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John Tierney makes up stuff, just like George Will — does the New York Times also employ several know/do-nothing fact checkers?

By Joe Romm

"John Tierney makes up stuff, just like George Will — does the New York Times also employ several know/do-nothing fact checkers?"


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[Please email the NYT at nytnews@nytimes.com to demand a correction for the egregious mistakes in Tierney's column and/or email its public editor at public@nytimes.com to explain you are "concerned about the paper's journalistic integrity."]

The backlash from George Will’s disinformation rightly grows each day that the Washington Post stands behind his lies (see “Post is staffed with people who found ZERO mistakes in George Will’s error-filled denial column“). Media Matters has samples of widespread outrage in the country here, and a new report from CAPAF challenges the WP to issue a correction.

Now it is time for outrage over John Tierney, who not only makes stuff up just like Will, but is actually on the New York Times staff as their ‘science’ columnist. When we last saw Tierney, he was spreading lies and disinformation about science adviser nominee John Holdren (see “More proof Holdren is a great choice: Pielke, Tierney, Lomborg, and CEI diss him“).

Today, the NYT not only let him print more egregiously made up stuff to smear Holdren (and Energy Secretary Steven Chu). But they actually published an article “Politics in the Guise of Pure Science” under the heading “FINDINGS” about Chu, Holdren, climate science, and climate solutions with precisely one source — Roger Pielke, Jr. That would be like publishing an article critical of Obama’s handling of the financial crisis and only citing Bernie Madoff.

Amazingly Pielke is quoted at great length as an “honest broker” on climate issues [pause for laughter, hope the orchestra starts to drown him out before he can finish talking], even though his policies are indistinguishable from that of leading global warming deniers (see “Finally, Roger Pielke admits he supports policies that will take us to 5-7°C warming or more“).

I am not going to debunk everything Tierney wrote — like Will, his piece that brings to mind Mary McCarthy’s famous quip about Lillian Hellman:

Every word she writes is a lie — including ‘and’ and ‘the.’

But let me focus on the three most egregious things he writes — at least the first of which the New York Times should retract and correct:


First, apparently conservative deniers get distributed the exact same talking points because Tierney leads off the same way Will did, by dismissing the science-based warnings of Steven Chu:

Why, since President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place” in Washington, do some things feel not quite right?

First there was Steven Chu, the physicist and new energy secretary, warning The Los Angeles Times that climate change could make water so scarce by century’s end that “there’s no more agriculture in California” and no way to keep the state’s cities going, either.

I have previously demonstrated that the scientific literature supports Chu’s warning (see Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California”). In fact, Chu was specifically citing the scientific literature in his statement, as we will see.

Like George Will, however, Tierney doesn’t actually cite any evidence whatsoever against Chu’s claim. All he does is cite Pielke, who is not a climate scientist or, in fact, any kind of physical scientist, and then assert:

While most scientists agree that anthropogenic global warming is a threat, they’re not certain about its scale or its timing or its precise consequences (like the condition of California’s water supply in 2090).

This smear against Chu is such an egregious mistake that the New York Times must issue a retraction for it. Why? If Tierney had actually have read the Chu interview (which the LAT published in full, see here), he would know that Chu was specifically discussing a worst-case scenario:

What is being predicted in climate change, there are two bracketed scenarios. The more optimistic one — that we will really control carbon emissions, that we will get a handle on this, and we’re talking the end of this century — even by mid-century, in the optimistic scenario, we will have decreased our snow pack by 20 percent on an average basis. And our forests are going to begin to die, because of parasites and such…. In the pessimistic scenario, the snow pack will decrease by 70 to 90 percent….

… a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. When you lose 70 percent of your water in the mountains, I don’t see how agriculture can continue. California produces 20 percent of the agriculture in the United States. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.

So Chu wasn’t saying he knew the precise consequences of global warming. He was citing a scientific study that laid out multiple scenarios. I found that study online in a few second by googling “scenario California snow pack 70 90.” It comes from a paper written for the important 2005 UK-Government-hosted “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change” conference.

The paper is “Regional Assessment of Climate Impacts on California under Alternative Emission Scenarios.” To see the scenarios Chu was citing, click here.
Moreover, if you read the paper, you’ll see that Chu’s pessimistic scenario is in fact A1F1, the IPCC’s worst-case for emssions. Yet global emissions since 2000 have exceeded A1F1, have exceeded the worst case. So if we were to adopt the do-very-little-if-anything strategy of Tierney and Pielke, then we would meet or exceed the A1F1 scenario Chu was referring to as “pessimistic.”

In short, as I have been arguing, the worst-case scenario is in fact now just business as usual – a conclusion that both MIT and the Hadley Center agree with (see “M.I.T. joins climate realists, doubles its projection of global warming by 2100 to 5.1°C” and “”Hadley Center: “Catastrophic” 5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path“).

So again, I really think the New York Times needs to issue a retraction and correction of this scurrilous attack on Nobelist Chu.


The second made-up stuff Tierney writes is at the end:

What would honest brokers tell the president about global warming? Dr. Pielke, who calls himself an Obamite, says he’s concerned that the presidents’ advisers seem uniformly focused on cutting carbon emissions through a domestic cap-and-trade law and a new international treaty.

Seriously, you can smear Obama’s choice for science advisor and the NYT will still let you call yourself an Obamite? Hmm. Is Pielke a Rommite, too? And just what do you have to do to be anti-Obama? But I digress.

It’s fine to try that strategy, he says, but there are too many technological, economic and political uncertainties to count on it making a significant global difference. If people around the world can’t be cajoled — or frightened by apocalyptic scenarios — into cutting carbon emissions, then politicians need backup strategies.

One possibility, Dr. Pielke says, would be to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the future. He calculates that it could cost about the same, in the long run, as making drastic cuts in emissions today, and could be cheaper if the technology improves. It could also be a lot easier sell to the public.

Yes, non-scientist, non-engineer Roger Pielke knows the future cost at massive scale of some technology that isn’t close to being commercial today and that really doesn’t exist in any significant form whatsoever today. And he knows it “could” cost the same or even “be cheaper” than dozens of proven technologies that exist now. Well, I guess we can all get back in our Hummers, build a hundred new coal plants, and breathe a sigh of relief. Seriously.

Yet research into this strategy has received little financing in past budgets or the new stimulus package because it doesn’t jibe with the agenda of either side in the global-warming debate. Greens don’t want this sort of “technological fix”; their opponents don’t want to admit there’s anything to fix. And neither side’s advocates will compromise as long as they think that science will prove them right.

Actually, many greens want a technological fix — it’s called mitigation with energy efficiency and renewable energy. It’s conservatives and denier-eqs that can’t stand the notion of a government led effort to use existing technology to solve the problem. It’s conservatives and denier-eqs that want to do basically nothing while staking the health and well-being of the next 100 billion humans to walk the Earth on nonexistent technology.

And since Tierney never bothers to define “air capture” (which typically describes devices that pull CO2 out of the air for permanent sequestration), his statements are even more egregiously wrong and deserving of retraction.

The most obvious form of air capture is biomass energy — and the federal government has been pursuing that for decades.

The other obvious way of pulling CO2 out of the air is pre-combustion, when CO2 concentrations are very high, using carbon capture and storage on a coal plant — and the federal government has been pursuing that for over a decade, albeit incompetently.

As RealClimate wrote last year on air capture (here):

It should be stated clearly that air capture is not a viable alternative to capture at large, point source emitters such as power plants since it will always be more efficient to capture and store carbon dioxide from more concentrated streams. So while there are any non-CCS fossil fuel plants, Air Capture is a non-starter.

Duh. And yet coal with CCS itself remains a distant and expensive strategy with major scale issues (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“).

Let me point out that we need to put in place a dozen or so clean energy “stabilization wedges” by mid-century to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes — see “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 1.” For CCS to be even one wedge would require a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to the current flow of oil out of the ground. That would require, by itself, re-creating the equivalent of the planet’s entire oil delivery infrastructure, no mean feat.

The same is true of air capture. Where the heck are you going to put all that carbon? And remember, Pielke (mistakenly) thinks we need 20 or more wedges by mid-century. And he doesn’t want to do any serious mitigation at all. So he has to find incomprehensibly large number of verifiably permanent storage sites. And build 20 or so oil industries.

That’s the beauty of making stuff up and relying on technological miracles. Once you accept the possibility of one miracle, there’s no reason not to accept a bunch of others.

On our current emissions path, we are headed to a median atmospheric CO2 concentration of 866 ppm, according to MIT, with a nearly 10% chance we’ll be at 1100 ppm. It is absurd to think that air capture is going to be a viable strategy if we don’t first do massive mitigation and keep near or below 450 ppm.

The third egregious nonsense in Tierney’s piece is:

But too often, Dr. Pielke says, they [scientists] pose as impartial experts pointing politicians to the only option that makes scientific sense. To bolster their case, they’re prone to exaggerate their expertise (like enumerating the catastrophes that would occur if their policies aren’t adopted), while denigrating their political opponents as “unqualified” or “unscientific.”

“Some scientists want to influence policy in a certain direction and still be able to claim to be above politics,” Dr. Pielke says. “So they engage in what I call ‘stealth issue advocacy’ by smuggling political arguments into putative scientific ones.”

What else can one say but “cough, cough bullshit”?

I mean seriously. It is Pielke who, with Tierney’s help, is posing as an impartial expert, an “honest broker.”

It is Pielke who is prone to exaggerate his expertise. What qualifications does Pielke have to assert that he knows that air capture has any plausible chance of being a practical, affordable, and scalable strategy that can replace serious mitigation? Please, can anybody find a relevant degree that justifies his holding out such false hope, that justifies the New York Times using him as the sole “expert” in an article trashing a Nobel prize-winning physicist and a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

It is Pielke, a political scientist, who denigrates scientists as being too political if they dare to offer practical solutions to avoid the catastrophic global warming they know is coming if we keep listening to people like Pielke and Tierney.

Shame on the New York Times for running this column and for having Tierney as a columnist.

Please email the NYT at nytnews@nytimes.com to demand a correction for the egregious mistakes in Tierney’s column and/or email its public editor at public@nytimes.com to explain you are “concerned about the paper’s journalistic integrity.”

‹ Hansen vs. Christy, Round 2: Must-see House hearing Wednesday, 10 am EST

Obama’s Plan: ‘It Begins With Energy.’ ›

20 Responses to John Tierney makes up stuff, just like George Will — does the New York Times also employ several know/do-nothing fact checkers?

  1. Wes Rolley says:

    I am not one who watches Leno at night. If I am still awake at 11:30 I am more likely to be watching Night Line on ABC if anything.

    However, a friend of mine just sent the notice that the Josh Tickell, Director of “FUEL,” was on the Leno show and provided a link to this clip: http://tinyurl.com/cybpz9

    Maybe the answer here is not go directly on the offensive against the Times or the Post, but to send Leno a list of jokes about George Won’t or John Tarnish or Sunday Morning’s Ben Shame. If there is anything that public figures can’t stand it is ridicule… unless you are running for office and then any publicity is thought to be good… even having Tina Fey do you on SNL.

    I can just imagine what Will Rogers would have done with Sen Inhofe.

  2. FAIR has picked up the George Will correction effort… but reports mixed results.


    This is disturbingly strident denialism.

  3. David B. Benson says:

    I certainly find Roger Pielke, Jr. wrong on almost every point, but air capture of CO2 is indeed possible; plants do it all the time.

    Lets see, 2007 CE excess emissions were 10 GtC. Assuming a generous 3 t/ha per annum of biomass which is 1/3rd carbon (typically quoted figure for dry wood, seems high to me) e’ll only need 10 billion hectares, 100 million km² of the 148,940,000 km² total world land area minus the 13,209,000 km² in Antarctica ,16,383,400 km² currently used for agriculture, and “The total area covered by forest is approximately 3 866 million ha, almost one-third of the world’s land area,” oops!

    Somehow doesn’t see overly practicable to use air capture alone.
    [And if I can find this in just a few minutes, so could RPJr and Tierney. For shame.]

    But I did find this interesting reference:
    “The capacity of the world land area to produce agricultural products”

    The quotation is from

  4. Russ says:

    That FAIR link is bizarre and even funny. So as far as the WaPo is concerned if I’m a scientist and put out research, and somebody else twists my results, and I protest vs. this distortion, then the score is one-one and we have “balance”?

    As for the NYT, I’ll be interested to see what if anything Clark Hoyt (the Public Editor) has to say, especially in his Sunday column where he writes about the flaps he considers most important. (He gets alot of business, evidently.)

  5. Gail says:

    I didn’t get a chance to reply to this earlier post:


    But I wanted to, because I suspect the Times has a very explicit policy to NOT report evidence of climate change beyond mere self-censorship. The reason is that I have several times sent comments to the (inexplicably few) articles and op-eds that permit comments, and I have NEVER seen one appear on their online version. All of my comments have been on-topic and didn’t have any naughty words. However, I think that it is possible for them to filter out comments that have certain forbidden words Whereas some online sites might automatically ban comments that contain offensive language, I really think the NYT automatically removes any comments that refer to say, environment, climate change, or global warming. This has happened to frequently to be a coincidence.

    Of course now, I’ve just stopped bothering.

  6. crf says:

    Pielke is not a realist. It is just unrealistic to think air-capture will ever be feasible. The amounts of power required are astronomical — either requiring fusion power or giant solar collectors in space beaming down microwaves to collectors on earth. And if either of those technologies do exist, then it’s already a whole other ball game: so why incorporate them into a future energy plan, in the expectation that they may exist? That’s Popular Mechanics’ job (and they do it quite well), not John Holdren’s or Stephen Chu’s.

    It’s not worth spending very much more than we spend today on that kind of research, in the context of a carbon mitigation strategy. The amount spent on fusion and giant clusters of satellites could probably increase, but the growth in knowledge about fusion power is not terribly constrained by how much money is thrown at it: it’s more constrained by the rate the maximum few hundred people in the entire world who currently sufficiently understand it can physically think. You can’t buy a breakthrough, plan a breakthrough or time a breakthrough, of the order of fusion or satellite power, no matter what financial resources you spend.

    99.9% of funds and time should be spent by Holdren and Chu working under the constraints of the real world in which they live. Quite a lot could be accomplished that way.

  7. Ed says:

    On topic: This is horrible news about journalism at the New York Times. How are we supposed to educate the public with media like this!?

    Off topic, Mike D: This is also horrible news. My heart sunk when I read the headline. The only consolation is that Japan has a satellite (Ibuki, aka Geosat), which can acquire similar data.

  8. lgcarey says:

    Isn’t the real bottom line (literally) that folks like Will and Tierney are major “draws” for a certain unfortunately large segment of the population? (And the rest of us read them too, maybe just to raise our blood pressure over the latest idiocy and hypocrisy.) Can we really expect economically challenged MSM outlets to kill a goose that’s laying one of the few available golden eggs for them – or even to say a harsh word about their sloppy and sleazy tactics? Morally speaking that analysis stinks, but it would seem to me that today’s media economics point in that direction.

  9. paulm says:

    The end of the world is nigh…

    Fight against terror ‘spells end of privacy’
    Former security chief warns searching personal data will ‘break moral rules’
    …Privacy rights of innocent people will have to be sacrificed to give the security services access to a sweeping range of personal data

  10. Matt says:

    Pielke is an idiot. Not that that’s news to you, Joe, but I’m tired of his crap. His site has become a denialist hang-out and that’s really not helping the limited quality of what was already being produced there.

    I pointed out Hayhoe et al, 2004, to him as a response to Chu, which shows really similar results to the study you referenced in the piece. Then again, what’s a few scientific studies between friends?

  11. Lou Grinzo says:

    Igcarey: Bingo! As I’ve said here before, the MSM is now in the position of being an arms dealer who has a huge financial incentive to promote war. (Yes, this is an offensive image, and I apologize for that. But I think it’s accurate.)

    Many traditional media outlets are in such bad shape that they will do nearly anything to keep customers, so fostering ongoing, phony debate and justifying it as “balance” is one of the last tricks in their bag. The only thing that will stop them from these disgusting tactics is the perception on their part that it’s hurting their finances more than it’s helping.

  12. AngelHair says:

    Letters to the editor of the New York Times must be no more than 150 words long and timely and previously ‘unpublished’.
    Submit to letters@nytimes.com or scitimes@nytimes.com.

    I’ve a vague hope mine will be published. I’ll also send a complaint to the news address above.

    I’m fed up with out and out lies about man-caused global warming. Past time we deal with the problem.

  13. Batocchio says:

    Very good work. Thanks.

  14. Gail D says:

    How much longer can we continue to play this “debate” game. It reminds me of bickering kids yelling, ” ‘fraid not!”/ ‘fraid so!” at each other ad nauseam.

    Obviously the accuracy of what appears in the NYT and elsewhere is very important. But at the same time, I worry that with the ‘speeding train’ magnitude of the climate change threat, we don’t have time to spend answering to all of the abundant “misinformation” that is spewed out there.

    I feel that in many of our efforts, we are tackling climate change with a business as usual approach, as though it were like any other of the massive problems we face. And among those of us who spend each day wrangling with the issue, admittedly, it is not always easy to avoid thinking of our work as just another day on the job. But it is critical to make constant assessments as to if what we are doing is “getting the biggest bang for our buck”.

    With so little time to make the giant strides that are necessary, it becomes imperative to be constantly evaluating the effectiveness of our measures and reassessing our tactical priorities.

    As I had stated in an earlier post, there is tremendous power of influence in defining bold and concise messaging and just hammering it out there over and over…. with no time wasted answering to the nay-sayer drivel.
    People respond to the forcefulness and “confidence” of the message without getting caught up in the weeds of all the whys and wherefores.

    This kind of bold messaging should be coming from the top and the bottom. From Obama speaking directly to every citizen and from all the grassroots chiming in at every possible opportunity. Yes, there are multiple messages…. (“No to Coal” for example*) but if we take a few of them and are unrelenting with delivering them over and over, I think we capture the attention of the public and our legislators instead of losing them in the fray of garbled debate.

    *(If we were to forcefully get behind the NO COAL effort and have success with it… think of the astounding number of positive impacts, on so many fronts, that would be simultaneously achieved!)

    When it’s life or death….. we need to get down to basics. We need to make it simple, compelling, loud and repeat it over and over and over…..

  15. Phil says:

    R.P. Jr is a “political scientist” – now there’s an oxymoron if ever I saw one.

    He’s also been trying lately to elevate the pseudoscientific cult religion otherwise known as “economics” to the status of a science.

    It’s a small step from there to demand that “political science” and “economic science” must be treated with the same reverence (there’s that religious cult thing again) as real science.

    The man has an agenda, and it’s not an honest one.

  16. Roger says:

    No offense to some great bloggers, but with all these words flying back and forth, I agree with Bill McKibben, Jim Hansen and thousands of others that it’s time for some shoe leather to hit the pavement around Congress in order to start ramping up some actions that speak louder than words!

    I just got off of a national conference call with Dr. Hansen and others who are organizing and/or participating in the largest citizen climate action to hit this country yet. Go to http://www.capitolclimateaction.org for details, or simply Google a few key words such as ‘Capitol, coal, March 2nd, climate.’

    For anyone (including Joe) who can be in WDC on Monday, you may want to put on your best clothes, head to Spirit of Justice Park at 1 PM, and help send a message to Congress, the media, and the public, saying: “We want: bold climate regulation this year, including no new coal plants, and coal phased out by 2030. Let’s start by phasing out coal at the power plant that feeds Congress steam!” (Or is it hot air?) Participants in this action plan surround the Congressional power plant for the afternoon.

    This is supposed to be a peaceful, respectful demonstration. Let’s hope it will work out that way, and that the message goes out to the world, loud and clear, that many concerned Americans are fed up with the slow pace of change in Washington. Hansen has labeled the current situation a “climate emergency.” We need to wake up the sleeping majority before too many tipping points are reached. Let’s face it: coal is bad; keep it in the ground! That’s the only sure way to sequester the carbon for good.

  17. Anthony W. State says:

    I took your suggestion and sent the following comment to the NY Times. I have previously sent letters about George Will shenanigans.

    Let’s see, you have John Tierney on staff as your “science columnist”, and he uses as his expert, a political scientist, Roger Pielke, Jr. As political science has zero to do with the physical sciences, that alone should disqualify the opinions of Mr. Pielke along with Mr. Tierney.

    Tierney smears Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who really is a scientist, and misqoutes him in his article in the Times. Your newspaper should be embarassed, ashamed and discredited by all thinking readers.

  18. Matt S. says:

    I appreciated this posting and agree with the criticisms it makes of John Tierney’s article in the NYT. But one throw-away line (that isn’t even essential to the points made) rubs me the wrong way: “Seriously, you can smear Obama’s choice for science advisor and the NYT will still let you call yourself an Obamite?”

    As an Obama supporter, voter, and campaign donor, I reserve the right to criticize the president’s picks for cabinet posts, advisors, policy and legislative positions, etc., and still call myself an Obama supporter. Dissent and critical thinking is essential. That is, unless you’re one of those “you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” types.

  19. It is just unrealistic to think air-capture will ever be feasible.

    Evolution and nature agree. Plants are simply delusional thinking they can make a living converting solar energy and nutrients into soil.