In a major report [PDF] released late last month, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's leading authority on climate science, told us it was more certain than ever that humans are causing global warming. It also upgraded its projections for sea-level rise by the end of the century, and even broached the subject of climate change's irreversibility: We may already have done so much harm to the Earth that some of it can't be undone in our lifetimes, or even in the lifetimes of future generations as far out as most of us can imagine.
This, you might think, would be quite a media story. Yet instead, something funny happened on the way from the scientists' heads to the public's ears, and many journalists instead embraced a very different narrative -- in many ways, almost the opposite narrative. Global warming, they suggested, had "paused" or was slowing down. And scientists didn't really understand why.
How could this disconnect, this huge divergence of narratives, have happened? What follows is the story of a communications failure that is ultimately harmful to all of us. And it was brought on by combination of causes that, unfortunately, we've seen work together before to mar the communication of climate science: Misinformation from climate skeptics, false balance and just plain bad science reporting from much of the media, and to top it all off, poor communication by scientists themselves.