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News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism

Is my science journalism compromised by politics?

Posted on December 11th by Tom Yulsman. 27 Comments

What about climate scientists? Are their findings biased by politics and other factors?

Al and me.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about bias in science. And this subject leads naturally to questions about bias in journalism, including my own.

So as a Democrat, am I hopelessly biased in my coverage of climate change and other environmental issues?

I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, let’s look at some recent claims about bias in science.

Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University, wrote this in Slate recently:

Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence—or causation?

It’s not my intention to take on Dan’s argument. I want to note it, and then move on toward the role of bias in science journalism, including my own. So please keep reading. But if you’d like to hear a good rebuttal, check out what Paul Raeburn wrote at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker site.

Another recent case for bias in science has been made in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer. In this case, it’s non-political “selective reporting of results” as a result of “subtle omissions and unconscious misperceptions, as researchers struggle to make sense of their results.” The story is behind a pay wall, so I won’t provide a link. But Keith Kloor has written an excellent post about it, with extensive excerpts.

What about possible biases among those who cover science as journalists and commentators, including yours truly? Here’s what the Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit has to say about that:

A bit of ‘Democratic’ climate news?

I am betting that, while I don’t know, the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has more liberals asssociated with it than conservatives. Just guessing. And I’d apply that to its director Tom Yulsman. Just guessing, again. But here’s a post to ponder at its website:

  • CEJournal – Tom YulsmanThe heat goes on… ; Yulsman digs up data hinting strongly the globe is about to finish the warmest year in the modern, recorded era, and warmest in millenniums if one goes by proxy data like tree rings and ice cores used to make hockey sticks. Dunno if liberal bias is at work here in skewing the numbers. My guess: no.

Well, that got my attention. So I penned a response that I posted at Charlie’s site. But I thought readers of CEJournal should see it too.

So basically, where am I coming from? What are my true biases, and how do I try to make sure they don’t blind me? Here goes:

SHOCKING BUT TRUE!… By way of full disclosure, and as Charlie suspected, I am indeed a Democrat. Over the course of more than 30 years as a voter, I have opted for a Republican candidate maybe a few times at most. Jacob Javits comes to mind. And no doubt I would have voted for John Lindsay if I had been of voting age as a resident of Brooklyn back in the ’60s. (Alas, I was just a tot, so what did I know?)

It is also probably true that I wound up in journalism, as opposed to business or finance, because my mom was a good Lefty who read the Sunday New York Times over bagels and lox every week.

But do my political beliefs influence how I cover science, particularly climate change and other global environmental issues?

Continue reading “Is my science journalism compromised by politics?” →


The heat goes on . . .

Posted on December 10th by Tom Yulsman. 2 Comments

Despite a strong La Niña, the past “meteorological year” was the warmest on record. With one month to go in 2010, the calendar year may well enter the record books too.

UPDATE 12/10/10 2:45 p.m.: ScienceNow and the Washington Post are now reporting the same thing. And they point out something I missed with my earlier post this morning: the December through November period is considered the “meteorological year” by scientists. So the fact that Dec. 2009 through Nov. 2010 comprised the warmest such period on record was even more of a distinction than I indicated. (Also, thanks to Climate Central for cross-posting my article.)

This morning’s original post starts here:

The table above shows the Land-Ocean Temperature Index, or LOTI, for each month over the past 10 years, through this past November. Published by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, it is a measure of how much global temperature has departed from the 1951 to 1980 base period.

I’ve copied the data just for the past 10 years, but the entire chart shows that this past November was not only the warmest over the past decade, but also the warmest since record keeping began in 1880. This is despite current strong La Niña conditions, which tend to hold temperatures down. (Keep reading for information on La Niña’s impact on the United States . . .)

The column at the extreme right of the chart shows that the last 12 months (Dec. 2009 through Nov. 2010) comprised the warmest such period on record.

UPDATE 12/10/10 12:15 p.m.: NASA has just released it’s November temperature anomaly maps. Here’s how temperatures varied from the 1951-1980 base period around the globe that month:

The current strong La Niña is evident in this map as the bluish — meaning cool — surface water in the equatorial Pacific. Meanwhile, major parts of the Arctic and Russia, as well as the Antarctic Peninsula, were unusually warm.

The picture was different for the United States during November.

Continue reading “The heat goes on . . .” →


EarthArt: What are you looking at?

Posted on December 3rd by Tom Yulsman. 5 Comments

Iceland as imaged by Landsat

This stunning image was shot by the Landsat 7 satellite back in 1999. If you squint a bit, it sort of resembles of tiger’s head.

But it’s actually an image of a rugged chunk of land somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. Where? Take a guess. Then click on the image to launch a new window with a larger version, and click on the image again to see it in its full-sized glory — along with a caption that offers an explanation of what you’re looking at.

Among many things, I’m struck by how the river drainages actually appear to be raised masses above the snow-capped mountains. (At least to my eyes and brain they do.) In fact, they are deeply incised valleys, with the mountains rising above them.

We live on a planet of mind boggling beauty. Enjoy!


“Ground zero for climate change”

Posted on December 1st by Tom Yulsman. 3 Comments

Former CEJ environmental journalism fellow Susan Moran reports from Palmer Station in Antarctica

My good friend and colleague Susan Moran shot the picture above from the Palmer Research Station in Antarctica, where she arrived by boat on Monday.

Yesterday, Susan reported live from the station for KGNU radio’s “How on Earth” science show, which the two of us co-host along with a group of other volunteers. She interviewed one of the station scientists, who described how this area of the Antarctic Peninsula is warming up more rapidly than any other place on Earth. More about that — and the impact it is having on the marine ecosystem — in a minute. But first, here’s Susan’s description of what you’re looking at in the photo above, as well as the area where she’ll be spending the next two weeks — from her new blog:

The station is a nondescript (shall we say post-industrial construction site architecture?) cluster of functional buildings on a modest plot of rocky outcropping. But it boasts the most stunning backyard and frontyard views I’ve ever seen: icebergs and small rocky islands in the foreground, and the majestic Marr glacier towering behind the station. See the photo of Monday night’s psychedelic sunset glow on the glacier. I gazed at the glacier from the deck of the one bar here while getting to know some of the members of this Palmer “family.” At least it feels like they’re all relatives. Many return year after year for months at a time.

For How on Earth, Susan interviewed Christopher Neill, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and the head of the MBL program that brings journalists, artists and others down to Palmer every year. As Neill put it, Palmer Station is “in the banana belt of Antarctica,” by which he means it is quite balmy by Antarctic standards. (In fact, during the radio show yesterday, it was colder at the KGNU studios than it was at Palmer Station — at least in the morning.)

Continue reading ““Ground zero for climate change”” →


Crossing Drake Passage

Posted on November 24th by Tom Yulsman.

The video above shows what my very good friend Susan Moran will likely be experiencing starting Thanksgiving day, as she departs Punta Arenas, Chile, on a voyage across Drake Passage, heading for Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Susan is a freelance journalist living here in Boulder, and co-host with me of “How On Earth,” a weekly science show on KGNU radio. She’s also one of our former Scripps fellows.

While in Antarctica, Susan will be writing about her experiences at her new blog, and also posting pictures and maybe even some video. (With a bit of luck, I’ll be able to replace the video above, shot by some other intrepid seafarer, with something Susan has shot.)

Over the course of the next month, I’ll cross-post some of what Susan writes. She is a fabulous, engaging and insightful journalist, so I encourage you to check it out.

Here’s the first cross-post:

Continue reading “Crossing Drake Passage” →


Climate change “skeptic” vs “denier”: call me “INSANE”!

Posted on November 22nd by Tom Yulsman. 11 Comments

Over the weekend, I took part in an exchange of emails among a group of journalists, academics, scientists and bloggers on a subject that never fails to get a rise out of people: “climate change skeptic” versus “climate change denier.” It was prompted by blogger and journalist Keith Kloor, who asked:

1) What is the difference between a climate skeptic and a climate denier?
2) Which term do you use as shorthand in your reporting/writing on climate change?

Among the 18 people who took part, John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal offered what I considered to be among the most thoughtful comments, arguing for descriptive terms in place of labels. He made his argument on journalistic grounds. Read on in this post for his specific comments, and why I feel they are compelling — yet still problematic.

Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media led off the discussion. Here’s the gist of it:

Anything even inadvertently hinting of the Holocaust — as in “denialist” — clearly is off-limits.  So it’s easy to rule out certain terms.  Where does that leave us? What can we rule in?  I lean somewhat toward “contrarians” as being preferable to skeptics or deniers.

What about “skeptics”? He didn’t like it: “Call them ‘skeptics’ and we equate them to something the best scientists and best journalists are and need to be… skeptics.  So they co-opt the term.”

Uh oh…

After reading that swipe at people who express doubt of one sort or another of climate change science, I knew it was only a matter of time that the fireworks would go off. But first, Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and one of RealClimate’s bloggers, had this to say:

Continue reading “Climate change “skeptic” vs “denier”: call me “INSANE”!” →


Headlines I came across this morning:

Posted on November 20th by Tom Yulsman. 7 Comments

Update 11/20/10: My senior moments are coming more frequently these days, and so I have to admit that I completely forgot Andy Revkin’s post yesterday on the very same study I mention below. This is really weird, since I just had the pleasure of hanging out with Andy here in Boulder AND he spoke on this very issue in his talk last night at the University of Colorado. Oh well. Perhaps what I’m losing in memory I’m gaining in wisdom? But in all seriousness, please see Revkin’s excellent post on the subject of fear appeals by clicking here.

My original post begins here:

The first headline is from a story in Fog City Journal. There’s nothing much new in it, and it simply repeats the same arguments we’ve been hearing for quite some time. As the headline implies, it’s all about how the forces of evil climate denial are winning, and the results, according to the overwhelming majority of scientists, will be dire.

The second headline is actually the title of a new paper to be published in January in the journal Psychological Science. Click here for a pre-print of the paper.

“Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair,” says Robb Willer, a University of California, Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of a study, quoted in a press release. “As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming.”

See the paper itself for details. Suffice it to say that it is the latest in a series of studies that have reached the same conclusion: fear appeals are highly problematic. As Lisa Dilling, my colleague here at the University of Colorado, and her co-author Susanne C. Moser of NCAR, write in their book, “Creating a Climate for Change”:

Continue reading “Headlines I came across this morning:” →


Fires cast wide palls of smoke

Posted on November 19th by Tom Yulsman.

Is this part of a global trend?

As regular readers of CEJournal know, I love remote sensing images of Earth captured by satellites and astronauts. To help get my fix, I regularly visit the Earth Snapshot Web site (Eosnap.com), which every day posts beautiful photorealistic images from satellite data — including the pictures above of smoke covering large parts of four different regions of the world.

For larger versions of these stunning images, click on each one. (And for still higher-resolution views, click again.)

Is there a trend in wildfire globally? I offer some insights into that lower down in this post. But first, what are we looking at in these images?

Continue reading “Fires cast wide palls of smoke” →


Will 2010 go down as warmest year on record?

Posted on November 18th by Tom Yulsman.

Global temps have been cooling, but 2010 still has chance of making history

NOAA is out with its monthly state of the climate global analysis, and it shows that the January through October period is in a tie with the warmest such period on record. (The different analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies still shows 2010 as warmer than any other year.)

By NOAA’s calculation, the month of October alone was the eighth warmest on record.

Until the last couple of months, it looked like 2010 was headed toward the record books (and it still might be). By NOAA’s reckoning, each of the months from March through June set new records for warmth. But then July came in as second warmest on record, August ranked third, and then September was measured as eighth warmest. So conditions are clearly cooling a bit.

It’s possible that La Niña conditions — which came on quickly and dramatically this year — are already starting to depress the global average temperature. This happens in La Niña years, mostly because the cyclical climatic phenomenon causes a large swath the Pacific to cool, depressing the overall global average, according to NOAA.


Would more science reporting lead to better climate policy?

Posted on November 15th by Tom Yulsman. 42 Comments

Despite the findings of a new report, I wouldn’t bet on it

UPDATE 10/16/10: I’ve added some comments from Judith Curry, a scientist at Georgia Tech and author of a new blog, at the end of this post. As I get more comments from scientists, journalists and others, I’ll post them there as well. Also, see the comments section for thoughts from Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, and Randy Olson, a scientist turned filmmaker.

Update 10/18/10: See the bottom for some comments from Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press.

A new study has found that just 10 percent of the journalistic coverage of the Copenhagen climate negotiations last winter actually focused on science. And the author, James Painter, doesn’t seem terribly happy about it.

In the report he argues that as the frequency and severity of extreme weather events increases, there is “a pressing need for more public understanding of the science.” The task of educating the public largely falls largely to journalists, he says, but we’re not doing our jobs adequately.

“The fact that the world’s media spent vast amounts of money and time concentrating on the drama of climate change negotiations at Copenhagen and under-reporting the science is yet more proof of how difficult a challenge this is going to be,” Painter writes.

The report, titled “Summoned by Science: Reporting Climate Change at Copenhagen and Beyond” and published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, runs some 148 pages. There’s a huge amount of useful material here, and I look forward to reading the entire report in detail. But from what I’ve read so far, it seems clear that Painter somehow believes that if only we could get more and better journalistic coverage of the science of climate change, international negotiations to cut carbon emissions would stand a greater chance of success.

I’ll be curious to hear what readers have to say about this. I believe this is a naive view that ignores the reality of why COP15 failed, and why future negotiations stand a high chance of failing as well.

Science journalism (or the lack thereof) had very little to do with with the collapse of the Copenhagen talks, and more of it in the future is exceedingly unlikely to lead to a different outcome

As Der Spiegel reported back in May:

Secret recordings obtained by SPIEGEL reveal how China and India prevented an agreement on tackling climate change at the crucial meeting. The powerless Europeans were forced to look on as the agreement failed.

Writing in the Guardian, Mark Lynas told  a similar story:

Continue reading “Would more science reporting lead to better climate policy?” →


No Charlie Brown, not the Great Pumpkin

Posted on November 12th by Tom Yulsman. 3 Comments

I know I’m a little late with this — I should have posted it on Halloween. But I just found this image today (thanks to a tip from Jonny Walman).

As you probably figured out, it’s an absolutely stunning image of the Sun, shot through a telescope by the amazing Alan Friedman.

Click on the image itself for a larger, amazingly detailed version. And then click on that picture for close-up views of the large filament and edge prominences. A fine-art print of this image (and others that are equally amazing) is available from Friedman’s Web site.

If you look closely you may notice that something is missing.

Continue reading “No Charlie Brown, not the Great Pumpkin” →


What are you looking at?

Posted on November 11th by Tom Yulsman. 19 Comments

UPDATE 11/12/10 8:45 a.m.: Now that three people have answered the question posed in the headline (see the comments section), it’s time to come clean. Here are the details (with my original post — including the mystery graphic — which continues below these three panels).

Every month, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies publishes an update on global surface temperatures. It includes maps showing how temperatures throughout the globe have varied from the long-term mean over the course of a month or multiple months; and graphs depicting the evolution of the globe’s mean surface temperature over time.

Yesterday, the image to the left, reproduced from the NASA GISS graphs page, caught my attention. Each panel represents 30 years of climate information, with the rows (running horizontally) representing months, and the columns (running vertically) showing years.

So each colored square depicts how the Earth’s mean surface temperature departed from the long-term mean during a specific month in a particular year. The warmer the color, the warmer the temperature. (See the scale at the bottom for specifics.) The graphic also shows minima and maxima in the Sun’s activity cycle (“m” and “M” respectively), as well as El Niño and La Niña episodes (“E” and “L” respectively, with upper case or lower case indicating strength).

I found the three panels quite compelling, but I also realized that if I stitched them together in one continuous, horizontal graphic, the climatic warming trend would be clearer to see — and that the resulting image would also be quite beautiful, if unsettling. The result was the long, horizontal image that follows.

Continue reading “What are you looking at?” →


Global average temperature much warmer than normal in October

Posted on November 10th by Tom Yulsman. 3 Comments

January through October warmest such period in 131-year record

UPDATE 11/11/10 10 a.m.: NASA GISS just published the January through October temperature anomaly map, which I’ve inserted below. (It’s getting hotter in here…)

NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies is out with its October temperature analysis, and it shows that the month brought conditions that were much warmer than normal in most parts of the globe — as the map above shows.

If I’m reading the data correctly (GISS has not yet made a public statement about this), it looks like this past October was the third warmest in the instrumental record, which stretches back to 1880. Only 2005 and 2007 saw a greater departure from the long-term mean in October than occurred this past month.

Update: Here’s the January through October map:

January-October 2010 Mean Surface Temperature Anomaly GISS


EarthArt: the Nile and its Delta at night

Posted on November 8th by Tom Yulsman. 5 Comments

This image of Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean at night, shot by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, needs almost no explanation. When I first saw it, I was almost knocked right back out of my chair. (Thanks to Dennis Dimick for posting it at his Planet Posterous blog and Tweeting it, which is how I became aware of it.)

Click on the image to go to NASA’s Earth Observatory page. There you’ll find labels of the major cities, and the option to view a larger version of the picture.



Extreme weather in U.S. higher than normal so far this year

Posted on November 8th by Tom Yulsman.

The National Climatic Data Center is out with it’s monthly State of the Climate report. Here’s what may be the most notable finding:

NCDC’s Climate Extremes Index (CEI), which measures the prevalence of several types of climate extremes, was about 9 points higher than its historical average for the year-to-date. Factors contributing to this elevated 2010 value were: large footprints of warm minimum temperatures (warm overnight temperatures), an abundance of locations experiencing an unusual number of days with precipitation, with very large precipitation totals on those days.

The report also provides an update temperatures in the United States, and as the map at left shows, October was warmer than normal. From the report:

The average temperature for October was 56.9 degrees F (13.8 degrees C), which is 2.1 degrees F (1.2 degrees C) above the 1901-2000 average, the eleventh warmest on record in the United States. Warmer-than-normal conditions prevailed throughout the western U.S. and into the Midwest. Of the nine climate regions, none had below normal temperatures and only two, both along the Eastern Seaboard, experienced an average temperature that was near normal.

October’s temperatures actually represent something of a cooling from earlier in the year, as near record La Niña conditions have taken hold (at least by one measure).

Lastly, one other aspect of the report caught my eye: 121 preliminary tornado reports nationwide during October. The report says the final count will probably show that this past October was fifth in terms of the number of tornadoes recorded nationally during that month.