30 September 2023

Investigation: Misleading blog in Germany fuels global climate change misinformation

The website downplays human influence on climate change through false interpretation of data from scientific research.

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A blog site titled ‘NoTricksZone’ has been actively publishing articles regarding climate-related phenomena since over a decade ago.

Its content, which ranges in topics from sea ice coverage to natural greenhouse gas emissions, all contributes towards a narrative that human activity does not have a significant influence on the climate and that climate policies are unnecessary.

Based on online traffic analysis, the Germany-based website has amassed over 240,000 visits in November alone. An affiliated Twitter account also has a reach of over 19,500 followers.

A majority of the published articles were written by two contributors – owner Pierre Gosselin and Kenneth Richard. Gosselin’s profile says he obtained civil and mechanical engineering degrees, while Richard does not have any background information about him on the website.

Repeat offender

Claims in NoTricksZone have been debunked by various fact-checking organizations in the past. American fact-checking website Media Bias / Fact Check determined the website to be a propagator of pseudoscience with little factual reporting.

In 2017, NoTricksZone was investigated by Snopes, after news network Breitbart used the website’s content in an article falsely claiming hundreds of published papers disproved global warming.

An article with claims pertaining to lack of change in sea level rise rates was also proven false by Climate Feedback, a worldwide scientist network that reviews the validity of climate change-related coverage.

Despite being called out by different fact-checkers, NoTricksZone continues to disseminate climate-based misinformation on both its website and social media.

Although Gosselin and Richard make use of legitimate scientific research papers in many of their claims, their conclusions are often distorted or misguided to support the view that climate change is not human-made.

Annie Lab took a further look into several major tactics used by the website to muddle genuine facts and increase the “credibility” of biased arguments.

Cherry-picking data

Many of the papers cited by NoTricksZone are published in international journals and are peer-reviewed. Even though the content of such sources is factual, the website only presents certain sections of the research that conform to the purported assertions of particular blog posts.

Screenshot of misleading article about Antarctica's alleged cooling
An article by NoTrickZone, which denies global warming, quotes two peer-reviewed studies.

On Sept. 27, for example, an article claimed two new studies have shown Antarctica cooling and sea ice extent increased for over 40 years.

The author included screenshots of the papers that seemingly support the claims against global warming.

Screenshot of Indian study provided by NoTricksZone.
Screenshot of Indian study provided by NoTricksZone.

Yet, the images do not present the respective studies accurately and seem to be deliberately incomplete instead.

The quotes found in screenshots come from different paragraphs of the study.
The quotes found in screenshots come from different paragraphs of the study.

Highlighted quotes from the study “Seasonal sea-ice variability and its trend in the Weddell Sea sector of West Antarctica” actually originate from different sections of the research paper.

When quoting the results overview, for example, only the first sentence “The result shows the expansion of SIE is 2.5 ± 3.5 × 103 km2 yr−1 in the Weddell Sea sector over the last four decades (1979–2019)” was included in the above screenshot (SIE refers to sea ice extent).

But NoTricksZone fails to disclose that sea-ice in the Weddell Sea sector experienced a rapid decline after 2015 by about 20%, an observation that is repeated in the study’s conclusion.

The second paragraph seen in the screenshot is also taken out of context.

NoTricksZone only highlighted the part “the overall SST trend in the Weddell Sea is negative… The negative trend of SST is associated with the presence of more sea-ice” and ignores the fact that the data is specific to autumn.

Changes in sea surface temperature (SST) differ from all four seasons and even from different parts of the Weddell Sea sector.

NoTricksZone only includes the abstract and an unrelated graph from a study in their screenshot.
NoTricksZone only includes the abstract and an unrelated graph from a study in their screenshot.

Similarly, NoTricksZone only included the abstract of the second paper “Inhomogeneity of the Surface Air Temperature Record from Halley, Antarctica” supposedly to show that there has been a cooling trend over the years.

However, the actual findings of the paper say otherwise.

“The author of the post incorrectly states that our paper reports that Antarctica is cooling. In fact, the paper shows that one of the few Antarctic locations that appeared to be cooling is, in fact, slightly warming once inhomogeneities in the record are taken into account,” John King, one of the researchers, told Annie Lab in an email on Dec.11.

The research was not designed to identify such a trend, according to King, but to understand how the relocations of the Halley station, without adjusting temperature data, affected the record. Data recorded from the Halley Research Station provides one of the longest temperature observations in Antarctica.

King said the record is a “composite of measurements from a sequence of stations that have operated at different times from slightly different locations, none more than 50 km apart.”

Halley, which is located on the Brunt Ice shelf, has been relocated to seven different parts of the shelf. Because it is situated on a floating ice shelf itself, the study said it moves to where the floating shelf goes to and has also to be relocated whenever it goes somewhere near the calving front of the ice shelf to prevent it from breaking off on an iceberg.

Since its establishment in 1957, other stations which have been built as part of the Halley Research Station include Halley stations I to VI-a.

Conclusion of the study titled ‘Inhomogeneity of the Surface Air Temperature Record from Halley, Antarctica’
Conclusion of the study titled ‘Inhomogeneity of the Surface Air Temperature Record from Halley, Antarctica’

When looking at the conclusion, the study suggests that relocations of Halley III to Halley IV in 1983 and Halley IV to Halley V in 1992 likely caused sudden cooling, which is an inhomogeneity large enough to change long-term trends calculated from such records.

The researchers concluded in the paper that “the composite Halley temperature record should not be used in long-term climatological analyses without careful consideration of its inhomogeneity.”

Splitting the temperature into segments for each station would yield warming trends but NoTricksZone ignored the inhomogeneity, the main findings of the research it quoted.

Deceptive data misrepresentation

Graphs included in the NoTricksZone article which show changes in CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentration.
Graphs included in the NoTricksZone article which show changes in CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentration.

Apart from cherry-picking sections from studies, NoTricksZone also makes use of complex data and phenomena to confuse readers into believing narratives against climate change.

The June 17 article citing the charts above supposedly shows that reduced carbon emissions from COVID lockdowns did not lower atmospheric CO2 levels.

It misleadingly said a study indicates, even though CO2 emissions declined by 0.75 GtC in 2020, atmospheric CO2 rose by over 2ppm (​​parts per million). CO2 emissions refer to carbon emissions, which cause climate change, while atmospheric CO2 refers to the level of carbon that is in the atmosphere.

However, the research in question actually focuses on the causality direction between CO2 concentration and temperature in general, not the impact of COVID-19 lockdown on CO2 emissions and CO2 concentration. This means the researchers wanted to determine if temperature change follows changes in carbon emissions or vice versa.

Effects of CO2 emissions are long term and there exists an average of a decade-long delay between an emission and temperature response. The current increase in concentration is most likely a response to previous factors, which means the effects of decreasing emissions in 2020 will not become clear until 2030 or beyond.

NoTricksZone downplays the effects of CO2 emissions through exaggerated phrasing of data.
NoTricksZone downplays the effects of CO2 emissions through exaggerated phrasing of data.

Additionally, NoTricksZone claims reduced aerosol pollution had greater effects on global warming than increasing CO2 emissions, quoting a study on solar irradiance in Europe. Radiative forcing is a known indicator of climate change and the effects of pollution reduction seem to be much larger on paper than that of CO2.

However, dismissing the impact of CO2 on climate change using data from the above study is also misleading.

The study, for one, was not about solar irradiance and climate change. It is about ascertaining what caused “record high” solar irradiance in Western Europe, whether this was due to reduced pollution from COVID-19 measures or other factors like having cloud-free weather.

The study found that the exceptionally dry and cloud-free weather was the primary contributor to the record-high irradiance, concluding that “the reduced aerosols and contrails due to the COVID-19 measures are far less important in the irradiance record.”

NoTricksZone misleadingly attributed the changes only to the latter factor, making the comparison to the impact caused by CO2 flawed.

Moreover, the “pollutive output” mentioned in the article is incomparable to CO2 in terms of how long-lasting its impact is on the environment. Jed Kaplan, who researches climate systems at the University of Hong Kong, says that recent studies suggest that radiative forcing caused by pollution is relatively minimal.

“Any effect of the reduction in concentrations of atmospheric aerosols and other pollutants appears to have had a very small and short-lived impact on climate,” Kaplan said.

Similar observations are made in other research on the extent of effects pollutants have on radiative forcing and climate change (here and here).

Creating correlations where there is none

Claims related to natural disasters and part of Boccard’s study found on the website.
Claims related to natural disasters and part of Boccard’s study found on the website.

A post on April 15 drew attention to a 2021 study on various types of risks in relation to natural disasters. The NoTricksZone article implies the decrease in death and property loss risk reflects less threats from natural disasters, and thus climate change in general.

But the website does not specify the link among climate change, disaster and risks.

According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, natural disaster risk, a measure of the potential impact of disasters on human society like loss of life or property damage, does not fully take into account increases in frequency or intensity of the disasters themselves, which is the major determinant of the impact of climate change on natural disasters.

The perception of risk to different groups of individuals also vary hugely due to non-environmental factors such as inequality and urbanization, the UN organization says.

In the study, the researcher acknowledges that the data of natural hazards was not comprehensive and “statistics generated out of these should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.”

Nicolas Boccard, the original author of the risk study, told Annie Lab that the research was not intended to prove a correlation between global warming and disaster risk and that the factors causing decreases in risk are a complex issue.

“The fact remains that almost everywhere and for most risks, governments have managed to reduce the risk their citizens face with regards to extreme weather events. Although assets and people at risk are more numerous, wealth has grown faster, allowing us to pay for more effective protection, whether in the Bay of Bengal or Switzerland,” he said.

The NoTricksZone article further mentions the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and questions its method of assessing the risks.

While deeming the method “non-scientific,” NoTricksZone still cites the 2012 special report by IPCC, “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation,” that expressed uncertainty about the increases of extreme disasters, presumably to indicate the frequency and severity of some natural disasters such as cyclones and tornadoes may not be increasing on a global scale.

However, the same report also explains that extreme events are rare, and therefore, there is not enough data to assess the changes in frequency or intensity.

The report explicitly writes, “assigning ‘low confidence’ in observed changes in a specific extreme on regional or global scales neither implies nor excludes the possibility of changes in this extreme.”

The post also refers to a 2009 study by Indar Goklany that states “morbidity and mortality attributed to them [extreme weather events] has declined globally by 93%–98% since the 1920s.”

However, the statistics do not indicate whether the frequency or intensity of extreme weather has been decreasing or not.

More recent research released in August 2021 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) shows that deaths from weather-related disasters declined “almost threefold from 1970 to 2019” as well, but it explains that this was because of better disaster management and early warning systems, not because climate change has no link to extreme weather events.

In fact, a report titled “WMO Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes (1970 – 2019)” specifically says that climate change has “increased extreme sea level events associated with some tropical cyclones, consequently increasing intensity of other extreme events such as flooding and associated impacts.”

Other extreme weather events attributed to climate change in the report include heatwaves, extreme rainfall and drought.

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