Climate

Signs of global warming are everywhere, but if the New York Times can’t tell the story (twice!), how will the public hear it?

The signs of global warming are everywhere.  Coming back from my Vail conference to Denver, the driver pointed out to me the shocking devastation the state is now experiencing from the pine beetle, devastation anyone who lives in the West can see.

pinebeetlenyt.jpg

The so-called paper of record ran its second major story in less than a year on the country’s most infamous climate-driven pest, “Beetles Add New Dynamic to Forest Fire Control Efforts” by Kirk Johnson.  And like the early piece, “Bark Beetles Kill Millions of Acres of Trees in West,” by Jim Robbins, it’s a great story, other than neglecting to mention climate change. It’d be like an article on an outbreak of avian flu that left out any discussion of birds.

So we have the national “liberal” media, like the NYT and NBC, blowing this story, while the local, conservative media get it right, see “Conservative San Diego Union knows climate change is killing Western forests” and “Oldest Utah newspaper: Bark-beetle driven wildfires are a vicious climate cycle.”

Of course, the journal Nature understands the science, as an April 2008 article made clear: “Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change.” So does the Canadian media: “Climate-Driven Pest Devours Canada’s Forests.”

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“).

This new piece made the crucial connection between the beetles and the record-breaking forest fires that the West have been experiencing — but missed the equally crucial connection to global warming.  On the one hand, that also isn’t surprising since three years ago, the NY Times blew the Wildfire Story.  On the other hand, had reporter Kirk Johnson bothered to spend even one minute on Google he would have uncovered the tragic feedback that would have made his story complete — global warming leads to more bark beetles, which kills more trees, which leads to more fires, which emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, which leads to more global warming!

The NYT did get the grim, superficial facts of the story right:

But tiny bark beetles, munching and killing pine trees by the millions from Colorado to Canada, are now increasingly adding their own new dynamic. As the height of summer fire season approaches, more than seven million acres of forest in the United States have been declared all but dead, throwing a swath of land bigger than Massachusetts into a kind of fire-cycle purgatory that forestry officials admit they do not yet have a good handle on for fire prediction or assessment.

Dead trees, depending on how recently they died, may be much more flammable than living trees, or slightly more flammable, or even for a certain period less flammable. The only certainties are that dead forests are growing in size and scale “” 22 million more acres are expected to die over the next 15 years “” and that foresters, like the fire-tower lookouts of old, are keeping their eyes peeled and their fingers crossed.

“There’s just a lot more fuel in those dead forests available to burn,” said Bob Harrington, the Montana state forester, who is focusing additional resources this summer on a three-million-acre zone of beetle-infested forest from Butte to Helena.

More than 100,000 people live in that area, and Mr. Harrington said that although fire forecasts for Montana, as in most of the West, called for only an average fire season, dead forests do not play by the rules. They can dry out much faster in heat, without living tree tissue to hold water.

Other beetle watchers say the nightmare of a severe fire season concentrated in the dead-forest zone running along the spine of the Rocky Mountains has, so far, been averted. In Colorado, a combination of deep snows last winter followed by a wet spring has kept fire danger low. But scientists say that recent winters have also lacked the stretches of deep cold “” 20 to 40 degrees below zero “” that can check the insects’ spread.

Gosh, if only scientists had some explanation for why recent winters haven’t been so cold — or, rather, if only journalists would talk to the hundreds of scientists screaming at the top of their lungs to be heard on the subject.

[Note: Regular readers can skip the rest of this post. For those who haven’t read one of my previous stories on the bark beetle, I’m going to repeat my discussion on what scientists understand about the causes.]

Global warming has created a perfect climate for these beetles — Milder winters since 1994 have reduced the winter death rate of beetle larvae in Wyoming from 80% per year to under 10%, and hotter, drier summers have made trees weaker, less able to fight off beetles.

“The pine beetle infestation is the first major climate change crisis in Canada” notes Doug McArthur, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “We’re seeing changes in [mountain pine beetle] activity from Canada to Mexico,” said Forest Service researcher Jesse Logan in July 2004 (here), “and the common thing is warming temperatures.”

A 2005 study, led by the University of Arizona, with Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Geological Survey, “Regional vegetation die-off in response to global-change-type drought,” examined a huge three-million acre die-off of vegetation in 2002-2003 “in response to drought and associated bark beetle infestations” in the Four Corners area (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah). This drought was not quite as dry as the one in that region in the 1950s, but it was much warmer, hence it was a global-warming-type drought. The recent drought had “nearly complete tree mortality across many size and age classes” whereas “most of the patchy mortality in the 1950s was associated with trees [greater than] 100 years old.”

Most of this tree death was caused by bark beetle infestation, and “such outbreaks are tightly tied to drought-induced water stress.” Healthy trees defend themselves by drowning the tiny pine beetles in resin. Without water, weakened, parched trees are easy meals for bugs.

One final note: This catastrophic climate change impact and its carbon-cycle feedback were not foreseen even a decade ago — which suggests future climate impacts will bring other equally unpleasant surprises, especially if we don’t reverse our emissions path immediately.

But how are we ever going to get the political will to reverse our emissions path and avoid even worse climate-driven catastrophes in the future if the media won’t even explain to the public how human-caused climate change is already changing their lives for the worse today. What’s next for the NYT — a story on the obesity epidemic that doesn’t talk about food?

Don’t worry too much about the beetle, though. As Nature reported:

“The beetle will eat itself out of house and home, and the population will eventually collapse.”

Hmm. “Eat itself out of house and home.” Does the bark beetle sound like any other species we know? Finally, the species formerly known as homo sapiens sapiens is no longer alone in its self-destructive quest to destroy its habitat.

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”

Final media note:  In January, the NYT launched an “Environmental S.W.A.T. Team,” as Columbia Journalism Review called it, “in a bid for richer, more prominent coverage.”  Because of this lame story, Commenter Anna Haynes sent a note to S.W.A.T. team editor Erica Goode:

Hello Ms Goode –

I’m curious about the NYT Environmental S.W.A.T. team makeup at this point, since the NYT seems to be running environment/climate stories without the participation of said team, as I understand it to be constituted (from the January CJR Observatory post).

Could you tell me please –
Is the team still active?
Has its membership changed since the January CJR post announcing it?
(Is John M. Broder on it? Kirk Johnson?)
Are you still its editor?
Do environmental stories by non-team members still get edited by the team’s editor?

Thank you for your time, and for helping us readers to understand.

The answer came back:

Thanks for your interest in our environmental cluster!
In answer to your questions: Yes, I’m still the editor, and I have a deputy editor now, Nancy Kenney.
Yes, John Broder is part of our group. Kirk Johnson is not “” he works for the National desk. The other members of the enviro group “” or pod, as we often call it “” are Andy Revkin, Elisabeth Rosenthal, Leslie Kaufman, Matt Wald, Felicity Barringer, Cornelia Dean and Mia Navarro. Reporters from other sections “” most recently, Jim Glanz from Investigations “” sometimes do pieces for us. And we often collaborate with reporters from the energy cluster in the Business section.
We edit all of our own stories, then feed them to other sections “” National, Foreign, Metro, Science, etc.
Hope this answers your questions and thanks for asking.

And that’s why the NYT didn’t SWAT this beetle.

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27 Responses to Signs of global warming are everywhere, but if the New York Times can’t tell the story (twice!), how will the public hear it?

  1. We’re now well past the tipping point for the MSM on the issue of climate change. For a long time now the best coverage has been on the web, on a variety of sites including Climate Progress. Newspapers are now just part of the mix, and no longer the “A” part of that mix.

  2. Sin of omission.

    Such strategic ignorance permits the continued flow of heavy advertising dollars from coal and oil industries.

    ( Hey communications research students – time for a simple content analysis of NYT advertising page content )

  3. Dano says:

    Several months ago I worked a forestry booth at the Green Conference here. Extremely well attended, and many folk came down the hill from the mountains to attend. They see, every day, the MPB damage. They know why.

    Best,

    D

  4. paulm says:

    To think its the very source of what they print on. They ought to get this.

  5. James Thomson the second says:

    Look on the bright side. Once all the forests are dead think of the number of Waxman-Markey offsets that can be claimed by power companies engaged in reforrestation projects.

    Massive reductions in CO2 and no need to close any coal fired power stations!

    [JR: Nice try. More likely, a source of biomass power to replace coal.]

  6. Gail says:

    1. We have changed the climate. (Do we all agree on that except the trolls?)

    2. Every creature and plant that lives on the earth right now is suited to a climate that existed 200+ years ago, which has since been altered. We now have a different atmospheric composition, a different average temperature, and wildly variable precipitation. Never mind pollution and habitat destruction.

    3. Every species on earth is going to have to either migrate, adapt, or expire.

    I’m not a scientist but this just seems like pure logic, no?

  7. Gail, you are concise and spot on.

    Now this means that all our past has failed to prepare us for the future. There will be new events and new rules. Even though we are smarter and better connected, we are un-prepared.

    ”We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” -C.S. Lewis

  8. JoeB says:

    Ha. The NYTimes doesn’t even acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, so why would they acknowledge Climate Change. They’re wimps going out of business.

  9. mark h says:

    The forest management and fire supression activities of the last 100 years has more to do with the pine bark beetle problem than climate change.

  10. caerbannog says:

    I got sent back east on a business trip last summer — flew right over the Rockies on a cloudless day. The extent of the bark-beetle infestation was just stunning — whole mountainsides of trees were rust-red dead, for miles and miles.

    We are not talking about your usual “patchy” bark-beetle outbreaks — we are talking about square-miles of mostly dead trees. There were quite a few “holy-sh*t” moments from my window-seat on that flight last summer…

  11. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi mark h-

    The forest management and fire supression activities of the last 100 years has more to do with the pine bark beetle problem than climate change.

    No, climate denier talking points aside, most forest experts do blame the explosion in bark beetle populations on the fact that it takes a few weeks of very cold weather a year to kill them, and many forests just don’t get that any more – due to global warming. The connection couldn’t get clearer, or more obvious, at least to anyone not brain damaged by total immersion in climate denier talking points.

    Hi James Thompson and JR:

    Look on the bright side. Once all the forests are dead think of the number of Waxman-Markey offsets that can be claimed by power companies engaged in reforrestation projects.

    Massive reductions in CO2 and no need to close any coal fired power stations!

    [JR: Nice try. More likely, a source of biomass power to replace coal.]

    As those dead trees decay, most of the carbon will go into the atmosphere, even those that don’t burn in massive wildfires.

    This is a sad fact, but it is a fact.

    Yes, we need to harvest the dead trees, and burn them in carbon negative bioenergy power plants, which combine biomass or biochar combustion plus carbon sequestration.

    If we don’t, we miss out on a huge chance to make a carbon negative impact on the climate change problem.

    Those are the facts.

    In the long run, the truth is always friendly, IMO.

    And this is the truth.

  12. caerbannog says:

    mark h said,

    The forest management and fire supression activities of the last 100 years has more to do with the pine bark beetle problem than climate change.

    ##########################

    Actually, that’s not true. The most heavily-impacted forests in the Rockies are the higher-elevation lodgepole-pine forests, forests that typically burn only every couple of hundred years or so. It is the lower-elevation ponderosa pine forests that have been most heavily impacted by fire-suppression. Ponderosa pine forests have historically been subjected to frequent, low-intensity fires (which have been heavily suppressed, partly because lower-intensity fires are easier to put out). Lodgepole-pine forests have historically been subjected to infrequent, high-intensity fires.

    The remote lodgepole-pine forests in Canada are dying off even faster than the lodgepole pine forests in the USA. That’s not a result of fire-suppression — the remote forests in Canada have been less impacted by fire-supression than have the forests in the USA. Climate-change is driving this.

    I’ll refer folks who are interested to this Scripps/UCSD press-release: http://scrippsnews.ucsd.edu/Releases/?releaseID=739

    Excerpt:

    The new findings, published in the July 6 issue of Science Express (the advance online version of the printed journal Science), point to climate change, not fire suppression policies and forest accumulation, as the primary driver of recent increases in large forest fires.

  13. James Thomson the second says:

    Joe, My comment about offsets was only partly tongue in cheek. If you read the small print in W-M there is really no reason at all why a US reforrestation project should not qualify as a domestic offset. See section 732 and related sections.

    http://energycommerce.house.gov/Press_111/20090701/hr2454_house.pdf

    “19 ‘‘(1) authorize the issuance of offset credits
    20 with respect to qualifying offset projects that result
    21 in reductions or avoidance of greenhouse gas emis22
    sions, or sequestration of greenhouse gases;”

    So, even if CO2 caused the problem offsets can still be claimed by anyone offering to clean up their own mess. Sweet.

    [JR: Reforestation efforts that meet the tough standards of W-M are OK by me. We’re going to be so desperate cut emissions and then concentrations that we need to gain experience with and push every conceivable strategy.]

  14. ken levenson says:

    (Sorry for repetition – just realized that I posted this comment in wrong thread…above.)

    Joe, You’re not going to believe this crap… The NYTimes finds an as of yet undiscovered way to warp the beetle story.

    “A House in the Woods, After the Woods Are Gone”

    In this iteration the reporter grudgingly acknowledges the role of climate change (in the 13th graph):
    “Living in a valley where the forest is dead is dislocating, even apocalyptic. Over the years I’ve written much about how the West is being affected by climate change. Now it’s personal. ”

    Then proceeds to conclude – oh well, shit happens!!!!! :

    “In the end, there are silver linings, I suppose. The threat of forest fire left with the forest. From the bedroom I can see the indigo silhouette of the Big Belt Mountains and the glowing lights of Helena….We’ll miss our forest. The fact, though, is that nature is constantly changing. It’s a tough lesson to learn, especially with change this sudden. But a warming planet promises more of the same, so we’d better get used to it.”

    Read the whole travesty here:
    http://www.nytimes.com/ 2009/ 07/ 02/ garden/ 02tree.html?_r=1&ref=garden

    This is beyond absurd. Of course he says nothing “wrong” – but why choose the emphasis – or lack of it – that they continually do. Just more cool kidz garbage….

  15. Mark says:

    Leland

    You call me brain damaged because I point out there are factors other than climate change that relate to the pine bark bettle infestation. There must be a lot of brain damaged forestry people out there because if you google pine bark beetle you’ll see more than a few references to factors contributing to this problem other than climate change.

  16. James Thomson the second says:

    [JR: Reforestation efforts that meet the tough standards of W-M are OK by me. We’re going to be so desperate cut emissions and then concentrations that we need to gain experience with and push every conceivable strategy.]

    Fine, but the forests were in the “bathtub” from the start. Its the coal we need to keep in the ground. That’s where the new carbon is coming from.

  17. Joe M says:

    I guess insects never did any damage before global warming, excuse me, climate change, came along. BTW A balmy 62 degrees F in massachusetts yesterday. Can’t wait for that global warming they keep promising us gets here. Fools.

  18. Chris says:

    Your lack of understanding the issues vividly shows why this site needs to exist. How you make the correlation that one insect infestation being caused by an increase in temperatures means all others should be judged by the same criteria is mind boggling. You also clearly don’t understand the difference between short term weather variations and long term climate change. It’s very bold of you to go on accusing the readers here of being fools in light of your own failure to comprehend (made worse by you spreading such ideas).

    By the way, do you stop making jokes about global warming when it is unusually hot?

  19. Dano says:

    Chris, he also doesn’t know how ‘climate change’ came into prominence in the public discourse.

    Best,

    D

  20. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Joe M-

    One of the things that the denier sites sell you is the idea that you are one of the special people, and not a fool.

    Televangelists do the same thing. They tell their flock that they are special people, endowed with a special wisdom or common sense.

    They do this mostly so that they can get their money.

    In the case of the deniers you listen to, likely they are not after your money, unless you really want to throw it away. The money to run these sites is provided by a network of right wing “charitable” foundations and corporate contributions and advertising.

    What these sites want is your mind and your political support. They want this so that their corporate sponsors can go on selling fossil fuels and fossil fuel generated electricity.

    Needless to say, I think that you are a rather foolish victim of paid propaganda. Admittedly, it’s very good, well done propaganda, which does indeed bolster your sense of self worth and does indeed build a sense of group solidarity within the denier movement.

    We’ve put up with this sort of paid propaganda in the past, but we are reaching a point where we cannot tolerate it any more. Rush Limbaugh’s last contract, for example, was for 400 million dollars – 50 million dollars a year, directly from corporate America.

    Joe, buddy, you’ve been duped. You don’t have any special wisdom, they just tell you that because they want control of your mind. You are a heavily propagandized ordinary person, and, as such, you are a very scary phenomenon indeed, I think.

  21. Anna Haynes says:

    “…if the New York Times can’t tell the story (twice!)…”

    Irony: google this:
    “careful not to repeat themselves” site:climateprogress.org

  22. Chris says:

    What exactly is your point? Although he doesn’t work for free, the information he dispenses us undeniably not fed by his ’employer.’ Or I suppose if it is, it is essentially mirroring the findings of disinterested scientists around the world. It seems like you are a member of the very club you seem to be warning us of.

  23. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Mark-

    Leland

    You call me brain damaged because I point out there are factors other than climate change that relate to the pine bark bettle infestation. There must be a lot of brain damaged forestry people out there because if you google pine bark beetle you’ll see more than a few references to factors contributing to this problem other than climate change.

    Yes, but the infestation is mostly happening in high altitudes in remote areas, far from human influence and fire prevention efforts.

    In order to ignore these millions of acres of dead trees, the deniers you listen to need to implant false or misleading ideas into your head about how these millions of acres of dead trees, and all of the other myriad effects of global warming came about.

    I guess “information damaged” or “heavily propagandized” might have been a better choice of words. I apologize for the “brain damaged” remark, it is just frustrating to deal with someone whose mind appears to be closed, likely from heavy exposure to paid propaganda.

    I don’t really blame you, I blame the corporate interests that duped you.

    I apologize, for the wisecrack.

  24. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Chris-

    What exactly is your point? Although he doesn’t work for free, the information he dispenses us undeniably not fed by his ‘employer.’ Or I suppose if it is, it is essentially mirroring the findings of disinterested scientists around the world. It seems like you are a member of the very club you seem to be warning us of.

    Limbaugh? Do I understand you right?

    Whoa. Limbaugh’s message is very carefully crafted, and he actually has very little latitude to change it.

    How long do you think he would make his 50 million dollars per year if actually changed his mind, and started badmouthing corporate America?

    Disinterested scientists? There might be a few. But many of the people he quotes from are actually paid by a network of fossil fuel and right wing foundation funded think tanks like the George C. Marshall institute, which has accepted over $600,000 directly from ExxonMobil, and over six million dollars from a network of right wing charitable foundations including those run by Richard Mellon Scaife.

  25. charlie says:

    actually joe, avian flu doesn’t have much to do with birds. Once it crosses over to human populations, it is just another flu. Birds always have some flu, it only because a news story when we catch it.

  26. Rattus Norvegicus says:

    As a resident on Bozeman, MT, located about 75 mi SE of Helena, I can attenst to the change in climate here over the last several years. Friends of mine who are arborists have told me that we have moved from zone 4 to zone 3 since the mid 1990’s. We haven’t had a prolonged cold snap here since 2001. We still get occasional cold snaps which last for a couple of days, but never the week or two that it takes to kill the MPB.

    Last winter was one of the warmest since I moved here, but each one is warmer than the last. In the winter of 2008-09 we rarely had highs in the teens or twenties and lots of highs in the 30’s. We got lots of snow, which melted off quickly here in the valley, although the mountains retained enough to have a normal snowpack at the end of April. We make jokes about climate change here all the time, but underneath it we all know that it is happening and the foresters I know understand this more than anyone else.

  27. Doug says:

    Let’s keep the beetles in perspective. They are a native species. Their populations fluctuate wildly, even when climate change is not occurring. It’s a natural boom-bust system. The beetle outbreaks create favorable habitat for some species (like woodpeckers, bats, insect eating birds) and unfavorable habitat for others.

    More here:
    http://wuerthner.blogspot.com/2009/06/beetle-hysteria-strikes-again.html

    [JR: “Beetles are not destroying our forests, rather are creating new ecological opportunities, increasing biodiversity, and creating greater ecosystem health”? Seriously? Climate change is great because it helps invasive species? We should all welcome that with open arms? Not!]