The guardians of Wikipedia's climate change page

The guardians of Wikipedia's climate page An intensely devoted core keeps a bastion of climate science honest by Mark Kaufman Moving forward requires focus. Mashable’s Social Good Series is dedicated to exploring pathways to a greater good by spotlighting issues that are essential to making the world a better place. *** Femke Nijsse, a climate researcher, made her first Wikipedia edit seven years ago. In 2018, she started editing Wikipedia’s English climate change webpage. Since then, she’s grown increasingly obsessed. "I slowly got more addicted," said Nijsse, who recently submitted a Ph.D. thesis in mathematics at the University of Exeter’s climate systems group. Nijsse has become the de facto leader (but certainly not ruler) of a small, impressively devoted group of current editors to Wikipedia’s climate change page. The article is either one of the first, or first, results that appear when one searches the web for "climate change" or "global warming," resulting in over 6 million views in 2019 (this doesn’t include 135 other "climate change" pages written in different languages). It’s a hugely visible source of meticulously-vetted climate information, during a time when scientific misinformation spreads on the web like a furious 21st century California wildfire. The climate article, with hundreds of credible citations, counters the stereotype that publicly-policed, collaboratively-edited Wikipedia pages are inherently unreliable (though the quality and accuracy of Wikipedia projects certainly vary considerably and shouldn’t be one’s sole source of information). The seven-person core now editing the Wikipedia page (though others certainly contribute!), four of whom spoke with Mashable, seeks to make climate science graspable and available to everyone. The group has no tolerance for unsubstantiated facts or biased sources. "I'm an engineer by training and profession, and have taken a special interest in communicating the basic facts and consensus about global warming and climate change, largely because of the ghastly ignorance and manipulative politicizing I have seen on Fox News and by the U.S. president," said a Wikipedia editor who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. (They’ll be referenced as “anonymous editor.") The San Francisco sky on Sept. 9, 2020, amid California's record-breaking fire season. Max Geller | Getty Images The consensus among climate scientists, that humans are driving significant climate change, is robust, if not overwhelming, though some powerful politicians claim (without evidence) there’s a genuine academic debate about what’s driving Earth’s current warming. The Wikipedia climate page distills the foundations of today’s climate science, often citing comprehensive climate reports produced by hundreds of scientists, like the congressionally mandated U.S. Climate Assessment (produced by over 300 experts) and reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (whose Fifth Assessment Report included 831 experts from around the globe). Maintaining, editing, and improving the climate change page is thankless, unpaid work. And it never ends. Each year, more heat-trapping greenhouse gases saturate the atmosphere. More climate impacts must be updated, more research assessed, and more facts refined. "There’s so much to be done and so few editors," said Nijsse. After working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 35 years, David Tetta retired, moved to California, and suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. While reading Wikipedia’s climate change page in 2019, he grew concerned about the quality of the article. "So I decided to start editing it," said Tetta. "It turns out it's a lot of work." That’s an understatement. "You need to know the information," emphasized Tetta. "I read around 100 pages of information to edit one sentence, or to significantly change a sentence or two." And Tetta isn’t just editing sentences. He rewrote an entire section of the page, the "Mitigation" section (meaning how to reduce or limit the impacts of planetary warming). Tetta estimated he spent 90 hours doing that, which included reading 3,000 pages of research. With such a profound commitment, the writing, though not attributed to or owned by him, becomes a momentous, compelling achievement. "Once you have skin in the game, you feel like it’s your work," said Tetta. In just over a year working on the climate change page, the anonymous editor says they have spent hundreds of hours editing the page and collaborating on the article's graphics. The page's visualizations show the ocean’s relentlessly rising temperature, skyrocketing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and beyond. A NASA graphic that editors chose for the Wikipedia climate change page. NASA | Wikimedia The page’s lack of important information about the different sources of carbon emissions, which keep rising eac

The guardians of Wikipedia's climate change page

The guardians of Wikipedia's climate page

An intensely devoted core keeps a bastion of climate science honest

by Mark Kaufman


Moving forward requires focus. Mashable’s Social Good Series is dedicated to exploring pathways to a greater good by spotlighting issues that are essential to making the world a better place.

***

Femke Nijsse, a climate researcher, made her first Wikipedia edit seven years ago. In 2018, she started editing Wikipedia’s English climate change webpage. Since then, she’s grown increasingly obsessed.

"I slowly got more addicted," said Nijsse, who recently submitted a Ph.D. thesis in mathematics at the University of Exeter’s climate systems group.

Nijsse has become the de facto leader (but certainly not ruler) of a small, impressively devoted group of current editors to Wikipedia’s climate change page. The article is either one of the first, or first, results that appear when one searches the web for "climate change" or "global warming," resulting in over 6 million views in 2019 (this doesn’t include 135 other "climate change" pages written in different languages). It’s a hugely visible source of meticulously-vetted climate information, during a time when scientific misinformation spreads on the web like a furious 21st century California wildfire. The climate article, with hundreds of credible citations, counters the stereotype that publicly-policed, collaboratively-edited Wikipedia pages are inherently unreliable (though the quality and accuracy of Wikipedia projects certainly vary considerably and shouldn’t be one’s sole source of information).

The seven-person core now editing the Wikipedia page (though others certainly contribute!), four of whom spoke with Mashable, seeks to make climate science graspable and available to everyone. The group has no tolerance for unsubstantiated facts or biased sources.

"I'm an engineer by training and profession, and have taken a special interest in communicating the basic facts and consensus about global warming and climate change, largely because of the ghastly ignorance and manipulative politicizing I have seen on Fox News and by the U.S. president," said a Wikipedia editor who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. (They’ll be referenced as “anonymous editor.")

The San Francisco sky on Sept. 9, 2020, amid California's record-breaking fire season.

Max Geller | Getty Images

The consensus among climate scientists, that humans are driving significant climate change, is robust, if not overwhelming, though some powerful politicians claim (without evidence) there’s a genuine academic debate about what’s driving Earth’s current warming. The Wikipedia climate page distills the foundations of today’s climate science, often citing comprehensive climate reports produced by hundreds of scientists, like the congressionally mandated U.S. Climate Assessment (produced by over 300 experts) and reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (whose Fifth Assessment Report included 831 experts from around the globe).

Maintaining, editing, and improving the climate change page is thankless, unpaid work. And it never ends. Each year, more heat-trapping greenhouse gases saturate the atmosphere. More climate impacts must be updated, more research assessed, and more facts refined.

"There’s so much to be done and so few editors," said Nijsse.

After working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 35 years, David Tetta retired, moved to California, and suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. While reading Wikipedia’s climate change page in 2019, he grew concerned about the quality of the article.

"So I decided to start editing it," said Tetta. "It turns out it's a lot of work."

That’s an understatement.

"You need to know the information," emphasized Tetta. "I read around 100 pages of information to edit one sentence, or to significantly change a sentence or two." And Tetta isn’t just editing sentences. He rewrote an entire section of the page, the "Mitigation" section (meaning how to reduce or limit the impacts of planetary warming). Tetta estimated he spent 90 hours doing that, which included reading 3,000 pages of research.

With such a profound commitment, the writing, though not attributed to or owned by him, becomes a momentous, compelling achievement. "Once you have skin in the game, you feel like it’s your work," said Tetta.

In just over a year working on the climate change page, the anonymous editor says they have spent hundreds of hours editing the page and collaborating on the article's graphics. The page's visualizations show the ocean’s relentlessly rising temperature, skyrocketing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and beyond.

A NASA graphic that editors chose for the Wikipedia climate change page.

NASA | Wikimedia

The page’s lack of important information about the different sources of carbon emissions, which keep rising each year, sparked another frequent contributor to the article, Jesse Murray, to start editing. It’s critical for people to know where, exactly, carbon emissions are coming from, but the page didn’t adequately explain some important emission sources, such as from steel and cement-making processes. (The giant cement industry emits some 2.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. If it were a country, the industry would be the third biggest emitter on Earth.)

Murray, who is pursuing a master’s degree in statistical science at the University of Oxford, wants his Wikipedia efforts to educate the public about a human-made problem that’s driving significant planetary change (19 of the last 20 years have been the warmest on record.) "I hope a layperson leaves [the page] with a basic understanding of the problem," said Murray. "That human civilization emits — and is emitting more every year — greenhouse gases that are deeply entangled with an industrialized lifestyle. This, unfortunately, has been driving a rise in global average temperatures."

The core team is clearly an ardent bunch. "We have some of the most passionate, invested, devoted-to-public-knowledge contributors," said Alex Stinson, a senior program strategist with the Wikimedia Foundation, which hosts Wikipedia. Stinson, who is also a zealous Wikipedia editor (though not of the climate change page specifically) and includes himself as one of the "obsessed" Wikipedians, emphasized that important contributions also come from the majority of editors who aren’t so devout, but still pop in to flag bad information or mark a citation. In sum, everyone’s efforts make Wikipedia an encyclopedia. "That’s the only way Wikipedia works," said Stinson.

She’s really the guardian of the page.

Nijsse, the page’s de facto captain, ultimately vets everyone’s edits or suggestions to the climate page. It appears she doesn’t miss a day. "I try to check every edit that is made," she said. "I check every day."

"It’s a heroic job what she's doing," said Tetta. "I admire her dedication." Nijsse’s Wikipedian colleagues have bestowed her with a variety of shiny, though digital, Wikipedia awards, such as the "The Barnstar of Diligence" for her "painstaking research and unflagging diplomacy."

"She’s really the guardian of the page," Tetta said.

Vigilant Keepers

Sometimes people vandalize the Wikipedia climate page. ("Vandalism" is Wikipedia parlance for maliciously disrupting a page.)

One day, Tetta found that another editor, who usually edited sports pages, went rogue and wrote "Global warming is a hoax" atop the climate page. "I caught and reverted it," he said. "It was there for a few hours. That’s how open source crowd-editing works."

But with ever-vigilant editors, namely the current group overseeing the climate page, vandalism is easily spotted and cleaned up. Malicious edits aren't hard to find: Each edit to the article is documented and visible to everyone on the page’s history. "Any edit that is blatant vandalism or in some way or another non-encyclopedic will quickly get removed," explained Murray. So, overall, there’s little incentive for vandalizing the climate page. Being a jerk simply doesn’t pay off. What’s more, Wikipedia has given the climate change page the status of "semi-protection," which makes it more difficult, but not impossible, for random people to sign in and temporarily disrupt a page (semi-protection requires editors to have an account for at least four days and already to have made 10 Wikipedia edits). If one looks back on the page's history, like in 2008 when the page didn’t have semi-protection, vandalism and poor, biased edits were "a major problem," noted Nijsse.

The keepers of the page, however, don’t make furtive edits when no one is looking. The real editing is more like a public discussion, where edits are talked about (online) and nothing is hidden, explained Nijsse. You can see the dialogue on the "Talk" page. The goal is to present readers with understandable, yet cold and hard facts. The climate editors avoid brand new research or anyone’s singular opinions. Instead, they often rely on deeply vetted publications that synthesize hundreds to thousands of studies, like the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, reports. "It’s really important that Wikipedia remains neutral," Nijsse said. "The IPCC is a brilliant source for us."

93 %

The amount of human-created warming soaked up by the oceans.

NASA

800,000

Atmospheric CO2 levels are higher today than any time in the last 800,000 years.

NOAA

When they speak of their Wikipedia collaborations, the keepers say the system is at times imperfect and contentious as they debate what information to include, but overall the group churns out excellent work. "More than once, there was this beautiful synergy as we were able to pool together the knowledge advantages [expertise] and different opinions (on what's important to include, etc.) of the editors," Murray said, describing their efforts to write the page’s critical introductory paragraphs. "This would result in a paragraph that each of us was very happy with and none of us could have come up with alone."

Nijsse, however, will candidly point out flaws or potential problems with anyone’s edits. The "guardian" of the page, who is also busy pursuing a Ph.D., probably has no choice but to speak frankly. "I think your edits yesterday were a bit sloppy, not what I'm used [to] from you," she wrote in September 2020, in response to an edit about a well-publicized cloud study. "There are multiple problems with the sentence, and I'm not sure that the sourcing is sufficiently good," Nijsse wrote in October 2020, referencing an estimate of over 1 billion people becoming displaced by climate change. "I think this is a strong deterioration," Nijsse recently said of a proposed paragraph about air pollution.

The climate page keepers aren’t all climate researchers like Nijsse, but they have a strong grasp of science, and stay attuned to new developments. "I've found that this particular set of editors as a whole has been very well-informed, intelligent, careful to accurately represent the science as disclosed in reliable sources, and mutually respectful — more so than with other random topics on Wikipedia," said the anonymous editor, who has edited other pages.

The climate’s fate

Human-created climate change isn’t going away in our lifetimes. Those who study the oceans know this all too well. The ocean, explained Josh Willis, a NASA oceanographer, is the true keeper of climate change. Over 90 percent of the heat humans trap on Earth is soaked up by the seas. It’s inevitable that the oceans will continue absorbing heat as humans turn up the atmospheric temperature dial this century. (Even if global civilization, hypothetically, completely stopped burning oil, gas, and coal right now, Earth wouldn't stop warming for at least decades).

The consequences are ever-warming waters that melt Earth’s great ice sheets, raise sea levels, acidify the water, intensify hurricanes, and make habitats for many sea creatures unlivable.

"It’s not going to stop anytime soon," said Willis, who has no involvement with Wikipedia. "Our grandkids will still be watching the oceans warm."

Earth’s denizens, then, need freely accessible climate information to reckon with these changes (along with serious terrestrial threats like surging wildfires and extreme floods) and how to curb the worst consequences of climate change. The page is just one of many on Wikipedia that demonstrates the climate’s fate, and the consequences of a warming globe. The Wikimedia Foundation counts 2,500 climate change-related pages, the likes of "Climate change in Africa" and "Climate change and agriculture," amounting to some 98 million views each year. But there’s still bounties more to be done.

"Climate change is about every human activity on Earth," said Wikimedia’s Stinson. He cites the Miami-Dade County Wikipedia article, which doesn't acknowledge climate change. But the seas have big plans for Miami (octopuses have already washed into Miami parking garages). "There’s no mention of climate change anywhere in the article," said Stinson. "Yet it's the city in the U.S. that will be most affected by sea level rise. Wikipedia could be a front line to 'How does this connect to my reality?'"

A Miami or Miami-Dade County Wikipedia article might mention, citing NASA data and the state’s grim sea level rise projections, that the oceans have already risen by eight to nine inches since the late 19th century, and will inevitably rise more. "The oceans are coming to get us," warned NASA’s Willis. "Climate change is ocean change."

The oceans are coming to get us.

To limit the advance of the seas, the intensification of storms, and beyond, the world’s nations (infamously except the U.S.) have agreed to limit Earth’s warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures. Stabilizing Earth’s temperatures at some 2 C, or 3.6 Fahrenheit, above 19th-century levels, is critical, but unfortunately an ambitious, highly unlikely outcome as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere keep rising.

Big change is already afoot. In September, amid California’s hottest September on record, the largest fires in Golden State history burned through profoundly parched forests. Thick smoke blocked and manipulated sunlight, resulting in a dystopian orange glow over the San Francisco region.

"When you wake up to that, you feel like you’re living on another planet," said the devoted Wikipedian, Tetta.

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