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Cholera and Climate Change: The New York Times Gets the Story Exactly Backwards

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"Cholera and Climate Change: The New York Times Gets the Story Exactly Backwards"

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If you wonder why the public is so ill-informed about global warming, the following head-exploding story is illuminating.  The New York Times appears to be downplaying the role of climate change.  You be the judge.

A few weeks ago, some experts on public health and the hydrological cycle came out with a nuanced study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene examining some recent theories as to why cholera outbreaks occur.

The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene put out a news release headlined:

Scientists pinpoint river flow associated with cholera outbreaks, not just global warming

Previously, some scientists had seen a correlation between sea surface temperature and cholera outbreaks in certain locations, like the coastal waters of the Bay of Bengal.  That puzzled the authors of this new study, “Warming Oceans, Phytoplankton, and River Discharge: Implications for Cholera Outbreaks” (PDF here) for two reasons:

  1. High SSTs are normally associated with a decrease in phytoplankton — the authors cite 8 studies on this.  (See also, Nature Stunner: “Global warming blamed for 40% decline in the ocean’s phytoplankton”).
  2. High-levels of phytoplankton are thought to lead to cholera outbreaks.  The causal agent of cholera hangs around with copepods, small crustaceans that feed on phytoplankton.  So it’s been theorized that “high levels of phytoplankton may lead to high numbers of cholera-containing copepods, increasing the likelihood of cholera epidemics in coastal human populations.”

What the new study found was that in the Bay of Bengal and other large river basins -‑ the Orinoco (in South America), the Congo, and the Amazon — “The positive relationship between phytoplankton blooms and ocean temperature is related to large river discharges,” said Shafiqul Islam, PhD, the lead investigator of the study and a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts.  The rivers discharge “terrestrial nutrients.”

The release notes:

But Islam said that global warming may play a role in other ways in outbreaks of cholera, including contributing to droughts and high salinity intrusion in the dry season and floods in the wet season. Both of those conditions have been found also to contribute to cholera epidemics, as published recently in the journal Water Resources Research. “If river flows are more turbulent, if droughts are more severe, if flood is more severe, cholera is more severe,” he said. “But cholera may not have direct linkage with rising sea surface temperatures.”

Okay, so the main result of the study is that cholera outbreaks may not be causally linked with rising SSTs — though the authors can’t make a definitive statement on that (if you actually talk to them).  But cholera outbreaks have been appear to be linked to extreme flooding as well as extreme drought, both of which, of course, have been projected — and even observed — to increase because of climate change!

So what is the headline of the New York Times story?

Seriously.

The news release doesn’t say this at all — quite the reverse.  The study doesn’t say this — if you read it.  Nor do the authors — quite the reverse.   I had an extended interview with Islam yesterday, and, to be clear, he explains that this study simply can’t say whether or not there is a linkage between warmer SSTs and cholera.  But his work does suggest that the kind of extreme weather linked to climate change is a culprit in outbreaks.  Note — “a culprit,” not the only one.

The New York Times appears to have read the news release, but decided to run with its own perverse narrative.  I say that based on the final paragraph of the Times story, which is lifted from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene release:

  • NYT:  “Cholera seems to be gaining a foothold in more places than it used to,” said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. “We obviously need to be taking a different approach.”
  • Release:  “Cholera seems to be gaining a foothold in more places than it used to be,” Hotez said. “We used to see shorter outbreaks, but in Africa, and now in Haiti, we’re seeing nationwide epidemics lasting months or more than a year. We obviously need to be taking a different approach.”

But the release makes clear that the study is not saying that global warming isn’t a culprit, and the quote in the release from Islam makes clear that in fact it probably is a contributing factor.  What is the New York Times doing here, rewriting a headline, ignoring a crucial quote, and generally not doing any actual journalism?

If the New York Times had bothered to talk to Islam, he would have explained the link to climate change in more detail,  since he has written multiple studies on the subject, including “Hydroclimatic influences on seasonal and spatial cholera transmission cycles: Implications for public health intervention in the Bengal Delta” and “Dual peak cholera transmission in Bengal Delta: A hydroclimatological explanation.”  Islam’s work has shown that both extreme flooding and extreme drought can trigger cholera outbreaks.

In fact, in the Bengal Delta’s dual cholera peak, his research finds that “the spring peak is linked to the severity of drought and the fall peak is linked to the severity of flooding.”

He explained that climate change projections for South Asia mean that “extremes will become more extreme, there will be more flood or drought, and that means cholera will net increase.”

What’s even more perverse is that the NY Times piece contains these paragraphs:

Cholera outbreaks seem to be on the increase, but a new study has found they cannot be explained by global warming.

A bigger factor may be the cycle of droughts and floods along big rivers, according to Tufts University scientists who published a study in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene this month….

Warmer ocean surface waters suppress plankton growth, so scientists had assumed cholera outbreaks would decrease with global warming.But satellite photographs of the mouths of the Ganges, Amazon, Congo and Orinoco Rivers suggest that heavy rainfall and glacier melt have the bigger effect by washing soil nutrients down rivers to feed the plankton blooms.

Is the NY Times really unaware that global warming is not only linked directly to heavy rainfall but obviously to glacier melt?

It is embarrassingly bad stories like these that give credence to the claim by John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer who directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology:

Two sources at the Science Times section of the New York Times have told me that a majority of the section’s editorial staff doubts that human-induced global warming represents a serious threat to humanity.

The  one thing we can say with very high confidence about human-induced global warming is that if we  take no serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the foreseeable future — a do-nothing strategy advanced by fossil-fuel interests and supported by a complacent media — then global warming represents the most serious threat to humanity we have ever known.

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19 Responses to Cholera and Climate Change: The New York Times Gets the Story Exactly Backwards

  1. John Tucker says:

    How they could take a honest inquiry into truth and come up with a completely false statement, it just has me speechless.

    There are so many complex factors that feed into the spread of cholera that are also involved with climate change.

    Indeed, as a direct result, geopolitical destabilization is probably the most obvious and completely undeniable factor common between the spread of cholera and climate change. Especially in refugee situations.

    The headline is beyond belief.

    • John Tucker says:

      Just the known increase in atmospheric moisture content related to climate change and the fact cholera really, most basically, is a “flood disease” makes that headline obscenely incorrect.

      Also the author makes the mistake of assuming that recent cholera outbreaks are salt water related. While this is true of small outbreaks in the developed world, most large outbreaks are related to freshwater supplies themselves in the developing world.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      John, as Chomsky and Herman showed, and as commonsense and experience tells us, the Western capitalist MSM is a propaganda system designed to indoctrinate the public. Its operatives are not ‘journalists’ bent on discovering the ‘truth’ or informing the public, they are ideologues, carefully selected and vetted, and disposed of ruthlessly if ‘thought crime’ occurs. Anthropogenic climate destabilisation denial is a Rightwing religious obligation, because the reality of anthropogenic climate destabilisation is an implicit critique of the capitalist system that caused it and that made the owners of the Western MSM rich. Moreover it is a cause promulgated by the viscerally despised ‘Left’ ie the sane and humane fraction of humanity, who the Right hate with ardour. So you inevitably get ‘science departments’ that are anti-science, but ‘politically correct’ in the Rightwing meaning of that expression. Every story will be distorted to fit through the needle’s eye of ideological acceptability. This is true of all the Rightwing MSM, the News Corpse cadaver the worst, but the other undead just as guilty, in varying degree. It’s groupthink in action, in a propaganda system that puts Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth in the shade.

  2. Bad journalism to say the least, so bad it makes me wonder about an anti-climate change agenda there. Plus I saw that release a month ago – its dated 3 Aug – curious why Times published a piece on it now.

  3. Tim Curtin says:

    What nonsense. It has been known since the time of the cholera outbreak in Soho, London, UK 1854, that cholera epidemics result from poor sanitation and water supply whereby as John Snow demonstrated definitively, the latter is mixed with sewerage containing the cholera “bug”. Cholera outbreaks like the one in London originated in India, where then as now standards of sanitation and water supply are not the best, and the same applies to Haiti now. Warmer weather may be associated with an increase in the underlying “bug” population, but if sanitation and drinking water are kept separate there will be no cholera epidemics whatever the outdoor temperature. Believe me, London is a lot cooler than Calcutta, but that did not save its denizens in 1854 if they drank deep from Soho’s Broad Street water pump with its uptake from a sewerage outlet.

    • Joe Romm says:

      I have no idea what you mean by “what nonsense.” Don’t confuse the incipient causes with contributing factors.

    • Doug Bostrom says:

      Tim, your computer probably includes a clock. Check the date. We’re not living in 1854, we know a bit more about cholera up here in 2011.

      It is however ironically amusing to note that private vendors of both potable water as well as sewage disposal services in nineteenth century London bitterly resisted not only the scientific research pointing out the causes of cholera and typhus but also the necessary public policy response necessary to eliminate those threats. These profit obsessed obstructionists were the nineteenth century analog to our more recent tobacco and fossil fuels concerns firms. Thanks for bringing that to our attention!

  4. Justin says:

    Shameful.

  5. Mike says:

    The phytoplankton decline was not directly caused by higher SST, but by the decrease in nutrients caused by slower ocean turnover cause by higher SST. This was only important away from the coasts. Along the coasts nutrients come from … rivers!

  6. What could possibly be so important to the New York Times that they would spread false information about such a deadly disease?

    I think many of us are getting thick skins when it comes to agenda-driven journalism, but making up false information about how to mitigate cholera epidemics in the future is beyond the pale. Ugly.

  7. Jan says:

    I think it is an exaggeration to suspect a hidden agenda in any article that does not accurately reflect climate science (or anything else, for that matter).
    From my limited experience as a local reporter I probably should not draw conclusions about the NYT, but anyway I think that sometimes or often …
    a) these kind-of general-interest sciency stories are cobbled together incredibly fast with no real research or fact-checking to speak of; at the same time, many journalists probably overestimate their ability to immerse themselves in and get sufficiently acquainted with almost any subject very quickly;
    b) they have the tendency to blow any aspects that appear new, strange or surprising to them totally out of proportion, neglecting context and balance in the process.

    That does not make it a less shameful piece of science reporting in the end, though.

  8. Barry says:

    If anybody would like some background on Tim Curtin, please check out Deltoid:

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/

    Search for ‘Time Curtin’

  9. Barry says:

    Aghhh! ‘Tim Curtin’, of course.

  10. john atcheson says:

    The reporter who wrote this should be fired, and the editor who placed it should go with him.

    This is egregious — and it borders on malpractice.

  11. Ken says:

    Write an objection to the public editor public@nytimes.com, Art Brisbane. Not sure what good it does.

  12. Trish says:

    I copied this article’s URL to Donald McNeil, the reporter of the NYTimes article. I said, “I think you owe your readers a correction.” Here’s his response:

    “I disagree. If you read the study, you’ll see it concludes there must be another culprit: flooding. Are all floods caused by global warming? No, obviously not. But thank you for your note.”

    I don’t think he actually read Joe’s commentary since it would be clear if he’d read it that the headline and gist of the his article incorrectly reports the point of the research.

    [JR: That is a nonsensical comment by him. Are all increases in SST caused by global warming? No. So his defense merely shows that he never understood what he was writing about in the first place. The question is whether climate change is contributing to weather extremes that increase the chances of cholera outbreaks.]