Editorial viewpoints from Climate Central's writers and editors.

Should We Tell the Whole Truth About Climate Change?

By Mike Lemonick

Remember the “Smoking Might Cause Lung Cancer” campaigns of the 1970’s and 1980’s? Of course you don’t, because nobody ever used the word “might,” either in a public-health campaign or in a news headline (Tobacco executives said, more or less, “don’t,” but that’s another story altogether.)

Yet the whole truth is that smoking doesn’t necessarily cause lung cancer. Many people who smoke don’t get lung cancer. Some people who get lung cancer have never smoked in their lives. And in a case where someone does smoke and does get lung cancer, you can’t actually prove that the smoking caused the cancer. It might have happened anyway. But nobody even considered the possibility of headlining the whole truth about smoking, because that could have muddied the essential, and utterly valid message: smoking is really dangerous, and you’re crazy to do it.

Thanks largely to the constant repetition of that message, smoking rates have dropped in the developed world, and not even the tobacco execs are foolish enough nowadays to say that’s a bad thing.

Credit: ALAMY

So that brings me to climate change. The essential and utterly valid message, based on the best available science, is that the Earth is warming; it’s largely due to us; it’s going to keep warming unless we do something, and there’s a significant chance that the consequences will be disastrous.

But is that the whole truth in every detail? No. Some of the details are yet to be settled. How much more warming are we going to get by, say, the end of this century? The best estimate is between 3.2ºF and 7.2ºF above where things stood in 2000, but a few scientists say it could even be lower than 3.2ºF. 

This isn’t entirely crazy: global warming causes more water to evaporate into the atmosphere, leading to more clouds. The balance of evidence suggests that the result will be to increase warming, because water vapor is itself a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. But a small minority of scientists thinks things might go the other way, and the answer isn’t really certain yet.

So should the overall message be that nobody knows anything? I don’t think so. We would never want to pretend the uncertainty isn’t there, since that would be dishonest. But featuring it prominently is dishonest ,too, just as trumpeting uncertainty in the smoking-cancer connection would have been.

Another source of uncertainty comes in making the human-warming connection. “Maybe it’s the Sun,” say some skeptics, and while the Sun hasn’t brightened at all during the most recent half-century when the warming has been greatest, there are plausible, though not proven, ways the Sun could cause global warming without itself warming up.

So does it make us intellectually dishonest not to be trumpeting this potential challenge to conventional ideas? Not really: it would be dishonest to suppress this argument, but since it’s a long way from being even weakly established, and because abandoning the idea of human-influenced climate change would mean abandoning an awful lot that has been firmly established, the most honest thing to do is not to go into a tizzy about a very preliminary result.

There’s a flipside to keeping the message simple, though. “The Earth will keep warming if we don’t do anything about it,” is true, but it might seem to imply that temperatures will literally be higher each year than they were the year before. That’s false: all sorts of natural climate variations operate to slow the warming down for a while, or speed it up. Temperatures go up over the long term, but over periods of a few years, or even a couple of decades, the warming can flatten. Anyone who imagined it would be otherwise might think that the relatively slow warming of the past decade means the whole theory is debunked.

So where’s the right balance between telling the whole truth and being truthful in an effective way? At this point, a columnist is supposed to offer a tidy prescription. Sadly, I don’t have one. But NPR does: the network just updated its guidelines to reflect a commitment to fairness and truthfulness in reporting. That doesn’t mean telling the whole truth in every last detail. It does mean giving readers and listeners an honest take on critical issues.

For climate change, here’s my take (you already saw it above): The Earth is warming. It’s largely due to us. It’s going to keep warming unless we do something. And there’s a significant chance that the consequences will be disastrous.



« Commentary


By Steve Easterbrook (Toronto)
on March 5th, 2012

Silly question really. You should explain the science in a way that your audience can understand. How you do that will depend on who your audience is, and how much of their attention you have. If it’s a twitter-length attention span, then your final paragraph is fine. If you’re putting together an entire undergrad course, then lay out all the lines of evidence, and explore the uncertainties in each of them. Most of the time you’re somewhere in between, so use good judgment.

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By Paul Matthews
on March 5th, 2012

It’s a clear sign of the weakness of their argument that anthropogenic global warming believers so often resort to false analogies.

At the risk of stating the obvious:
We know that smoking causes cancer because hundreds of thousands of people have died from lung cancer, and over 80% of these are smokers.  These are hard facts based on irrefutable observed data.

On the other hand for climate science we have ‘best estimates’ based on computer models with inadequate resolution based on physical processes that are poorly understood, and the opinion of ‘experts’.

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By Andrew Richards (Reading, UK)
on March 5th, 2012

If you don’t tell the whole truth then, in Bart Simpson’s memorable phrase, it will come back to bite you on the bottom. If your claim is a simplified version of the truth, someone will expose the simplification as a supposed attempt to deceive.

That doesn’t mean every sentence you utter must contain the whole truth. Slogans work Because they are memorable, and being simple is part of being memorable. That’s why Smoking might cause lung cancer wasn’t a slogan. But the argument that backed up the slogan didn’t pretend every one who smoked would get cancer - the ‘my gran smoked till she was ninety’ argument was all too readily available to opponents. (As a teenager I suggested that people who worry too much might be prone to cancer, and they smoked to ease their anxiety. Luckily there was no Internet in those days!)

As all good teachers should do, layer your argument like an inside-out onion. Simple slogans on the outside, a series of fuller more detailed descriptions, always acknowledging that these aren’t the final word, and at the core, well we haven’t found that yet, and isn’t that what makes science so exciting?

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By Harold Ball (San Francisco CA)
on March 5th, 2012

“The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that “right” and “wrong” are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.”

Not so says Asimov


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By dan in illinois
on March 5th, 2012

As shaky as the AGW position is, I think the only hope that that group has of convincing others that we are doomed is to continue to hide facts that collide with their conclusion, bully skeptics, and cherry pick the data they use.

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By Charlie Garlow (Silver Spring, MD 20901)
on March 5th, 2012

Paul Matthews remarked that “On the other hand for climate science we have ”˜best estimates’ based on computer models with inadequate resolution based on physical processes that are poorly understood, and the opinion of ”˜experts’.”
I submit that there is MUCH more data to back up those climate scientists who have concluded that global warming is a real threat to our Earth.  Try reading the IPCC reports.  They are loaded with facts, not just best estimates. Facts such as rising levels of fossil fuel combustion and, surprise, surprise, rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, followed by, surprise, again, rising temperatures and decreasing ice packs.  These are not projects or estimates. They are measurements frequently repeated to make sure we have the numbers right, very right.

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By Paul Budline (Princeton NJ 08540)
on March 5th, 2012

A suggested alternate final sentence:  The Earth is warming, as it has for just about half the time since its genesis.  The other half of the time it’s been cooling.  There has never been - nor can there ever be - stasis, thus “climate change” is axiomatic.  The current warming is most likely due in some part to us, and It is going to keep warming whether we do something or not, at least until it starts cooling again.  The result of the current warming trend will almost certainly not be catastrophic or disastrous by any stretch of the imagination (and may even be beneficial) and spending trillions of dollars that will have little or no effect is positively irresponsible and utterly immoral.

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By Emma
on March 5th, 2012

Who is “we” and why would you not tell the whole truth? I’d say that is the problem, protecting people from reality isn’t science’s job. There is ample evidence that climate change is going to massively disrupt things. Ocean acidification alone hasn’t been occuring this fast for a very long time (at least 300 million years) . the last massive extinction event 55 million years ago happened when pH was dropping at a rate ten times slower than it is now. time to wake the hell up people.

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By R. Gates
on March 5th, 2012

Exceptional well done.  This is one of the best thought out and written editorials on this topic that I’ve seen.  One slight correction, or added thought.  This statement related to temperatures not going up over a period of a decade or more due to natural variability.  This is true in a very specific sense when talking about tropospheric temperatures only, as the troposphere holds much less energy than the oceans (which hold he bulk of the Earth’s energy), and the troposphere has much lower thermal inertia than the oceans, and this is another reason the troposphere can vary so much.

However, when taking a look at the biggest heat sink of the planet and the one with the largest thermal inertia—the oceans, we see that they have steadily gained heat over the past 40 years, with the largest gain being over the past decade.  In fact, the oceans down to 2000 meters (the deepest we are regularly measuring right now) have gained about 10 x 10^22 Joules of energy over the past decade.  So when someone says the Earth hasn’t warmed over the past 10 years, they must only be talking about the troposphere, and as the troposphere only holds a mere fraction of the energy the oceans do, we can justifiable and accurately say that the Earth has indeed be warming continuously for the past 40 years with no “flattening” this past decade. Earth’s energy balance is tipped to “accumulate” and greenhouse gases are the cause.

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By mlemonick
on March 6th, 2012

Paul Matthews repeats a common misconception. Projections of future climate change are NOT based solely on climate models. They’re also based in large part on studies of past and present climate, which have shown a close relationship between carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (natural and manmade) and temperature (and related phenomena such as sea level).

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By Tom Scharf (Palm Harbor)
on March 6th, 2012

I would call this version potentially deception by omission.

Ahem…the whole truth.

The Earth has warming approx. 1.2C over the last 150 years. The 0.6C warming over the last 50 years is partially due to human CO2 emissions.  The amount of warming caused by humans and the amount due to natural fluctuations in the climate is still uncertain, although many scientists believe humans may be responsible for greater than 0.3C.  Scientists believe human caused warming will continue unless CO2 emissions are reduced.

Here is where you go off the rails:

“There’s a significant chance that the consequences will be disastrous.”

Significant implies greater than 50%, and there is no science to backup this assertion.  Attribution based on unvalidated and poorly performing climate models is speculative and this type of statement is simply tried and true scaremongering.  You may believe it, but the science is simply not there yet.

Try maybe “Some studies suggest potentially disastrous effects due to warming, but this is area is actively being researched as is highly uncertain.”

The whole truth
1. State the exact amount of warming.  This is rarely mentioned because it is quite small and intuitively nonthreatening.
2. Make it clear the earth was warming before CO2 emissions began to ramp up.  The change in the 1st half of the 20th century is the same as the second half.  Theoretically due to aerosols, but this is not settled either. 
3. Make it clear that there is a (dare I say significant) amount of natural fluctuation in the climate and this is poorly understood,.  Unwinding these causes (forcing, effects) is very complex and is an ongoing effort that will likely take decades to complete.
4. Make it clear that most of the largely negative effects (positive feedback causing >1.2C warming) comes from computer modeling and these models have so far proven unreliable (poor predictive capability, forecast skill).

I think is improper to simplify the science to the level you do.  It simply is not to that level yet.  The crux of the issue is the leap to doom and gloom (significant chance) that many activist find it mandatory to include in order to propel policy changes.  I find that scientifically unsupportable.

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By Jeff (Ontario)
on March 6th, 2012

I readily encourage alarmists to continue their version of the truth… as interpreted by themselves.  Seeing as how this ‘interpretation’ is the single biggest cause of people abandoning the theology of CAGW, and thus could be considered the biggest ‘own goal’ in history, it would serve mankind most to keep walking the ‘interpretive path’.

Have you ever stopped to wonder that if globull warming is so self evident why there is a need for alarmism to mislead and lie?  Or, for that matter to juxstapose tobacco and climate change ad nausem?  Big Oil funding?  Alarmists have created, in their own minds, a nonexistant ‘bogeyman’ in Big (fill in the blank)... they have spent the rest of the time shadow boxing with this very imaginary foe.  All the while, their misplaced focus has allowed climate realists to promote a healthy discussion countering their catastrophic arguement while alarmists have provided NO counter by refusing to debate or even discuss their faith.

The results to that approach are equally self evident as your post so confirms.

5 years ago the “debate was over” (10 years if you use a Peter Gleick quote), how has that approach bolstered the alarmist cause?  Sounds like some people were a little too sure of themselves quite some time ago.

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By Barry (33054)
on March 6th, 2012

“Temperatures go up over the long term, but over periods of a few years, or even a couple of decades, the warming can flatten”

They went up during 1860-80,1910-40 and 1978-98, and the last one of these was attributed to greenhouse theory. They went down during 1880-1910, 1942-78, and (so far) 2002-12, and none of these is attributed to greenhouse theory. So what is the major driver which accounts for 5 out of the last 6 trends?

It is facile to claim that a couple of flat decades won’t disprove long-term warming. They won’t disprove long-time cooling either. Which is why the onus of proof lies on the proponent of the theory.

The contended proof of AGW runs: “We can observe that the earth is now warming rapidly, and we have no explanation other than AGW. QED.” As the first part of the sentence no longer applies, it needs to be shortened to “we have no explanations”.

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By matthu
on March 9th, 2012

When you say “It’s going to keep warming unless we do something” you are of course trying to imply that we can stop it warming if we do something. But you haven’t demonstrated that and you haven’t calculated the cost of trying to decarbonze but having no effect on the climate.

When you say “there’s a significant chance that the consequences will be disastrous” you really need to quantify that chance - because iof you haven’t done that, how can you say it is significant?

Of course, there is also a significant chance that we enter a prolongued period of cooling.

The earth is spinning. (true).
And it is slowing down. (true)
It is going to keep on slowing down unless we do something. (true)
And if it stops the consequences will be disasterous. (true)


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By Byron Smith (Edinburgh)
on March 23rd, 2012

“The Earth is warming. It’s largely due to us. It’s going to keep warming unless we do something. And there’s a significant chance that the consequences will be disastrous.”

It’s going to keep warming unless we do something - actually, it is quite likely to keep warming for a while even after we do something. It is going to get much warmer if we don’t shift our present trajectory. It might only get somewhat warmer if we do make massive changes.

matthu’s somewhat facetious example of planetary spin perhaps highlights a need to include a temporal marker in this short summary.

R. Gates makes an excellent point about the oceans, which I take it is implicit in your comment that “the *Earth* is warming”, even if surface atmospheric temps don’t always rise year-on-year.

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