Beware straw man climate science

Much of the climate change debate is overtaken by straw man science, which tells us more about the agendas of journalists, op-ed writers, bloggers and think tanks than it does about science.

The Conversation

Straw man: an argument, claim or opponent which is invented in order to defeat or create an argument.

Climate change is controversial and much debated in the media. But did you know much of the debate is about straw man climate science?

Straw man climate science is like real climate science, but with the science, awkward facts and complexity removed.

It can be confusing. Straw man and actual climate science appear in the same articles and interviews. Editors drop the words “straw man” from articles. Some people even confuse straw man and actual climate science.

So let’s take a look at straw man climate science in action.

How much?

We have increased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by 40 per cent since the 1800s. How does straw man climate science deal with this?

“And I can’t recall the number of times I have said, and it is uncontested, that human beings produce 3 per cent of the carbon dioxide in the air.”, Alan Jones, 2GB, 19 October 2012

We produce a modest percentage of all CO2 emissions. But the extra emissions aren’t absorbed by the carbon cycle, so CO2 builds up in the air. A small rise each year has resulted in a 40 per cent increase of CO2.

An error of omission on emissions.

Straw man climate science confuses the percentage of CO2 emissions we produce with the percentage of CO2 in the air we are responsible for. A big problem is hidden with a comforting number.


There is plenty of evidence that CO2 will influence climate. Lab measurements show different gases have very different properties. CO2, water vapour and methane are far more effective greenhouse gases than nitrogen and oxygen.

Scientists have measured how CO2 blocks infrared light in the atmosphere, using satellites looking down and telescopes looking up. Climate models with and without anthropogenic CO2 emissions can be compared with observations.

The evidence points to increasing CO2 causing climate change.

What does straw man say?

“And of course carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant. It’s a harmless trace gas that’s necessary for life”, Alan Jones, 2GB, 15 March 2011

Jones has delivered a one-two punch of non-sequiturs.

Are Jones' statements relevant to the lab results? Are they relevant to satellite and telescope measurements of the atmosphere? Do they have any relevance to CO2 and climate change? No, no and no.

Steady as she goes?

Earth’s climate is complex. It is influenced by the sun, volcanoes, CO2 and more. Consequently there are variations from year-to-year.

Now for the straw man:

“Last year was the sixth coldest since 1997, which shows the catastrophic scenarios of recent times are no longer looming over us.”, Imre Salusinszky, The Australian, 11 January 2012

Salusinszky is ignoring real world complexity. Scientists never predicted a perfectly steady rise in temperature. Years that are slightly cooler than our hottest decade are no surprise.

CO2 will produce a warmer climate, but CO2 won’t switch off variability. Suggesting otherwise is ignorant or deceptive.

Down down?

Seas are rising, but complexity lurks. Changing rainfall patterns make sea levels temporarily dip when there is a switch from El Niño to La Niña.

What was The Australian’s headline?

“Sea Level Fall Defies Climate Warnings”, The Australian, 29 September 2012

Straw man climate science ignoring variability again. The dip’s cause and temporary nature were predictable. The fall stopped in March 2011, and was followed by a rapid rise.

Sea levels have risen over decades, but brief dips in sea level do occur. CSIRO

The Australian’s headline doesn’t match the science. The headline only matches the introduction to Graham Lloyd’s article, and is at odds with the experts he interviewed. Straw man climate science is often practised by journalists, not scientists.

Storm in a tea cup?

Anyone who has been to Cairns and Melbourne knows climate varies from place to place.

Even at the same latitude, climate can be radically different.

Climate change varies from place to place too. Rainfall will rise in one place and drop in another. Around Australia temperatures and seas are rising at varying rates.

Let’s check in with the straw man:

“And, we’ve had a record Arctic melt. But better not mention the storm that NASA concedes broke the ice up and drove it south, or the record Antarctic ice gain.” Maurice L. Newman, The Australian, 5 November 2012

Polar temperatures are rising, but sea ice is more complicated than ice melting in your G&T. Prevailing winds play an important role. The Arctic and Antarctic are very different places. The Arctic is a sea surrounded by continents while the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by sea.

These two records are a cause for concern, not relief. They don’t cast doubt on rising global temperatures. Instead, they remind us that rising global temperatures have different consequences around the globe.


2012 was a record low for Arctic sea ice. NOAA.

Let’s look closer at Newman’s reporting on sea ice. The Arctic sea ice is clearly at record lows for months while the Antarctic sea ice is far closer to the average. Globally sea ice is declining. Errors of omission by Newman.


Antarctic sea ice was not much higher than the average in 2012. NOAA.

What about the storm? This is a red herring. The storm was in August but the Arctic sea ice was tracking record lows in July. Also, a dramatic low in Arctic sea ice cannot be produced by just one storm. Oops, more errors of omission.


“No consensus among climate scientists after all”, The Australian, 14 October 2010

Scientific consensus is often demanded for policy making. But it should not be confused with 100 per cent agreement.

Vocal minorities will never accept the evidence. A handful of biologists don’t accept evolution. A handful of astronomers think there was no Big Bang. A handful of climate scientists say there is no such thing as anthropogenic climate change.

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists, peer reviewed papers and scientific organisations have concluded anthropogenic climate change is real. This is scientific consensus.

But isn’t science never settled? Yes. But apples won’t start falling up because we don’t understand quantum gravity. Global warming won’t stop because we don’t know if temperatures will rise 2, 3 or 4 degrees Celsius.

We don’t know exactly how climate will change, but we know it is changing and will continue to do so.

What is it?

So what is straw man climate science?

Straw man climate science marries facts with errors of omission. Comforting numbers are presented with logical fallacies. Any uncertainty is confused with complete uncertainty. Uncertainty about “how” is confused with uncertainty about “if”. Dissent by a tiny minority is confused with a lack of scientific consensus.

Straw man climate science ignores real world complexity. Variations from year-to-year and place-to-place are assumed to undermine the case for anthropogenic climate change. This is just plain wrong.

Straw man climate science is rarely the work of climate scientists. Usually it is the work of journalists, op-ed writers, bloggers and think tanks. Straw man climate science tells us more about their agendas than it does about science.

Michael J I Brown is an ARC Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Monash University.

This article was originally published by The Conversation. Republished with permission.

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