Heat over the hottest year

The complainant, Ron Richards, questioned reporting claims from NASA and NOAA that 2014 was the hottest year on record. He called it propaganda and had serious issues with the methodology and data used. His concerns were unfounded. Climate change is a reality and what reputable agencies have to say about it is worth reporting.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to say you were “shocked” that the CBC reported on News Network “claims made by NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that 2014 was the hottest year since 1880. You said that the reporter should not have stated it was the warmest year without also mentioning that by NASA’s own admission, the probability of it being so was only 38%. You questioned why, if the probability was so low, the report didn’t point out that there was a 62% chance that 2014 was not a record setting year. You also said that the claim is based on a single data set and that it was contaminated by many factors. You added:

I don't believe the publically funded CBC is allowed to push US government funded lies, and misinform its viewership. The CBC should be made to reiterate the story, and point out the obvious flaws. This should be done for several days so that the viewership will not miss the CBC clearing up the lies they have been fed.

In subsequent emails, you articulated other questions and flaws you see in the methodology. You further explained that you were not denying there was global warming, but you thought its impact is overstated:

The problem is this warming is exaggerated, the ramifications of it are exaggerated, and stories like the hottest year on record are scientifically meaningless propaganda meant to further the agenda of special interests groups, by deceiving the public.

You reiterated this point in another email:

I know there is a lot of hype around this issue, and the issue is rife with false claims. Please do not be fooled. I understand that there is a claimed consensus on this matter. However, all of the so called 97% consensus papers have been conclusively refuted in the peer review.

I am tired of seeing unfounded alarmism, and false claims on the CBC, which my tax dollars pay for. It is clearly propagandistic for them to leave out specific information, to lead the public to untenable conclusions.

You expanded on some of your other concerns as well: that NASA and NOAA share the same raw data, and they use the same method to adjust the data. The NASA data is actually based on data gathered by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. You pointed to a blogger who said he had proof that GISS fudged data from its reporting stations in Paraguay. You felt that both the methods used to adjust for the “urban island effect”, the quality of the reporting stations, and the way the data is manipulated also undermined the credibility of the data and its interpretation. You said that satellite data did not agree with the NOAA and NASA data.

You emphasized that the 32% probability figure made the whole announcement meaningless:

A couple of final things to clear up. In Ms. Harwood's response she alludes that a 38% confidence integer does not mean that there is a 62% likelihood that 2014 was not the warmest year. This is nonsense.

For something to be considered statistically significant it must show at least a sigma 3 probability that the evidence fits the conclusion. A sigma 3 probability calculates to a 99.7% probability. Taking the Higgs Boson discovery at CERN for example, they found a sigma 5 probability.

http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/143497-cern-now-99-999999999-sure-it-has-found-the-higgs-boson

It does not matter how you slice it. I does not matter that it was divided up between years. A 38% confidence integer leaves a 62% probability that 2014 was not a record year.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of CBC News Network, Jennifer Harwood, replied to your concerns. She wondered if you had misunderstood the story.

She explained News Network reported the findings released that day from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and NOAA which said that in two separate analyses of surface temperature measurements, they found that 2014 was the hottest year recorded since 1880. She said both News Network and CBC News online reported the story. She pointed out that the online story also included some of the criticisms of the report.

She told you that NASA scientists dealt with the issue of probabilities in a longer news briefing the same day the data was released:

Science rests on uncertainty. While the analysis indicates that 2014 is empirically the hottest year, the scientists acknowledge that there are uncertainties in the data set. Nevertheless, after considering those uncertainties, they have calculated that compared to the other hot years, 2014 was probably the warmest year on record – the overwhelming favourite, as it were, of both agencies.

However, some climate change sceptics appeared to interpret these numbers as casting doubt on the overall analysis – scientists are only 38 percent sure – which is unwarranted. The scientist who heads up the NASA-GISS explained the probability issue this way:

“In both [the NASA and NOAA] analyses, the values for 2014 are the warmest, but are statistically close to that of 2010 and 2005. In the NOAA analysis, 2014 is a record by about 0.04°C, while the difference in the [NASA-GISS] record was 0.02°C. Given the uncertainties, we estimated the likelihood that this means 2014 was in fact the planet’s warmest year since 1880.”

Although both agencies concluded that 2014 was in all probability the warmest, they emphasized the broader point that 9 of the 10 hottest years in NOAA’s global records have occurred since 2000 and that both 2005 and 2010 broke records as the hottest years. While information on probabilities informs the scientific content and adds detail, it does not alter the conclusion.

She acknowledged you disagree with the conclusion of the two scientific agencies, but she pointed out that does not make the reports they are based on “lies.” She pointed out that CBC News Network accurately reported on the story, leaving members of the public to “make their own judgment about its reliability.”

REVIEW

CBC News Standards call for accurate presentation of information, with attention to a range of views, based on their relevance. CBC journalists are also called on to present it impartially, using “professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” The policy goes on to say: “We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

You start from some very particular premises: that the science produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is part of NASA, is “government funded lies” and “propaganda.” Further, you dismiss claims that there is a “claimed consensus on this matter.” You dismiss the 97% peer reviewed literature by climate scientists. That does not mean that journalists are obliged to agree with you. If anything, while they always need to ask hard questions, they also educate themselves and draw conclusions because of it. In the face of overwhelming credible scientific evidence, in the light of data from other sources – Japanese Meteorological Agency and Berkeley Earth, an independent agency created to deal with skepticism about climate change, it would be wrong for journalists to provide undue attention to other alternate views. There is room for discussion about impacts, and certainly the need for a broad range of views on how to fix it, but to treat the trend and reality of global warming as something that requires some kind of balance would be a false equivalence, something I have written about many times before.

There was nothing wrong with News Network doing a brief report on what two reputable scientific agencies had stated that day. It presented the facts in a news release, and not much more. It may not be the highest form of journalism, but it is not a violation of policy. It is also not unexpected in a live all-news format. CBC News took on some of the more substantive issues, provided context and presented some of the objections in a more in depth piece on its web site in a piece entitled: “2014 was hottest year in modern record”.

You have a point that agencies and institutions know that journalists love superlatives, and they are likely to pay more attention if data can be presented in this fashion. But has there been a hoodwinking here that significantly alters the reality of the trend of a warming world? Was there inaccurate reporting? The answer from credible and multiple sources is it is acceptable. Once again, the Berkeley Earth did their own analysis of the 2014 data. Here is what they had to say:

Berkeley Earth has constructed an estimate of the global average temperature during 2014, including land and sea. The key findings are:

1. The global surface temperature average (land and sea) for 2014 was nominally the warmest since the global instrumental record began in 1850; however, within the margin of error, it is tied with 2005 and 2010 and so we can’t be certain it set a new record.

2. For the land, 2014 was nominally the 4th warmest year since 1753 (when the land surface temperature record began)

3. For the sea, 2014 was the warmest year on record since 1850

4. For the contiguous United States, 2014 ranked nominally as the 38th warmest year on record since 1850.

The Berkeley study overall mirrors the data you question from NASA and NOAA, and they base their findings on many data sets.

A physicist and professor at the University of Toronto involved in atmospheric measurements told me that every measurement technique has its pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses and its specific characteristics, and scientists take this into consideration. The satellite data, which measures temperature at various levels of the atmosphere are not inconsistent with surface temperature analysis. For example, you would expect the stratosphere to cool because the heat is trapped lower in the atmosphere. Once again, credible climate scientists do not share your concern about the quality of the data or its analysis. There may be different results in absolute numbers but the trends are all telling the same story.

On the website RealClimate, created by and contributed to by an array of climate scientists to deal with the skepticism and criticisms of climate change, some of the issues you raised were addressed in some detail. The site describes itself this way:

RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists. We aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary. The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.

In response to some of the questions about the 2014 NASA and NOAA releases, Gavin Schmidt wrote an extensive explanation. According to the site, Schmidt is “a climate modeller at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York and is interested in modeling past, present and future climate.” In his piece on RealClimate, he acknowledges that “records are bigger stories than trends.” He addresses the question of the models and data used:

Odds and statistics, and odd statistics

Analyses of global temperatures are of course based on a statistical model that ingests imperfect data and has uncertainties due to spatial sampling, inhomogeneities of records (for multiple reasons), errors in transcription etc. Monthly and annual values are therefore subject to some (non-trivial) uncertainty. The HadCRUT4 dataset has, I think, the best treatment of the uncertainties (creating multiple estimates based on a Monte Carlo treatment of input data uncertainties and methodological choices). The Berkeley Earth project also estimates a structural uncertainty based on non-overlapping subsets of raw data. These both suggest that current uncertainties on the annual mean data point are around ±0.05ºC (1 sigma) [Update: the Berkeley Earth estimate is actually half that]. Using those estimates, and assuming that the uncertainties are uncorrelated for year to year (not strictly valid for spatial undersampling, but this gives a conservative estimate), one can estimate the odds of 2014 being a record year, or of beating 2010 – the previous record. This was done by both NOAA and NASA and presented at the press briefing (see slide 5).

He goes on to address in some detail issues and challenges to the modelling and why it is reasonable to say 2014 is the hottest year ever. I asked CBC’s Senior Head of Research to look at the numbers. Andre Turcotte has a PhD in political behavior from University of Toronto and has taught statistics at Carleton University. In his words:

The analysis tried to model out the uncertainty to detect any anomalies in the trend line. This increases the level of confidence in the data.

The level of confidence in stating that the year was the warmest ranges from 38% to 48% depending on the analysis. That’s the level of confidence we have in the claim. It is not the same thing to say that we are between 62% and 52% (the flip side of 38-48%) confident that the year was not the warmest.

Moreover, the studies make the claim that 2014 was the warmest based on the trend - not simply on that particular datapoint for 2014. It concludes that the odds for 2014 to be an anomaly in the trend and therefore NOT the warmest on record are “mind-bogglingly” high. The odds are 1.7, 27 or 650 million to 1. Not absolute certainty but a level of comfort that should warrant the publication of the study.

At the end of the day though, your caution, if not your reasons for it, makes sense – it is important to look at the trends and what the data are telling us. It is the big picture that matters. Gavin Schmidt, the Goddard scientist concluded his article this way:

The excitement (and backlash) over these annual numbers provides a window into some of problems in the public discourse on climate. A lot of energy and attention is focused on issues with little relevance to actual decision-making and with no particular implications for deeper understanding of the climate system. In my opinion, the long-term trends or the expected sequence of records are far more important than whether any single year is a record or not. Nonetheless, the records were topped this year, and the interest this generated is something worth writing about.

My job as Ombudsman is not to become an expert on statistical modelling, but to assess whether CBC journalists have provided information in a way that conforms to its own standards and practices. There was nothing inherently wrong in reporting the statements from two respected and reputable scientific organizations. CBC journalists have an obligation to provide a range of views over time and across its services. I already noted that there was more depth to a story at CBCNews.ca. I note The Exchange with Amanda Lang featured a discussion in the light of this finding between two individuals. Both of them acknowledged the reality of climate change. They differed on what the strategies should be to deal with it, and one of them thought the impact was overstated. In focusing its attention on the consensus science, CBC journalists are conforming to their code.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman