Here’s how my climate research got turned into fake news

A 2009 climate rally in Washington. Image: Getty.

Science is slow. It rests on painstaking research with accumulating evidence.

This makes for an inherently uneasy relationship with the modern media age, especially once issues are politicised. The interaction between politics and media can be toxic for science, and climate change is a prominent example.

Take the recent “deep freeze” along the US east coast. To scientists, it was one more piece of a larger jigsaw of climate change disrupting weather systems and circulation patterns. This includes dramatic changes seen in Arctic sea ice and the knock-on effect on temperatures elsewhere in northern latitudes – both warming and relative cooling. To President Donald Trump the cold snap was a chance to mock climate change, and some sceptics suddenly talked about an impending ice age.

Fiction. Image: Breitbart.

Colleagues and I experienced similar frustrations in late 2017, after we published a paper in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience, in which we concluded that there was more headroom than many had assumed before we breach the goals of the Paris Agreement. We found ourselves not only on the front page of the main British newspapers, but globally, as far-right website Breitbart ran with a story that a small band of buccaneering scientists had finally admitted that the models were all wrong – a fiction rapidly picked up by the more rabid elements in the media.

The essence of good science is to continually update, challenge, improve and refine, using as much evidence as possible. Single events rarely make for good science. And if every painstaking evaluation, updating work from years ago, may be portrayed as demolishing everything that went before – particularly at the whim of non-scientific agendas – then we have a major dilemma. The edifice of science is built with small bricks and this research was no exception.

We emphatically did not show that climate change was “less bad” or “happening slower” than previously thought. Our work built on the many previous scientific studies that had looked at the risks of unchecked emissions and the prospects for limiting warming to 2℃ above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement went further, aiming to “pursue efforts” towards a more ambitious goal of just 1.5℃. Given we’re already at around 1℃ of warming, that’s a relatively short-term goal. Greater ambition therefore requires greater precision.

Our study took a microscope to that question. Where previous estimates were drawn from a range of mostly long-run models that looked at century-long changes, we instead focused on a precise definition and current starting point, and other factors which matter far less in the long term, but a lot if the goal is much closer.

Some of the earlier estimates seemed to imply a “headroom to 1.5℃” of less than a decade of current emissions – clearly unachievable given the long timespans and huge inertia. We estimated about 20 years – equivalent to global CO₂ emissions falling steadily from now until hitting zero in around 40 years – and made it plain that it still looks, to put it mildly, a formidable ambition. Other studies have since come to similar conclusions.

A (non-)story of revolution

The more detailed reporting by those correspondents who attended the scientific briefing was accurate enough (even if some of their headlines and lead-ins weren’t), but that was soon lost in the misrepresentations that followed. Doubtless we could have done more to explain how our conclusions arose from what were actually quite minor scientific developments. Some instead turned it into a story of revolution in climate science. Scientists are also human, and these sceptic reactions reinforced a natural initial inclination among other researchers to defend their previous numbers. Some took to Twitter to do so, but themselves seemed to confuse the media headlines with our actual conclusions.

Some challenges could yet be proved right. There could, for example, be more pent-up warming currently being masked by other pollutants or already lurking in the oceans. When the goal is close, other heat-trapping emissions (like methane) also matter a lot more. Our study – like earlier work – had its share of caveats and uncertainties.

Unfortunately, while good science embraces uncertainty, politics abhors it and the media seems confounded by it. That in turn pressures researchers to simplify their message, and treat existing estimates – often, from a range – like a position to be defended. It is a risky trap for scientists, however eminent and well-intentioned, to wield overnight reactions to parry months of painstaking peer review and refinement that lie behind analyses published in leading journals.


Science against spin

So how should science respond? The climate policy implications are easy: nothing significant has changed. We have but one planet, and both the physical and economic processes that are driving climate change have enormous inertia. If a big ocean liner were steaming into dense fog in polar seas, only a fool would maintain full speed on the basis that the technicians were still discussing the distance to the first big iceberg.

One underlying challenge is indeed around the communication of uncertainty. This is a well-worn track, but it bears repeating. The job of science is not just to narrow uncertainties, but to educate about the risks that flow logically from it. Like a medical prognosis from smoking, the fact that things might turn out better or worse than the average is not a good reason to keep puffing. You won’t know until it is too late whether the damage has been slight, or terminal.

But science also needs to embrace and embed another obvious feature of medical practice: a doctor would never look at just your temperature to diagnose your condition. So part of the problem stems from using a single indicator for complex processes. Too much debate treats temperature (and especially the most recent global average) as the sole indicator, whereas many other factors are at play including sea levels, ocean acidity, ice sheets, ecosystem trends, and many more.

The ConversationThese other trends need to be reported in context, just as economics news reports not only GDP but debt, employment, inflation, productivity and a host of other indicators. And scientists themselves need to improve the art of communication in a world where research can be spun, within hours, into a story of past failure, rather than the reality of continuous improvement.

Michael Grubb, Professor of Energy and Climate Change, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free, alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.