Nonsense And Sensitivity: Top Climatologist Slams The Economist For Yet Another ‘Flawed And Misleading’ Piece


On our current emissions path, projected warming is catastrophic even in the unlikely event of a low climate sensitivity of 1.5 – 2.0°C. From Michael Schlesinger et al 2012.

Here’s The Economist’s idea of responsible journalism. Begin by quoting UN chief climate negotiator Yvo de Boer on the forthcoming fifth assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

THAT report is going to scare the wits out of everyone.

Then dig up some unpublished, unsubstantiated chart to make the case “it might be less terrifying than it could have been.” No, seriously, the Economist devoted an entire article to argue that a draft climate change report “might be less terrifying than it could have been.”

I guess if The Economist had been leaked the draft medical report from a decade ago that Steve Jobs had a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas (rather than a carcinoma), they would have written an entire piece explaining his condition “might be less terrifying than it could have been.”

One of the country’s leading climatologists, Michael Mann, emailed me:

Among other things, the author hopelessly confuses transient warming (the warming observed at any particularly time) with committed warming (the total warming that you’ve committed to, which includes warming in the pipeline due to historical carbon emissions). even in the best case scenario, business as usual fossil fuel burning will almost certainly commit us to more than 2C (3.6 F) warming, an amount of warming that scientists who study climate change impacts tell us will lead to truly dangerous and potentially irreversible climate change. the article does a disservice to Economist readers by obscuring this critical fact. Sadly, it is hardly the first time in recent history that the Economist has published flawed and misleading stories about climate change.

Mann is referring in part to the widely debunked Economist piece from earlier this year on climate sensitivity. Another key mistake The Economist keeps making is confusing climate sensitivity with projected future warming. I discussed the crucial differences here.

The good news is that The Economist article might be less dreadful than it could have been. For instance, I didn’t find any typos.

Here’s the chart in question:

The Economist seems blissfully unaware that while the Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation (!) and add up to 1.5°F to warming in 2100 by itself, “Participating modeling teams have completed their climate projections in support of the [IPCC’s] Fifth Assessment Report, but these projections do not include the permafrost carbon feedback.

The Economist also seems blissfully unaware of the fact that we are currently close to the 1000 ppm emissions pathway. And The Economist also seems blissfully unaware that stabilizing anywhere near 450 ppm atmospheric concentration of CO2 would require immediate and sustained action to replace the world’s fossil fuel system with one based on carbon-free energy — precisely the kind of aggressive action this piece seems designed to undercut.

But The Economist is actually aware that the chart it published is probably not terribly germane:

There are several caveats. The table comes from a draft version of the report, and could thus change. It was put together by the IPCC working group on mitigating climate change, rather than the group looking at physical sciences. It derives from a relatively simple model of the climate, rather than the big complex ones usually used by the IPCC. And the literature to back it up has not yet been published.

Translation: This chart is most likely BS, but it is the best we could find to justify our lame contrarianism.

As climatologist Kevin Trenberth emailed me:

The Working Group III IPCC report [on mitigation] is no where near final, the final draft has not even been produced yet. Moreover WG III is not responsible for making any statements about climate sensitivity and have no business doing so. The IPCC parallel process hinders exchanges among WGs and the WG I results [on the physical science basis]may not be available to WG III, but will be in due course as there is some staggering of the reports. In the meantime, the Economist report is irresponsible.

For the record, the equilibrium climate sensitivity is how much warming you get if the world suddenly adopts a super-aggressive effort to cut carbon pollution and CO2 levels rise no further than 560 ppm (double preindustrial levels) — and there are no major “slow” feedbacks (like the permafrost defrosting). The ECS is a far less interesting and consequential subject than the fact that we are headed way, way past 560 ppm or that the real-world slow feedbacks are expected to make a very big contribution to warming this century.

Why does The Economist keep writing contrived pieces on sensitivity rather than telling the real story of manmade climate change? One as yet unrefuted theory is that they like puns more than they like the truth. Their March piece was headlined “A sensitive matter” and their new piece is headlined “Sensitive information.” Perhaps their next one will be titled “Nonsensitivity.”

28 Responses to Nonsense And Sensitivity: Top Climatologist Slams The Economist For Yet Another ‘Flawed And Misleading’ Piece

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I have had several run-ins with economists and the Economist reflects its underlying discipline. Far from being the ‘dismal science’, it is no science at all and has always worked on assumptions that bear no relation to reality, ME

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    This is excellent press criticism, but leaves out the reason why The Economist publishes these deceptions in the first place. They are and always have been a right wing magazine, catering to corporations. These days, the big gorillas in the corporate world are the fossil fuel companies, who have fattened up the banks, the politicians and, yes, the media.

    This isn’t to say that we need socialism. Rather, steps should be taken to boycott advertisers of especially bad offenders such as TV networks and most major newspapers.

    If The Economist is boycotted, or there are threats made to do so, they are likely to change, since they are far more hardheaded than ideological. I was a subscriber for 12 years, when I was doing business overseas, and their staff is funny, trenchant, and often ahead of the public. They must be chafing at what their bosses are telling them to do, and if they wake up, it could have a ripple effect.

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Mike, do you consider the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) for which we pay 8c per day in return for 99% accurate and unbiased info to be ‘socialism’? I’d call it ‘value for money’, ME

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    This Is Why

    BECAUSE it is very hard for reporters (at the Economist, the New York Times, ABC, CBS, and so forth) and the vast majority of the general public to follow these sorts of complex things;

    and BECAUSE it is “easy” (for those who want to or don’t know better) to get confused about the relationship between risk and uncertainty, and its implications — in other words, to argue that because there is some degree of uncertainty as to the exact degree of climate change we should expect with varying emission scenarios, that (to some) provides an excuse to not take action; rather than realizing that when the stakes are so high, uncertainties provide a key reason TO take action in order to avoid the risks of inaction; …

    BECAUSE of these considerations and others, it is all that much more important to get a Real Leader who will lead with sincerity, clarity, utmost credibility, commitment, and verve (to address climate change).

    Deeply mixed messages such as “we should address climate change” combined with “all of the above!” (as an energy strategy), combined with the sort of hesitation and mystery associated with what President Obama will do regarding Keystone XL, all add up to confuse and undermine the message. All of this adds up to the fact that most people don’t REALLY know what to think about the urgency of addressing climate change — because they receive not only all sorts of complex and seemingly conflicting messages from the media (involving what seem to be all sorts of technicalities and nuanced differences and “what ifs” to them) but also, and more importantly, they see the leaders who WE elected take their casual time to address climate change, and do so only in very small steps, and seem to place political aims as a higher priority than actually addressing this (supposed) immense and urgent problem.

    Yes, this is another one of those messages that call out for CP/CAP and other climate/environmental/scientific organizations to carefully vet would-be nominees for president BEFORE we nominate them (in effect). We need to make sure we nominate and elect a Real Leader next time around, one who is totally committed to demonstrating real leadership to address climate change.



  5. BobbyL says:

    I don’t get this stuff about vetting that you seem so hopped up about. Obama acted like a climate hawk during the 2008 campaign and then kept quiet about the issue for most of his first term. During his campaign in 2012 he basically avoided mentioning this issue and then since his State of the Union address has acted pretty much like a climate hawk. So why does it matter what candidates say before the election?

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    I think Sweden has the best government, Merrelyn. Americans won’t go for it, though. The problem is less the system than the corruption, which can happen anywhere.

  7. Leif says:

    It does matter.

    Can you imagine what the horizon would look like now if R-money were in charge? Obama ain’t the Knight I would like to see, but he is making some good moves. In the end, just as gravity works every day, all day, Grim Climate Reality will speak to the most hardened denier. You can take that to the bank.

  8. Jack Burton says:

    All to convenient confusion at the Economist. Surely people aren’t suggesting that the Economist was attempting a serious article on climate change? It is all too easy to cherry pick and then display just the right amount of confusion to present the global warming reality in a less serious light?
    The Fossil fuel giants pay well for these types of articles to be written and published where they can do the most harm.
    The writer confused nothing! It was a deliberate attempt to confuse the public. The deniers have no evidence to debunk global warming, all the data are coming in much worse than climate scientists predicted. All big energy can do is publish lies and hope to confuse the issue long enough to keep their profit center of fossil fuels as the key energy model.
    History will judge the people who worked hard to prevent action on the destruction of the moderate and mild climate that ensured mankind’s rise. I just hope some young and talented historian has already begun to document the deniers and who they are and how they operate, so that when older, they can write the definitive history of how some greedy old men grasping for fiat money destroyed humanity. Greed we are told is man’s greatest achievement, that the theories of some woman called Ayn Rand are man’s blueprint for living, that god has given us dominion over the world, that god want’s us all to be rich stockholders.
    Global climate change challenges all the economic and greed based human development models. No wonder the push back from the right wing is so intense. Their whole world view and philosophy of life is being destroyed by global warming caused by fossil fuel based energy. Greed is our undoing. The right wing worships greed as the highest order of human behavior. They own that philosophy and this global climate problem is not making that idea look good. They will continue to deny for some time to come.

  9. Paul Magnus says:

    You just wish that those chappies at The Economist would do something useful like come up with economic solutions and plans in tackling MGW instead of prating about with their heads in the sand.

    Aren’t they suppose to be pragmatic?

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Mike, different systems do vary in their potential for corruption, this has been analysed to death. All rep dems have a high potential and the final outcome is determined by the belief systems of their populations, the degree of corruption people have gotten used to and bolstered by this, how far the corrupt are prepared to go, ME

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ME, I hate to be blunt, but you are trapped in a time warp. The ABC is nowadays every bit as Rightwing as the rest of the MSM, has been edging that way for decades, and made the full leap in 1997 when Howard stacked the Board with such creatures as Maurice Newman, an utterly unrepentant denialist of the direst water to this day.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You’re not a ‘political consultant’ are you, Bobby? Of course, in a ‘democracy’, in the ‘Free World’, it doesn’t matter one iota if everything politicians say to get elected is a great big fib. The popular mass, being, in large part, dull, doesn’t give a hoot, they being only interested in bribes (usually lies) and hate and fear campaigns against the multitudes of enemies of ‘freedom’. These are, mostly, genuine hatreds, and are coming to dominate politics more and more in the West, as the serfs begin to comprehend how close at hand is the Day of Reckoning.

  13. Henry says:

    Don’t be angry at the Economist, be angry at the IPCC!

  14. Colorado Bob says:

    ” these projections do not include the permafrost carbon feedback.”

    “One Kershaw study showed permafrost 15 metres deep in the Hudson Bay Lowlands has warmed by half a degree, from -0.9 degrees Celsius in the mid-1970s, to -0.45 degrees today. That half-degree warming penetrating so deeply into the ground is significant, he said.”

  15. Colorado Bob says:

    The Uttarakhand floods had this stunning picture from Reuters …………

  16. Stephen Watson says:


    As Upton Sinclair said: “It is very hard for a man to see what his salary depends on him not seeing”.

    What is the main demographic for the Economist’s buyers?

    Who are the largest advertisers?

  17. Sasparilla says:

    An excellent analysis and evisceration of the Economist article Joe, thank you.

  18. kermit says:

    History? So you’re an optimist, then.

    I hope you’re right.

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Sorry Mulga, I prefer to make observations on clear days without the ideological fog which accompanies terms like ‘rightwing’, whatever that means these days. The only time the ABC made a mistake in relation to CC was when some idiots gave time to Monkton. Howard tried hard, for very little, ME

  20. Brian Smith says:

    My run-in with Economists

    ME, a few years ago I went to the birthday dinner of a friend whose house guests, it turned out, were a couple of editors from the Economist. On a lark I had picked up some poppers & kids party hats which normally would have fit our self effacing sense of fun.

    Alas, the relentlessly serious Economists were visibly unhappy about having to put on undignified conical hats and didn’t speak to me, an apparent idiot, for much of the time.
    My bad.

  21. Ken Barrows says:

    Ah, The Economist! Looking at the 1999 “Drowning in Oil” issues for some laughs.

  22. BobbyL says:

    George Bush’s campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants should be a clue that vetting is useless.

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    My favourite (only so far-I confidently expect better and better such in the years ahead) is David Cameron’s little beauty, that he would lead the ‘greenest ever UK Government’. Now that was a monster porky.

  24. Merrelyn Emery says:

    OK Brian, I’ll compromise. I’ll maintain they are not scientists but grant you that they are dismal. It’s time for all us idiots to assert that we who love life and laughter should rule the world and take back our rightful domain, ME

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Newman forced the ABC to air the mockumentary ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’. And if you can ignore excrescences like Counterpoint then you have a higher level of tolerance for Rightwing drivel than I. The ‘Environment’ section on the ABC web-site is notably anti-Green, and the censorship of ideologically incorrect Comments is universal. And The Drum Unleashed airs IPA and CIS hate-tank gibberish ‘liberally’, and censors Comments to benefit the Right quite unambiguously. I could go on, boringly, for hours. The ABC’s chief sin, of course, is that of omission, climate destabilisation having almost dropped off the radar. We’re just going to have to agree to disagree over this one, which does raise my ire, because I too can recall a pre-lapsarian, pre-Howard ABC, where there was some vestige of ideological balance. Not any more, however. The cultural, art and general interest programs are still, thank God, mostly excellent.

  26. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I could produce a long list of the opposite Mulga but I’ll mention only one, the recent Catalyst program on how the increased energy in the system produces cold, floods etc. It was favourably noted a couple of times here at CP. Rather than complain about the ABC, you would be better put to shifting people from the commercials to the ABC – we would have a more knowledgable population, ME

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Quite true, ME-the Catalyst segment was excellent. The Science Show is often good, too, but even there censorship of comments criticising Rightwing denialists has been creeping in. The ABC is marginally less bad then the nadir under Howard, and is still, as you observe, infinitely preferable to the commercial swamp. However, I still reckon it is but a shadow of what it once was, and nowhere near what it ought to be.

  28. MartinJB says:

    I think you misjudge the Economist. It is absolutely NOT a denier publication. In addition to frequent, unequivocal statements about the importance of tackling climate change, they have made many, many calls for a price on carbon in the past few years — even in articles not specifically about climate change. I believe they brought it up in one of the previous two issues.

    They are not going to get every article right, and I believe they are putting too much weight on any evidence of lower climate sensitivity. I strongly recommend that someone in the climate change community write a reasoned and clear letter to the Economist editors explaining the errors in the article. It has a good chance of getting published.