than it is now?

Somebody please hold my head down so that it doesn’t swivel off my neck.

Okay, here’s what’s really going on:

Either way, global warming acts to worsen pollution, and we’d be better off with out this effect of global warming.  It’s just that the choice is probably not between worse off and better off.  Instead, our choice is between better off and much better off.

This doesn’t make global warming less of a problem.  It just means that, in the cases of flooding air pollution, and many others, global warming slows our rate of improvement.

THE FORUM'S COMMENT THREAD

  • Hi John,

    It may well be that the example featuring Pat Michaels is not the best illustration of false balance. But that doesn’t mean that false balance isn’t real or that it’s not an important issue worthy of criticism. I realize you’re not claiming it isn’t, but I’d like to emphasize that point.

    Regarding the example of Michaels, I’m not immersed enough in the topic of extreme events to argue the details, but I think that many scientists would actually take issue with his statement. One key aspect here is that absence of evidence (IPCC) is not the same as evidence of absence (Michaels’ take). See also this by Kerry Emmanuel regarding a similar argument about hurricanes: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mit-climate-scientist-responds-on-disaster-costs-and-climate-change/ .

    Whatever the details of this particular example, false balance is a real issue to my mind. Scientists with dissenting opinions (such as Pat Michaels in most instances) report receiving more media attention than those with mainstream opinions (https://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/survey-confirms-scientific-consensus-on-human-caused-global-warming/ ). This results in a skewed picture of the spectrum of scientific opinion and may partly explain the divergence between public and scientific opinion regarding climate change.

  • John,

    This is a thought provoking piece. The need to reconcile these two particular statements about flood damage (i.e., that (1) flood-inducing weather events have increased, while (2) increases in economic damages from floods cannot be definitvely established from data as being due to weather changes) had not previously occured to me. I’m going to have to reread this a few times and really chew it over in my head. Thanks for giving me something to think about!

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PUBLIC COMMENT THREAD

  • http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/ Bart Verheggen

    Hi John,

    It may well be that the example featuring Pat Michaels is not the best illustration of false balance. But that doesn’t mean that false balance isn’t real or that it’s not an important issue worthy of criticism. I realize you’re not claiming it isn’t, but I’d like to emphasize that point.

    Regarding the example of Michaels, I’m not immersed enough in the topic of extreme events to argue the details, but I think that many scientists would actually take issue with his statement. One key aspect here is that absence of evidence (IPCC) is not the same as evidence of absence (Michaels’ take). See also this by Kerry Emmanuel regarding a similar argument about hurricanes: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mit-climate-scientist-responds-on-disaster-costs-and-climate-change/ .

    Whatever the details of this particular example, false balance is a real issue to my mind. Scientists with dissenting opinions (such as Pat Michaels in most instances) report receiving more media attention than those with mainstream opinions (https://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/survey-confirms-scientific-consensus-on-human-caused-global-warming/ ). This results in a skewed picture of the spectrum of scientific opinion and may partly explain the divergence between public and scientific opinion regarding climate change.

  • http://web.mit.edu/physics/people/academic/robinson_sean.html Sean Robinson

    John,

    This is a thought provoking piece. The need to reconcile these two particular statements about flood damage (i.e., that (1) flood-inducing weather events have increased, while (2) increases in economic damages from floods cannot be definitvely established from data as being due to weather changes) had not previously occured to me. I’m going to have to reread this a few times and really chew it over in my head. Thanks for giving me something to think about!