National Geographic recently created an infographic entitled “Seven things to know about climate change”. For a publication that professes to believe “in the power of science”, it’s created something more unscholarly than scientific. For starters, there are actually fewer than seven things in its list. Let’s review some of them:
Number one: “The world is getting warmer”
Yes, the climate has warmed over the past couple of centuries, by about 1 degree Celsius. Unfortunately, that’s about the only fact National Geographic has right. And even then they’re resorting to hyperbole. 2016 was statistically indistinguishable from 2015. The difference in average temperature between 2015 and 2016 was 0.01C with a margin of error of 0.10C. In other words the margin of error was ten times bigger than the estimated difference over 2015.
Yet Nat Geo misleadingly states, “2016 broke the historic record…” That’s poor reporting at best. The more accurate claim would be, “2016’s global temperature was indistinguishable from 2015.”
Numbers two and three: “It’s because of us” and, “We’re sure”
These two “things to know” are making the same claims, that global warming is happening because of man. The notes in point two state that it must be us because CO2 has increased by a lot, especially since the 1960s. That’s a pretty weak argument on its own—so have a lot of other things. But it’s all the more remarkable, because, as the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has struggled to explain, the earth cooled between 1940 and 1975. In other words, while emissions were rocketing upwards, temperatures were trending the opposite way. Moreover, the Earth warmed a lot between 1910 and 1940, before the explosion in CO2 emissions. National Geographic clearly needs to do better.
The infographic’s embarrassing, “We’re sure” point is worse, because it relies on the widely discredited (and mocked) claim that “97% of scientists agree” that man is causing global warming. This statement is from the study by Cook, which National Geographic footnotes. When other scientists have looked at this work, they’ve discovered that only 1.6% of the papers reviewed by Cook explicitly state that man-made CO2 emissions caused at least 50 percent of global warming. In other words, the vast majority of the literature that was reviewed don’t support this claim. For more on the awfulness of the Cook study see Alex Epstein in Forbes.
Number 4: “Ice is melting fast”
The statement that ice is melting fast is misleading at best. It overlooks that the Antarctic has record ice extent, contrary to what most models had predicted. The sea ice surrounding Antarctica has been steadily increasing since the satellite record began in 1979. But as others have reported, the rate of increase rose nearly fivefold between 2000 and 2014, and the increase continues to this day.
National Geographic is talking about what has been happening in the Arctic, which has lost some ice. But given the opposite is happening at the South Pole, “Ice is melting fast” is nothing more than a headline designed to scare rather than honestly report what’s happening globally.
Number 5: “Weather is wreaking havoc”
This headline is equally misleading. It’s disputed amongst scientists that extreme weather is related to climate change and many even predict that global warming will lead to less extreme weather, not more. Moreover, we’re into a record string of years without a hurricane making landfall in the US; hardly “havoc”.
An example of the “havoc” National Geographic is referring to is what it calls “excess deaths” in Paris in 2003. If it’s counting “excess deaths” to back up the claim in its headline, it ought to count the “lives saved” from global warming.
Fortunately, others have thought more deeply about this subject and made some estimates. More people die each year from cold than heat. Three economists have estimated 1.4 million fewer deaths each year, if global warming models prove accurate (hardly a certainty given their poor track record). Other expected benefits include lower energy costs, better agricultural yields, fewer droughts, and richer biodiversity.
It’s disappointing that National Geographic has spun this important topic so extremely. Its readers deserve better.