Some of the commentary about how the media covered last week’s big climate sensitivity study in Science prompted me to explore underlying issues that have already been identified by people much smarter than me. Have a read over at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.
Andy Revkin must feel like
a wind dummy everyone’s punching bag. Last week, he had the temerity to say that “climategate” 2, like the 2009 episode, couldn’t be easily dismissed. So of course he got slapped around by all sorts of people in the climate concerned community, including some prominent scientists:
You are claiming that the emails ‘raise questions’ and that they are ‘disturbing’. This is not journalism, Andy, it’s tabloid journalism. It’s equivalent to the kind of thing the mainstream media did in the 1950s around communism, the kind of thing many outlets are doing now around muslims (remember how quickly everyone jumped on the assumption that it was some muslim or other, not Tim McVeigh, in Oklahoma?).
I’m disappointed and sad, and once again you should be ashamed.
This week he’s taking hits from frothy climate skeptics and conservative bloggers, who have charged him with being biased (against them), based on their reading of the new batch of emails, some of which contain communications between Revkin and climate scientists. One blogger at Commentary, now retrospectively assessing Revkin’s coverage of climategate 1 (when he was on NYT staff as a reporter) somehow concludes that he “ended up doing all he could to snuff it [the controversy] out.” Really? This must have been a funny way to go about it.
Well, Revkin has ended up doing an interesting Q & A with that Commentary blogger, which is posted here at Dot Earth.
At this point, given the charged emotions and politicization associated with climate change, any mainstream media reporter or blogger writing about this latest “climategate” flare-up should expect to be put through the paces. Or, in Revkin’s case, a buzzsaw. And given his special talent for displeasing the polar ends of the climate spectrum, perhaps this song is appropriate.
Last week, after a second batch of climate science emails were publicly released, I got the sense that most science and environmental reporters assigned to cover the story were holding their noses. They dutifully reported the basics, but were not inclined to treat the latest disclosures as especially newsworthy, much less as a story with new revelations or wrinkles.
In fact, some, such as Damian Carrington at the Guardian, claimed the opposite, that “the real scandal” was “the failure to catch the email hacker.” Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones said the hacker’s identity was the “real remaining question of ‘Climategate.’” Picking up on this theme, the Guardian’s Leo Hickman has asked readers to help crowdsource “the hacker’s profile.” (More on this in a minute.)
Only a few journalists (who don’t work for Fox News or dismiss climate change as a hoax) have thus far dared to suggest that there is more to this story than advocacy outlets and representatives for the climate science community would lead us believe. I can count them on two fingers. There is freelancer David Appell, who writes on his blog that the latest email dump
doesn’t show anything nefarious, but I think it does raise questions about how much purported unanimity has been artificially created by IPCC reports, and whether the full state of uncertainty is being communicated.
Similarly, Andy Revkin gives this perspective:
Do I trust climate science? As a living body of intellectual inquiry exploring profoundly complex questions, yes.
Do I trust all climate scientists, research institutions, funding sources, journals and others involved in this arena to convey the full context of findings and to avoid sometimes stepping beyond the data? I wouldn’t be a journalist if I answered yes.
Translation: I trust climate science but not everybody and everything associated with it. Some people have agendas that tend to skew the science.
Can we all agree that this a reasonable position for a journalist to take?
So why the seeming reluctance of mainstream climate reporters to look beyond the surface of these emails and acknowledge that the story is not so black and white as: Nothing in these exchanges overturns or undermines the basic findings of climate science (the earth is warming, humans are contributing, we probably want to take that more seriously, etc). I mean, if we really want to get past that simplistic angle, there’s great fodder in the emails for a more substantive, nuanced discussion on the kinds of uncertainties that get seized on (and often distorted) by the more politicized climate skeptics and contrarians. But because proxies for the climate science community have declared this latest episode a no-fly zone, they effectively cede the debate over vexing climate change questions to skeptics, who are now laboriously wading through the whole file and mining it for nuggets that advance their own agendas.
Instead, as I mentioned above, there seems to be more journalistic appetite for unmasking the identity of the hacker/leaker. And just to be clear, that is a legitimate line of media inquiry (who doesn’t like a good mystery?). But this effort along those lines in the Guardian seems to have rubbed its readers the wrong way. Responses have ranged from outrage to sarcasm, such as this one:
I take it your next project will be to enlist help identifying anyone and everyone who has ever provided leaks to wikileaks, right?
The Wikileaks comparison was brought up by numerous readers (the Guardian has notably collaborated with Julian Assange on several occasions). But Leo Hickman (author of the help us-catch-the-email-hacker article) and a Guardian editor, each who participated in the thread, ignored the repeated mention of the Wikileaks parallels. [See update below] Readers noticed:
Leo, some of us wish you would respond to your critics who have pointed out the difference between the Guardian’s enthusiastic participation in Wikileaks and its determination to out the individual responsible for this one.
Could you kindly tell us your rationale?
I’d like to hear it, too. I’d also like to know why the illicitly received communications about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the confidential embassy cables of government diplomats are considered fair game (by reporters), but not the frank exchanges between climate scientists that sheds light on the inner workings of a field that informs public policy and political messaging on a host of energy and climate issues.
This is not to say I condone illegal theft of government/university/industry-related communications, whether that involves international relations, military deliberations, private company practices, or scientific disagreements. But let’s not pretend–especially in the media–that there is a difference between how information has been received in any of the recent high profile cases, be it Wikileaks and say, the trove of embassy cables it turned loose, or the anonymous hacker/leaker who has made public thousands of climate science emails.
Journalists who turn up their noses at the latter and willfully look away aren’t acting like journalists.
UPDATE: I should have mentioned that I had a brief twitter exchange with Leo Hickman several days ago, related to the article of his that I discuss. He did acknowledge that there is an “interesting debate…about the moral equivalence between these two types of ‘whistleblowers” but at the same time he wondered if the whistleblower was “*always* justified just because the blower feels they’re justified? A chewy debate…” He also said he “didn’t respond” to the Wikileaks comparisons “because it would have prob[ably] been considered off-topic” by Guardian moderators.
UPDATE: For those wishing to see Leo’s full responses in that twitter thread, you can start here and here, then follow the sequence on that November 26th string. Additionally, as Hickman reminds me, the Guardian conducted an exhaustive investigation of the first “Climategate” affair (which did not endear them to the proprietors of Real Climate).
If you’re following press coverage of the second wave of purloined email communications between climate scientists, you might have noticed that many in the media have turned their attention to the whodunit angle. This is very much a worthy story to pursue (which I’ll have more to say on in a few days), since the identity of the hacker/leaker remains unknown.
But before we move on, there is one notable observation shared by all sides, which deserves greater attention. And that is the healthy display of outright skepticism in many of the highlighted exchanges. As the BBC’s Richard Black noted,
what’s interesting is that some of the most frank and forthright wording comes from scientists telling their peers off – often, trying to calm them down and get them to be more grounded in accurate science, whatever the political implications.
This point was echoed by Guardian reporter Juliett Jowitt in a comment at Collide-a-Scape:
They do disagree, and sometimes rather bitchily (these were “˜private’), but if anything it is reassuring that even this supposedly close cabal of self-reinforcing climate change mongers (the views of others) were so critical of each other, and so frequently at pains to make sure that uncertainty was not just taken account of but clearly shown, to make sure they would not undermine their field by appearing to hide observations which did not appear to fit the story.
Similarly, Fred Moolten makes this assessment over at Climate Etc:
The new revelations remind us of the academic squabbling, pettiness, and biases that pervade many areas of science, and the existence of a siege mentality among some of the top echelons that works to paper over differences and uncertainties. Like Judith Curry, I also believe the revelations will have little impact on MSM reporting, and so I expect little influence on public opinion or climate policy.
At the same time, I’m troubled by what I see as a misconception underlying much blogosphere commentary here and elsewhere (particularly elsewhere) ““ a tendency to confuse the IPCC with climate science, and to impute sins of the former to the latter. As Jim D reminds us, there are gradations in the uncertainty within the science itself, ranging from a near certainty (never absolute but very substantial) about the basic strength of greenhouse gas warming potency within a range of estimates derived from multiple sources (not all dependent on GCMs), to a much less sure sense of how this will play out in terms of secondary consequences ““ for example, how hurricanes or regional flooding will behave. These conclusions can be derived from the thousands of reports in the literature and do not require a dependence on IPCC synthesis of the data. Equally important, though, uncertainty, even if belittled in some public comments by IPCC defenders, is clearly apparent in the literature itself, and so I don’t see the implication that it has been neglected as supportable.
What I state is a personal judgment. While others may disagree, I don’t think the disagreement would be well-informed unless expressed by individuals who are themselves familiar with the climate science literature first hand by reading it rather than second hand from what others are claiming.
Finally, although the use of the email revelations as a political weapon is unfortunate, I do hope the revelations will have a chastening effect on individuals such as Michael Mann, Phil Jones, and some of their colleagues, whose inflated sense of importance and entitlement led to the transgressions that have surfaced.
Along these lines, Jim D expands in that same Climate Etc thread:
Fred hits a point that I wanted to add to. The intersection of politics and science via the IPCC has led to some trying to put more certainty into public statements than they could in a scientific journal (on both sides), and some feel that without more certainty politicians won’t listen. This is an added distorting force that doesn’t exist in purely scientific debates (e.g. in fields of science with no political intersection), but this is the context that drives some scientists who are more involved with IPCC to push for certainty more than they otherwise would have.
Which brings us to Alexander Harvey’s observation on the frank back-and-forth between climate scientists:
You will find the unspoken middle ground on display, This is the ground that the science community left largely publically undefended and where many of the sceptics are camped out. I think it quite shocking that this territory was largely left publically unoccupied by the science community. It is where the debate seems to take place internally, yet externally, in the public domain, the existence of that debate is denied or downplayed.
Has this “middle ground” been adequately represented in the media? If not, why?
The reaction thus far to the latest release of climate science emails (“son of climategate”) has played out along two tracks. Each has separate storylines.
In the feverish precincts of the climate blogosphere, especially those in permanent battle mode, the response has been predictable. Anthony Watts is in full swoon and Marc Morano has turned on all his sirens and flashing lights. Meanwhile, grim faced hall monitors at message control sites have been waving their rulers at all journalists in the vicinity. Their message: Move along, nothing to see here (just like last time!).
Reporters, of course, paid no heed. But the stories have generally sounded the same theme, which is encapsulated in Richard Black’s BBC headline:
Climate Emails: Storm or Yawn?
As Black noted, “what’s interesting” about the emails
is that some of the most frank and forthright wording comes from scientists telling their peers off – often, trying to calm them down and get them to be more grounded in accurate science, whatever the political implications.
Yes, Black says, there is additional evidence of scientists not complying with Freedom of Information requests, but all in all, he writes, no plot to deceive the world about climate change.
Well, maybe just a teensy little, according to this AP article:
Excerpts quoted on climate skeptic websites appeared to show climate scientists talking in conspiratorial tones about ways to promote their agenda and freeze out those they disagree with.
But the main point I noticed being emphasized in most of the mainstream stories I read is that nothing in the emails released this week or two years ago undermines the science showing greenhouse gases as a main contributor to climate change. Darren Samuelsohn at Politico underscores this in his piece, as does Juliet Eilperin at the Washington Post, and Andy Revkin at the NYT’s Dot Earth, who writes that,
as was soon clear following the last release, on Nov. 21, 2009, this has little bearing on the overall thrust of decades of research revealing a rising human influence on the global climate system, and the logic in wise policies to limit both the pace of change and its impacts.
But here’s something to consider about all this business: I don’t think the perpetrator (whoever has stolen and distributed these emails) believes he has provided evidence that calls into question an accumulated body of science that shows the earth is warming. What he’s done is somewhat akin to pulling back the curtain on the legislative sausage-making in Washington D.C. To the uninitiated, it’s ugly stuff. But power plays, insults, shouting matches, back-scratching, etc, are a way of life, whether it happens on The Office, Capitol Hill, in newsrooms, or among climate researchers in a university setting.
But because there are major policy implications and intense politics associated with climate science, what should be considered normal human tendencies–such as infighting and attempts to shape an outcome–are instead viewed in a harsh light, at best, or as an indictment of a profession, at worst.
Climate science will survive this latest viewing of its dirty laundry, because it is a highly reputable field with a proven track record. And because climate scientists are doing work that sheds light on issues important to us. That said, the perpetrator of “climategate” (and its sequel) has succeeded in focusing attention on the behavior and actions of a small group of scientists, who, for better or worse, are seen as representative of the climate science community.
In politics, perception counts as much as reality. The same rule now applies to climate science.
and here we go again — as if Durban isn’t dead enough
During some back and forth with him, I opine:
Leaks intended (I believe) to influence public opinion, not official positions [of countries]. New batch doesn’t get big play w/out news hook.
One of the interesting subplots will be how the press handles this latest batch of leaked climate science emails. Journalists tend to get giddy off the slightest whiff of scandal. Lots of climate concerned folk are still bitter over the media’s role the last time around. (Of course, climate skeptics think the press fell down on the job, too, so go figure.) Meanwhile, watchdogs on the left are already on high alert. For example, I think Brad Johnson was the first out of the box with a pre-emptive warning to journos.
I haven’t had a chance to read any of the emails yet, but I suspect (and I could turn out to be wrong) that the payoff will ultimately underwhelm.
Remember, drug addicts are always chasing after that first high.
Governments of the world’s richest countries have given up on forging a new treaty on climate change to take effect this decade, with potentially disastrous consequences for the environment through global warming.
Ahead of critical talks starting next week, most of the world’s leading economies now privately admit that no new global climate agreement will be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and that even if it were negotiated by then, they would stipulate it could not come into force until 2020.
Nobody wants to say this for the record, of course, but in order to keep up the charade, representatives of “those richest countries” will probably feign surprise at this Guardian piece and publicly respond, Not us. We’re on board. Let’s keep at it!
I know the climate change debate is emotionally charged, but the ugly politics and paranoid thought processes that flow from it are breathtaking. People have become so blinded by their own sense of righteousness that it often makes rational debate all but impossible. What’s doubly disappointing is when this behavior is exhibited by those who have science pedigrees and claim the mantle of clear-thinking, science defender.
The blogosphere, of course, is where these shenanigans regularly play out. Two recent examples are notable. The first highlights the ugly politics aspect, the second the paranoid thought processes.
Exhibit A is from a serial offender who has waged a personal war with Andy Revkin for some time. Rather than summarize the latest bit of Rommian theatrics, I’ll let you go have a look yourself, including this from Revkin. Truth is, many of the saner folks on Romm’s side of the climate debate have grown weary of his antics. They tune out the rants. To them, he’s like the outlandish, bombastic uncle at Thanksgiving that everybody tolerates because he’s part of the family. But behind his back, they’re rolling their eyes at his unseemly outbursts.
Exhibit B is this post and thread from Michael Tobis at his new home, Planet 3.0: Beyond Sustainability. I have much higher expectations of Michael, and have previously expressed great hopes for the site he has created. But in the aforementioned post’s discussion on recent scholarship that has challenged Jared Diamond’s eco-collapse narrative for Easter Island, Michael made a startlingly biased and willfully ignorant argument. It’s so unbelievable that I’m going to excerpt the highlights. They occurred during an exchange with the two archaeologists who came by to discuss the findings of their book with Michael in the thread of his post.
So Michael’s post is called The Statues that Walked, which happens to be the title of the recently published book by archaeologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt. As I mentioned, it calls into question much of what people think they know about Easter Island, in particular it’s validity as a popular environmentalist metaphor.
Here is an excerpt from Carl Lipo’s first comment at the thread, addressed to Michael:
I agree we should all be wary of “denialists” who challenge scientific findings simply to further some agenda. Many of these are exactly what you describe “” pseudo-science, arguments by authority and common sense logic. Our evaluation of the archaeological record of Easter Island (documented in our book, The Statues That Walked) was not done to simply “deny” the Collapse story that has been long associated with it. As archaeologists, we went to the island fully expecting to be able to study the growth of the island’s population after colonization and eventual collapse that was reported to have occurred ca. AD1680. It was much to our surprise that the archaeological record simply didn’t have evidence that supported much of what has been claimed “” no evidence for cannibalism, no evidence for widespread lethal warfare, no evidence for the 10,000+ population that has been argued to have once lived on the island and so on. Our best explanation of what we could find in the record is that there never was a prehistoric collapse and much of the features associated with “collapse” come from the effects of contact and post-contact history.
Lipo closed with this:
I urge you to evaluate the book on its own merits “” examine the evidence we present and see if you can find a better explanation then what we arrive at. We greatly appreciate any dialogue on these grounds.
Here’s the first sentence of Michael’s response:
The tone of reasonableness in your reply, which we have learned to expect from the most egregious misrepresenters of climate science, is less reassuring for me than it might be for someone who hasn’t engaged in that way.
Now if I was Lipo, right there I would have concluded that Michael is not interested in having a discussion in good faith. Then, after cataloguing a list of bullet points he feels that Lipo did not adequately answer, Michael ends on this note:
In short, Diamond has drawn a tightly coherent picture and you have replied with a scattershot set of critiques that leaves a plethora of loose ends. Your argumentation is thus very remeniscent of the “climate skeptics”, (leaving aside that you reference the work of one of them in their pet journal) providing, in answer to a coherent theory, a whole slew of doubts on particulars and a barely plausible scenario with little underlying structure. It’s, at best, intellectually dissatisfying. That isn’t really evidence against your position. However, it matches my prior expectation that emotionally resonant results about sustainability will always end up challenged and obfuscated. Therefore the burden of proof, in my estimation, lies with you.
Would you be willing to identify who funded your research?
Now I had already been participating in this exchange, and became incredulous at that point. I asked Michael if he had read the book that lays out the argument he was crudely disparaging (“reminiscent of climate skeptics…”), and what he was insinuating about the funding issue. He responded:
I haven’t read the book. I am trying to decide whether it is worth reading.
Consider that if Diamond is wrong about Easter Island, I have little intrinsic interest in Easter Island. I do want to know if he was totally wrong of course, but I don’t want to read a book about it.
Yet Michael feels free to pass judgement on the argument and evidence made in the book, without actually having read it. What’s more, even though he wants to know if Diamond is wrong, he’s not sufficiently interested in Easter Island to read a book by respected scholars that lays waste to the Easter Island mythology. Oh, and about that funding question he posed:
My question is whether they got funding from a private source because somebody disliked Diamond’s 2004 book. If they went through normal channels with an interest in Easter Island that would refute my suspicion that their mission was postnormal as opposed to normal science.
Carl Lipo responded:
If you are not willing to read our book then there is precious little to discuss since you apparently know what the answers are already. If you would like to discuss the evidence of the record and how archaeologists have been explaining it for the past 10-15 years, I would be happy to talk. But if you want to keep to your faith-based approach, there little hope of finding a common ground. Your suspicions about funding sources also makes me wonder if you also prefer tin-foil hats.
Michael, finally revealing that he has no interest in “scientifically informed conversation” on Easter Island (the quote is from the blurb about what the Planet 3.0 website strives for), comes back with this:
My interest is not in the substance unless Lipo & Hunt make a dramatically more compelling case than they seem able to. My interest remains mostly about what Peiser and E&E have to do with it.
Let me get this straight. Michael is not interested in the substance of the debate, unless the two archaeologists can make a more compelling case. But he doesn’t want to read their book. Well, maybe the authors should act out the evidence for him. Perhaps that would be more compelling. As for his abiding interest in a single source (who is an ardent climate contrarian), Lipo addressed that issue in one of his comments:
I should also note that while we are aware of Peiser’s argument (and others e.g., Rainbird) we did not in anyway rely on his claims. We are not stooges for anti-environment corporate entities. Both of us are faculty at public universities. Our intentions are archaeological in nature and in doing science the best that we can. If you examine our cumulative academic record of publications you will find that we are both ardent supporters of science (and have even been criticized by some of our colleagues as been “too scientific” in our demands for constraining our explanations to descriptions of the empirical record).
Another commenter offers this advice to Michael:
I think we’d need to read their book before claiming that they’re offering scattered contradictions rather than a coherent thesis.
But that would mean acting like a scientist, and actually examining the evidence for yourself, rather than being cavalierly dismissive. Not all scientists want to do that, it seems.
And they have a message:
Researchers say they have found new evidence of prolonged drought in parts of the West, suggesting megadroughts are not the rarity Westerners would like them to be.
Of course, there is already ample evidence for Westerners not to think this, but c’mon, who remembers what they had for dinner on Tuesday, much less how much it rained 800 years ago?
Then there’s all this climate changey stuff that people keep bringing into the picture, and it’s just…well…I bet some of my buddies out West can feel the hard reckoning in their desert-bleached bones.
There is an upside, though: Archaeologists in 3100 AD are gonna be feasting on the ruins out there. And a thousand years from today, I bet they’ll also be scratching their heads over the same thing we wonder now about the Anasazi and Hohokam: WTF were these people thinking?
While I personally don’t use the term “denier” in my writing on climate issues, I’m not moved by the crocodile tears of many who claim to be offended by it. Why? Well, I could point to a few loaded, pejorative terms commonly used at popular climate skeptic websites. But to understand the hypocrisy I’m getting at, let’s go to this new Fred Singer post at American Thinker, which starts off (emphasis added):
Global warming has re-entered public consciousness in recent days, partly because of the buzz surrounding the release of warming results from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project. The reaction of the “warmistas” has been jubilant, yet hilariously wrong. Will they ever learn?
Do you get the association implied here? Let me just say that as a huge Clash fan I resent this effort to despoil my memory of a treasured boyhood album. But I digress.
A few paragraphs down, Singer says something I agree with (emphasis added):
Unfortunately, it has become expedient (for those who condemn CO2 as the cause of warming) to deride their opponents with terms like “climate deniers.”
Alas, the self-proclaimed global warming “doubter” doesn’t see when he’s being expedient, for just two paragraphs later, we come to this (emphasis added):
Their hearts filled with bubbling joy and their brains befuddled, none of the warmistas have apparently listened to the somewhat skeptical pronouncements from Prof. Muller.
In case you weren’t getting the message, a little further down, Singer writes (emphasis added):
None of the warmistas can explain why the climate hasn’t warmed in the 21st century, while CO2 has been increasing rapidly. It’s no wonder that Herman Cain, a former math and computer science major in college, says that “man-made global warming is poppycock” (NYT, Nov. 12). He blames climate fears on “scientists who tried to concoct the science” and “were busted because they tried to manipulate the data.”