Monday, September 28, 2009

Do reporters actually read these reports?

The Science section of the CNN index page (archived here) links to a story today about about a report by the Economics of Climate Adaptation Working Group. The title on CNN's link says, "Report blames warming for 800K deaths." The story itself opens with
The last fifty years have borne witness to a spate of climate related disasters across the world causing over 800,000 fatalities and $1 trillion in economic loss.

Those stark facts come from the Economics of Climate Adaptation (ECA) Working Group, a group of NGOs and corporations that has produced a report warning that if countries do not take active steps to build resilience to climate change soon, they are likely to suffer even larger economic losses in the coming decades.

According to the ECA report published on September 14, climate catastrophes have risen in direct proportion to global temperatures over the last several years.
The report does indeed list those figures, but the CNN story misinterprets them. First of all, the 800,000 deaths and $1 trillion in damages come from all weather-related natural disasters. Unlike the CNN story, the ECA is careful to avoid describing these as "climate-related" consequences but rather uses the figures to indicate how vulnerable countries are. Indeed, the report states (p. 20)
Many economies, then, are susceptible to significant damage from today’s climate – even without factoring in the possible future impacts of climate change and the potential growth of populations and asset value in vulnerable locations. Unfortunately, these factors could well heighten the vulnerability of many countries and regions.
Worse, the CNN story misses a key consideration in the ECA report. In particular, the ECA report emphasizes how population growth and development make the world more vulnerable to weather disasters.
By multiplying the overall pool of population and economic value, this pattern of growth increases the scale of losses from weather and climate. In many cases it has also heightened humankind’s vulnerability to the weather, for example by increasing population and value concentrations in coastal cities, and by degrading natural systems that historically have absorbed some extreme weather. Most of the increase in loss from weather disasters over the past two decades can be attributed to socio-economic factors.
Read the last sentence in that quote again and try to figure out how CNN came to the conclusion that climate changes caused the losses.

The misreporting by CNN is a shame. It detracts from an important story about how climate change may cause significant and unequally distributed economic hardship in the future. It also detracts from an analysis of how countries and communities can adapt their development policies to minimize the consequences of climate change.

What CNN should have reported are the actual conclusions of the report, which are
  • although the exact local consequences of global warming are uncertain, we know enough about the potential consequences that we can plan precautions;

  • the potential harms of global warming are enormous; of the eight countries the ECA studied, it found that likely economic losses would range from 1 to 12 percent of GDP by 2030 with much worse outcomes being possible;

  • many cost-effective precaution and adaptation measures are available; and

  • the adaptation measures can strengthen economic development in any case.
The report should be read by national and local governments, including Greensboro's.