Sunday, February 7, 2010

Headline misses the point on CO2 feedback

UPDATE 22/3/2010: ABC reply in Outcome see comments HERE
ABC HEADLINE: "Scientists confirm positive CO2 feedback"

ABC REPORTED: ABC Reporter Anna Selah's report on the findings of a Nature article that suggest CO2 feedback is indeed positive but the positive feedback from CO2 is significantly less than previously thought: by a factor of 5.

THE COMPLAINT: Your recent news article published online in ABC Science "Scientists confirm positive CO2 feedback" underplays the significance of the findings to climate models used by the IPCC to assess future climate change. While the article does, as you have indicated support positive CO2 feedback, the major and most important result is that the feedback is significantly lower than previous estimates. As a consequence IPCC models overestimate CO2 feedback.

A better headline would have been similar to one used by the online news service Science daily which reads: "
Amplification of Global Warming by Carbon-Cycle Feedback Significantly Less Than Thought, Study Suggests"
or this one:
Nature: carbon cycle is 80% weaker than advertised

The ABC headline appears to deliberately underplay the impact of the result on IPCC models. Was the reporter influenced on the significance of the findings by Prof Andy Pitman, referred to in the report, who has an interest in the IPCC models and underplays the impact of the findings? Pitman is the author of the IPCC Assessment Report 4, Working Group 1 - Chapter 8 ? The reporter should have sought a less biased opinion on the impact of the paper on IPCC climate models to supplement comments by Pitman.

I request that the headline be re-phrased to take the major results into account and I propose the following improvement: "Scientists confirm positive CO2 feedback-Amplification of Global Warming by Carbon-Cycle Feedback Significantly Less Than Thought"

ABC Editorial Policy States:

5.7 Use of specialist commentators
5.7.1 It is ABC policy to provide a range of views on significant issues over time,
ensuring the broadcast and publication online of a diversity of perspectives. To
achieve this staff should use a number of different commentators and analysts.
5.7.2 If a guest commentator or analyst has a relevant interest in the issue being
discussed, that interest should be declared. If specific information about the
commentator would alter the audience’s perception of the view presented,
that information must be disclosed. These disclosures must not invade the
legitimate rights to privacy of a commentator or analyst.

OUTCOME: 22/3/2010
Thank you for your email regarding the ABC Science story 'Scientists confirm positive CO2 feedback'. I am sorry for the delay in responding to you.

Your concerns about the headline of this story have been investigated by Audience & Consumer Affairs. The headline has been assessed against the applicable editorial standard, section 5.2.2(c) of the ABC's Editorial Policies (, which requires every reasonable effort, in the circumstances, to ensure that the factual content of news and current affairs is accurate and in context.

The story reported the results of the study 'Ensemble reconstruction constraints on the global carbon cycle sensitivity to climate', published in the journal Nature, and included the views of the lead author Dr David Frank, as well as the reactions of two Australian experts to the study's findings. The study empirically estimated the likely value of γ, the magnitude of the climate sensitivity of the global carbon cycle, finding it to have a likely range of 1.7 to 21.4 p.p.m.v. CO2 per °C, with a median of 7.7 p.p.m.v. CO2 per °C. It also estimated the values of γ generated by ten coupled carbon-climate models, which yielded a mean of 8.5 p.p.m.v. CO2 per °C and a range of 2.1 to 15.6 p.p.m.v. CO2 per °C, and found on comparison with the empirical estimates that γ is more likely to fall in the lowermost quartile than the uppermost quartile of this range. Another finding of the study was that recent estimates of γ of around 40 p.p.m.v. CO2 per °C are very unlikely to be accurate.

On review, Audience & Consumer Affairs considers that the headline was accurate. As the likely value of γ calculated in the study was positive, it was accurate to state in the headline that the scientists "confirm[ed] positive CO2 feedback". This was one of the key results of the study. It is certainly true that the study made other findings, all of which were covered in the story; however, it was not possible for the headline to reflect them all. Headlines are designed to be read in conjunction with stories, rather than in isolation, and readers of the full story would have understood that the study made several findings.

I understand you believe the most significant result of the study was that γ was estimated to be significantly lower than previous estimates. I am advised that ABC Innovation does not agree with your assessment of the study's results. While the study found that recent very high estimates of around 40 p.p.m.v. CO2 per °C were not likely to be accurate, it also found that the likely range of γ was broadly consistent with the results yielded from coupled carbon-climate models. Accordingly, the study did not estimate γ to be significantly lower than all previous estimates, but only significantly lower than the recent very high estimates. As I understand ABC Innovation's research suggested that climate scientists already generally considered these estimates to be unrealistically high, this finding was not considered to be as significant as the study's other findings. Nonetheless, it was covered in the story:

"Frank says the latest findings can now be used to verify which models are correct.

"Our results suggest that the models with the slightly below average feedback might be the most accurate," he says.

Frank says the findings suggest recent higher estimates suggesting a 40 ppm figure are "very unlikely" to be accurate."

While we are satisfied that the headline was consistent with the relevant editorial standard, please be assured that your comments, including your proposed amendment to the headline, have been noted and conveyed to relevant staff in ABC Innovation for consideration.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention.

COMMENT:Headlines set the tone of a report. This one misses the mark by a mile and leaves the reader with a false impression of the impact of this research paper on wider climate science. On the whole the article is well written but could have been improved if a third party could have commented on the implications of the research findings to IPCC climate models.

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