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.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.