Lawrence Livermore Scientist Ben Santer Sees Benefits in ‘Proactive’ Approach to News Media

Physical and atmospheric scientist Benjamin D. Santer, of Lawrence Livermore, says he is taking a new “proactive” approach in dealing with news media.

Prior to having participated in several face-to-face workshops involving climate scientists and journalists over the past few years, Santer says his standard “mode of operation” had been to:

  • do the scientific research;
  • publish that research; and
  • deal with questions from journalists about the research.

With an increased understanding of time and space constraints facing many journalists, Santer recently told Yale Forum, “I learned that I could make it easier for journalists to report on our work (and hopefully improve the accuracy of the reporting on that work) by attempting to identify ‘common questions’ that journalists might want to ask.”

Concerned that increasingly demanding time constraints on reporters “can lead to errors in communication,” Santer has turned to brief and informal background papers as companion pieces to his more lengthy, and more technical, peer-reviewed papers.

Santer’s first foray into these companion documents involved a research report he and colleagues published in 2006 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS. That paper dealt with causes of ocean surface temperature changes in hurricane formation ranges. Given the paper’s logical connection to issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, Santer and his colleagues anticipated it might attract lots of media interest.

They weren’t disappointed, and he now says he and his science colleagues feel the brief companion paper they developed helped increase the accuracy of reporting on their work.

Santer is at it again. This time, he developed a comparable “plain English” two-page document as a “brief summary” for his September PNAS paper on “Identification of Human-Induced Changes in Atmospheric Moisture Content,” for which he was the principal researcher working with a cast of colleagues.

Santer’s original research in PNAS totals nearly 6,000 words, his summary just short of 600.

In it, Santer asks and self-answers five questions involving: the focus of the paper; what is climate “fingerprinting”; primary findings of the study; “larger implications” of the study; and why care about water vapor.

Santer writes in that piece – which he provided to his laboratory’s public affairs staff and also to reporters – that the research is “the first to use rigorous statistical ‘fingerprint’ methods to tackle the question of why water vapor has increased” in the atmosphere. Despite having only 19 years of data on observed water vapor, he wrote, “we were able to identify a ‘fingerprint’ of human activities.” He described the identification of a human influence in satellite-based water vapor records as “robust to current uncertainties in climate models” and said scientists can now distinguish contributions from different contributors to increased water vapor.

“In climate models,” he wrote, “this increase in water vapors was primarily due to human-caused increases in greenhouse gases …. there is an emerging signal of human activities in the moisture content of Earth’s atmosphere.”

Answering his own question about “larger implications” of the research, Santer said the research helps rebut criticisms aimed at earlier Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings of a “discernible human influence.”

“The thrust of the criticism was this,” Santer wrote:

If there really is a signal of human activities lurking in the climate system, it should be manifested in many different climate variables, and not in surface temperature alone.

“Our study helps to refute this criticism,” he wrote in his briefing paper, “and shows that we have now moved well beyond ‘temperature only’ fingerprint studies.”

Asked in a phone interview his reasons for thinking the briefing papers actually have some effect with media coverage, Santer told Yale Forum that “the proof is in the pudding.” He said follow-up calls from reporters had indicated their familiarity with his briefing paper, and not solely with his full research report.

He says he is confident that the concise companion pieces “have helped to minimize communication and reporting errors,” and he says he now sees them as a standard and essential part of his ongoing climate science research activities.


Santer’s Five Question Summary

(Full Paper is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Q1: What is the scientific focus of our PNAS paper?

Our paper looks at the causes of changes in the moisture content of
Earth’s atmosphere. Since the start of routine satellite-based
measurements of atmospheric water vapor in September 1987, atmospheric
moisture content has increased markedly. This increase had been noted in
previous scientific papers, and was prominently mentioned in the IPCC’s
Fourth Assessment Report. But the causes of the increase were not known.
Our investigation was the first to use rigorous statistical
“fingerprint” methods to tackle the question of why water vapor has
increased.

Q2: What is climate “fingerprinting”?

Basically, “fingerprinting” involves searching for a computer
model-predicted pattern of climate change (the “fingerprint”) in
observed climate records. Fingerprint techniques allow researchers to
examine a change in some property of the climate system and make
rigorous statistical tests of the different possible explanations for
that change.

Q3: What were the primary findings of our study?

Our key findings were as follows:

A) Despite the relatively short length (19 years) of the observed water
vapor data, we were able to identify a “fingerprint” of human activities
in this observational record.

B) Unlike most previous “fingerprint” work, our study used results from
virtually all of the world’s major climate models. We showed that our
identification of a human “fingerprint” in satellite-based water vapor
records was robust to current uncertainties in climate models.

C) The model results enabled us to “disentangle” the contributions of
different factors to the overall increase in water vapor. We found that
in climate models, this increase in water vapor was primarily due to
human-caused increases in greenhouse gases.

D) Bottom line: our results suggest that there is an emerging signal of
human activities in the moisture content of Earth’s atmosphere. The
climate system is telling us a consistent story. The observed changes in
temperature, moisture, and atmospheric circulation fit together in an
internally- and physically-consistent way.

Q4: Does our work have any larger implications?

I believe it does.

One persistent criticism of the “discernible human influence” findings
of previous IPCC assessments is that such conclusions were largely based
on “fingerprint” studies which relied heavily on surface temperature
changes. The thrust of the criticism was this:

“If there really is a signal of human activities lurking in the climate
system, it should be manifest in many different climate variables, and
not in surface temperature alone.”

Our study helps to refute this criticism, and shows that we have now
moved well beyond “temperature only” fingerprint studies.

Q5: Why should we care about the behavior of water vapor?

There are at least three reasons why we should pay attention to water
vapor. First, water vapor is itself a potent greenhouse gas, so it is
important to have a good understanding of the cause or causes of its
recent increase. Second, atmospheric moisture content is one of the
large-scale environmental conditions that influences the genesis and
development of hurricanes. In the absence of countervailing changes in
other factors, an increase in water vapor would favor the development of
more intense hurricanes. Finally, the observed increase in water vapor
provides independent evidence of the reality of warming of the lower
atmosphere. The observed water vapor increase since 1988 is consistent
with pronounced warming of the surface and lower atmosphere, but
fundamentally inconsistent with claims (still made by some die-hard
skeptics!) that the lower atmosphere has cooled over recent decades.

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