The Climate Doom Drumbeat

There is a popular belief in some quarters that the media is timid with its coverage on climate change. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. The dominant narrative for some time has been that global warming is real and will soon wreak havoc with the planet and civilization.

Some in the climate concerned community think this message should be be drummed into us until we submit. At the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I argue that this approach is having the opposite effect. Sara Peach, a colleague there, discusses some recent examples of engagement that is a refreshing departure from the traditional gloom and doom mantra.

Category: climate change, climate science, media

A Critic of Science Journalism Dons a Masquerade

There are two recent critiques of science journalism that paint very different pictures of the profession. One of them, an editorial in Nature this week, is more broadly aimed at the news media in general, and decries “scientific ignorance of the press,” agenda-driven stories, and “journalism that favors attitude over accuracy.”  The criticism is directed at British newspaper reporters and editors:

With stories ranging from ludicrous (wind turbine attacked by aliens) to downright irresponsible (promoting the link between childhood vaccinations and autism), the fourth estate in the United Kingdom has hardly covered itself in glory when it comes to science and scientific issues.

Indeed, according to Sarah Mukherjee, a former BBC environmental correspondent, the struggle for UK journos on the enviro beat is to avoid being superficial and part of a herd. (Come to think of it, that’s a pretty universal struggle for everyone in the press.) But Nature, taking particular issue with the lack of rigor in science reporting, says

there is a sense that the situation is more acute in tabloid-driven Britain, particularly given the distasteful news-gathering techniques that are now under the microscope like never before.

I’m not familiar enough with science coverage in the UK media to have an opinion on Nature’s assessment. I’d be curious to hear what British science reporters or bloggers think.

Interestingly, David Whitehouse, another former BBC correspondent (1988-1998), has a different sort of beef with his colleagues. It boils down to this: science journalists were better at their jobs last century (like when he was at the BBC, I’m guessing):

There has never been a golden age of science journalism, but certainly there were more characters, better writers, more newsgathering zeal, and more originality in the recent past.

Well, as you might expect, these are “fighting words” to the average, self-respecting science journalist, which is how veteran science writer Paul Raeburn put it in his rebuttal at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker:

We’ve heard these criticisms before, and I should probably ignore them, but, as The Dude put it in The Big Lebowski, “This will not stand, man.”

The Dude would be proud. But Whitehouse also made it easy for Raeburn, who writes:

He [Whitehouse] begins his argument with the contention that “science, and communicating science, is too important to be left to the scientists.” It’s unclear whether he believes that, or whether he’s setting that up as an observation that he wants to challenge. In any case, as anyone who reads news online now knows, scientists are communicating to the public more broadly and effectively than ever before. Where once Carl Sagan stood, a thousand blogs now bloom. Science communication is clearly not too important to be left to the scientists.

Raeburn also observes that Whitehouse

makes the odd argument that the widespread availability of science news has led news outlets to become “bland clones” of one another. To me, the situation seems quite the opposite. With fewer restrictions on science news, the big news organizations can no longer manipulate the supply chain and dominate the coverage. With expanded competition, news organizations and science writers now have more incentive than ever to do good work.

Whitehouse, though, is on stronger footing when he accuses

many journalists being supporters of, and not reporters of, science. There is a big difference. Many have become advocates for science that are too close to the scientists they report on. Anyone who has downed an orange juice at a scientists and journalists bash will not have to look far to see them compete to see who can be the most sycophantic. At one such gathering I remarked, tactlessly, that I was surprised, and disappointed, that half of the scientists there didn’t hate half of the journalists! Scientists even run prizes for science journalists! Jonathan Leake, science and environment editor at the Sunday Times said recently, “Science in the daily media is too often reported in the same deferential way as political journalists used to report politics in the 1950s.” Because of this back slapping closeness, many journalists lack detachment and by implication judgment about the stories they cover.

Raeburn acknowledged these and other points:

Reporters are, as he says, far too dependent upon press releases. But that has always been true. And he says that too many science writers have become supporters, not reporters, of science. I’ve made the same argument myself. Writers and bloggers have every right to be supporters of science, if they choose, but we need a strong corps of reporters who see themselves as critics, shedding light in dark corners.

Raeburn then notes that the “only example” Whitehouse provides “to make his case is that of climate-change coverage.” Yes, that kinda jumped out at me, too. So I googled a bit to see what he might have written about the subject and this column in the New Statesman popped up from 2007. In it he explains why “global warming has stopped.” (To see how he arrived at this, you’ll have to go and read it for yourself.) Similarly, in 2010, Whitehouse wrote a piece for the UK’s Global Warming Policy Foundation and reproduced at WUWT, titled, ”The climate coincidence: Why is the temperature unchanging?”

It turns out that Whitehouse does a lot of writing for the UK think tank that is a known clearinghouse for climate skeptic-oriented commentary and research. He is their science editor.

Strangely, this affiliation wasn’t mentioned in his bio for the Huffington Post piece.

Let me be clear: Whitehouse being the science editor for the Global Warming Foundation doesn’t (and shouldn’t) disqualify him from penning an opinion piece for anyone, including the Huffington Post. But it’s a bit peculiar that in a column critical of science journalists and climate reporting-that his connection to a climate skeptic think tank was not disclosed to Huffington Post readers.

One last thing. Whitehouse is absolutely on the mark with some of his points in the column, including this one:

Journalism is about not taking sides, or about being a cheerleader.

Category: climate change, climate science, Journalism

The Possession

At the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I ask:

Are climate skeptics less important and less influential than they — and their counterparts in the climate-concerned community — would have us believe?


Category: climate change, climate science, climate skeptics

Are There Subspecies of Climate Skeptics?

A reader wonders if there are two different breeds of climate skeptic-the political/ideological variant in the U.S.-where the climate debate resembles a caged match, and the more rational-minded species in Europe:

From what I gather, there really are people in the U.S who don’t believe in the greenhouse concept or the radiative properties of Co2, or that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide would have some effect on the temperature of the atmosphere. Maybe now the over-use of the term ‘denier’ makes more sense…

I know this doesn’t apply to everybody, but I think sceptics in Europe are sceptical about the predictions of catastrophic rises, consequences, or the cost-effectiveness of mitigation. I.e. they are extremely sensible people

In other words, are American climate skeptics bat-shit crazy, and their European cousins the sane ones?

Category: climate change, climate science

Republican Dissension on Climate Change

And extreme discomfort with the issue, judging by this story:

In an effort to survey Republicans on climate change, National Journal reporters reached out to every GOP senator and representative. Over the course of several weeks, reporters either attempted to interview lawmakers in person, or called or e-mailed their offices.

Most of them “rebuffed repeated inquiries,” according to the piece:

Some flatly refused to answer questions when approached in person, and their offices declined to respond to repeated phone calls and e-mail requests. “It’s not a conversation senators feel comfortable having,” a Republican staffer said.

Several aides initially said that their bosses would be happy to take part in interviews or answer written questions—only to follow up later with clipped refusals.

Meanwhile, there’s this nugget, which suggests the Tea Party stranglehold is loosening, just a little:

Despite the rhetoric on the campaign trail, a quiet but significant number of prominent Republican politicians and strategists accept the science of climate change and fear that rejecting it could not only tar the party as “antiscience” but also drive away the independent voters who are key to winning general elections. “There’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the Republican caucus that believes that global warming is happening, and it’s caused at least in part by mankind,” said Mike McKenna, a strategist with close ties to the GOP’s leadership. “You can tell these guys are uncomfortable when you start to talk about science.”

Would that be science in general, or just climate science?


Here are the questions NJ asked the Republican members of Congress: Do you think climate change is causing the Earth to become warmer? How much, if any, of global climate change do you think is attributable to human activity? What is the government’s most appropriate response to the issue of climate change?

In the end, 65 GOP lawmakers—40 House members and 25 senators across the ideological spectrum agreed to respond.

So what do numbers like that tell you?

Category: climate change, climate politics, climate science

The Climate Middle Ground

As someone who’s long been interested in paleoenvironmental research-especially with respect to archaeology-I have a soft spot for tree ring researchers. The development of tree ring chronologies plays a major role (under-appreciated by the public) in the understanding of many ancient cultures and the prehistoric land use and climatic changes of their time

So it’s been a little frustrating that the extent of my recent twitter exchanges with one paleo researcher has focused on climategate 2, when I would prefer to be learning about what environmental reconstructions he’s currently at work on, and what new knowledge it is yielding. But Columbia University’s Kevin Anchukaitis has been exceptionally gracious and thoughtful in our bite-sized discussions, of which there has been much disagreement between us. Today, he’s given me something to think about it again, with this tweet:

Being in ‘The Middle’ has this almost mythic quality to some. In science, it’s often just halfway between a right and a wrong answer.

I’m guessing he’s referring (at least in part) to some of our recent back-and-forth and perhaps to some of my related posts from the past week, such as this one and this one.

I think Kevin makes a fair point, that the proverbial middle ground might also be a no-mans land, where truth can never be found. But I also think it depends on where you define the middle. Climate change, as it is discussed and interpreted in the public sphere, does not reflect the full spectrum of perspectives. Rather, most debate is characterized by hyperbole and spin from opposite ends of the spectrum. In this world, which journalists must navigate, being in the middle is not such a bad place to be.

Category: climate politics, climate science, media

Barriers to Nuanced Reporting on Climate Studies

Some of the commentary about how the media covered last week’s big climate sensitivity study in Science prompted me to explore underlying issues that have already been identified by people much smarter than me. Have a read over at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

Category: climate change, climate science, Journalism, media

Stuck in the Middle with Them

Andy Revkin must feel like a  wind dummy  everyone’s punching bag. Last week, he had the temerity to say that “climategate” 2, like the 2009 episode, couldn’t be easily dismissed. So of course he got slapped around by all sorts of people in the climate concerned community, including some prominent scientists:

You are claiming that the emails ‘raise questions’ and that they are ‘disturbing’. This is not journalism, Andy, it’s tabloid journalism. It’s equivalent to the kind of thing the mainstream media did in the 1950s around communism, the kind of thing many outlets are doing now around muslims (remember how quickly everyone jumped on the assumption that it was some muslim or other, not Tim McVeigh, in Oklahoma?).

I’m disappointed and sad, and once again you should be ashamed.

This week he’s taking hits from frothy climate skeptics and conservative bloggers, who have charged him with being biased (against them), based on their reading of the new batch of emails, some of which contain communications between Revkin and climate scientists. One blogger at Commentary, now retrospectively assessing Revkin’s coverage of climategate 1 (when he was on NYT staff as a reporter) somehow concludes that he “ended up doing all he could to snuff it [the controversy] out.” Really? This must have been a funny way to go about it.

Well, Revkin has ended up doing an interesting Q & A with that Commentary blogger, which is posted here at Dot Earth.

At this point, given the charged emotions and politicization associated with climate change, any mainstream media reporter or blogger writing about this latest “climategate” flare-up should expect to be put through the paces. Or, in Revkin’s case, a buzzsaw. And given his special talent for displeasing the polar ends of the climate spectrum, perhaps this song is appropriate.

Category: climate change, climate politics, climate science, climategate

Climate Science, the Media, and the Middle Ground

If you’re following press coverage of the second wave of purloined email communications between climate scientists, you might have noticed that many in the media have turned their attention to the whodunit angle. This is very much a worthy story to pursue (which I’ll have more to say on in a few days), since the identity of the hacker/leaker remains unknown.

But before we move on, there is one notable observation shared by all sides, which deserves greater attention. And that is the healthy display of outright skepticism in many of the highlighted exchanges. As the BBC’s Richard Black noted,

what’s interesting is that some of the most frank and forthright wording comes from scientists telling their peers off - often, trying to calm them down and get them to be more grounded in accurate science, whatever the political implications.

This point was echoed by Guardian reporter Juliett Jowitt in a comment at Collide-a-Scape:

They do disagree, and sometimes rather bitchily (these were ‘private’), but if anything it is reassuring that even this supposedly close cabal of self-reinforcing climate change mongers (the views of others) were so critical of each other, and so frequently at pains to make sure that uncertainty was not just taken account of but clearly shown, to make sure they would not undermine their field by appearing to hide observations which did not appear to fit the story.

Similarly, Fred Moolten makes this assessment over at Climate Etc:

The new revelations remind us of the academic squabbling, pettiness, and biases that pervade many areas of science, and the existence of a siege mentality among some of the top echelons that works to paper over differences and uncertainties. Like Judith Curry, I also believe the revelations will have little impact on MSM reporting, and so I expect little influence on public opinion or climate policy.

At the same time, I’m troubled by what I see as a misconception underlying much blogosphere commentary here and elsewhere (particularly elsewhere) – a tendency to confuse the IPCC with climate science, and to impute sins of the former to the latter. As Jim D reminds us, there are gradations in the uncertainty within the science itself, ranging from a near certainty (never absolute but very substantial) about the basic strength of greenhouse gas warming potency within a range of estimates derived from multiple sources (not all dependent on GCMs), to a much less sure sense of how this will play out in terms of secondary consequences – for example, how hurricanes or regional flooding will behave. These conclusions can be derived from the thousands of reports in the literature and do not require a dependence on IPCC synthesis of the data. Equally important, though, uncertainty, even if belittled in some public comments by IPCC defenders, is clearly apparent in the literature itself, and so I don’t see the implication that it has been neglected as supportable.

What I state is a personal judgment. While others may disagree, I don’t think the disagreement would be well-informed unless expressed by individuals who are themselves familiar with the climate science literature first hand by reading it rather than second hand from what others are claiming.

Finally, although the use of the email revelations as a political weapon is unfortunate, I do hope the revelations will have a chastening effect on individuals such as Michael Mann, Phil Jones, and some of their colleagues, whose inflated sense of importance and entitlement led to the transgressions that have surfaced.

Along these lines, Jim D expands in that same Climate Etc thread:

Fred hits a point that I wanted to add to. The intersection of politics and science via the IPCC has led to some trying to put more certainty into public statements than they could in a scientific journal (on both sides), and some feel that without more certainty politicians won’t listen. This is an added distorting force that doesn’t exist in purely scientific debates (e.g. in fields of science with no political intersection), but this is the context that drives some scientists who are more involved with IPCC to push for certainty more than they otherwise would have.

Which brings us to Alexander Harvey’s observation on the frank back-and-forth between climate scientists:

You will find the unspoken middle ground on display, This is the ground that the science community left largely publically undefended and where many of the sceptics are camped out. I think it quite shocking that this territory was largely left publically unoccupied by the science community. It is where the debate seems to take place internally, yet externally, in the public domain, the existence of that debate is denied or downplayed.

Has this “middle ground” been adequately represented in the media? If not, why?

Category: climate change, climate politics, climate science, climategate

The Meaning of “Climategate” (And Its Sequel)

The reaction thus far to the latest release of climate science emails (“son of climategate”) has played out along two tracks. Each has separate storylines.

In the feverish precincts of the climate blogosphere, especially those in permanent battle mode, the response has been predictable. Anthony Watts is in full swoon and Marc Morano has turned on all his sirens and flashing lights. Meanwhile, grim faced hall monitors at message control sites have been waving their rulers at all journalists in the vicinity. Their message: Move along, nothing to see here (just like last time!).

Reporters, of course, paid no heed. But the stories have generally sounded the same theme, which is encapsulated in Richard Black’s BBC headline:

Climate Emails: Storm or Yawn?

As Black noted, “what’s interesting” about the emails

is that some of the most frank and forthright wording comes from scientists telling their peers off - often, trying to calm them down and get them to be more grounded in accurate science, whatever the political implications.

Yes, Black says, there is additional evidence of scientists not complying with Freedom of Information requests, but all in all, he writes, no plot to deceive the world about climate change.

Well, maybe just a teensy little, according to this AP article:

Excerpts quoted on climate skeptic websites appeared to show climate scientists talking in conspiratorial tones about ways to promote their agenda and freeze out those they disagree with.

But the main point I noticed being emphasized in most of the mainstream stories I read is that nothing in the emails released this week or two years ago undermines the science showing greenhouse gases as a main contributor to climate change. Darren Samuelsohn at Politico underscores this in his piece, as does Juliet Eilperin at the Washington Post, and Andy Revkin at the NYT’s Dot Earth, who writes that,

as was soon clear following the last release, on Nov. 21, 2009, this has little bearing on the overall thrust of decades of research revealing a rising human influence on the global climate system, and the logic in wise policies to limit both the pace of change and its impacts.

But here’s something to consider about all this business: I don’t think the perpetrator (whoever has stolen and distributed these emails) believes he has provided evidence that calls into question an accumulated body of science that shows the earth is warming. What he’s done is somewhat akin to pulling back the curtain on the legislative sausage-making in Washington D.C. To the uninitiated, it’s ugly stuff. But power plays, insults, shouting matches, back-scratching, etc, are a way of life, whether it happens on The Office, Capitol Hill, in newsrooms, or among climate researchers in a university setting.

But because there are major policy implications and intense politics associated with climate science, what should be considered normal human tendencies-such as infighting and attempts to shape an outcome-are instead viewed in a harsh light, at best, or as an indictment of a profession, at worst.

Climate science will survive this latest viewing of its dirty laundry, because it is a highly reputable field with a proven track record. And because climate scientists are doing work that sheds light on issues important to us. That said, the perpetrator of “climategate” (and its sequel) has succeeded in focusing attention on the behavior and actions of a small group of scientists, who, for better or worse, are seen as representative of the climate science community.

In politics, perception counts as much as reality. The same rule now applies to climate science.

Category: climate change, climate politics, climate science, climategate