Seeing terms like “post-truth” and “alternative facts” gain traction in the news convinces me that politicians, media workers and readers could benefit from a refresher course in how science helps us understand the world. Reporting on science is difficult at the best of times. Trying to communicate complex ideas and distil entire studies into eye-catching headlines and brief stories can open the door to misinformation and limited understanding.
Recent headlines about a climate study, “Shifting patterns of mild weather in response to projected radiative forcing”, in the February 2017 issue of “Climatic Change” illustrate the predicament. Some news outlets implied the study showed countries such as Canada and the U.K. would benefit from increasingly frequent “mild weather days” brought on by climate change. Many failed to convey the true take-home message: Climate change will have devastating consequences for human civilization.
Just ask the study’s author, Karin van der Wiel, research scientist at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. She studied the frequency of mild weather days as a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. She found a few countries, mostly in the mid-latitudes, will experience slightly more frequent mild weather — defined as days between 18 and 30 C with less than one millimetre of rain and dew point temperature not exceeding 20 C. But that’s not the whole story.
Van der Wiel points out in an email that mild weather isn’t necessarily good, as it can also create negative conditions.
“If there are projected changes in mild weather, that means there are changes in temperature, precipitation and/or humidity,” she said, noting that although mild weather could create more opportunities for things such as outdoor recreation, it could also have negative consequences like changing snowmelt patterns and threatening water resources.
Mild weather at the wrong time and place can be disastrous. The wildfire that devastated Fort McMurray last year reached city limits on a mild weather day, with an average temperature of 22.1 C and no precipitation, after several weeks of unseasonably warm and dry weather.
Science is the most useful tool we have to adapt to climate change and avoid its worst outcomes. But it requires critical thinking and a big-picture perspective to ensure we consider all available evidence. With so many people scrolling through social media feeds for news rather than reading entire articles, facts and clarity can become elusive. It’s up to us all — media and consumers alike — to dig deeper for the full story.