Cozying up to Climate Mayhem

By Keith Kloor | June 1, 2009 5:03 am

Chamberlain had Russell, Magic Johnson had Bird. But Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, like Shaquille O’Neal in his prime, has no peer. Nobody comes close to matching the breadth and depth of climate change coverage that Revkin consistently demonstrates.

This was amply evident on Friday, when the Global Humanitarian Forum, an organization headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, issued a news release and report asserting that about 300,000 people died annually from climate change.

This striking claim understandably generated worldwide headlines. And the most credulous coverage by everyone in the mainstream media–except Revkin. The three wire stories–from AP, Reuters, and UPI–read like press releases. The Guardian went into more detail about the report, but like the wires, offered no skeptical voices. Ditto for CNN.

Contrast this unquestioning reporting with Revkin’s news story at the Times, which carries a sharp critique of the report by Roger Pielke, Jr. (who calls it a “methodological embarrassment.” )

[[UPDATE: Andy Revkin informs me that "there was no issue with the short (reporting) time frame" that I allude to just below. A copy of the report--though embargoed--was made available to reporters the day before its official public release. Adds Revkin: "As with the journals, this is hopefully to allow folks to do some embargoed vetting and context."]]

Now it bears noting that all of these first day stories–including Revkin’s–were hamstrung by the short filing window after the Forum’s report was officially released. But that’s where the value of Revkin’s essential blog, Dot Earth comes in. At 11:34 AM (EST), Revkin elaborated on his news story in a probing and thoughtful post, which led off this way:

There are significant questions about the robustness of the numbers at the heart of the new report estimating more than 300,000 deaths are already being caused each year by global warming, with nearly twice that number possible by 2030.

After directing readers to Pielke’s expanded critique at Prometheus, Revkin turns to the concerns by some of a “climate-centric approach” to the tragic health problems in poor regions of the world.  Debarati Guha-Sapir, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters at the University of Louvain, in Brussels. offered this perspective:

While there’s undoubtedly a contribution from global warming on impacts on health and welfare, if health and welfare is indeed our primary concern, here are some other numbers: over 5,000 poor children die everyday only in India, nearly three-fourths of them due to diarrhea, measles and respiratory disease. All conditions for which we have cheap and effective medication. Maybe a small share of the billions needed for climate change could be redirected towards reducing these deaths?

At the end of his post, Revkin circles back to the issue of the shaky stats. One of the report’s endorsers, Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, admitted that he and other reviewers had tried to get the report’s authors to stress uncertainties. Sachs added:

There’s no reason to overreach. I don’t think headline numbers that give a sense of precision we don’t have are either necessary or helpful. The facts with all the uncertainties are dramatic enough.

Meanwhile George Monbiot, an influential columnist and blogger on environmental issues for the Guardian, wrote that the report’s

claims appear to be well-supported.

Unlike Revkin, Monbiot doesn’t interview anyone or cite any corroborating evidence to back up this statement.  You have to take his word for it.

At Joe Romm’s Climate Progress, which Thomas Friedman recently called “the indispensable blog,” there is mention of the Forum report and a link to the uncritical Guardian story. Romm, who repeatedly reminds his readers that he’s filtering all the relevant climate news for them, so they don’t have to bother themselves, conspiciously ignores Revkin’s Times story and Dot Earth post.

Speaking of filtering, it’s worth pointing out that The Washington Post, LA Times, Miami Herald, and SF Chronicle, among many others, ran the AP story. As newsrooms continue to shrink (and in some cases, disappear altogether), the wire services are going to be relied even more for coverage of events and heralded new studies.

One final note: so far, the questionable assertions and exaggerated nature of the Global Humanitarian Forum report have gone unremarked on by environmental bloggers and pundits. Nobody from this side of the spectrum has accused the press of being stenographers, that’s for sure.

  • Steve Bloom

    Sorry, Keith, it turns out that once again RP Jr. has been caught engaging in bad analysis.  But of course the main thing from a journalistic standpoint is that he is ready and willing to produce such material on request. 

    Instead, Andy should have devoted the space to discussion of the legitimate concerns raised by Jeff Sachs.  Jeff is a far better and more qualified source than RP Jr., but admittedly has the defect of not identifying with the “middle” Andy promotes.      

    And oh yes:  “Maybe a small share of the billions Maybe a small share of the billions needed for climate change could be redirected towards reducing these deaths?” 

    Maybe an acknowledgement that this is a problem pre-dating significant expenditures on climate and that spending on climate is a drop in the bucket compared to e.g. military budgets or the ongoing financial bailout?  Nah. 

  • Pingback: Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> What is the Way Forward?

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Reminds you a bit of the buckets of crap thrown at the Lancet studies of deaths in Iraq

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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