Following severe cold weather on the east coast of the USA in 2014, (extreme cold weather events also occurred over parts of Russia and Europe) a short article resurfaced, which had first appeared 40 years earlier in 1975 citing a global cooling climate trend.
The author Peter Gwynne has subsequently had a long career in scientific reporting. He stands by the article which was based on interviews carried out at the time, but regrets that it has frequently been misquoted and misused by “climate deniers” anxious to negate the evidence of climate science which has, in the intervening years, become established as overwhelming.
“Gwynne’s story observed – accurately, (but based upon the theories of a small number of climatologists) – that there had been a gradual decrease in global average temperatures from about 1940–1975, now believed to be a consequence of soot (sic) and aerosols that offered a partial shield to the earth as well as the gradual retreat of an abnormally warm interlude.”
In 1975 I was employed by British Coal and was aware of two issues which were then current in our industry, both related to aerosols emitted during the combustion of coal in power stations.
Let’s begin with the science
An aerosol is a suspension of fine solid or liquid particles in a gas. In the case of emissions from a coal-fired power plant, the main concerns for acid rain are sulphate or nitrate aerosols which have the potential to form dilute sulphuric or nitric acids on reaction with rainwater.
Aerosols from UK power stations had potentially been carried by prevailing winds to the west of Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries, to precipitate as acid rain.
Environmental legislation in North America and in Europe, and modifications to coal-fired power stations, including ‘scrubbers’ to remove sulphates from power station stacks, have greatly reduced the issue in these areas, as has the reduction in coal for power generation, but not necessarily in other parts of the world.
Aerosols and climate
There are two main ways in which aerosols can influence climate:
- By affecting the amount of solar radiation that reaches the earth through the atmosphere or changing the amount of radiation lost, thereby changing the earth’s radiative balance.
- By affecting the way clouds form, as clouds themselves have climate influence.
Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) are stimulated by incoming solar radiation heating the earth’s surface. The GHGs radiate heat energy back into the atmosphere some of which escapes into space, but some warms the atmosphere and contributes to global warming.
Nasa now considers that most aerosols are cooling – that is to say, they reflect some of the sun’s energy back out into space. The exception being soot or black carbon which is thought to boost the warming potential of GHGs.
It is estimated that since the industrial revolution the finest aerosols in the atmosphere have increased by 60%. The net effect of which is to have reduced the warming effect of GHGs by about 50%. Without the aerosols Nasa models suggest that the earth would be 1°C hotter.
The dramatic cooling impact which aerosols may have on the climate is perhaps best illustrated by the natural aerosols emitted from the Tambora volcanic eruption which resulted in the “year without a summer”.
Notionally, the object lesson here is that interpreting scientific data is often more nuanced and complex than many laypeople might venture to comprehend. In the social media age, this has inevitably had a multiplier effect on pseudoscientific misinformation, the effects of which frequently play out detrimentally across society.
This is a serious concern. So how do we communicate science in a way that avoids misinterpretation by the public or hijack by certain political or corporate interests and upholds evidence-based truth? At the same time, how can trustworthy, reliable scientific accounts of the issues we face – be it the pandemic, the climate emergency or any other of a host of existential global crises – be made more comprehensible?
Science or storytelling?
Gwynne returned to the debate in 2014 to refute those unexpectedly using his article decades later to promote false agendas on established climate science:
“Speaking personally, though, I accept that I didn’t tell the full story back then. Indeed, the issue raises questions about the relationship between science writers and scientists as well as the attitudes toward science of individuals with political agendas”.
Of course, it is not only those with political agendas. Those with commercial interests to defend are often the most strident voices heard. Amongst those attempting to cast doubt over 40 subsequent years of robust climate science by referencing Gwynne’s 1975 article was Fox News and presenter Sean Hannity. Whether by editorial pressure from higher up or Hannity’s own choice, clearly the line fed to the Fox News audience is what the station believed audience wanted to hear. Such representations also circulate through lobbying groups and benefit certain companies, making for a complex ecosystem driven to share, reshare and misuse such interpretations.
This inevitably raises serious questions over the public understanding of the many aspects of science that require many years of advanced study in order to attain expertise in the field.
For those of us with perhaps a limited science background who may be attempting to understand climate issues, there are further aspects to consider. It seems to me that two standards of reporting are current in climate science. There are technical papers for other scientists and fellow researchers (the peer reviewers), full of detailed technical information, voluminous data, jargon, and complex models difficult for outsiders to understand. Then there are the science reporters like Gwynne who try to present the research in a clear and understandable way to a wider, less technical, audience.
One journal usefully publishes two abstracts (summaries) for some papers: a technical abstract and a ‘plain English’ abstract. For one published climate article I was able to understand both to the extent that I saw that they didn’t say the same things, the latter contained elements not in concordance with the former. Perhaps this could be explained by sloppy interpretation on the part of the editors, but it is illustrative of where there are flaws even within scientific journals in terms of clear unambiguous communication of the issue at stake.
We have absolutely NOT had enough of experts
The previous Cabinet’s attitude to science and experts was at best ambivalent; exemplified by Michael Gove’s pronouncement “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”. However, with the advent of the pandemic and the urgent need for vaccines, it appears that the media and the public suddenly couldn’t get enough of experts.
Very early in the pandemic, mathematical epidemiologist Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College briefed the government on models showing the potential exponential spread of the disease, the possibility that the NHS could be overwhelmed, and a possible 500,000 deaths caused. The first lockdown occurred shortly after the briefing.
The government’s covid approach became ‘we are following the science’ and regular briefings co-hosted with medical experts Professor Jonathan Van-Tam (deputy chief medical officer) and Professor Chris Whitty (chief medical officer) provided the scientific authority and clarity (“next slide please?”).
During the recent Tory leadership hustings, Rishi Sunak – who was a Cabinet member during the pandemic – came out with the rather revisionary statement that, “It was a mistake to empower scientists during the covid pandemic”.
Professor Whitty has sometimes been in conflict with politicians, one of whom – the Conservative MP for Beaconsfield, Joy Morrissey, in a since deleted tweet – declared:
“Perhaps the covid unelected public health spokesperson should defer to what our ELECTED members of parliament and the prime minister have decided. I know it’s difficult to remember but this is not how democracy works. This is not a public health socialist state.”
Another Tory MP Dean Russell, shared comments he’d heard from other people that the country had got its priorities wrong when it came to Covid and the nation was putting too much emphasis on the pandemic. Prof Whitty’s response was a masterpiece of clear, concise, polite but brutal reasoning. See it here:
Clear understanding is the basis for sound political action
The famous ‘stripes graphic’ above, depicting a warming world, has been widely published, including by the Guardian. The graphic does not have a scale or indeed a key, which is regarded as a positive by many. But does this take the graphic into the realm of PR rather than science?
The same team, presumably using the same base data, published the arguably more impactful ‘climate spirals’ visualisation.
The stripes graphic illustrates a progression of global warming The global mean temperature in 2022 is currently estimated to be about 1.15 [1.02 to 1.28] °C above the 1850-1900 pre-industrial average. It is based on available data and shows an historical trend rather than making any prediction. The elegant and accessible graphic has been widely praised, a commentator suggesting that “Science communication to the public has to be different”.
A healthy democratic society depends crucially on a well-informed and educated public, easily able to make use of a range of sources offering factual, well-evidenced and trustworthy information. This translates into well-considered public campaigns and informed voting choices as our societies evolve to become ever more technocratic.
As a slew of existential threats such as the pandemic and climate emergency have tightened their grip on all aspects of our lives, there is an urgency to base our democratic decisions on sound, well-interpreted evidence, scientific and otherwise. If policy is based on imprecise or even outright false information for the sake of political expediency, then reality can be reliably depended upon to eventually dismantle our illusions – you might even say that the last six years of political turmoil is testament to that. One cannot build houses on sand.
There is a final lesson for scientists and anyone with a duty to communicate complex ideas to a wider public best summarised in a quote attributed to Albert Einstein:
“If you can’t explain it in simple terms, you don’t understand it well enough.”
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