How to Draw Two Opposite Conclusions From the Same Climate Change Report

Both The New York Times and Politico published stories this week based off a climate change report, but somehow came to very different conclusions about what the report means.

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Both The New York Times and Politico published stories this week based off a climate change report from the National Academy of Sciences titled "Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises," but somehow came to very different conclusions about what the report means.

Politico opens by warning readers that, according to the report's findings, global warming is happening, and we'll start to really, really notice it soon:

Climate change isn’t just a problem facing future generations, a new scientific report warns, saying the planet could suffer serious and abrupt climate threats in the next few years or decades — leaving nations with a narrow window to adapt.

Times contributor Andrew C. Revkin concluded, on the other hand, that climate change effects are not imminent:

The findings... reinforce the reality that the biggest impacts of greenhouse-driven global warming still lie several generations in the future.


The devil, as always, is in the details. The report authors write in the study's abstract that our climate is changing now much faster than it has over millions of years of the earth's development — which isn't really news. They go on to advise world leaders to take action to prevent future, deadly damage to the environment which is, again, standard scientific consensus. Politico appears to be responding to an accelerated time frame mentioned by the authors:

The primary timescale of concern is years to decades. A key characteristic of these changes is that they can come faster than expected, planned, or budgeted for, forcing more reactive, rather than proactive, modes of behavior.

What Politico presumed, apparently, was that the "years to decades" in question are expected to occur within our lifetimes. However, Revkin asked report author Richard Alley (who also worked on a 2002 installment of the report called "Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises,") to elaborate on this year's findings, and he explained that drastic change is unlikely before the year 2100:

Enough of the hard work of measuring and modeling has been done to provide high scientific confidence that while we are and will affect the north Atlantic with climate change, and this will have consequences, it is very unlikely that there will be a huge and abrupt change in the coming decades.

Revkin writes that according to the report, there is a moderate risk of certain abrupt shifts — like more intense heat waves and other natural disasters; lower levels of ocean oxygen; and changes in species and ecosystems — occurring in this century. Changes like rising sea levels and climate variability alterations are improbable before, but more likely after, 2100.

Of course, a less severe abruption could still pose a huge threat to human life, and perhaps Politico is focusing on practical ramifications of less-severe effects. Alley says, "Katrina’s high waters just made it over the levee, and the difference between 'just over' and 'not quite over' proved to be a lot of billions of dollars and human disruption." So the distinction between less- and more-severe is not actually all that comforting.

Both articles stress that the report outlined a number of measures that governments must take to rein in the effects of climate change... something that the 20-30 whales currently trapped in the Everglades probably agree is definitely a real thing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.