If political reporters are going to cover climate science, they need to take more care
UPDATE: Yikes — even FoxNews reported the press call more accurately than Milbank!
Political reporter Dana Milbank managed to glom onto the one somewhat ambiguous statement made by Dr. Jeff Masters on the press call. Milbank then then spun it — inaccurately — into more he-said she-said that is the catnip (crack?) for the gaggle:
Scientific arguments, too, are problematic. In a conference call arranged Thursday by the liberal Center for American Progress to refute the snow antics of Inhofe et al., the center’s Joe Romm made the well-worn statements that “the overwhelming weight of the scientific literature” points to human-caused warming and that doubters “don’t understand the science.”
The science is overwhelming — but not definitive. Romm’s claim was inadvertently shot down by his partner on the call, the Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters, who confessed that “there’s a huge amount of natural variability in the climate system” and not enough years of measurements to know exactly what’s going on. “Unfortunately we don’t have that data so we are forced to make decisions based on inadequate data.”
The scientific case has been further undermined by high-profile screw-ups….
Hacked emails, IPCC, blah, blah, blah….
Masters’ comment did not shoot down mine or “undermine” the scientific case. Gimme a break.
The entire press call was in the context of extreme regional weather events, and the natural variability in the climate system makes it exceedingly difficult to forecast the extreme events at a regional level. That was the context in which Masters was answering questions.
But if you have any doubt whatsoever what Masters believes, he has set the record straight on his blog today in response to Milbank’s column:
Media coverage by the Washington Post
I did a phone-in press call with 20 media outlets on Thursday, to discuss how record snowstorms do not imply that global warming is not occurring. Participating on the call with me was Dr. Joe Romm, who blogs on climate-related issues for climateprogress.org. The audio is posted there if you want to listen.
The Washington Post highlighted a portion of the call where I said, “there’s a huge amount of natural variability in the climate system”, not enough years of measurements to know exactly what’s going on, and “Unfortunately we don’t have that data so we are forced to make decisions based on inadequate data.” The article said that my statements shot down the statement by Joe Romm that “the overwhelming weight of the scientific literature” points to human-caused warming and that doubters “don’t understand the science.” Let me clarify that there will always be considerable uncertainty in our understanding of a chaotic system like the atmosphere. We should not demand certainty where it cannot exist, always using uncertainty as an excuse for taking no action. Keep in mind that the uncertainty goes both ways–climate change could be far worse than the IPCC is predicting, and it would be wise to buy an intelligent amount of insurance to protect ourselves.
I agree with Dr. Romm’s statement, and the offical Statement on Climate Change from the American Meteorological Society, “Despite the uncertainties…there is adequate evidence from observations and interpretations of climate simulations to conclude that the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; that humans have significantly contributed to this change; and that further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies, on economies, on ecosystems, and on wildlife through the 21st century and beyond.”
The official statement from the UK Royal Society and UK Met Office is also one I agree with, “The 2007 IPCC Assessment, the most comprehensive and respected analysis of climate change to date, states clearly that without substantial global reductions of greenhouse gas emissions we can likely expect a world of increasing droughts, floods and species loss, of rising seas and displaced human populations. However even since the 2007 IPCC Assessment the evidence for dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible climate change has strengthened. The scientific evidence which underpins calls for action at Copenhagen is very strong. Without coordinated international action on greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts on climate and civilization could be severe.”.
In retrospect, I made a mistake in the press call. The call was about the science — indeed, just one aspect of the science — but it was in the context of a political story, and that meant political reporters would be on the call, and that meant people who don’t follow the science at all, and that meant a serious possibility that an ambiguously worded response would be leapt on and spun.
We should have begun with a very brief overview of what the science says — indeed, to save time, we should have said what Masters ultimately put in his blog, that we agree with the statements of the AMS and especially the Met Office/Royal Society. That wouldn’t have eliminated the possibility of mistake but would at least have made it difficult for any reporter to take any specific, ambiguously worded statement and used to to make a grossly inaccurate generalization.
I hope to learn from this mistake. And I hope political reporters covering a story that is far outside their area of expertise will learn, too, that this subject deserves more attention than typical political stories because so much is at stake.
UPDATE: Even FoxNews reported the press call more accurately than Milbank! Blake Snow, who asked a couple of questions during the call, writes:
Masters says in a perfect world he’d need “200-300 years worth of records” to accurately predict further climate change. But since that’s not available, “We’re forced to make decisions on a limited data set.” Nevertheless, Masters feels the possible dangers of global warming outweigh the risks of remaining idle. “We need to take action even in the face of inadequate data,” he says.
Not perfect, but a fairer representation than the Washington Post, which ought to worry Milbank!