At the Marlborough Earth Day party, held at A & P showgrounds in April, a number of visitors were asked if there were aspects of climate change that they wondered about. Amelia asked, “Is there a reliable, neutral source of information; information I can trust?”
Like Amelia, many of us grapple with this question. Most of us get our information about climate change from the news. Here it is important to remember that news is a business. Success is measured by how many sets of eyes see the pages they print, so there is always the incentive to sensationalise news stories. Of course, getting news stories wrong can lead to corrections and a loss of readership so the urge to sensationalise news has natural limits.
On the other hand, climate science is complex so news about climate science is more often than not a gross simplification of what the scientist actually says, and its ramifications to our future. Therefore, although I believe the great majority of science journalists are earnest in their attempts to convey climate science, it is a task prone to oversimplification and sensationalism. At best, news articles on climate science should be read with a skeptical eye, and at worst double checked with other information.
So what about the science sources themselves? On the whole the information is more reliable but with certain precautions. Here we need to consider the business aspects again. Most science is paid for by governments, private institutions and industry for obvious reasons; science is the primary driver of progress in technology, medicine and understanding that have combined to improve all of our lives in the last few centuries.
Most of the time, the sponsors of science welcome its results. Sometimes, however, and particularly when it comes to the environment, science tells industry something it doesn’t want to hear. In the case of climate science, the central findings that mankind needs to stop burning fossil fuel, stop cutting down indigenous forests and change agricultural practices presents a serious threat to many established businesses. There have been a number of times in recent history when this has happened on other environmental issues, such as with acid rain and atmospheric ozone depletion, and we know that the common initial response of threatened industry is to fight back with information campaigns challenging the certainty and consensus of the scientific community. While we see many threatened companies embracing the science and acting to reduce emissions, we still see a chorus of industry sponsored “experts” attempting to portray controversy and uncertainty in the science when none actually exists. The American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest organisation of earth, ocean and atmospheric scientists, has had a position statement laying out the threat of human-caused climate change since 1998.
There are a few strategies that one can adopt in wading through the literature on climate change. For background information about climate change, government scientific agency websites (such as NIWA in NZ and NOAA in the US) are good sources of accurate and simplified information but are somewhat regionally specific. NASA, the US space administration, has an excellent website with news, latest research and impressive graphics and photographs.
When reading mainstream news articles on the latest developments in climate science, it can help to follow links to the author’s website or search it separately. The academic articles you will be directed to might be a bit heavy on scientific jargon, however. Carbon Brief is a UK website devoted to climate news (www.carbonbrief.org) with many academic scientists as contributing editors, which strives to simplify and explain the science and do fact checks on other climate news. Another very good site is Skeptical Science (https://www.skepticalscience.com/). This site has a range of information from climate scientists and has an excellent section where you can read responses to various climate change myths.
In conclusion, reliable information is out there but for some sources it takes reading with a skeptical eye as to the motivations of the authors and, at times, double checking. As a general rule, the closer you can get to what climate scientists actually say, the better.
The posts dated 1 April 2019 are a collection of opinion articles written by CKM member Tom Powell for the Marlborough Express. The articles "Is there reliable information on climate change", "Climate change and farming in New Zealand" and "Give them a future" were published there, the rest not. Tom is a retired geologist who came to New Zealand in 2004 to work in the geothermal industry on the North Island, is a New Zealand citizen and now lives in Blenheim.