Memo to Wall Street Journal: You can do better than “greenhouse gases, which are believed to contribute to climate change”

[You might try sending emails to the reporters below. My guess is they didn’t put a lot of thought into what they were writing and might be open to writing it differently in the future — since this isn’t the WSJ editorial page.]

The media misinforms the public about climate science in many different ways. One, as we’ve just seen, is by publishing long-debunked disinformation over and over again.

But misinformation can be as damaging as disinformation. Consider this March 27 Wall Street Journal piece, “Climate Talks Look to U.S. Role,” by Leila Abboud at and Stephen Power at (emailed me by a sharp-eyed reader). It contains this pointlessly hedged sentence:

The U.S., under the Bush administration, didn’t ratify the Kyoto treaty, and China and other developing countries such as India and Brazil aren’t obligated under the treaty to restrict emissions of greenhouse gases, which are believed to contribute to climate change.

I think we are at least one decade, if not two decades, passed a time when the words “are believed to” are justified.

Note to Abboud and Power: Why exactly do you think they are called greenhouse gases?

This hedge is especially pointless and misinforming because of the second hedge — “contribute to.”

Back in 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the world’s top climate scientists who periodically review the scientific literature and publish reports that every major government signs off on word for word — wrote:

An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system… There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.

Based on increasingly strong scientific evidence, the IPCC strengthened its conclusion in 2007, as the NYT explained:

The world’s leading climate scientists said global warming has begun, is very likely caused by man, and will be unstoppable for centuries…. The phrase very likely translates to a more than 90 percent certainty that global warming is caused by man’s burning of fossil fuels. That was the strongest conclusion to date, making it nearly impossible to say natural forces are to blame.

So perhaps the WSJ might catch up with the scientific understanding and write some variation of:

… emissions of greenhouse gases, which cause climate change.

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16 Responses to Memo to Wall Street Journal: You can do better than “greenhouse gases, which are believed to contribute to climate change”

  1. Estetik says:

    I would say that it would only take a coupl3e of years MAX to get the goods flowing and that would make a difference. very good site…

  2. paulm says:

    Wall Paper Journal

  3. paulm says:

    Good thing Obama is on the case….cause China is going to crush the US car industry otherwise…

    China Vies to Be World’s Leader in Electric Cars

    …China is making a virtue of a liability. It is behind the United States, Japan and other countries when it comes to making gas-powered vehicles, but by skipping the current technology, China hopes to get a jump on the next.

  4. DB says:

    This hedge is especially pointless and misinforming because of the second hedge — “contribute to.”

    However, it is a true statement that GHG are not the only thing that contribute to climate change.

    [JR: Absolutely. Two hedges though are at least one too many.]

  5. Jim Beacon says:

    Since the deniers and delayers have become so adept at twisting some genuine facts to suit their purposes (as Joe reported just recently in his article “The deniers are winning” at we need to revise our approach to writing about the issues.

    We need to STOP talking about “global warming” and “climate change” as if it were a monolithic thing. That plays right into their hands. They can continue to claim that since it is scientifically true that the planet has been in a natural warming trend which “is not man-made” ever since the last ice age ended 10,000 years ago, that the rapidly accelerating warming/climate change we are experiencing now is just part of that ‘natural process’. Because in many minds “global warming” is perceived as a single thing, there’s enough truth to their ‘natural process’ distraction strategy to keep far too many people confused and uncertain about what if anything we should do about it.

    To counter this, writers on the subject who are not deniers or delayers need to make the effort to always specify at the beginning of their articles that there are TWO distinct aspects to climate change:

    1) Natural global warming/climate change which we can’t do anything about and

    2) Human-accelerated global warming/climate change which we can and must do something about.

    If we always specify we are not talking about ‘natural’ warming but the far more dangerous rapidly-accelerating human-caused warming we preempt anyone from countering with the natural process distraction strategy. That puts the real issue — human-accelerated warming — back in the foreground in the minds of average readers. I know this should be obvious and we should have to keep pointing it out, but it’s also obvious that the deniers and delayers are using our failure to make the distinction as an opening. We need to stop giving them openings.

    The same is true when we speak of reducing CO2 emissions, because the latest Big Lie is that we are actually a “carbon-starved planet” simply because 170 million years ago there was a whole lot more CO2 in the atmosphere compared to the “tiny amount we have today”. Unless we continually remind people of the obvious fact that today’s plants, animals and our own human farming/water systems are dependent on the current level of CO2 –i.e., we are not the dinosaurs and plants of 170 million years ago — they can use the genuine fact that CO2 levels in the distant past have been much higher than they are today to convince far too many people that we don’t have enough CO2 in the atmosphere!

    This is all madness of course, but we need to accept that we are fighting madness. And like all madmen, they are very clever at twisting facts to their own ends.

  6. MarkB says:

    Here’s another piece of spin, worthy of a separate blog post:

    Note the title. The study’s findings deal with North American climate, not global climate.

    “Most climate researchers today deal exclusively with man-made “greenhouse” gases, and often dismiss suggestions of naturally caused warming as unscientific.”

    What? Most climate researchers only study manmade GHGs? That’s news to me. Nice strawman.

    Here’s the study (released a few months ago):

    The article claims:

    “It estimates the “natural” change is substantial and could be close to half of all warming in North America”

    This is an error, largely of omission, since the study indicates that natural forcing in North America might not have been substantial at all. See figure 3.4 on page 64. Note the range of natural forcings in North America. It could be substantial on the high end, accounting for close to half, or it could have resulted in slight cooling. Most importantly, note the global model. On average, natural forcing since 1950 should have lead to slight global cooling, and the range of uncertainty is smaller, such that natural forcings, even on the warm end, don’t account for any significant global warming.

    More spin: “It’s “unlikely” that patterns of drought have changed due to global warming caused by human pollution. Rather, natural shifts in ocean currents are probably to blame.”

    This is another error of omission. From the study:

    “It is likely that anthropogenic warming has increased drought impacts over North America in recent decades through increased water stresses associated with warmer conditions, but the magnitude of the effect is uncertain.”

    Yet the article implies there has been no anthropogenic warming impact on drought.

  7. DB says:

    Speaking of plants not being the same, the Chinese have found that a popular hybrid strain of rice called Liangyoupeijiu responses well to high CO2 levels. At 570 ppm rice yield was increased by 30% in both low and high nitrogen conditions.

    Good news for the hungry people of Asia.

  8. cougar_w says:

    It really isn’t worth pointing at journalists and asking “what’s your problem?” Journalists are mostly “people” people. I like to think of them as storytellers, actually. As such they are less like portals and more like mirrors, reflecting back to us what we want to hear, telling us what we already know, making us feel better about ourselves. Entertaining us, not challenging us.

    Journalism as a craft will not save us from ourselves. Journalists as a group haven’t any greater inner strength or fortitude than those they write for. AGW as such might as well be a phenomenon peculiar to the rings of Saturn, or some obscure island off Borneo, for the ability of journalists to get worked up about it.

    Sleep walking. Into a trap.

    Pity the poor journalists.


  9. David B. Benson says:

    Jim Beacon — Please read W.F. Ruddiman’s popular “Plows, Plagues and Petroleum”. Wihtout antropogenic influenes, the globe would have been slowly cooling toward the next attempt at a stade (massive ice sheets) in about another 20,000 years.

  10. Gail says:

    and for your viewing pleasure…

  11. Andy Heninger says:

    Off topic to this thread, but I don’t know where else to put it…

    The San Francisco Chronicle ran an excellent front page story today covering a state study on the expected impacts of global warming.

    Print edition headline:
    How California will feel the heat
    New forecast: droughts, wildfires, hot weather, bad air

    The story concludes

    “Without action, severe and costly impacts are possible across California,” said Linda Adams, secretary of the state Environmental Protection Agency and head of the climate team. Adams released three dozen individual studies and one synthesis report.

    “Any delay in fighting global warming would be detrimental to our economic stability – costing us billions of dollars and dampening the state’s most important economic sectors.”

    The story is online here

    More stories inside,

    Scientists expect more and larger wildfires:

    Heat, wildfires to pump pollution, studies say:

    Electricity supply faces strain in drier future

    Outlook is for stress to state’s water supply

    The Chron really deserves credit for highlighting this story.

    — Andy

  12. Pangolin says:

    Anybody who reads the Wall Street Journal deserves to follow their investment advice. You might as well read the Weekly World News for all the good it will do you.

  13. Jim Beacon says:

    David B. Benson,

    Thanks, but I read it long ago. Not sure what your point to me is. Yes, the geologic record indicates that within the last 1,000 years or so the planet should have ‘naturally’ stopped warming and started cooling again — and that’s the point where the human effect starts coming in. That was my point: The human-caused warming is distinct from the ‘natural’ warming of the past 10,000 years and has now become the critical factor. We need to keep pushing the distinction between the two so that people understand the difference when the deniers say, “Hey, the planet warmed up all by itself from the last ice age with no help from man.” That statement is true, but it is totally beside the point as far as what is happening now goes. I know that in a sane world we should not have to be continually restating such an obvious distinction, but we do, because the distinction is being lost in far too many people’s minds because of all the mental dust kicked up by the deniers.

    By the way, *why* does everyone keep saying “anthropogenic warming” instead of human-caused or human-accelerated warming? I know anthropogenic is the ancient language-sourced science club term for “human-caused” but most people don’t know that and using that term outside of science journals and conferences does *not* help facilitate communication with all the non-science people who want and need to understand these issues. Most folks aren’t versed in science terminology, but they still vote, drive cars and burn coal-generated electricity — so we need to use terms they do understand and stop showing off with anthropogenic specialty words that go over their heads.

    At this point, it’s all about attracting more bees with honey (i.e., plain talk).

  14. I am an undergraduate student finishing up an honors thesis on precisely this phenomenon (more broadly, journalistic “balance as bias” in the print coverage of climate change). I examined coverage from the NYT, Washington Post, and WSJ from 2002 through 2009, and my sample showed that 29.8% of WSJ articles mentioning climate change presented anthropogenic warming in a way that expressed doubt or uncertainty, just like this. Only 5.8% and 6.1% of articles of the NYT and WP articles respectively utilized comparable language. I’ve got more interesting data as well if you’re interested and Sean Pool knows how to reach me…