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Has climate change changed in the media?

Whether in a concerned, neutral, alarmist or sceptical tone, climate change is often reported in the media. But has the press approached this subject differently over the years? Marion Ferrat takes a look at the UK press coverage of the last two IPCC reports and investigates how the treatment of climate change has changed in British newspapers.

Glaciers outside of Ammassalik in Greenland - Source: Christine Zenino, Wikimedia Commons.

Glaciers outside of Ammassalik in Greenland – Source: Christine Zenino, Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, polling expert Leo Barasi posted the results of a very interesting study in his public opinion blog Noise of the Crowd. Following the waves of flooding that have hit the UK – and been at the centre of the UK press coverage – for the past month, he analysed the trends in flooding stories in the newspapers since 2005. He found that the number of news articles about flooding that also mentioned climate change dropped from 25% in 2009 to 11% last year.

This result reflects a broader trend in the public perception of climate change. Since the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, there has been a decrease in the number of people believing in human impacts on climate, and a rise in climate change scepticism.

One of the triggers of this change was the unfortunate email hacking incident at the University of East Anglia, commonly referred to as Climategate. In November 2009, over 1000 private emails between scientists of the Climatic Research Unit were stolen and released online. Some of these emails were interpreted as scientists hiding data in a bid to convince the world of the dangers of global warming. The controversy took the internet by storm and, although a careful investigation later showed that the scientists had not behaved in an untrustworthy way or manipulated any data, the damage was done.

The London Times, 6 July 1863 - Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The London Times, 6 July 1863 – Source: Wikimedia Commons.

After the release of the last IPCC report in September 2013, I carried out a similar analysis of climate change coverage in the UK press. I compared the press coverage of this fifth Assessment Report (AR 5) with that of the previous report (AR 4) in February 2007. Using a newspaper database called Factiva, I read all the news articles published in eight UK daily newspapers during the week of the two reports’ release1. Here is what I found.

News coverage of IPCC AR 4 and AR 5

The 5th Assessment Report (2013) saw less coverage than the 4th Assessment Report (2007), with 22 and 33 articles, respectively. The majority were published in The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph. Over 80% of the news stories were covered by specialist science or environmental correspondents in 2013, against 48% in 2007.


What type of climate change?

I was interested in what was actually being reported in the press. Were journalists more concerned by air temperatures or ocean warming, or perhaps extreme events?

In 2007 and 2013, all newspapers talked about changes in temperature (64% in both years). Discussions of changes in sea level increased from 36% to 45% in 2007 and 2013, respectively, and climate extremes from 15 to 27%.

Coverage mentioning the oceans trebled from 9% in 2007 to 27% in 2013. This is interesting given the controversy surrounding the so-called “warming hiatus”. Global atmospheric temperatures have been relatively stable since 1998, and climate sceptics argue this is evidence that CO2 emissions do not dangerously affect temperatures. Scientists have suggested that the oceans have a complex role to play in modulating atmospheric temperatures.

But the most obvious change was the number of articles mentioning climate models. Despite being a central component of scientific results in both reports, references to models in the press were made in only 9% of the 2007 articles against 45% in 2013.


From scared to sceptical: a changing tone

In 2007, 42% of the articles across all news outlets but The Daily Mirror described the report as bleak, sobering, gloomy, frightening, grim, stark or terrifying. These adjectives were absent from the 2013 coverage, which rather used more neutral words such as most comprehensive, most authoritative or making the most overwhelming case (27% of the articles).

One big difference was the number of direct references to climate change scepticism or denial, which doubled from 30% in 2007 to 59% in 2013.

From cataclysm to careful concern in Britain

Newspapers such as The Daily Express, Daily Mail and The Sun were most concerned with consequences of climate change in Britain. Interestingly, these concerns were different in 2007 and 2013. The references were very sensationalist in 2007, with reports in The Daily Express, The Daily Mirror and The Sun that climate change “would devastate Britain”, which would face “disasters similar to the devastation […] caused by Hurricane Katrina”. They were more moderate in 2013, referring only to Britain likely experiencing “wetter winters and drier summers”.

Says who?

Quotes are an important part of a news article. They give weight to particular aspects of a story and enable journalists to convey opinions whilst maintaining the objectivity of their reporting.

In 2007, 39% of all articles contained quotes from scientists, rising to 55% in 2013. The percentage of articles containing quotes from politicians also rose from 36% to 41%. Most quoted politicians in each case were the Environment Secretary David Miliband (2007) and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey (2013), both stressing the importance of climate change mitigation.

The largest change can be seen in the percentage of articles including quotes from climate change sceptics, which increased from 6% in 2007 to 27% in 2013.


What has changed?

Overall, the coverage of both IPCC reports was factual, detailed and accurate across all newspapers studied. The 5th Assessment Report saw less coverage than AR 4, suggesting a general dip in public interest in climate change. One interesting point was the discrepancy between the articles’ content and their titles in tabloid papers. Although the articles themselves were generally quite neutral, their titles voiced a much more pronounced scepticism. Given that most people would first and foremost read and remember an article’s title, their wording can have an important impact on public opinion.

The tone of the 2013 coverage was both less sensationalist (e.g. minimal use of words such as stark and terrifying) and more likely to include mentions of- and quotes by climate change sceptics.

In terms of scientific content, the main difference was the inclusion of the concept of climate models and their limitations and strengths in the 2013 press coverage (in 45% of articles against only 9% in 2007). This is possibly also in response to the ‘warming hiatus’, rather than because climate models have been a larger part of AR 5.

The political nature of the climate change debate was seen in the coverage of both IPCC reports, with over one third of the articles quoting politicians in both years.

The biggest difference was the much larger place given to climate change sceptics in the news coverage, nearly doubling from 30% in 2007 to 59% in 2013. Despite the increased certainty of the IPCC results from AR 4 to AR 5 (moving from 90% to 95% certainty that humans are influencing climate), it is clear that there is more room in the media today for uncertainty and climate change scepticism.


1This study covered the release of the Working Group 1 reports. News articles were selected from the News sections only, by searching for the terms climate change and either IPCC or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Melting, microbes and methane: Are we about to face a carbon apocalypse?

Marion Ferrat takes a look under the frozen layers of Arctic permafrost and discusses how these soils may come back to haunt us.

The vast plains of Siberian or Canadian permafrost are a sight to behold. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles of frozen soils cover these lands, a cold and barren environment. In places, however, this permafrost is slowly melting away as a result of rising temperatures. The problem with that is that permafrost contains carbon, a whole lot of carbon, about the same amount as is present in the atmosphere today. At the moment, this carbon is fixed inside on- and offshore frozen soils but researchers fear that permafrost melting could suddenly release it into our atmosphere. With CO2 emissions still on the rise and global temperatures steadily increasing, eyes have slowly turned towards these frozen carbon pools.

Permafrost and Arctic lakes of the Kobuk River valley, Alaska. Source - 16Terezka, Wikimedia Commons.

Permafrost and Arctic lakes of the Kobuk River valley, Alaska. Source – 16Terezka, Wikimedia Commons.

A comment published last month
 in the journal Nature woke many people up to the question of permafrost. The authors, experts in climate modelling, policy and management, estimated the impact on the global economy of a sudden methane release (or methane ‘pulse’) from thawing of offshore permafrost. Their results were rather explosive: the authors put an astounding $60 trillion price tag on thawing of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf permafrost over the next decades, labelling it an ‘economic time bomb’. Most of this cost will be borne by developing countries, they added. Now this is rather worrying.

Location of Northern Hemisphere permafrost. Glaciers and ice sheets are in violet and sea ice in light blue. Source - NSIDC, Wikimedia Commons.

Location of Northern Hemisphere permafrost. Glaciers and ice sheets are in violet and sea ice in light blue. Source – NSIDC, Wikimedia Commons.

The article caused quite a bit of commotion in the news world, with a flurry of articles showing varying degrees of agreement. It was discussed in The Guardian, including an interview of study author Prof Peter WadhamsThe New York Times and The Carbon Brief, amongst other sources. The Washington Post published a fiery criticism of the research, calling it a “misleading commentary”, which spurred a reply from Prof Wadhams.

The problem with simulating the impacts of permafrost thawing is that it is a very complex problem involving many components of the Earth system. I have experienced this first hand as a postdoctoral researcher in Beijing, desperately trying to improve permafrost simulations in my university’s model.

First of all, what exactly is permafrost?

The exact definition of permafrost is a layer of soil that remains at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years. The uppermost layer of permafrost soils, what we call the active layer, is most sensitive to surface temperature changes and actually goes through an annual cycle of freezing in winter and thawing in summer. Below this active layer is the true permanently frozen permafrost, with all its estimated 1466 Gton (that’s one billion tons) of stored carbon. Yup, that’s quite a lot.

Where does all the carbon come from?

Our present day ice sheets were born during the last glaciation, between approximately 110,000 and 12,000 years ago. The peak of this glacial age around 22,000 years ago, when ice extent was largest, is called the Last Glacial Maximum. Permafrost also dates from this colder and dryer time. The frozen soils of the glaciation, with all their frozen leaves, plants and other sources of organic carbon, were slowly buried by sedimentation processes such as dust deposition from the atmosphere, alluvial deposition (the deposition of eroded loose sediment on land) and peat growth. This increased the thickness of the frozen soil, effectively locking away the carbon.

Ice extent in Eurasia during the Last Glacial Maximum. Source - Mangerud et al. (2004), Wikimedia Commons.

Ice extent in Eurasia during the Last Glacial Maximum. Source – Mangerud et al. (2004), Wikimedia Commons.

What happens when permafrost thaws?

Worms and other burrowing creatures are not the only inhabitants of soils. Deeper underground also live plenty of microscopic microbes, happily munching away at our precious carbon. Microbes, like us, release carbon when they breathe, a process called respiration. When soil becomes permafrost, microbial activity stops. This is what effectively removes the organic carbon from the carbon cycle, making it “unusable”. As permafrost thaws, microbial activity resumes, mixing the carbon and slowly moving it up towards the surface, where other living organisms will then contribute to releasing it to the atmosphere by respiration. This is only the first worry. Another big question is whether this carbon will be released as carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4). Methane is a less common but much more potent greenhouse gas, so the effect of a sudden and large-scale methane ‘pulse’ would be much more dramatic than a similar CO2 emission.

What are the difficulties in modelling permafrost?

Modelling permafrost evolution and associated carbon releases is difficult because climate models must be able to accurately simulate many different processes: land-atmosphere-ocean interactions, air temperatures, soil temperatures and intricate biogeochemical processes linked to respiration, all at once. That is no easy feat.

Now for all of these different aspects, we also need some measured data. The key to using climate models in general is that, before they can be used to make predictions, they need to be verified against real world data that has been directly measured on Earth. That is, modellers first try to get their models to reproduce what they already know. Only when they are satisfied that they can simulate the past and the present do they start to model the future.

Permafrost peatbog border in Storflaket, Abisko, Sweden. Source - Dentren, Wikimedia Commons.

Permafrost peatbog border in Storflaket, Abisko, Sweden. Source – Dentren, Wikimedia Commons.

Given the complexity of modelling permafrost, this means that we need a whole lot of data to verify our models. Air temperature is well recorded around the globe but we also need both spatial and temporal information on soil temperatures, microbial respiration and carbon fluxes from the ground to the atmosphere. Obtaining a good global coverage of all of these factors takes time, especially when we are talking about an annual process like permafrost thawing. More and more papers have been published in recent years and have populated our global dataset of permafrost-related data. Just last month, a study published in Nature provided new data on changes in the carbon stock in Greenland permafrost from 1996 to 2008, as well as results from laboratory thawing experiments.

Dr Kevin Schaefer, from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), is a bit of a pioneer in permafrost modelling. He helped me when I was working on improving my soil temperature model in Beijing and showed me how intricate the problem was and how much still needed to be improved to accurately simulate permafrost dynamics. He and his colleagues have been working on all aspects of permafrost science for some years now and their papers can provide much information on recent developments.

So the complex nature of permafrost, and the relative novelty of including permafrost in models, is why the range of estimates is still relatively wide. As with every type of model result, this is not to say that scientists disagree on the fundamental processes: there is plenty of frozen carbon, the Earth is warming, if it continues to do so the permafrost will thaw, thawing will eventually lead to a carbon release. We know it happened in the past (see this study published in Nature last year) and it can happen again.

The only question in my opinion is will it be in the next few decades or the ones after that. Many groups around the world are working on measuring, monitoring and modelling permafrost and there is yet to be published a comprehensive, scientific review paper on the latest results of these works. Perhaps such a review would be helpful to communicate the state of our knowledge to the public and policy-makers, and draw attention to yet another part of the Earth system, which will surely be affected by our increasing emissions and transform our world in return.

Marion Ferrat

Four degrees: Discussions on climate change, policy, environmental geochemistry and sustainability

As we enter the 400ppm world for the first time in a good chunk of geological history, issues of environment, sustainability and climate change are, more than ever, a source of discussion – and often heated dispute – in the media. As these issues are debated by governments and policy-makers, hardly one day goes by without a series of news articles on topics such as shale gas, warming climate, deforestation or renewable energy, to cite but a few.

View from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. Photograph distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

View from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, where atmospheric CO2 concentrations exceeding 400 parts per million were recorded in May 2013. Photograph by Nula666.

According to the recent 2012 World Bank report, some of the consequences of a world 4°C warmer would include extreme summer heat waves, sea level rise which would impact vulnerable coastal states such as Madagascar or Bangladesh, stressed agricultural and water resources and displaced populations. The international community has vouched to limit future warming to 2°C but uncertainties are still large: uncertainties in climate model predictions and in ecosystem response, though the consensus is pretty clear among environmental and climate scientists that humans are driving much of the observed changes, but also uncertainties in what actions leaders will take to meet this aim.

A number of recent environmental policy issues are being debated in governments around the world and have had much coverage in the media: The Keystone XL project has seen a flurry of recent discussion and has been tagged a defining decision in Barack Obama’s environmental legacy. The plan to rescue the European Union’s carbon trading scheme was rejected by the EU commission in April 2013 but might yet be open for another vote. Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, is considered an important technology to put in place if carbon emissions are to be slowed down while maintaining fossil fuels as energy sources. Yet, action is slow in Europe and the UK.

While all of these discussions and debates are taking place, scientists around the world continue to carry out their

The Larsen ice shelf in Antarctica, viewed from NASA's DC-8 aircraft. Photograph by Jim Ross for NASA, distributed under a  CC-BY 2.0 license.

The Larsen ice shelf in Antarctica, viewed from NASA’s DC-8 aircraft. Photograph by Jim Ross for NASA.

research and to publish their findings in the scientific literature. Sometimes, such as with climate model research and estimates, publications are quickly picked up by the media and policy-makers and incorporated into the wider discussion. In other cases, it seems that policy-making and scientific research follow parallel routes without much interaction. So where do these issues fit in with the current geo-scientific research?

Four degrees aims to explore topical issues in environmental geoscience and climate change research and consider current themes in environmental policy from an inter-disciplinary perspective. The blog will discuss ideas and concepts from the fields of climate change, policy, environmental geochemistry and sustainability, mixing discussions on the latest developments in scientific research, the scientific concepts behind environmental geoscience and how geoscience problems relate to big environmental issues and feed into politics, policy and governance.

So welcome to Four Degrees. Four degrees of geoscience, four degrees of warming and hopefully a thousand degrees of discussion. We hope you will enjoy it and look forward to your comments!

Flo and Marion