Conservative media are grossly distorting a recent study on aerosols' climate impact as a “death blow to global warming hysteria.” But the study's author himself stated in response that his research does not contradict the scientific consensus on global warming.
A recent study provided new estimates for the rate at which aerosols -- tiny particles of matter suspended in the atmosphere -- deflect the sun's rays, measuring what is known as aerosol "radiative forcing." The study from Germany's Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, which analyzed data from 1850 to 1950, found that the level of radiative forcing from aerosols is “less negative” than commonly believed, suggesting that aerosols do not cool the atmosphere as much as previously thought.
According to right-wing media, the study represents a “death blow to global warming hysteria.” The reasoning behind the claim, which originated in a Cato Institute blog post, is that climate models rely on aerosols to offset much of the projected greenhouse gas effect from carbon dioxide. So if aerosols offset less warming than commonly believed, Cato claims “the amount of greenhouse gas-induced warming must also be less” and “we should expect less warming from future greenhouse gas emissions than climate models are projecting.” The Cato blog post was picked up by the Daily Caller, American Thinker, Alex Jones' Infowars, Investors' Business Daily, and Rush Limbaugh. Daily Caller even claimed that the recent study directly disputes the scientific findings of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, writing: “Basically, the IPCC says aerosols deflect a lot of warming -- the opposite of the Max Planck study's finding.”
But the study does nothing to dispute the scientific consensus on global warming, according to the study's author himself. In response to media outlets using his study to make inference's about the climate's sensitivity to carbon dioxide, climate scientist Bjorn Stevens published a statement on the Max Planck Institute's website, debunking the notion that human-induced climate change is “called into question” by his study. He also wrote that his estimates of aerosol radiative forcing are “within the range” of the IPCC's previous findings (which he actually co-authored), and that “I continue to believe that warming of Earth's surface temperatures from rising concentrations of greenhouse gases carries risks that society must take seriously.” From Stevens' statement:
Others have used my findings to suggest that Earth's surface temperatures are rather insensitive to the concentration of atmospheric CO2. I do not believe that my work supports these suggestions, or inferences.
[E]ven a warming of only 2ºC from a doubling of CO2 poses considerable risks for society. Many scientists (myself included) believe that a warming of more than 2ºC from a doubling of the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide is consistent with both my new study and our best understanding.
So contrary to some reports that have appeared in the media, anthropogenic climate change is not called into question by my study. I continue to believe that warming of Earth's surface temperatures from rising concentrations of greenhouse gases carries risks that society must take seriously, even if we are lucky and (as my work seems to suggest) the most catastrophic warming scenarios are a bit less likely.
Unsurprisingly, none of the right-wing outlets contacted Stevens before promoting his report as a “death blow” to climate science, which Stevens confirmed in an email to Media Matters. Instead, they relied on the dubious claims of climate-denying bloggers who distort science to fit their agenda, without bothering to understand the science itself.
This is not the first time right-wing media have distorted a scientist's research to fit their narrative that global warming is nothing to worry about. One outlet that has been particularly guilty of misrepresenting science is the Daily Caller, whose flubs have been debunked by scientists time and time again, for journalistic malpractice such as "cherry picking" numbers to claim that penguins aren't being harmed by climate change and publishing "a complete distortion" of a study in order to claim that global warming is “increasing biodiversity.”