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Is the New York Times coverage of global warming fatally flawed?

By Joe Romm  

"Is the New York Times coverage of global warming fatally flawed?"

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http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_YazkinMQMNE/Rls7Qm636oI/AAAAAAAAALk/8d8SvwbaDLE/s320/blinkered.jpgTwo dreadful, tunnel-vision articles in the New York Times suggest the “paper of record” must rethink how it covers the most important issue of our time.

Yes, the NYT has the biggest climate team, but their reporting by stovepipe (rather than by team), renders that staff largely useless. Indeed, it may be less than useless, as these articles make clear.

Let’s start with today’s front-page story “Severe Drought Adds to Hardships in California” on the state’s record drop in snowpack and rainfall. Even though there is abundant science that both impacts are precisely what we would expect from human-caused climate change, reporter Jesse McKinley never mentions the subject at all. Quite the reverse, he opens the piece:

The country’s biggest agricultural engine, California’s sprawling Central Valley, is being battered by the recession like farmland most everywhere. But in an unlucky strike of nature, the downturn is being deepened by a severe drought that threatens to drive up joblessness, increase food prices and cripple farms and towns.

So not only does McKinley ignore a likely contributor to the drought and snowpack loss, he attributes the whole damn thing to “an unlucky strike of nature.”

No wonder the public is not terribly concerned about global warming and fails to understand that humans are changing the climate now. The only surprising thing is that the NYT itself is surprised that the public is underinformed (see “NYT‘s Revkin seems shocked by media’s own failure to explain climate threat“).

The NYT did not make this mistake when it reported on Australia’s drought — because it used team-based reporting (see CNN, ABC, WashPost, AP, blow Australian wildfire, drought, heatwave “Hell (and High Water) on Earth” story — never mention climate change). I will return to this point at the end.

Moreover, the impacts California is experiencing are not some obscure or distant prediction of climate change — they are so well-known and well accepted that even that bastion of climate denial, the Bush administration, not only acknowledged them in a December 2008 U.S. Geological Survey report, Abrupt Climate Change, but warned they may be just around the corner (see USGS stunner: SW faces “permanent drying” by 2050):

In the Southwest, for example, the models project a permanent drying by the mid-21st century that reaches the level of aridity seen in historical droughts, and a quarter of the projections may reach this level of aridity much earlier.

Indeed, these impacts in California should be incredibly well known to the media now that Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has spoken out about them (see Chu: “This is a real economic disaster in the making for our children, for your children”):

In the pessimistic scenario, the snow pack will decrease by 70 to 90 percent…. You’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.

So in spite of the fact that the New York Times has expanded its climate team, it continues to be guilty of the same kind of reporting it has (mal)practiced for years:

Now let’s turn to equally flawed reporting related to climate policy and economics. On Thursday, the NYT published a story by John Broder “E.P.A. Expected to Regulate Carbon Dioxide.” I will excerpt it at length to highlight its serious flaws:

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to act for the first time to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists blame for the warming of the planet, according to top Obama administration officials.

The decision, which most likely would play out in stages over a period of months, would have a profound impact on transportation, manufacturing costs and how utilities generate power. It could accelerate the progress of energy and climate change legislation in Congress and form a basis for the United States’ negotiating position at United Nations climate talks set for December in Copenhagen.

The environmental agency is under order from the Supreme Court to make a determination whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant that endangers public health and welfare, an order that the Bush administration essentially ignored despite near-unanimous belief among agency experts that research points inexorably to such a finding….

Ms. Jackson knows that she would be stepping into a minefield of Congressional and industry opposition and said that she was trying to devise a program that allayed these worries.”We are poised to be specific on what we regulate and on what schedule,” Ms. Jackson said. “We don’t want people to spin that into a doomsday scenario….”

That is not likely to assuage critics, including many Democrats from states dependent on coal-generated electricity and manufacturing jobs, where such regulation could significantly increase costs. Representative John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who has long championed the interests of the auto industry, said that the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions by the E.P.A. would set off a “glorious mess” that would resonate throughout the economy.

Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, warned Ms. Jackson during her January confirmation hearing that she should not undercut Congress’s authority by using the agency’s regulatory power to address global warming. Mr. Barrasso called the use of the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon “a disaster waiting to happen.”

Many environmental advocates, however, said the E.P.A.’s action was long overdue, but added that it was only as a stopgap until Congress passed comprehensive climate change legislation.

“It’s politically necessary, scientifically necessary and legally necessary,” said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club, a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case….

Jeffrey R. Holmstead, the former head of the agency’s office of air and radiation, said that a finding of endangerment from emissions of heat-trapping gases did not initiate immediate regulation but started a clock ticking on a process that typically took 18 months to two years.

“Potentially, it’s a huge mess, not only for E.P.A. but for state regulatory agencies, because the Clean Air Act is second only to the Internal Revenue Code in terms of complexity,” said Mr. Holmstead, now director of environmental strategies at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

He said that under the clean air law any source emitting more than 250 tons of a declared pollutant would be subject to regulation, potentially including schools, hospitals, shopping centers, even bakeries, which has prompted some critics to call it the “Dunkin’ Donuts rule.”

But Mr. Bookbinder and other supporters say the regulations can be written to exempt these potential emitters. Ms. Jackson said that there was no timetable for issuing regulations governing carbon emissions and that her agency would not engage in “rash decision making.”

But she also said that the Supreme Court decision obliged her to act….

That’s right, the New York Times published an entire article on the plans by the Environmental Protection Agency — the agency charged with protecting humans and the environment from pollution — to obey the Supreme Court ruling and regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but never once mentioned a single benefit to the environment or human beings from regulating greenhouse gases. In short, the NYT left out the point of the entire effort.

[It's also lame (but typical) that they put the Sierra Club in opposition to congressional opponents of action, rather than, say, leading proponents of action in both houses.]

But, as you can see, Broder catalogued at length a variety of presumed costs of action identified by opponents — including absurd ones like the supposed Dunkin’ Donuts rule. It is pretty damn hard for readers to do a mental cost-benefit analysis of EPA greenhouse gas regulations if the media repeatedly discuss costs but never mention a single specific benefit.

This article is particularly egregious since it comes on the heels of a study that leading U.S. journalist Eric Pooley wrote for Harvard critiquing the media for this precisely this mistake (see How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics — “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress”). Pooley analyzed dozens of media articles on last year’s climate debate in the Senate and concluded:

The press failed to perform the basic service of making climate policy and its economic impact understandable to the reader and allowed opponents of climate action to set the terms of the cost debate. The argument centered on the short-term costs of taking action–i.e., higher electricity and gasoline prices–and sometimes assumed that doing nothing about climate change carried no cost.

The NYT‘s coverage of climate is media malpractice. And if the reporters are stuck in their silos and unable to see the big picture — if NYT reporters act as if having a big climate team means they don’t to explain key issues fully to the reader since that’s someone else’s job — then the weight of this flawed coverage falls on the head of the editors.

THE NEED FOR TEAM-BASED REPORTING (AND BETTER EDITORS)

As I wrote earlier this month (here), the NYT”s own reporting on Australia was much better than their earlier AP-inspired stories on the subject, no doubt because “Andrew C. Revkin contributed reporting from New York.” The story noted:

The firestorms and heat in the south revived discussions in Australia of whether human-caused global warming was contributing to the continent’s climate woes of late — including recent prolonged drought in some places and severe flooding last week in Queensland, in the northeast.

Climate scientists say that no single rare event like the deadly heat wave or fires can be attributed to global warming, but the chances of experiencing such conditions are rising along with the temperature. In 2007, Australia’s national science agency published a 147-page report on projected climate changes, concluding, among other things, that “high-fire-danger weather is likely to increase in the southeast.”

The flooding in the northeast and the combustible conditions in the south were consistent with what is forecast as a result of recent shifts in climate patterns linked to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research.

That is how it is done — though even here, the editors buried the story is on page A9, the paragraphs cited are at the very end, and the headline (again, typically written by an editor) is “Australia Police Confirm Arson Role in Wildfires.”

Apparently, the editors believe that blaming individual bad guys is the best way to frame the story, not blaming us all for all our contribution to human-caused global warming. But I digress.

In the past, I think the media and scientists felt they had to bend over backwards not to attribute any single weather event 100% to human-caused global warming — but today there is no excuse whatsoever for a senior reporter at a major newspaper not reporting that what is occurring now is precisely what climate science has been predicting would happen.

In particular, the NYT reporting today — “There’s been no meaningful precipitation since last March,” and “Last month, California officials estimated the snowpack in the Sierra, a primary source of water for the state when it melts in the spring, at 61 percent of normal” — is not about short-term weather events, but rather major climate events — ones predicted to become increasingly common thanks to human emissions of greenhouse gases.

Indeed, I think we can now safely say the media can’t responsibly attribute any major climate event predicted to become more common because of global warming — like a lengthy drought or loss in snowpack — 100% to an “unlikely strike of nature.”

The NYT editors seem no better than their Washington Post counterparts (see “The day DC journalism died: Washington Post is staffed with people who found ZERO mistakes in George Will’s error-filled denial column“).

The bottom line: Once again, if you want to find the best journalism now on climate — the most science-based, the most fact-based, the most integrated and comprehensive, the most relevant to your lives and the lives of your children and the people you care about and indeed all of humanity — you must go to the web, specifically the blogosphere.

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15 Responses to Is the New York Times coverage of global warming fatally flawed?

  1. Excellent report. Thank you so much.

    In the olden days “Shoot the messenger” meant to kill the bearer of bad news. The blameless bearer often lost his life.

    Conversely today we have messengers who fail to deliver news of impending danger. This failure is very blame worthy. When a soldier stands guard and fails to sound the alarm, or a ship captain sees danger but fails to alter his course – or when A smart leader would kill that messenger. This is closer to propaganda and treachery than message delivery.

    Today Meet the Press was sponsored by EnergyTomorrow.org – which is the American Petroleum Institute. The second ad was by Chevron. When will Meet the Press even mention global warming? Not likely very soon.

    Then there’s George Will appearing on ABC This Week, Roundtable – the first sponsor was Chevron. And climate change was never mentioned in the entire show.

    These messengers are actively, directly ignoring this story.

  2. paulm says:

    some of this can be attributed to scientists like pope. But this is a sad affair and what can you say – cant you get on the team Joe?

  3. paulm says:

    great photo!

  4. George Monbiot has started a contest for bad reporting on climate change:

    “The award will go to whoever in my opinion and assisted by climate scientists and specialists manages, in the course of 2009, to cram as many misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods into a single article, statement, lecture, film or interview about climate change. This work must be available online. You score a point for every mistake, though one point will be deducted for every retraction or correction published by the author or the original outlet within a reasonable length of time.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/georgemonbiot/competition/2009/feb/04/climatechange

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/feb/04/christopher-booker-george-monbiot-prize

    Joe, is it fair to force US press – the obvious contenders for this prize – to cross a vast ocean to claim the prize?? In the name of saving travel, shouldn’t the US have it’s own prize? Perhaps call it the George Will prize.

    We could have other categories…For the most inaccuracies, for the most tunnel vision issue avoidance, for the greatest conflict of interest from advertisers,

    This could be fun.

  5. Andy Heninger says:

    Here’s a related commentary, from the Columbia Journalism Review:

    Lingering Denial
    The unfortunate case of a few pundits with too much influence
    http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/lingering_denial.php

  6. Brewster says:

    Well, maybe somebody in the press is learning…

    My dearly beloved Calgary Herald, which has consistently ducked all Global Warming conclusions due to its strong Oil Patch connections, ran FOUR AGW related articles this morning!

    A Full two page spread on the pollution problems in the Oil Sands.

    A half page Op-Ed on the plight of the Caribou (less than 1/4 of the herd left in Canada).

    A full page on the problems Polar Bears are having in finding food, and how far they have to travel.

    A significant article on Clinton’s trip to China, and her discussions with the Chinese Government.

    And the Herald linked them all to Climate Change!

    They could have made a stronger statement of what needs to be done, but I’ll take whatever I can…

  7. Anthony, rabid doomsayer says:

    Newspapers know who is paying for the advertising. Editors know what will upset the owners. There is probably more self censorship that actual censorship.

  8. Ray says:

    How does one distinguish between this from the many other past western droughts to honestly claim this one is caused by global warming?

    [JR: That's what science is for, to tell you what is "natural" and what is statistically unexpected, with human-caused emissions like a finger on the scale tipping the odds. There are signatures of global warming type drought -- see this PNAS study, for instance.

    There are centurys old standing trees at the bottom of lake Tahoe grown during periods when that lake receded far below the rim. AWG?

    The dust bowl happened in the 1930's (?), prior to the jump in CO2 levels and during which time the highest temps ever were recorded in the USA. AWG?

    Arctic ice has currently recovered from a 2007 summer time low to near normal, that with the record amount of ice at the south pole returns global ice coverage to over our 30 year average. AWG?

    [JR: Factually quite incorrect. Arctic ice still below historical low AREA and since it is almost all new ice and thus thin, we are certainly near record low volume.]

    “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” Mark Twain.

    Perhaps Jesse McKinley was just trying to be a good journalist.

  9. Lou Grinzo says:

    All anyone needs to know about the effects of this kind of “journalism” on mainstream consumers and voters (via its ability to make climate chaos seem like not a big deal) is contained in one short, brilliant story published in The New Yorker, The Invasion from Outer Space, by Steven Millhauser.

    I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  10. paulm says:

    When you see mainstream top economists turning towards Lovelock’s view of the future, then you know things are going to be bad.

    Just about to go plough up the backyard to plant my veggies and put in a chicken run.

    Lord Nicholas Stern Paints Dire Climate Change Scenario: Mass Migrations, Extended World War
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/21/lord-nicholas-stern-paint_n_168865.html

  11. K. Nockels says:

    Hey Ray, get it right if you want anyone here to listen, the dust bowl yrs were man-made. That ‘s what man got for ripping up the planes states which all through history have been prone to drought. Man ripped it up and farmed it during a wet cycle than when the drought came there was no grass to hold the soil and it started to blow BIG. It even created its own weather and extended the drought. Any of this man-made mayhem sound familar??You need a course in Climate Change ONE OH ONE

  12. llewelly says:

    Ray:

    The dust bowl happened in the 1930’s (?), prior to the jump in CO2 levels and during which time the highest temps ever were recorded in the USA. AWG?

    It is true that the 1930s were quite warm in the continental US. However, global warming is about , er, global temperature trends, and the 1930s were not so warm globally; every year since 1980 has been warmer than any year of the 1930s. (here .)

    In any case – even in 1930, though prior to the big jump in CO2 levels, global human C02 emissions exceeded 1 billion metric tons per year here , and CO2 levels had exceeded 300 ppm – the level sustained throughout most of the Eemian interglacial, which had global sea levels about 4-6 meters (13 – 20 feet). It’s a mistake to assume there was no human-caused global warming in the 1930s.

  13. Alex J says:

    The global anomaly has certainly grown since the 1930′s:

    http://understandit.ml1.net/anomalymaps.html

  14. Leah Stokes says:

    Interestingly, a Guardian article published last week is also filled with errors and vague statements. For example, there are glaring typos and misnomers for climate finance organizations and funds. I wasn’t very impressed.

    When journalists and editors don’t take the time to fact check their articles, it detracts significantly from the authority and tone of the piece. This undermines the legitimacy of their message, in this case, that properly designed and well timed mitigation financing for developing countries is crucial to the upcoming negotiations.

    http://bit.ly/2UVR6

  15. Ray says:

    Posted today at WUWT. Arctic ice has recovered to near 1979 levels.

    Citing data from the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, as interpreted on Jan. 1 by Daily Tech, a technology and science news blog, the column said that since September “the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began.” According to the center, global sea ice levels at the end of 2008 were “near or slightly lower than” those of 1979. The center generally does not make its statistics available, but in a Jan. 12 statement the center confirmed that global sea ice levels were within a difference of less than 3 percent of the 1980 level.

    Aslo, JR. The PNAS study does not claim to distinguish between this drought and those in the past…the recent one was a little wetter and a little warmer than the only “one” they compared it with…so?