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News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism
This item was posted on February 1, 2010, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Global Warming, IPCC, climate change coverage.
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That’s the headline on Curtis Brainard’s excellent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review about the scant attention paid by the American press to recently uncovered problems with the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

[Update: Curtis has written a second piece criticizing the American news media for continuing to ignore the IPCC controversy. It is especially important for American journalists to "start paying attention to this story," he writes, not just to get to the bottom of what happened but also to help insure that good science is not thrown out with the bad.]

“Glaciergate” broke in the U.K. in December, with revelations that the IPCC incorrectly stated that all glaciers in the Himalayas would vanish by 2035 with continued warming. There were also the charges that Rajendra Pachauri used his position as the head of the IPCC to benefit himself financially. Then came criticisms that the IPCC incorrectly linked warming to monetary damages from natural disasters like hurricanes. (Full disclosure: My friend and colleague Roger Pielke, Jr. is in the middle of that dustup.)

As Brainard points out, along with Charlie Petit at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, these issues are making headlines in Europe. But aside from a handful of stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, AP and Bloomberg, there has been almost no coverage.

Meanwhile, outlets in the U.K., India, and Australia have been eating the American media’s lunch, churning out reams of commentary and analysis. Journalists in the U.S. should take immediate steps to redress that oversight.

[UPDATE: The Guardian and the Independent in the U.K. are reporting that Phil Jones, one of the climate scientists at the center of the hacked email controversy, is have to face new charges that he tried to hide problems with key climate data. (For excerpts of the story, go here.) Here in the U.S., though, there continues to be very little coverage in the news media.

I agree with Curtis Brainard that it’s time for American journalists to start following the story, wherever it leads.

It does not matter that claims of a collapse of anthropogenic global are simply not supported by multiple streams of scientific evidence, from physics to paleoclimatology to modeling of the climate system. In the past week or so, I’ve been writing about what nature seems to be telling us about our changing planet (see here, herehere and here, among other places.). And I’m going to continue to do that in the days to come. But showing how the climate is actually changing does not obviate going wherever the full story leads. It is our duty as journalists to shed light and hold power to account.

Perhaps American news media aren’t keeping up with their colleagues overseas because there are so few environmental specialists left. About one out of five American journalists lost their jobs between 2001 and the start of last year, and environmental journalists have been particularly hard hit. I sincerely hope that is the explanation — and not fear of undermining policy action on global warming. That is certainly a legitimate private concern, but not a legitimate journalistic one. Our concern is the truth.

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This thing has 20 Comments

  1. Mr. Xyz
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    This spoof of climate science may be of interest:


  2. Steven
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    “I agree with Curtis Brainard that it’s time for American journalists to start following the story, wherever it leads.”

    A nice idea in theory but that generally leads to one place. Unemployment or worse. Look at Gary Webb.


    Thank goodness for the web. A few honourable exceptions aside, journalists are now nothing more than re-writers of PR handouts, official statements and wire stories.

    Thank goodness for the Web.

  3. Posted February 2, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    It is worse than you think. Hasnain’s 2035 glacier claim was rubbished in the peer-reviewed literature in 2005, and before that in a book by Jack Ives, an expert on the Himalayas, in 2004. It was not simply that the ‘Glaciergate’ claim was based on non-peer-reviewed literature; it was based on a claim REFUTED in the peer-reviewed literature years beforehand. That’s worse than sloppy. The authors of that chapter have since admitted that they knew at the time that the 2035 date was a lie, but they used it for political purposes. That’s nice confirmation.

    Check it out on my posting here:


    I found out this and lots of other things by doing some research – I’m not a journalist, but work in science and engineering. Lots of scientists and engineers are having to do the task of unpaid investigative journalists these days, it seems. But if we can get to the bottom of what’s been going on, why can’t the journalists? As sure as anything they can’t do our jobs, so why should we be doing theirs? Or why don’t they think it’s their job to do it?

    If the US media don’t start doing some comprehensive and fair coverage of the scams that are being uncovered in the AGW agenda, then I’m afraid they become part of the problem, and become complicit in the cover up that has been going on for years.

  4. sdcougar`
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I think the Journalistic lockstep in the USA is much worse than described here.

    For example, in the run-up to Copenhagen, the PBS NewsHour was flagrantly hyping propaganda rather than facts. Margaret Warner, in her interview with de Boer, stated that “this huge team of scientists from all over the globe issued these unanimous warnings about the really extreme danger to the planet”[Sept. 18].

    And in the interview she used term like,’emissions,’ ‘polluting nations,’ ‘pollution,’ ‘climate change…’

    No one would have a clue that the whole interview was really about the issue of carbon dioxide and global warming

    I would not characterize the reporters as MIA. Agents of Minitrue enforcing the language of Newspeak is much more apt.

  5. Posted February 2, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Scientist-for-truth: A good number of scientists who focus on climate change are my colleagues, and over the years I have interviewed many, many more. Not a single one has been engaged in “scams” as part of some political “AGW agenda.” Moreover, while the climate wars continue in the political sphere, the climate itself is going about its business — and what’s been happening can’t be credibly written off as part of a scam.

    You can choose to believe it’s mere coincidence that almost all of the Earth’s glaciers are disappearing at a time when greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are higher than they’ve been in hundreds of thousands of years. And you can also choose to ignore what physics and the paleo record tell us about the risks we run. But journalists dedicated to pursuing the truth cannot choose what to believe in or what to ignore based on their biases. You are free to do that. But journalists must go wherever the story leads. Goodness knows, I hope the story leads to the conclusion that climate change was a false alarm. But I’m not betting on that outcome.

    Unfortunately, there are very few specialists left at major American news organizations who know anything about science, let alone the tangled web of climate science and policy. So we are left with journalists who at best are capable of “he said/she said” reporting on the science, and little understanding of why the IPCC story is so important to investigate.

  6. sdcougar`
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Tom: “You can choose to believe it’s mere coincidence that almost all of the Earth’s glaciers are disappearing at a time when greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are higher than they’ve been in hundreds of thousands of years.”

    Another piece of Journalistic baiting/advocacy without homework or reason. What is your explanaion for glaciers disappearing when Greenland was actually green and the Viking graves there are now under permafrost?

    As emminent scientists like Freeman Dyson and Richard Lindzen have pointed out, this melting is nothing outside the bounds of natural climate change.

  7. Posted February 2, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Sdcougar: I’ve actually spent thousands of hours reporting on this issue since 1984, so I’m sorry you think I’m an advocate who has not done his homework.

    Concerning Freeman Dyson, I took a lot of heat from climate activists for saying Dyson represents an essential strand in science: skepticism. If you’re interested, see this post from last April: http://www.cejournal.net/?p=1500

    As for the climate, yes, it has changed many times in the past without any intervention by human beings. Yes, the Medieval Warm Period was, well, warm, maybe even warmer than today. In fact, paleoclimatologists have shown that it was also particularly warm during the pervious interglacial period — when there was no ice in Greenland and Antarctica, sea level was much higher than today, and CO2 stood at ~350 parts per million. And yes, changes in the Earth’s orbit and orientation to the Sun probably triggered the onset of that interglacial period. But without the greenhouse forcing from the CO2, scientists simply cannot explain why the climate became so warm.

    Fifty-five million years ago, the climate was even warmer. This marks one of the most sudden and dramatic spikes in global warming in Earth history (called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum). So yes, nature all by herself is capable of monumental climate change. But changes in solar energy did not trigger the PETM. One leading culprit: a sudden spurt of methane. (Oh, and btw: If I’m not mistaken, CO2 is estimated to have been ~1000 ppm, explaining why conditions going in to the PETM were already quite warm.)

    So, now we’re now at about 390 ppm of CO2. And yes, you’re right. There is some probability that this will not have the effect that so much climate science suggests it will. But simple physics, paleoclimatology, computer simulation of the climate system, and observations of current climate changes, all suggest that continued warming — and quite possibly some nasty surprises — are in the offing.

    Lastly, none of this really matters, because in all likelihood we’re going to burn as much fossil fuels as we can lay our hands on — until the outcome of the experiment with the climate system we’re conducting becomes much more evident. And since we both agree that climate change is inevitable, regardless of the cause, we could actually have a fruitful conversation about how human societies could adapt and prepare better for change. For example, regardless of the cause, the West is very clearly drying out out, and consumption of water is clearly on an unsustainable path. What should we do about that?

    But I suspect that you, like so many other people, would prefer to score debating points.

  8. Steve Bloom
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    Tom, the maximum interglacial CO2 level was about 300 ppm, sea level was generally only a few meters higher than present, and most of the Antarctic and Greenland ice remained intact. (The following is based on various results published in the last few months). The last time CO2 was at 350 ppm was during the mid-Pliocene (Piacenzian), with temps 2 to 3 C higher than present, and Greenland and West Antarctica mostly melted along with a good chuck of East Antarctica, resulting in sea levels about 25 meters higher than present. 400+ ppm CO2 will get us worse than that. 450+ ppm CO2 is starting to look like it’s enough to terminate the ice sheets, resulting in a sea level rise of about 70 meters relative to present. What a nice surprise for our progeny!

  9. Posted February 3, 2010 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Steve: I goofed. Thanks for the correction!

  10. Steve Bloom
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Tom, if you’re going to promote the latest attack on CRU and Phil Jones, I think you should feel obligated to post on the rebuttal (which Watts at least had the courtesy to link). At this point the entire controversy seems to be that a scientist can’t find some of the documentation for a study published *twenty years ago*, even though a considerable body of subsequent work has confirmed the findings.

    Also, I have to say that your assertion that journalists can “get to the bottom of what happened but also … help insure that good science is not thrown out with the bad” is breathtakingly naive. The damage to the science can be measured in units of controversy-minutes, and it matters not a whit that the charges turn out to be wrong. Any attempted defense of the science in the context of such coverage is pointless, since it’s just more inches devoted to the controversy. Is the press being constructive when it works to move the Overton Window away from the science and toward controversy about the science? Not in the slightest. Please think about that.

  11. Posted February 4, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Steve: It is entirely possible that I am growing senile, but I do not recall saying anything here about the CRU and Phil Jones, let alone promoting an attack on them. So perhaps you can help by directing me to the part of my post that you felt did that.

    My intention in the post simply was to support Curtis Brainard’s perspective: Some significant problems with the IPCC have been identified, and the British press — including the liberal Guardian — are following up on them, whereas the American press is pretty much silent.

    Are you really suggesting that our job as journalists that we NOT present certain news, and that we should NOT follow up on important stories out of fear of undermining this or that policy outcome? Are you saying that our job is NOT to pursue the truth but instead to serve certain interests over others? That’s what it sounds like.

  12. Steve Bloom
    Posted February 5, 2010 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    You did it in the first two paragraphs of your second update, Tom.

    I’m not saying it isn’t a story, just that the British press is a spectacularly bad model to follow. As Tim Lambert has documented in multiple recent posts, British press activity subsequent to the admittedly real glacier story has been generally execrable. I would include the Beeb in that, although they’ve been more subtle about it.

    As a j-school prof you should feel obligated to have a careful look at the quality of what’s going on over there before urging others to emulate it.

  13. Posted February 5, 2010 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    I hope the US media does not follow the model being employed by the British papers which is to never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

    The Times printed just two stories and 1400 words in total on WG2 when it came out. They’ve now had 14 stories about alleged errors.

    Leake’s reporting in the Times on Amazon forest seems to have been dishonest. Napstad told Leake that the IPCC report was correct and the only thing that was wrong was that the wrong paper was cited. Leake concealed this fact from his readers and instead claimed the IPCC report was “bogus”.

    See here.

  14. Posted February 5, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Tim: There’s plenty of bad, biased reporting to go around, particularly coming out of the U.K. and on American television. (I’ve written a lot about that here at CEJournal.) But are you suggesting that the Himalayan glacier issue and the IPCC’s misrepresentation of Roger Pielke, Jr.’s work on disasters and climate change are just “alleged” errors?

  15. Steve Bloom
    Posted February 5, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Tom, the glacier error was indeed an error, but it’s already gotten far more attention than it deserved. It wasn’t just the Times editors who thought the WG2 report wasn’t very important when it was published. Maybe you could explain why, if such an error really is so important, it took 2-1/2 years for it to be noticed by the press?

    As for RP Jr., we’re talking about somebody with a long history of complaining about being misrepresented by others, including on this very issue. You knew that, right? In any case I have the impression you haven’t had a look at the considerable body of other material that’s appeared on the web since Roger’s planted story ran. You could start with Tim’s post on the subject and then follow the links, and don’t miss the IPCC’s own refutation.

    Summing up, the glacier story is real but has gotten more attention than it deserves, and the rest may be the worst example of misguided pack journalism since the run-up to the Iraq war.

  16. Posted February 5, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    If what has been claimed is not supported by the facts, or has been exaggerated for political effect, then that is what journalists should report. Instead, here in the United States we have near silence. So all Americans are hearing is what leaks over The Pond from the U.K., partially through the bloviators on CNN (dreadful) and Fox News (despicable). My point is that journalists need to be reporting this story and following it WHEREVER the facts lead. Nothing more, nothing less.

  17. Steve Bloom
    Posted February 5, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Tom, answer me this: How much of that laudable British coverage on the glacier error has been devoted to presenting the correct (and quite alarming) picture of what’s going on with the Himalayan glaciers? Why would we expect the U.S. press to do better? In my experience, journalists tend to get carried away by such things rather than emphasizing the larger picture, and you don’t seem to be an exception.

    For example, I just had a look to see what sort of follow-up there had been to the Guardian’s “Chinagate” story in the aftermath of the UEA statement. So far… absolutely nothing. It looks as if you may need to retract your assertion that Phil Jones will have to face charges. I also had a look at the Watts post you linked, and near the top of the comments Watts asserts that the Guardian reporters emailed him with an alert that the story would be appearing! Isn’t that special. In fact, it’s almost as special as Daily Mail reporter David Rose’s “salute” (yes, he used that word) of McIntyre on the latter’s site.

    As we were discussing in the previous post, there’s a lot of important science currently not getting covered. Which of the little that is do you propose to eject from the news hole in favor of political coverage of the IPCC?

  18. Posted February 6, 2010 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Since you were suck into the vacuum, perhaps you might want to comment on this example of Climate McCarthyism

    “February 03, 2010
    Allison C. LernerInspector General
    National Science Foundation
    Office of Inspector General
    4201 Wilson Boulevard
    Arlington, VA 22230

    Dear Ms. Lerner:

    This is a follow-up to my letter of December 2, 2009 and concerns today’s announcement by Penn State University that it has concluded its initial inquiry into possible research misconduct by one of the University’s researchers, Dr. Michael Mann. Penn State’s internal inquiry found further investigation is warranted to determine if Dr. Mann “engaged in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting or reporting research or other scholarly activities.”

    While I firmly agree that Penn State’s investigation is warranted and must commence without delay, there are federal laws and policies implicated in this matter, including your “Research Misconduct” regulations, Title 45 CFR Part 689, that go beyond the scope of Penn State’s inquiry. Therefore, in order to have a full and complete accounting of this matter, I request that you now begin a formal investigation of the allegations against Dr. Mann.

    Among other laws and regulations, I ask that you investigate compliance with, or violations of, OMB administrative procedures, 2 CFR Part 215 (OMB Circular A-110), in particular 2 CFR §215.36; Freedom of Information Act 5 U.S.C. §552 (NSF Regulation, 45 CFR Part 612); NSF guidelines implementing OMB information quality guidelines (515 Guidelines); Federal False Claims Act, 18 U.S.C. §287, and 31 U.S.C. §§3729-33; and Federal False Statements Act, 18 U.S.C §1001. Finally, given that Dr. Mann was at the University of Virginia from 1999 until 2005, I also request that you inquire whether his activities at the University of Virginia are implicated in this matter and within your jurisdiction.


    James M. Inhofe
    Ranking Member
    Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works”

  19. Steven Sullivan
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    “It doesn’t matter that claims of a collapse of anthropogenic global are simply not supported by multiple streams of scientific evidence, from physics to paleoclimatology to modeling of the climate system.”

    Dead wrong: that DOES matter. It means the central animating beliefs held by the ‘skeptics’ happen to be incorrect. And that’s what responsible journalists should be reporting about this hyped up ‘story’ — mostly regurgitation of stuff that was posted on denial blogs months if not years ago — that the UK press has seized on and run with, that you want to US press to follow suit on.

    Every week/month/year that such lazy, sensationalist reporting sets back action on global warming, should be a matter of shame to journalists. Every doubt-casting quote from a professional nonscientist AGW ‘skeptic’ (like your friend Roger Pielke Jr. or the odious Monckton in the UK) paired in he said/she said fashion with the views of bona fide climate scientists, is a small outrage against reason.

    Could be the climate scientists/bloggers at RealClimate agree with me —

    “So far, so stupid. But even more concerning is the reaction from outside the UK media bubble. Two relatively prominent and respected US commentators – Curtis Brainard at CJR and Tom Yulsman in Colorado – have both bemoaned the fact that the US media (unusually perhaps) has not followed pell-mell into the fact-free abyss of their UK counterparts. Their point apparently seems to be that since much news print is being devoted to a story somewhere, then that story must be worth following.”


    And contrary to what you wrote, that DOES matter.

  20. Posted March 18, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    See my article on this topic at WanderingEducators.com:


This thing has 4 Trackbacks

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  2. Posted February 17, 2010 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    [...] bubble. Two relatively prominent and respected US commentators – Curtis Brainard at CJR and Tom Yulsman in Colorado – have both bemoaned the fact that the US media (unusually perhaps) has not [...]

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