Posts downplaying climate 'emergency' cite paper with cherry-picked evidence

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Posts viewed thousands of times on social media say there is "no evidence" of a climate emergency, citing a paper published by scientists. The claim is misleading: top climate experts said the paper cherry-picked data and ignored key elements from the latest UN report on climate change. Two of them said the journal that published the paper should withdraw it.

"An international study of major historical weather and extreme events has found no evidence of a 'climate emergency' in the record to date," read a post on the Facebook page of lobby group Advance Australia, citing an article in The Australian newspaper about the findings.

"The authors argue we of course ought to protect our environment, limit our impact, prevent air and water pollution, but that the emergency narrative is not supported by historical data observation and future climate patterns are uncertain."

The paper was also cited in a widely-shared television clip from Sky News Australia.

The paper by four Italian scientists was published in January 2022 in the European Physical Journal Plus from leading science publisher Springer Nature. Studies published in the journal are peer-reviewed.

Based on a review of studies, it said there is no clear trend of increase in the intensity of extreme events such as heavy rain, storms, floods and droughts.

"On the basis of observational data, the climate crisis that, according to many sources, we are experiencing today, is not evident yet," its authors wrote.

Screenshot taken on September 26, 2022 of a September 16, 2022 Facebook post by Advance Australia, citing the paper by Italian scientists

The paper's authors were identified in order as Gianluca Alimonti, a physicist at a nuclear physics institute; Luigi Mariani, an agricultural meteorologist, and physicists Franco Prodi and Renato Angelo Ricci.

The latter two were named as signatories of the World Climate Declaration, a text that repeated various debunked claims about climate change. Several other signatories of the text had links to the fossil fuel industry, as explained in this AFP fact check article.

The paper "is published by people not working in climatology and obviously unfamiliar with the topic and relevant data," Stefan Rahmstorf, Head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told AFP.

"It is not published in a climate journal -- this is a common avenue taken by 'climate sceptics' in order to avoid peer review by real experts in the field. They simply ignore studies that don't fit their narrative and have come to the opposite conclusion."

Limited scope

The paper cited 82 source documents including scientific studies from which it drew data, as well as reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Experts told AFP the authors' approach was too selective. Most of the IPCC material cited pre-dated that body's landmark Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), the first part of which was published in August 2021.

AR6 was compiled by 264 authors from 64 countries and cited hundreds of studies in its reference sections. The first part of AR6 alone ran to almost 2,400 pages. It is the top world source on the state of knowledge about climate change.

The Italian paper referred twice to a draft of AR6 without providing links. Its other IPCC references were to earlier reports, including the previous landmark review AR5 in 2013.

"The scope of the paper is much too limited for it to inform a high-level statement on whether the climate crisis is evident or not," Richard Betts, head of climate impacts research at Britain's Met Office and a professor at the University of Exeter, told AFP.

"While some of the details are broadly consistent with AR6, the way they are aggregated and presented as a whole is not."

Displaced people wade through floodwaters in Usta Mohammad, Pakistan on September 18, 2022 ( AFP / Fida HUSSAIN)

The paper contained section headings including hurricanes, tornadoes, precipitation, floods and droughts, concluding that there was no evidence of rising trends. It noted in passing that "global trends in heatwave intensity are not significant."

"The choice of figures and sections headings focusses on results which can be used to make the case that extremes and/or their impacts are not increasing while ignoring other results which show that some extremes are increasing," Betts said.

The IPPC's AR6 report states that "evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves focusses, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since AR5."

Regarding rainfall, for example, the paper cited figures indicating there was no change measured at most weather stations, with an increase of 9.1 percent in some stations.

AR6 however concluded that "the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events have increased since the 1950s over most land area for which observational data are sufficient for trend analysis (high confidence), and human-induced climate change is likely the main driver."

Betts added: "The paper does not cover several of the key aspects of climate change impacts, e.g. glacier and ice sheet melt, sea level rise, fire weather, biodiversity implications."

He said that it "crucially does not recognise the issue of committed impacts -- consequences of actions today that become locked in for the future, e.g. sea level rise, which takes a long time to fully play out."

'Cherry picking'

Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial University, London, said the authors had "cherry-picked" information.

"Of course, they are not writing this article in good faith," she told AFP.

( AFP)

"The paper doesn't add anything new at all and just frames the absence of global trends, in cherry-picked variables, as the absence of climate change. (That,) which every reviewer should have picked up on, is not a scientifically valid framing," she said.

"If the journal cares about science they should withdraw it loudly and publicly, saying that it should have never been published."

Regarding hurricanes and droughts for example, she added, "nobody said they are increasing globally - the IPCC is very clear on that - but that doesn't mean the trends that occur are not hugely problematic for the regions where they are already occurring."

Journal 'should withdraw' article

Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute said the journal, "if it is a self-respecting one... should withdraw this article."

"It is merely an opinion piece created by selectively citing some existing papers," he told AFP.

"This paper has all the hallmarks of yet another attempt to get dubious climate sceptic arguments that don't pass scrutiny published in a journal in order to give them an appearance of credibility, not in order to further the scientific discussion but to use it to influence public opinion."

One of the climate scientists whose work was cited in the paper, Lisa Alexander of the University of New South Wales, was quoted by The Guardian as saying that her work had been misrepresented.

Springer Nature told AFP by email they could not comment about the study for the time being.

AFP has published other fact checks about climate change here.

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