Climate’s Clint Eastwood: Joe Nocera Mis-Cites Me TWICE In Failed Effort To Smear James Hansen

Memo to Nocera: You really need to issue a retraction and multiple apologies, rather than writing yet another error-riddled smear job on Hansen.

The good news is that I’m home from Johns Hopkins, sans pancreatic neuro-endocrine tumor, with a very good prognosis.

The bad news is NY Times business columnist Joe Nocera took this moment to utterly misrepresent two (!) posts of mine in a shameless effort to smear the nation’s top climatologist, James Hansen.

The ugly news is that, as we’ll see, Nocera’s whole approach to Hansen is like Clint Eastwood’s was to Obama this summer — an incoherent monologue full of misrepresentations, aimed at an invisible (straw) man.

Now, remember, Nocera is still unforgiven for his error-riddled February 19 column that mis-stated Hansen’s position, quoted a private email comment out of context, and made one of the most egregious economic errors ever seen in the NY Times. And Nocera had the gumption to rawhide Hansen’s Keystone tactics, whipping them for being “utterly boneheaded.”

Of course, to be forgiven, Nocera would have to retract all of his errors (not just most egregious one), rather than doubling down with yet another error-riddled column today, “A Scientist’s Misguided Crusade.”

You may wonder how I ended up in the line of fire here, especially since my name never actually appears in the piece. That’s because Nocera pulls a magnum force miscue here, one that is unique in my nearly 7 years of blogging: He hyperlinks to Climate Progress to back up his misguided smears not once, but twice. You might call that utterly boneheaded. Here is the rookie quote:

Yet what people hear from Hansen today is not so much his science but his broad, unscientific views on, say, the evils of oil companies. In 2008, he wrote a paper, the thesis of which was that runaway climate change would occur when carbon in the atmosphere reached 350 parts per million — a point it had already exceeded — unless it were quickly reduced. There are many climate change experts who disagree with this judgment — who believe that the 350 number is arbitrary and even meaningless. Yet an entire movement,, has been built around Hansen’s line in the sand.

Who are “the many climate change experts who disagree with” Hansen’s judgment? Why, they are just little ‘ole me, Joe Romm. Now, Joe N, you must know flattery will get you nowhere. Yes, I do like to think of myself as a climate change expert. But I am just one solitary person — or rather one person minus about 20% of my pancreas, but let’s give Nocera the benefit of the doubt and round up to one. Not “many,” though.

And the thing is that my post doesn’t say what Nocera says it does. It doesn’t say 350 “is arbitrary and even meaningless.” Here’s how it opens (emphasis added):

To James Hansen (and his fellow 350 ppm-ers):

You make a compelling case we must ultimately return atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million to avoid catastrophic climate impacts (see “Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al“).

Doh! Say it isn’t so, Joe. This is not exactly a stinging indictment of 350 ppm.

As an aside, it is lame but not unheard of for bloggers to pull the “many experts disagree” trick (i.e. not name specific experts) and use a single link — but at least they usually link to someone who supports their view. But I’d say it is journalistic malpractice for someone writing an article that appears both online and in print to not name one expert — especially when their online column links to a post that actually undercuts what they claim.

As a double aside, it is precisely to avoid this problem that I tend to cite old posts of mine by full name —  so you know what the post is about and you can have high confidence it says what I claim it says (because after thousands of blog posts with probably tens of thousands of links, I know all to well that people rarely actually click on those links, which no doubt is what Nocera was counting on).

The point of my post is clear in the very next sentence:

But you have made an uncompelling case about how President-elect Obama should go about achieving 350 ppm in your new draft essay….

The post is primarily about the “how” — the policies needed to achieve 350 ppm and how difficult they would be to enact. I do say (emphasis added), “I am not entirely convinced that 350 ppm is needed this century from a purely scientific perspective.” But as the post makes clear, that was primarily about practicality — and, to repeat, this is hardly much of an indictment of 350.

Oh, but it gets worse. Click on the link for Nocera’s phrase “he wrote a paper” and that is also a link to Climate Progress!!! That had a sudden impact on me, as you can imagine. (I have taken screenshots of the original HTML code for the story, for those who worry about that sort of thing.)

Yes, Nocera doesn’t even link to the original paper — he links to my discussion of it. Flattering, I suppose, but it certainly does entitle me to explain what Hansen et al meant — and it ain’t what Nocera says. It is not about how “runaway climate change would occur when carbon in the atmosphere reached 350 parts per million.” It is about how 450 ppm may be a tipping point “such that change proceeds out of our control.”

As I explain:

The key paleoclimate finding of the article:

“We infer from the Cenozoic data that CO2 was the dominant Cenozoic forcing, that CO2 was only ~450 ppm when Antarctica glaciatedand that glaciation is reversible.”

That is, if we stabilize at 450 ppm (or higher) we risk returning the planet to conditions when it was largely ice free, when sea levels were higher by 70 meters — more than 200 feet!

So Nocera is just dead wrong.

He is also wrong to strongly imply that this is just the work of James Hansen — “he wrote a paper.” As my posts make clear, this is a multiple author paper with many prestigious scientific authors, “NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al.”

I end the explanatory post this way (emphasis in original):

My Bottom Line: Let’s start working now toward stabilizing below 450 ppm, while climate scientists figure out if in fact we need to ultimately get below 350.

Note that I am buying the thesis that we should try to stabilize below 450 ppm, which is really the only way to keep the 350 ppm option plausibly open.

Finally, and this is as egregious as anything else, both of those posts were written in 2008!

My whole point was we need to pay attention to how the science evolves — and the science has gotten considerably more alarming in the past 5 years for those who pay attention, so my position has evolved accordingly.

You can read my review of the recent literature here: “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces.” Here are a few relevant studies:

So yes, in the last 5 years, the science has certainly come down in favor of getting as close to 350 ppm as quickly as we can — any which way you can, really — even though that definitely isn’t easy (see “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm“). Gosh, why would I write a post with that title in 2011 if I thought 350 was “meaningless.”

No sane, moral society would risk triggering the permafrost feedback or causing multiple devastating impacts that are likely to be itreversible on a scale of centuries. We must pay any price, bear any burden to avoid it.

And yes, the allusions to Eastwood’s filmography have a point. I am a huge fan of Eastwood movies, but his brilliant acting and directing don’t make him competent to offer political analysis. Similarly, Nocera is well qualified to explain whether we should pay a fistful of dollars for Apple stock, for instance, but these 2 recent articles should pretty much disqualify him from participating in the climate debate, at least until they are formally corrected.

Final Memo To Nocera and the NY Times: This is journalistic malpractice pure and simple. So we are way past retraction. It is your crusade against Hansen that is misguided. You really should run an entire article apologizing for what you’ve done and correcting your errors.

Readers can reach the NYT public editor here.

This post has been updated.

38 Responses to Climate’s Clint Eastwood: Joe Nocera Mis-Cites Me TWICE In Failed Effort To Smear James Hansen

  1. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Is he studying the picture of “Dorian Climate” ?

  2. Chris Harlos says:

    Nocera is the Judith Miller of the Fossil Fuel Industry. One wonders how many $ it took to buy him off?

  3. Joe, glad to see you are back in the saddle and on the mend. Since Nocera spent time with Hansen, why didn’t he just ask him about 350ppm. Why guess? Isn’t that reporters/columnists do, ask questions? Or is it simply ok in NYT to make uninformed — in this case wrong — assertions? That’s Fox News territory.

  4. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    Hard to believe that people actually shell out $2.50 a day to read this garbage in the the new york times, it actually costs a thousand dollars a year to buy the paper, they are entitled to a refund for the misleading claim, “all the news that’s fit to print”. I would not even recycle it for toilet paper!

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    We were waiting to hear from you on this, Joe, and as expected your critique is thorough and devastating. Don’t hold your breath about NYT retractions or even admissions of guilt here. They will hide behind the fact that Nocera writes opinion columns, where almost anything goes.

    I was so blown away by the piece my NYT comment was just a throwaway, as if I was reviewing a bad horror movie. Thanks for doing the grunt work, especially since you just got out of the hospital!

    You’ve shown us once again just how dedicated you are, and have inspired us for life. Who knows, we might even win, and if we do, you and Hansen will deserve the most credit. Courage, relentlessness, and hard work have a way of being rewarded.

  6. climatehawk1 says:

    That’s excellent news about your prognosis, Joe. Hope your recovery goes well.

  7. Joe,

    Glad your back. (Hint from somebody who’s been around the illness block a couple times — you’ll recover faster, overall, if you DON’T push too hard.)

    The Times is really turning into a rag, at least as far as THE big story — climate — goes. Revkin can almost be described as a deniers enabler; Nocera is a clown who shouldn’t even write about climate issues — unless he goes to trouble to educate himself; the Times just eliminated their environmental desk and the Green blog. What’s left? Friedman wrote a decent piece the other day, but is wasn’t exactly full of original revelations.

    It makes you wonder: Are these MSM people just too stupid, dense or bought to get climate change? Or is climate change so scary and overwhelming that they are desperately trying to put their heads in the sand — or in some other dark, out-of-the way crevice?

    As Superman said on this blog a while back, “It’s surreal.”

    Well the good news is that CP is becoming the go-to climate blog, and climate is the story of the century. I’ll certainly spread the word about your work — maybe if enough people hear about it, there will be at least one place they go to find out what the F$#&*^K is happening.

  8. Chris Mclean says:

    We should all keep this on file for future use. Those who are entrenched in the system will continue manufacturing consent for consumption.

  9. onyerlefty says:

    Joe, most importantly: glad you’re prognosis is good and you’re on the mend.
    Second, I believe the Times has lost accountability minus it’s environmental desk and Green Blog – at least there was someone in the building who knew what they were talking about. If this is the kind of reporting we can expect from NYT, we may have to cross an ocean and make the Guardian the source of choice for educated environmental commentary.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Thank-God they saved your spleen, Joe! You just have to have it handy when dealing with creatures like this.

  11. Sasparilla says:

    onyerlefty I think we passed that point with regards to the Guardian years ago – they rock and its scary they’re the only one, other than blogs.

  12. Sasparilla says:

    Great post Joe, hopefully you’re blood pressure wasn’t getting too high here.

    The NYTimes has become just another corporatist paper with a liberal slant overlaying the corporatist message – with Nocera leading the way telling us the XL doesn’t matter and Hanson’s misguided. I’m sure Exxon and others were very happy with Nocera’s with these messages and the continued character assassination of Hanson.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In regard to environmentalism, (which the Bosses clearly now see as as great a threat to their global rule as socialism once was)the entire MSM is now Fox News territory. In Australia the MSM now generally represses climate news, unless it is irrepressible, as with this summer’s heatwave and the constant flooding on the east coast, and the opinion page screechers uniformly vilify and abuse the detested ‘Greens’ often in truly vile terms. The level of hatred being inculcated in the susceptible elements of the ‘Great Unwashed’ is quite frightening. And the two, ideologically near-identical, Rightwing mainstream parties vie with each other in destroying environmental protection, opening wildernesses and heritage areas to destructive ‘development’ and extending coal mining and gas extraction. If you were a visiting alien from outer space I swear that you would imagine that the planet was run, a la Jonestown, by some maniacally suicidal cult.

  14. Paul M Suckow says:

    Joe, also so glad to hear that you are out of hospital safely. Now that the ERM Draft Supplemental EIS has apparently removed amy type of cover for President Obama by issuing the “all clear” in a FONSI, I expect that we’re going to see another deafening effort to crush back against climate preservationists. Seems to happen every time a climate victory is nigh! Take good care of what remains of yourself, Joe. We need you for the long haul. I’ve been wondering what you think of Dr. Hansen’s promotion of a slowly and predictably rising carbon fee with full public rebate as the most effective way to engage the markets in a virtuous spiral that will retire the burning of fossil fuels?

  15. Henry says:

    Well, I guess you haven’t read the WaPo editorial;
    Where they say “Environmentalists are fighting the wrong battles”. Same idea without the Hansen smears.

  16. Joe Romm says:

    Docs took my blood pressure every 4 hours for 5 days, so they must have thought I needed to keep my pressure low. Blogging is thus therapeutic.

  17. Ozonator says:

    I guess money is now no limit to the gargle of deniers. Putting the conflict back into conflict-diamonds, I just saw a advert for genuine diamonds on micro-watts media outfall – naturally treated with only a Clorox advert.

  18. Edith Wiethorn says:

    Jesus Christ – get real about your citation expectations!

  19. Superman1 says:

    Philip, “Are these MSM people just too stupid, dense or bought to get climate change?” Many posters on this blog expect the politicians, MSM, etc, to be leaders in countering climate change. Unrealistic! The politicians and MSM, in particular, are followers, not leaders. They will follow the path of least resistance. So, if their audience is not at the gates in numbers, with torches and pitchforks, they will follow their campaign donors and advertisers. The media and politicians are giving the bulk of the American electorate exactly what they want to hear, on climate change and most other issues. You need to replace the lens on your telescope with a mirror to see the real source of the problem.

  20. Superman1 says:

    I have responded to your comment, and it should be up shortly.

  21. wili says:

    I didn’t know JC had citation expectations! ‘-)

  22. Chris Dudley says:

    Glad to round up to one. Very good news.

  23. Icarus62 says:

    My understanding about the origin of the 350 figure:

    James Hansen’s research tells him about the large planetary energy imbalance that is driving global warming. Bill McKibben asks him for an expert opinion on a target level of atmospheric CO2 to aim for; a number they can campaign on. Hansen knows that a reduction in atmospheric CO2 to 350ppm has about the same magnitude of climate forcing as the current planetary energy imbalance – around 0.6 to 0.8W/m²… so is born. However, Hansen explicitly says that aiming for 350ppm is a first step to stabilising climate, not necessarily a ‘safe’ level – we need to start somewhere but we don’t actually yet know what is a safe level. Ultimately we may regard returning to the pre-industrial level as the best way to preserve the climate that human civilisation is adapted to.

    Incidentally, Levitus 2012 showed that Hansen was exactly right to choose 350ppm – that paper determined the planetary energy imbalance as just over 0.6W/m², equivalent to the forcing implied by a reduction in atmospheric CO2 from 395 to 345ppm.

  24. Kota says:

    Welcome home Joe!! :)

    You make a better doctor than a patient and we need you in emergency stat!

    Civilization is on the table diagnosed with fossilbetes. It’s about to take the whole planet into a fossilbetes coma. All its ‘friends’ have already shown up with boxes and boxes of fossil bonbons. Enough to kill the poor chap five times over. Now it’s Keystone friends are bringing another box with even more fossil content and want to toss it on the stack. We’ve told them that’s insane, and their response is that their box alone won’t do in poor old civilization.

    I’ve asked them “Don’t you love civilization and the wonders of nature that support it??!!” They just blink at me and say “No; fool! I love that civilization loves me and fills my pockets.” I can see the patient looking longingly over at the fossil bon-bons.

    We need you to keep telling them they are killing themselves when a long rich life was still possible ahead.

    Thanks for all you do!

  25. Thanks, Icarus, for weighing in here in favor of 350ppm. My take on this blog is that Joe is optimistic about Progress, Technology, Green Energy, etc. so he cherry-picks lower estimates of where we’re headed by when. I frequent the Arctic Sea Ice Blog, where folks, including some actual scientific experts, are much less optimistic.

  26. prokaryotes says:

    Somehow i missed your health status entirely (sorry!), may you gain your full health and strength back, Joe!

    On a second note, i like to recommend this powerful detoxifier

  27. Artful Dodger says:

    Good to have you back in fighting form, Joe!

    To quote ‘Dusty’ from Twister, “He’s gonna rue the day he came up against The Extreme, baby. Joe, I’m talkin’ imminent rueage.”

    Go get’em! Go! :^O

  28. Joe Romm says:

    Uhh, this is a nonsensical charge. I guess you don’t read this blog much. I also repost ASIB regularly. I am actually a physicist by training, FYI.

  29. EDpeak says:

    Joe – You and your health, along with the climate or our previous planet (I speak sincerely here, not joking) will be in my thoughts, going forward. All of us face in today’s world, on top of the background aspects (genetics etc) massive “more than the sum of its parts” assault from toxins and more, in a high-stress low-sleep environment..all of us have to take better care of ourselves.

    A math comment for you:

    …since your dedication to the health of this planet is awesome, and since I therefore fear you will nod and smile but somewhat ignore the “please don’t push yourself too far” comments above…therefore: think of the area under the graph of the function…yes, definite integrals…think of the fact that while, if you slow down a bit, the height of f(t) might be a tiny bit lower (or might not, since power naps and power-slowdowns can increase productivity) but the expected value of the area under the graph of one’s life, and activism life, can be greater, due to the expected value of the lifespan being higher…so there…all of us should take care of ourselves for intrincit reasons, but sometimes we gotta give ourselves “rational” and “optimize effectiveness of my activsim” type reasons to quiet our rational mind from arguing with us with “oh, yeah, I know, but, let me work just a bit longer..and then just a bit more etc” ;-)

    So just as we use language more effectively to convince others, we gotta manage our inner workaholic, all of us..there’s a math way to combat the leftbrained rationalist workaholid within! ;-) Thanks for all your work, love and warmth to you and your family,

  30. EDpeak says:

    I meant PRECIOUS planet, not previous..not fully awake today..”previous” planet, yikes, that’s a baaad freudian or “Eaarth”[sic] inspired slip..

  31. SecularAnimist says:

    Superman1 wrote: “Many posters on this blog expect the politicians, MSM, etc, to be leaders in countering climate change.”

    Many posters on this blog want to hold the politicians and media accountable for their deliberate lies on behalf of the fossil fuel corporations — lies which have the express purpose of deceiving the public into apathy, exemplified in this case by Nocera’s repeated, blatant, calculated dishonesty.

    Yet, you want to let the most powerful, effective purveyors of denialist propaganda in the world off the hook, and blame the problem on the victims of their deceit.

    I find that interesting.

  32. SecularAnimist says:

    With due respect to all, I find discussions of what CO2 concentration we eventually need to reach to be pretty pointless.

    The current anthropogenic excess of CO2 is already indisputably dangerous, and indeed is already causing serious and perhaps irreversible damage, which is guaranteed to get worse.

    Meanwhile CO2 levels are rising more rapidly than ever.

    We don’t need to debate 280 vs. 350 vs. 450 right now.

    We need to stop the increase in GHG emissions and begin steep reductions WITHIN FIVE YEARS, at most. We need to aim for near-zero emissions within 20 years, with most of those reductions occurring in the first 10 years.

    We simply need to reduce emissions as much as possible, as rapidly as possible. That’s it. That’s our job. It really is as simple as that.

    When atmospheric CO2 concentrations begin to drop will be plenty soon enough to debate how far they should drop. But we’ve got a long way to go to get there.

  33. I agree that debating theoretical ppms is kind of silly, when we need a global shift in energy use. But, given the work that Bill McKibben is doing, those of us who are on board might help by at least sticking to 350 as a number that implies fast action.

  34. Sorry, Joe. Didn’t mean to kick you while you were down. I wish you a full and robust recovery. I’ve had your blog on my toolbar for several years at least, I read your posts mostly as Tenney links them. I don’t have the authority to make any charges. We who have no expertise form umbrella opinions about how hopeful or hopeless things are and tend to read things that reinforce them. The commenters I resonate with on ASI blog have been watching technical stats for three decades and are very alarmed, not very hopeful that emissions can be turned around fast enough to prevent the methane being released from the permafrost.

  35. Joan Savage says:


    I’m so glad to see you back on deck, as it were.

    One thing I really like about your blogging is that you bring in careful editorial skills, that from your bio I gather you saw your father employ on a small town paper.

    A basic flaw with Nocera’s blogging is lack of an editor, someone checking sources. Shame on the NYT for undisciplined publication.

  36. SecularAnimist says:

    Optimism and pessimism are irrelevant.

    We know what needs to be done to eliminate GHG emissions and we have the tools at hand with which to do it.

    We need to get on with it.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Whatever ‘battles’ that environmentalists fought, the Rightwing disinformers would declare them ‘wrong’. These are propaganda rags, nothing more, that work tirelessly to protect and extend the power and influence of that capitalist caste that own them (and own, body and soul, if they have one left, the hacks as well).And they plainly see environmentalism as an existential threat to their power, which indicates that it must be crushed, by any means available.

  38. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You gave yourself away there, my reptilian friend.