The Pope, climate change and hurricanes. What’s missing? Data.
Photo by AP Images

The Pope, climate change and hurricanes. What’s missing? Data.

September 12, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Pope Francis on climate change: ‘we have to take it seriously’

Pope Francis gave an in-flight press conference during his return to Rome from Colombia on Monday. He was asked about the recent hurricanes in the U.S. and about climate change. On Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, he said, “You can see the effects of climate change and scientists have clearly said what path we have to follow.” On climate change, he said “all of us have a responsibility, all of us, small or large, a moral responsibility. We have to take it seriously.”

Francis has addressed environmental issues before. Most recently, on his five-day visit to Colombia he spoke about the country’s biodiversity, and the importance of preserving it from overdevelopment and exploitation, according to The Associated Press.

On May 24, 2015, before the Paris summit on climate change, he wrote an encyclical letter titled, “On care for our common home,” meaning the Earth. From the Paris summit came the Paris Climate Accord, an agreement to cut emissions as part of the “global response to the threat of climate change.” There were 200 countries who agreed to the accord, including the U.S.

During U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to the Vatican in May of this year, the Vatican said it favored the U.S. remaining part of the Paris Accord. In June, Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the agreement.

Distortion Highlights

  • The coverage of the Pope’s recent comments implies climate change is responsible for hurricanes like Harvey and Irma. 
  • But that’s precisely the data we didn’t find in the articles we analyzed.
  • There are scientific arguments for and against this. We help fill in some of what the media left out.

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The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Raises alarm

    Pontiff calls on politicians to take scientists’ advice as he raises alarm over global warming after major storms. (Al Jazeera)

  • Thinly veiled dig

    His most recent comments could also be seen as a thinly veiled dig at the president. (BBC)

  • Condemns

    Hurricane Irma: Pope Francis condemns climate change sceptics (BBC)

  • Slams

    Pope Francis slamsstupid climate change deniers (Al Jazeera)

  • Blasted

    Pope Francis has warned history will judge world leaders who do not act as he blasted climate change sceptics in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. (BBC)

    Pope blasts climate change doubters: cites moral duty to act (AP)

  • Sharply criticized

    Pope Francis has sharply criticized climate change doubters, saying history will judge those who failed to take the necessary decisions to curb heat-trapping emissions blamed for the warming of the Earth. (AP)

    Pope Francis has sharply criticised climate change deniers as “stupid” in the wake of a spate of powerful hurricanes that have wreaked havoc in the US, Mexico and the Caribbean. (Al Jazeera)

  • Hard to tease out

    The scientific reality of attributing a role to climate change in worsening the impact of hurricanes is also hard to tease out, simply because these are fairly rare events and there is not a huge amount of historical data. (BBC)

  • Pounded

    Francis spoke as hurricane Irma pounded central Florida as it carved through the state with high winds, storm surges and torrential rains that left millions without power, ripped roofs off homes and flooded city streets. (Reuters)

  • Pummeled

    Francis was asked about climate change and the spate of hurricanes that have pummeled the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean recently as his charter plane left Colombia on Sunday and flew over some of the devastated areas. (AP)

Monday’s coverage of Pope Francis’ interview suggests climate change either led to or exacerbated recent hurricanes like Harvey and Irma. For instance, Reuters wrote, “Pope Francis said the recent spate of hurricanes should prompt people to understand that humanity will ‘go down’ if it does not address climate change and history will judge those who deny the science on its causes.”

The sources we analyzed weren’t forthright about the assumption. In other words, they juxtaposed climate change with the hurricanes, which is what can lead readers to connect the dots, but they didn’t explicitly state the connection between the two, so it could easily be accepted without question. Did climate change cause or exacerbate these hurricanes? Wouldn’t you know it – that’s the missing data in the media coverage of this story.

There are scientific arguments both for and against it. None of the articles we analyzed provided data against the correlation. Of the four articles, only BBC’s provided two arguments that could partly support the connection. It’s common knowledge that hurricanes form over warm ocean waters and they use warm, moist air. BBC explained that the hotter an atmosphere, the more moisture it holds (warm, moist air). And it cited an expert on the matter saying the Gulf of Mexico’s waters are roughly “1.5 degrees warmer above what they were from 1980-2010” (warm ocean waters). These conditions could explain why the hurricanes took on the magnitude they did, but they don’t answer the question, “Did climate change cause them?” The systems that surround hurricanes and their formation are complex, and it’s possible that they would have taken place regardless of climate change.

A 2014 National Climate Assessment by the U.S. Global Change Research Program said that “The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s. The relative contributions of human and natural causes to these increases are still uncertain.”

It also said the recent increases in hurricane activity are in part linked to higher sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic, and that “numerous factors” influence those temperatures, including natural fluctuations, particulate pollution and manmade greenhouse gases. It said some studies suggest that natural variability “is the dominant cause of the warming trend in the Atlantic since the 1970s, while others argue that human-caused heat-trapping gases and particulate pollution are more important.”

The “Supporting Evidence” in the same 2014 report said, “The relative contributions of human and natural causes to increases [in North Atlantic hurricanes] are still uncertain.” It assigned a “low” confidence level to this statement, meaning there’s “Inconclusive evidence (limited sources, extrapolations, inconsistent findings, poor documentation and/or methods not tested, etc.), disagreement or lack of opinions among experts.”

It seems the jury’s still out on the subject, and this is an important point to not only bring to readers, but also to substantiate with data and scientific studies, rather than opinion. Our researchers found more data supporting various perspectives, which you can find in our Context section below.

Some media outlets have suggested there’s definitely a link. The Guardian recently published an op-ed with a headline that calls it a “fact” that “climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly.” Michael Mann, the author of the op-ed and professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, did not say it was a “fact” in the body of the article. He wrote that “there are certain climate change-related factors that we can, with great confidence, say worsened the flooding.”

Considering that most of the world’s nations devote numerous and costly resources to climate change, it may be ill-advised for media outlets to make assumptions about the issue before it has been studied further. If the information isn’t available or conclusive, the media could encourage us to question the assumptions and think critically about the issue, rather than to accept it blindly.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 72% Spun

  • 78% Spun

  • 85% Spun

  • 85% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

BBC News

“His most recent comments could also be seen as a thinly veiled dig at the president.”

No facts. This is opinion.

A-Aljazeera

“Pope Francis has sharply criticised climate change deniers as ‘stupid’…”

Francis said, “I am reminded of a phrase from the Old Testament, I think from the Psalm: ‘Man is stupid, he is stubborn and he does not see.’”

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

At least 38 people have been killed so far from the Category 5 storm. (Al Jazeera)


This statement may misrepresent Irma’s strength. While it began as a Category 5 storm, it was downgraded to a Category 4 storm by the time it reached Florida, later became a Category 2 storm and then a tropical depression. Although the death toll statistics vary  and may change as recovery efforts progress, at least 12 U.S. deaths attributed to the hurricane have occurred since its downgraded status. So, Al Jazeera’s implication that 38 people died as a result of a Category 5 storm is misleading.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Links Hurricane Irma with climate change, perhaps implying Irma is a result of climate change?

The article cites the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, saying, “current speculation ‘on the cause and effect of [Irma] … is misplaced.’” The BBC’s own correspondent writes, “attributing a role to climate change in worsening the impact of hurricanes is … hard to tease out.” So why is the headline implying there’s a link?

Rearranged the data.

This is common in media: two or more things are said, and then a news outlet pieces them together, adding sensationalism. Pope Francis referenced a Psalm that says, “Man is stupid,” and also said, “Those who deny [climate change] must go to the scientists and ask them. They speak very clearly.” The Pope may be implying he believes those who doubt climate change are incorrect, but that’s different from claiming he “slams ‘stupid’ climate change deniers.”

Puts words in the Pope’s mouth.

According to the articles we analyzed, Pope Francis didn’t “slam” or even name Trump in his comments about climate change — some news outlets, such as Newsweek, linked the two.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Climate change is causing increasingly dangerous weather patterns, like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
  • People who object to climate change affecting hurricanes, or who object to climate change being a result of human activities are “deniers,” and are stupid.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • There are scientific models that indicate climate change may play a role in exacerbating weather patterns like hurricanes, but there are also models that suggest it’s too early to definitively tell if it’s a contributor. The latter view is largely omitted in the media.
  • People, including scientists, who object to those climate change arguments likely have a different set of assumptions or data. Instead of exploring what those perspectives may consist of, the media often furthers a social trend of invalidating, discrediting or dishonoring these individuals, and sometimes the news outlets that give them a platform, but no one’s talking about this. Here’s a recent example. Are these behaviors conducive to a critically thinking society, or even scientific thinking itself?

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

There’s an assumption in the coverage that climate change leads to hurricanes like those that recently affected the Caribbean, the U.S. and Mexico. As we noted in The Distortion, there are varying perspectives on the matter. Here’s a sample:

There have been two Category 4 and 5 hurricanes this year. Is this a trend?

Yes and no. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) 2016 report, last year’s Atlantic hurricane season “featured above normal activity,” with 15 tropical storms and seven hurricanes (of which four reached Category 3 or higher). The report said “the amount of activity was well above that seen during the 2013-2015 hurricane seasons.”

In 2012, the NOAA also noted “above average” storm activity with the formation of 19 tropical storms, of which 10 became hurricanes, and two of these were category 3 or higher.

When comparing 10-year averages prior to 2010, average storm and hurricane activity doesn’t show much of an increase, based on data compiled by The Weather Underground.

Is it correct to say climate change could cause hurricanes?

As put by Vox, “Climate change does not cause things, because climate change is not a causal agent. ‘Climate change’ is a descriptive term — it describes the fact that the climate is changing.” Yet, climate change, per the scientists below, appears to have increased sea levels, which lead to flooding and storm surges, and also appears to have increased water temperatures, which lead to more water vapor and rain.

Which studies suggest climate change could be a factor in the recent hurricanes?

A scientific paper by scientist Michael Mann and five other scientists said: “Some of the increase in extreme events can be explained by relatively straightforward thermodynamics, wherein modest shifts in mean temperature lead to increases in the frequency of heatwaves, or wherein rising temperatures favor more intense precipitation events via moist thermodynamics. However, a growing number of studies suggests that these mechanisms alone are not sufficiently explanatory, and more complex mechanisms may be involved as well in some (or many) of the recent strong or even unprecedented extremes. Explanations include changes in soil-moisture, changing tropical Pacific sea surface temperature, and the potential impact of rapid Arctic warming.”

In another scientific paper written by Mann and six other scientists, he says that the “observational record” (1851 to present) of tropical cyclones is “too short to accurately assess long-term trends in storm activity.”

In 2014, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier,” because it may “exacerbate many challenges.” Hagel said, for example, that climate change may affect how the military executes its missions. “Our coastal installations are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased flooding, while droughts, wildfires and more extreme temperatures could threaten many of our training activities,” he said. “Our supply chains could be impacted, and we will need to ensure our critical equipment works under more extreme weather conditions.”

What is the science suggesting climate change may not be a factor?

Hurricanes may be too complex a system to be able to point to a specific factor or set of conditions to explain their intensity or exactly when or why they form.

According to Climate Scientist Judith Curry, Hurricane Irma formed in cool waters (26.5C), which may suggest its impact was not related to climate change. Curry links to an article by the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GDFL), which says it’s “premature to conclude that human activities—and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming—have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity.”

The GDFL also says that human activities may have caused small changes that are not yet detectable, or may require better modeling. However, the GDFL also notes a likelihood that manmade “warming” over the next century may increase the occurrence of more “intense” hurricanes in some areas.

Why may it be problematic to say climate change leads to hurricanes?

In short: because it’s premature. As noted by GDFL above and the information cited below, it may be too early to know what effect, if any, climate change has had on recent hurricanes.

According to an article by Weather.com, it’s too early to know whether storms like Harvey and Irma are the result of climate change. Weather.com’s senior meteorologist Jonathan Erdman says, “It is very difficult to ascertain whether and to what extent Harvey and Irma would have happened without climate change. This takes examination of various factors by meteorologists and climate scientists.”

The same article quotes Dr. Suzana Camargo, a professor of Ocean and Climate Physics at Columbia University, discussing Harvey’s relation to climate change: “We can’t know for certain until we do attribution studies on [Harvey] … In the next few months, various modeling groups will certainly be doing attribution studies. So, we will probably have a more informed answer soon … It is not there yet.” Per Weather.com, “attribution studies” are research models that simulate a storm and then run different outcomes with and without greenhouse gases to see whether they affected the storm system.