Writing a blog on the unusual and unexpected effects of climate change on natural systems gets you an array of followers. When writing about how a toastier climate will influence cannabis or coca, you will get a fair share of readers who may not normally read a climate change blog. Though I will always gladly welcome all interested parties to my blog, there was one cringe-worthy website that was directing traffic to my site: it was an anti-climate change blog.
I’m not sure why they linked to my site, given that I am very clearly talking about how climate change exists, but let’s just assume these people are not very bright in the first place and leave it at that.
And let me be clear: climate change exists and it is anthropogenic (i.e. caused by people). Don’t take my word for it, just look at the numerous studies and policy reports (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…and many more) that have come out now for several decades.
And finally, after years of poor reporting and political fighting, the public appears to be on board with the research. But perhaps people are a little too on board….
When a study came out from NASA last week showing that a large section of the Greenland Glacier broke off (the largest to have been captured by satellite), the news lit up.
“Rare Burst of Melting Seen in Greenland’s Ice Sheet, ” the New York Times declared.
“The ice sheet has been living on borrowed time for many years, with dire consequences,” The Guardian stated.
And social media followed suit:
“Is Recent Greenland Ice Sheet Melting ‘Unprecedented’? Absolutely. Is It ‘Worrisome’? You Bet It Is.” Climate Progress Tweeted.
“The slightest bit of melting in Greenland is to be expected during the summer months — but not like this!” Time.com exclaimed.
There is no doubt why concern was so great. Looking at the images, the loss to the glacier is dramatic and rather terrifying in the context of climate change. As a result, it is very easy to want to run for the hills, arms flailing and screaming at the top of our lungs.
But if you actually read a few paragraphs into the NY Times article (the importance of which we should have all recently learned from CNN), the researchers very clearly state, “Ice core samples taken from the summit of Greenland’s ice sheet that shed light on 10,000 years of its history show that a similar large-scale melting event has happened roughly every 150 years.”
And then thoughtfully add, “Even though this one event might be part of normal variation, it’s still a fantastic experiment for us so we can try to understand how the ice sheets are going to change.”
Furthermore on the NASA website, they state, “If we continue to observe melting events like this in upcoming years, it will be worrisome.”
So, how did we get from “part of a natural cycle and we’ll keep an eye on this one”, to this?
In all fairness to the reporters touting doom on this one, it wouldn’t be the first time that a government agency was restricted from talking about climate change or even citing good science over economic policy. But for all intents and purposes, let’s say that these researchers are on the level and actually do not believe that this specific event was caused by climate change.
This leaves the researchers in a bit of a prickly situation. Their study is being taken out of context, but for a rather good cause: they know climate change exists, they know that climate change causes glacial melt, they just don’t think this particular event was caused by climate change, at least not yet.
If they were to go on the record again explaining that this was part of a larger event, the headlines would no doubt read “NASA scientists say glacier melting not caused by climate change” or “Scientists disregard climate change effect on glacier melt”. And actually FOX News has already embarrassingly run with this.
This is not something that is new to science. I think of this every time I hear people argue about how people evolved to eat wild game or cheat on their mates. It is delightful that people are seeking out evolution to answer our most basic human questions, but really, did we evolve to send twitter pictures of our groins to our political constituents? Show me one study that actually shows this, please.
Climate change suffers the same fate. Climate change is real and it is caused by people (sorry deniers), but those of us pressing for political action will only be well-served by getting our citations correct — its not hard, just read more than the first four paragraphs of an article. Otherwise, sadly, we will end up as foolish and misdirected as the folks who after decades-worth of direct evidence are still in denial about climate change. Poor guys, I’m sure they still believe that Diet Dr. Pepper tastes more like regular Dr. Pepper too.
Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science writer in the Bay area. This week she is running a contest to see how long it takes for someone to take this blog post out of context? One day? Two weeks? Two years? Post your estimate in the comments. Price is Right rules: $20 to the person who comes closest without going over.
(1) Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(2) The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science
(3) Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions
(4) A global overview of drought and heat-induced tree mortality reveals emerging climate change risks for forests
(5) Ecological responses to recent climate change
(6) A globally coherent ﬁngerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems
(7) Impact of climate change on marine pelagic phenology and trophic mismatch
(8) Climate Change and Distribution Shifts in Marine Fishes
(9) Attributing physical and biological impacts to anthropogenic climate change
(10) Impact of a century of climate change on small-mammal communities in Yosemite National Park, USA