When the BBC passes on a climate change agitprop story doing the rounds of mainstream media, you might rightly suspect that the credibility bar is extremely low. But the notion that global ‘heating’ is behind a recent rise in U.S. Major League baseball (MLB) home runs had many fans in the legacy bleachers, including, needless to say, the Guardian.
The climate crisis is reported to be causing more home runs in baseball, noted the newspaper, citing recent research from a group of geographers at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The newspaper reported that global ’heating’ had led to an extra 58 home runs a year in the nine years up to 2019. In 77 years, by the end of the century, heating could lead to 10% more balls being hit out of the park.
Alas for the hypothesis, such crowd-pleasing moments only seem to apply to baseball in the major leagues. In the two AAA minor leagues and the NCAA college league, along with senior play in Japan, there are no rising trends. Across the board, home runs have declined in recent decades.
But the Guardian is never one to allow such inconvenient details to get in the way of the ‘settled’ climate narrative. Lead author Christopher Callahan is quoted as saying that at a certain point over the next two decades, it’s going to be unsafe to play baseball games in very high temperatures. Since temperatures across America have shown barely any warming since 2005, according to the U.S. weather service NOAA’s own specialist records, this scare seems somewhat alarmist. The Guardian helpfully tops up the doomsday factor by noting that baseball stadiums near water including Florida, California and New York “are vulnerable to risks such as rising sea levels and more intense hurricanes”.
Oddly, the Dartmouth paper claimed that “human-caused climate change decreased home runs between 1962 and 1995 and increased them thereafter”. But then, what would a modern climate scare story be without its hockey stick? In fact 77 years ago there were 1,215 home runs in MLB, with 16 teams each playing 154 games. Last year there were 4,000 more runs making 5,215 among 30 teams playing 162 games. In 2019, there were no less than 6,776 home runs recorded. Whatever the cause – climate change, global heating/cooling/pausing, take your pick – the recent totals amount to more than a 100% increase in home runs.
Of course, this story has some grounding in physics in that objects fly quicker through warmer, thinner air. The stretch occurs in applying this notion to some baseball grounds but not others. The economics professor and science writer Roger Pielke suggested that a more accurate reading of the paper’s conclusion is that “climate change is a tiny, even insignificant, factor in MLB home run trends, easily swamped by everything else that can effect home runs”. He noted that isolating a statistical relationship of temperature and home runs “does not allow for meaningful predictions or projections of future home runs”.
He added that climate research was “rife” with such studies and reporting. They confuse single-variable sensitivity analysis with meaningful projections – the effects of climate on crop yields is a textbook example of this, he noted. Pielke goes on to note that “no matter how you slice it”, even using the most extreme scenario, and taking the paper’s conclusions at face value, climate change is just not a big deal for home runs in baseball. In a memo that should be sent to the Guardian, he concludes: “And that should be O.K., as not everything has to be reduced to climate.”
For Pielke, the lesson of the baseball story is that we have created strong incentives in science, in the promotion of science and in journalism to reduce everything to climate. “If you are on the climate beat, you are certainly not going to be discussing steroids in baseball, seam size, humidor practices, or any of the other myriad factors related to home run production. The climate beat needs climate stories,” he observed. These incentives, he continued, help us to understand what gets published, promoted and clicked. They are “incredibly distorting” to both journalism and, increasingly, to research. “Baseball and climate might seem like a silly topic, but these dynamics can be found on far more important issues involving climate,” he added.
Chris Morrison is the Daily Sceptic’s Environment Editor.
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