Drought and dry soil are not the same, despite The Verge’s fearmongering

October 20, 2022

By Tim Worstall

We do know that the American press is hand-picked from those who know how to write – we did, however, think that this might include the ability to read as well. There goes another of our illusions busted.

The Verge tells us this in a piece headlined, “Climate change made drought 20 times worse this year, and there’s no relief in sight.”

One of the little secrets of journalism is that the folks who write the piece usually aren’t the same as the folks who write the headline. So, in the text, we get something closer to the truth – the truth of the report that is, not the actual one – in this:

“Those disastrous summer drought across the Northern Hemisphere were made 20 times more likely because of human-induced climate change…”

Not really. Even so, we can already see that there’s a vast difference between 20 times worse and 20 times more likely. The likelihood of my breaking a plate while doing the dishes is not the same as the probability of my breaking 20 plates while doing so. Twenty times the first doesn’t lead to the second, either.

The thing is, this is laid out in the paper The Verge is quoting from:

“For the Northern Hemisphere extratropics, human-induced climate change made the observed soil moisture drought much more likely, by a factor of at least 20 for the root zone soil moisture and at least 5 for the surface soil moisture…”

No, they’ve not said the drought is 20 times – or even five times – more likely as a result of climate change. Nor have they said disastrous nor anything like that. What they have said is that drier soil is 20 times more likely as a result of climate change.

Yes, this is something different. Dry soil can be dealt with by irrigation, by changing the crop planted (some require less water), by changing the cultivar (different types of the same plant work better or worse with different amounts of water), and so on and so on.

Dry soil is a very different thing from drought.

The Verge ranks around No. 50 in news and media publishers in the U.S., with 40 million visits a month. It at least attempts to appeal to the technically and scientifically minded, which is one of the things that makes this elision across meanings so annoying.

As we’ve remarked recently it’s a significant problem when statistics get shaped in the course of a narrative. Because the end result of what people believe becomes shaped by that very shaping. It isn’t true that “science says the drought is 20 times worse because climate change.” So why say so?


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