This month put climate change, or more specifically climate change denial, back into the mainstream media consciousness as hundreds of news sites flocked to report that the world was approaching a new ‘mini ice age’ in 15 years.
The frenzy can be traced back to the UK’s National Astronomy Meeting’s press-release that covered a study conducted by solar researchers at the University of Northumbria, which presented a model that predicted a 60% fall in sunspot numbers by the 2030s. Immediate links were made to the medieval ‘little ice age’ that occurred between the 16th and 19th centuries in Europe and North America where, especially in the late 17th century, during a period of similarly low sunspot activity named the Maunder Minimum, the regions experienced very cold winters. These cold winters in the ‘little ice age’ were characterized by years when temperatures were cold enough to freeze the River Thames.
The media concluded that there would be a new mini ice age, where temperatures would drop dramatically, reversing any rise from global warming, all due to changing solar activity. An otherwise easily-looked-over press release was blown out of proportion due to erroneous press reporting and the politics of climate change denial.
For those who deny that global warming is caused by humans, or that it is indeed even occurring, the finding created a revolution for their arguments, as it not only removed the fear of rising ocean levels and melting glaciers, but it combatted the need for limiting fossil fuel usage or carbon dioxide emissions as well. Vitally, the press release omitted crucial details by citing that “solar activity will fall by 60% during the 2030s,” without specifying the solar activity it was referring to, which was in fact solar spots – not an overall drop in solar output as many thought. This confusion was reflected in the Telegraph, which suggested that overall activity would drop by 60% meaning that “temperatures will fall dramatically in the 2030s.”
In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite, as an article by the Business Insider reports. During the 11-year solar cycle, “the total solar irradiance, a measure of the power produced by the sun in the form of electromagnetic radiation, varies by only about 0.1%.” Quite a noticeable difference from the supposed 60% drop. The report never mentioned climate, and instead only mentioned the Maunder Minimum and how it coincided with the ‘little ice age.’ The entire event was a massive failure for science and communication. It failed to state how the ‘little ice age,’ which itself isn’t universally recognized as a phenomenon, started hundreds of years before the minimum point, or how it ended more than a hundred years afterward, and how the ‘little ice age’ had many causes including volcanism on earth, and changes in the ultraviolet portion of the sun’s output, to mention but a few.
Many have called the debacle a global failure for science but the blame must be placed on the correct entity: the media.
A simple viewing of scientific websites, reveals what the International Panel of Climate Change, the UN’s mixed panel of scientists that analyze and assess research on climate change from across the globe, has to say about it: “Despite uncertainties in future solar activity, there is high confidence that the effects of solar activity within the range of grand solar maxima and minima will be much smaller than the changes due to anthropogenic effects.”
The IPPC with its meticulously non-biased and non-partisan judgment ruled out that solar activity, present or future, will have little effect on the climate when compared to global warming. Whereas the sun has generally been on a cooling trend in the past 30 years, 14 out of the 15 years since 2000 have recorded the highest temperatures on record. When comparing CO2 levels there is 40% more now than in the 17th century.
To compare the effects of a possibly new Maunder Minimum where overall solar output can drop by, at most, 0.1% is considered to be absurd by the general consensus of scientists, but the media reports it to be otherwise.
But what does that show about the media and the politics of climate change denial? It shows that scientific communication has a long, long way to go. It shows that media will take the easy way out, to the detriment of knowledge. And it shows that denying climate change is easier than accepting it. Crucially, despite all the breakthroughs in understanding the planet and its fragile ecosystem and atmosphere, it is still easier to reject climate change than to accept it.
Few can argue that the first failure began with the press release, which as discussed before, glossed over crucial details, and made generalized links, providing clumsy explanations for a complex phenomenon to non-expert journalists.
By providing a link to the Wikipedia page for ‘Maunder Minimum,’ it showed a stark failing in the press release as it simply left the most crucial explanation to an external site, which was covering an event that occurred more than three centuries ago while failing to explicitly state what the link between the two events was, leaving the public to draw up their own flawed conclusions.
Though the study conducted by Nothumbria University was on a model for future sunspot activity, it failed to evaluate the meaningful implications of what its findings indicated, showing deliberate carelessness on how the information could then be used as it gravely played up its own findings despite the fact that similar research has been conducted before, and that most models on climate change already take into account sunspot activity.
Despite Professor Valentina Zharkova, the researcher behind the study, being clearly surprised by the media coverage, she continued to discuss the future of a mini ice age, despite not including it in her report.
This indicates a serious level of miscommunication, that to many seems a ploy to get more coverage for the findings, therefore showing how researchers and scientific-groups struggle to remain relevant in modern consciousness and how grave the consequences of scientific miscommunication can be.
The Daily Mail, a politically right-leaning British newspaper, began leading the way into creating the correlation between the research’s findings and a new mini ice age, and quickly drew links to the frost fairs held on the Thames River when the last Maunder Minimum occurred, therefore forging a comfortable alternative for the future to the devastating predicted effects of global warming.
This link was quickly accepted by mostly every other major new organization and the news quickly made rounds on social media, all because the media failed its role to understand or investigate it’s sources critically, even when the press release was unconventionally confusing. The failure arose from the lack of expert opinions employed by the coverage of the news, as most news sources failed to relay the information from their own trusted source to comprehend what it indeed meant.
The media got non-expert journalists to comprehend, explain, and cover very technical climate science and the result created its own phenomena in which most of the general public was duped into believing faulty information.
Ultimately, all it reveals is that no matter your political spectrum, in the game of climate change politics, denial is still invariably easier than acceptance.
With scientific pundits already beginning to debunk the ice-age myth, climate change deniers ignored conventional wisdom by playing on the confusion that the scientific study created.
Andrew Holt, a leading journalist in Australia, who happens to deny the existence of climate change, seized on the opportunity, noting sarcastically “Don’t question this science! Or was it the last science we weren’t supposed to question? It’s so confusing.”
Whereas Mr. Holt is correct about the confusion, he is simply using that confusion to further cloud what is generally a consensus amongst scientists that global warming is real and that it’s mainly caused by human activities.