Rising sea levels and steady erosion from waves sank five reef islands in the Pacific Ocean over a six-decade span and a further six were seriously eroded, according to a report published late last week. In the rush to get the news out about this study, some media outlets exaggerated the link between the fate of the islands and climate change, including the Guardian, which published a follow-up to the original article that included comments from the study’s lead author:
Many media outlets, including the Guardian, jumped to the conclusion that the islands were lost to climate change. But this largely misinterprets the science, according to the study’s author, Dr Simon Albert.
“All these headlines are certainly pushing things a bit towards the ‘climate change has made islands vanish’ angle. I would prefer slightly more moderate titles that focus on sea-level rise being the driver rather than simply ‘climate change’,” Albert told the Guardian. […]
The major misunderstanding stems from the conflation of sea-level rise with climate change. As a scientifically robust and potentially destructive articulation of climate change, sea-level rise has become almost synonymous with the warming of the planet.
However, as Albert’s paper points out, the ocean has been rising in the Solomon Islands at 7mm per year, more than double the global average. Since the 1990s, trade winds in the Pacific have been particularly intense. This has been driven partly by global warming and partly by climatic cycles…
Let’s give credit to the Guardian for not merely burying these comments by the study’s author in a correction to the original story, and instead publishing this as its own article. With that said, there are two important takeaways from this mistake.
First, science journalism is hard. Reporters are tasked with making dry, complicated, jargon-filled reports and studies interesting to a blasé general audience. All too often, however, this results in sensationalism and exaggerated headlines that obscure what the new research really means. There’s no quick fix to this, but learning what news outlets you can trust with stories like these is a good start.
The second issue this kind of reporting points to could be more difficult to address, however, as it is more systemic. There is a strong current of climate alarmism in the modern environmental movement, and the media organs that try to cater to these greens therefore tend to exaggerate the harm climate change is causing while simultaneously downplaying any good green news. It’s confirmation bias in action, and it ultimately leads to favoring immediate growth-killing measures over smarter, more forward-looking green policies.
Worst of all, when greens paint the future in the worst possible, apocalyptic light, and exaggerate climate science to fit this portrait, they not only breed skepticism among their audiences (who grow weary of predictions that never fully come to pass). They also discredit their own cause when scientists are forced to reach out to news outlets and clarify what their studies actually meant.