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This item was posted on February 11, 2010, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Global Warming, Global warming skeptics, New York Times, climate change coverage.
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A photo by Senator James Inhofe of the igloo he and his family built on Capitol Hill, from his Facebook page. Is he a climate expert? The N.Y. Times evidently thinks so.

Today’s story by John Broder on page 1 of the N.Y. Times starts with this lede and nut section:

WASHINGTON — As millions of people along the East Coast hole up in their snowbound homes, the two sides in the climate-change debate are seizing on the mounting drifts to bolster their arguments.

What follows in the story is a debate between political partisans — and what little actual science there is in the story gets crushed in between.

Broder first bows to Senator James Inhofe, the Republican from Oklahoma and outspoken climate change skeptic. Inhofe and his family, he notes, have built a 6-foot high igloo on Capitol Hill topped with a sign reading “Al Gore’s New Home.” The blizzard that buried Washington, Inhofe and his compatriots argue, proves that global warming is bunk.

Next Broder quotes a blog posting from Joe Romm for the “other side” of the issue. Then he shifts back to the other side, with a quote from Matt Drudge’s web site , then on to a Republican Party web advertisement about global warming (at this point I began wondering whether the phones were down on the East Coast), and finally more than half-way down, we reach the results of a real live journalistic interview with well, not an actual climate scientist, but Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who got his Ph.D. in pollution meteorology and then founded the Weather Underground web site.

By this point in reading the story, I had developed a stiff neck from all the back-and-forth, he-said-she-said (except nobody except Masters actually SAID anything, since it was all from web postings).

There is some presumably unintentional confusion in Broder’s story, such as implying that Senator Inhofe is an “independent climate expert.” (Go to the story and see the context; you’ll understand.) But the biggest problems are that the story utterly confuses politics and science, and it stands as a particularly egregious example of “false balance.”

[UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal got it just right in this story, "Snow Adds to Political Drift." The page 1 piece describes how political partisans have been making hay out of the blizzard — with none of the false balance, and none of the confusion of science and politics evident in the Times piece. It's funny and incisive — and a welcome relief from the climate wars.]

Broder recruits the web sites of Inhofe, Romm, Drudge and the Republican Party  to set up a political debate about what is really a scientific question: Given the recent snowstorms, is global warming bunk? This leaves readers who know little about this subject to think that the likes of Inhofe, Romm, Drudge and the Republican Party are the most qualified sources to answer that scientific question. They clearly are not.

They are political partisans with very clear and fervently held agendas. For Inhofe, Drudge and the Republicans the agenda is to skewer climate scientists and beat down any efforts to do something about climate change. For Romm it is to do everything possible to champion one cause — cap and trade legislation. There’s no question that there is a political story to be told here. Partisans ARE, in fact, using the snowstorms for their own political ends. But that should have been context for a story that focused on what science actually is saying about these issues.

Worst of all, this form of coverage implies that there is somehow an even split of scientific opinion on the significance of the snowstorms, which there is not. The only thing that is split in this way is political opinion.

I’m not saying that scientists and other experts aren’t debating issues related to extreme weather events and climate change. They most certainly are. But among scientists who actually do research in these fields, and who publish in the peer reviewed literature, there is no raging debate about whether humans are actually causing climate change, which is the debate Romm is having with Inhofe et al. (I found it curious, btw, that Romm actually seemed to like Broder’s story, calling it “fairly reasonable.” I’ll let you Rommulan experts try to figure that one out…)

I do think it’s important to report that political partisans are trying to make hay out of the snowstorms. That’s certainly news. But Broder should have put scientists front and center in the story (and actually interviewed them.). He could have more thoroughly addressed the question of whether events like the Washington blizzard are “consistent” with what one would expect in a warming world. We hear that often, but there’s another perspective on this that could have been explored.

Weather and climate are undeniably two separate but intimately related things. Sussing out trends in climate requires a long-term perspective — over the span of decades. So there is an obvious mismatch between that timescale and that of an individual storm, which takes place over the course of a day or two. Consequently, is it actually legitimate to pin this storm, even with the words “consistent with,” on a long term process? Or in order to say anything meaningful, do we have to see whether the frequency and intensity of such blizzards increases over a period of a couple of decades?

Just what can we fairly say about the connection between a snowstorm like this and global warming? Many people seem to think they know. But I’d like to hear answers from people who actually study the phenomena, not political partisans.

I’m guessing that if Broder had approached the story in this way, it never would have made it to page one.

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This thing has 7 Comments

  1. Hillary
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more, Tom. I was shocked that the NYT seemed to be reverting to the old trope of pitting idealogues against one another to create the appearance of debate where there is none. I mean, the first sentence of the piece refers to “the two sides in the climate change debate.” As far as I can tell, those sides are scientists vs imbeciles. I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come in the post-Revkin era.

  2. Posted February 11, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    “Consequently, is it actually legitimate to pin this storm, even with the words “consistent with,” on a long term process? Or in order to say anything meaningful, do we have to see whether the frequency and intensity of such blizzards increases over a period of a couple of decades?

    The “weather is not climate” argument is somewhat of a red herring that obscures the real issue. As Dr. Pielke noted (on the page to which you linked):

    “What happens in the weather this week or next tells us absolutely nothing about the role of humans in influencing the climate system.”

    The key issue is “the role of humans in influencing the climate system”. Until such time as there is any actual empirical evidence (as opposed to highly questionable Computer Model Generated evidence) that human generated C02 is the “primary” influence on the climate system, at this point, everything else is but a diversion.

    To the extent that many “science” reporters have failed to explore this aspect of climate change, while they may (or may not) have “played poodle to their sources”, then there is some question in my mind as to whether or not they have conducted due diligence on this rather crucial part of the issue.

  3. Posted February 11, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    hro001: Thank you for taking the time to comment here. Let me respond, briefly:

    The evidence for humankind’s influence on the climate is not at all limited to climate modeling, as you imply. (And btw, Roger Pielke, Jr. would no doubt agree with me on this.) It is built on many streams of evidence, some going back more than 100 years. Among them: physics, atmospheric physics, oceanography, paleoclimatology, biogeochemistry, meteorology, geology, climatology, and yes, simulations of the climate system. These multiple streams of evidence paint a consistent picture of an anthropogenic influence on climate.

    Yes, there are many unanswered questions. But you seem to be asking for absolute, yes or no, answers. You’ll never get them. There can be no facts about the future. So we have to go on probabilities and estimations of risk. And keep in mind the definition of risk:

    Risk = probability X consequences

    Even if the probability of a particular event (such as a nasty climate surprise) is relatively low, if the consequences are high so is the risk. You can decide, based on your own values, how to respond to that risk. But let’s not confuse science with values.

    Lastly, science reporters like myself simply have not failed to explore the issues. We will just not be swayed by what one or another set of political partisans have to say.

  4. Steve Bloom
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Joe was playing to the potential new audience. His post mentioned everythinbg that was wrong with the piece while avoiding telling NYT readers it was crap. But I also agree with him that anyone reading to the end of the story did end up with a reasonable characterization of the science. Of course, so many will fail to read to the end.

    Also, I think you’re wrong about c+t being the be all and end all for Joe. Making progress on the problem is what’s important, and c+t happens to be what’s on the table just now. If that bill fails, he’ll move on to the next most likely option.

  5. Christy George
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    This idiocy will end when the Winter Olympics start with no snow.

  6. Art Hackett
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    The problem is scientific theories only explain some things, though they try to explain that which is not understood. Political theories explain everything, including that which is not understood.

  7. Posted February 14, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Интересная статья, автору респект!

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