How the media bungled the reporting of sinking Solomon Islands

First reported in the Guardian.

Links between climate change and the sinking of five islands in the Pacific Ocean have been exaggerated, the author of a widely reported new study has said.

The report, published on Friday, tracked the shapeshifting of 33 reef islands in the Solomon Islands between 1947 and 2014. It found that five had been washed away completely and six more had been severely eroded. The study blamed the loss on a combination of sea-level rise and high wave energy.

Many media outlets, including the Guardian, jumped to the conclusion that the islands were lost to climate change. But this largely misinterprets the science, according to the study’s author, Dr Simon Albert.

“All these headlines are certainly pushing things a bit towards the ‘climate change has made islands vanish’ angle. I would prefer slightly more moderate titles that focus on sea-level rise being the driver rather than simply ‘climate change’,” Albert told the Guardian.

The major misunderstanding stems from the conflation of sea-level rise with climate change. As a scientifically robust and potentially destructive articulation of climate change, sea-level rise has become almost synonymous with the warming of the planet.

However, as Albert’s paper points out, the ocean has been rising in the Solomon Islands at 7mm per year, more than double the global average. Since the 1990s, trade winds in the Pacific have been particularly intense. This has been driven partly by global warming and partly by climatic cycles – in particular the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

“These trade winds have basically pushed water up into western Pacific and have driven these exceptionally high rates of [sea-level rise] in the Solomons,” said Albert. “The trade winds are partly a natural cycle but also the recent intensification is related to atmospheric warming.”

The proportion of the extra rise driven by climate change was not considered by Albert’s study.

Areas of the Pacific where seas are rising at closer to the global average have not yet experienced the same loss of land as the Solomon Islands. A few studies, based on comparing aerial photos of islands from world war two with current satellite images, have thus far have been inconclusive. There is even a suggestion that atolls in the central Pacific are getting bigger.

The loss of land in the Pacific is a totemic image of climate change. Residents of low-lying nations see incursions of the sea where it did not use to be and blame the burning of fossil fuels. This study shows that the issue is more complex than this. But it also contains a dire warning.

By the second half of this century the sea-level rise across the Pacific will be close to the rate observed in the Solomon Islands in recent decades. Albert’s team also observed a disturbing trend of wave energy increasing along with local sea-level rise, meaning islands exposed to high seas were trounced into oblivion.

In this respect, the drowning of these lands is a window into the future. For the first time, we can see clearly that the amount of sea-level rise we expect from climate change will overwhelm entire landscapes.

“The key aspect I stand by is that these observations from the Solomons are a warning of things to come irrespective of if climate change alone caused it or a range of factors,” said Albert.

It appears that in some cases journalists did not contact the researchers and instead quoted from a comment piece the authors wrote on The Conversation website.

“This is the first scientific evidence,” said the authors, “that confirms the numerous anecdotal accounts from across the Pacific of the dramatic impacts of climate change on coastlines and people.”

This was used to justify erroneous headlines. Albert told the Guardian: “I understand why these more dramatic titles are used and it does help bring attention to the issue that I firmly believe will become a major issue for the islands in the second half if this century from climate change.”

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Reaction to Times report on rejected climate scientist

Climate scientists reacted agrily today at an apparent attempt to paint the discipline as ‘activist’. The Times ran a front page story that a paper written by Lennart Bengtsson had not been accepted because its findings were uncomfortable for climate scientists. The Science Media Centre gathered reaction today from some of the UK’s heavy hitters.

Prof Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture at King’s College London, said:

“The publishers of the journal concerned, IOP, express astonishment that the story of this rejected manuscript made front-page news.  Of course it’s perfectly normal for scientific papers to be rejected for a whole variety of good reasons.  But the reason it made front-page news in this case was because of the previous pressure brought to bear on Professor Bengtsson, from a variety of quarters including from other climate scientists, which made him resign his position as an academic advisor to the GWPF think-tank.  This is the real story here: why certain climate scientists believe it’s their role to pass public judgement on whether a scientific colleague should offer advice to political, public or a campaigning organisations and to harass that scientist until they ‘fall into line’.

“This episode tells us a lot about how deeply politicised climate science has become, but how some scientists remain blind to their own biases.”

Dr Simon Lewis, Reader in Global Change Science at University College London, said:

“The rejection of a scientific paper becoming front page news is a surprise.  Scientific papers get rejected all the time. In top journals nine in ten papers get rejected; there is nothing unusual about it.  Decisions about publication are made by editors, not reviewers, so it is entirely wrong to selectively quote from reviewer comments alone.

“What counts are the reasons the editor gave for rejection.  They were because the paper contained important errors and didn’t add enough that was new to warrant publication.  Indeed, looking at all the comments by the reviewer they suggested how the paper might be rewritten in the future to make it a solid contribution to science.  That’s not suppressing a dissenting view, it’s what scientists call peer review.”

“I suspect that the rejection of a scientific paper hitting the news is simply because Professor Bengtsson has strong links to campaigners at the Global Warming Policy Foundation.”

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“The full referee’s report that has been released by the journal shows that Professor Bengtsson’s paper was rejected because it was not good enough.  While it did include an inappropriate comment about the perceived impact of the paper on media coverage, this was just a single phrase in the referee’s detailed and constructively critical review, which pointed out the technical limitations of the paper. It is clear that the recommendation to reject was based on the poor quality of the paper.

“It is not a surprise that Professor Bengtsson is upset about the rejection, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the decision was based on concerns about the paper’s impact on the media.  Most researchers who receive such feedback respond by improving a paper and re-submitting it for publication.  But it appears that Professor Bengtsson has decided instead to allow himself to be used as a pawn in the disinformation campaign by climate change ‘sceptics’.” 

Prof Joanna Haigh, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

“Professor Lennart Bengtsson’s resignation from the GWPF Academic Advisory Council has received wide coverage and raises important issue.

“Whatever anyone’s views are on the role, motivation and integrity of the GWPF in this matter, it is up to individual academics whether or not to associate themselves with it.

“It is regrettable that perceived political stances on the climate issue are apparently so affecting academic activity.  The Grantham Institute at Imperial has always opposed such behaviour, believing that scientific progress requires an open society.  We try to engage with a wide range of figures, some with radically different views on climate change.”

“The outcome in this case is probably a reflection of the ‘us and them’ that has permeated the climate science debate for decades and which is in part an outcome of – and reaction to – external pressure on the climate community.

“This episode should not distract us from the fact that we are performing a very dangerous experiment with the Earth’s climate.  Even by the end of this century, on current trends we risk changes of a magnitude that are unprecedented in the last 10,000 years.  How we respond to that is a matter of public policy but scientists clearly play a key role in providing policymakers with the evidence they require.”

Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, said:

“As scientists we rely on peer review to ensure that the very best science is published.  You can’t cry foul and run to the media when you manuscript is turned down – however famous you are.

“In this case the independent reviewers suggested there were flaws in the science – and, even more damning, that it was not original.  The reviewers were right: publishing bad science does not advance the science or the policy relevant discussions at all.

“On the question of climate sensitivity to doubling carbon dioxide, there are already many excellent papers published which give a huge range from 1.5 to 4.5 degrees C.  So even if this flawed paper been published it would have said nothing new or original.”

Prof Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford, said:

“No self-respecting scientist would reject a paper on the grounds that it might fuel climate scepticism.  However, according to the journal, the paper contained errors and did not sufficiently advance the science.”

Prof Myles Allen, Head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, said:

“Whether there is a story here at all depends on whether you read ‘unhelpful’ and ‘harmful’ in the quotes I have seen as meaning ‘harmful to our collective understanding of the climate system’ or ‘harmful to the case for a particular climate policy’.

“If the reviewer meant the first, then there is nothing wrong with them saying so.  Part of the job of a reviewer is to point out statements in a paper that are liable to cause misunderstanding.  The problem is that journalists can now spin this as meaning the second.

“The real tragedy here is that climate scientists are now expected to check their comments in an anonymous peer review to ask themselves how they might ‘play’ if repeated in the Times or the Mail.  The progress of science since Galileo has depended on the principle that an anonymous graduate student can point out errors in a paper by a Nobel laureate confident that their comments will be used solely for the purposes of editorial judgement.

“The peer review system has its faults, of course: good papers get rejected, bad papers accepted, and reviewers have their prejudices which editors have to take into account.  But overall, it has served us well, and there is a lot more than climate science at stake if we allow it to be undermined by forcing scientists to consult their lawyers before recommending that a paper is rejected.”

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“In the interests of transparency and informed debate, Professor Bengtsson’s paper should be made public along with reports from the referees and editor.  Only this will prove that his paper was rejected by the journal for sound scientific reasons rather than politics.  The peer review process is always susceptible to inappropriate comments from referees, but it is up to editors to ensure the integrity of the process.”