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.