Historian Walter Russell Mead dings the New York Times for allegedly not writing about the controversy over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, its embattled leader Rajendra K. Pachauri, and a related story about stolen emails at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit and the fallout that has damaged the reputation of its head, Phil Jones. He points to a story in today's Washington Post headlined "Series of missteps by climate scientists threatens climate-change agenda." [UPDATE: See Mead's thoughtful response, and my response to his response.]
I have worked with Mead and know him as a careful writer and steward of the facts. So I will assume he's not fully informed, and I hope that he'll change his mind after reading this. Because the real story here could just as easily be headlined, "Climate skeptics seize on editing errors, poor IPCC communications to manipulate willing British press and credulous blogosphere." (For the scientific take and full context for what is happening, read this careful explanation by a group of climate scientists at RealClimate.org.)
Exhibit A is this story in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid well known in the UK for its carelessness with facts, headlined, "Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995." The Daily Mail headline badly distorts an interview Jones gave to the BBC, in which he says the following:
Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming
Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.
There's nothing new here; Jones is simply being careful in sticking to what he knows. He later goes on to say explicitly "I'm 100% confident that the climate has warmed. As to the second question, I would go along with IPCC Chapter 9 - there's evidence that most of the warming since the 1950s is due to human activity," which the Daily Mail conviently neglects to note.
Nor is it true that the Times is ignoring the story. I agree with Mead that the controversy deserves more prominent discussion, but longtime environmental reporter Andrew Revkin has been following it closely on his climate blog, Dot Earth, and his colleague Elisabeth Rosenthal weighed in on allegations that Pachauri has a conflict of interest (although that story had deep flaws). Here's science writer John Tierney opining on the East Anglia emails back in November. Here's reporter John Broder alluding to the controversies in a story about the misleading use of weather as a political football. Here's another Broder story about how Penn State scientist Michael Mann -- famous for producing the "hockey stick" curve showing a dramatic uptick in global temperatures in recent years -- was cleared of wrongdoing over the hacked East Anglia emails.
Mead also links uncritically to the writings of the Telegraph's Christopher Booker and the Times of London's Jonathan Leake, who are widely and persuasively criticized in the scientific community for exhibiting bias and reportorial sleight of hand. Take this section from Leake's recent story (run under the misleading headline, "World may not be warming, say scientists"):
Such warnings are supported by a study of US weather stations co-written by Anthony Watts, an American meteorologist and climate change sceptic.
His study, which has not been peer reviewed, is illustrated with photographs of weather stations in locations where their readings are distorted by heat-generating equipment.
Some are next to air- conditioning units or are on waste treatment plants. One of the most infamous shows a weather station next to a waste incinerator.
Watts has also found examples overseas, such as the weather station at Rome airport, which catches the hot exhaust fumes emitted by taxiing jets.
In Britain, a weather station at Manchester airport was built when the surrounding land was mainly fields but is now surrounded by heat-generating buildings.
Among numerous other problems with his story, Leake doesn't mention that NOAA -- in a peer-reviewed study (pdf) published in the Journal of Geophysical Research -- actually looked at Watts's findings and found a cooling bias among the weather stations. Whoops. [UPDATE: Watts says the paper only uses an early version of his data. I'm going to check it out.]
And that's just one example; I could go on and on and on. What the New York Times might want to dig into more deeply is: Just who are the folks behind all this Drudge bait? And just what are the track records of the journalists flogging this story? I bet the answer they find is that they are far, far worse than the IPCC's.
UPDATE: I should note that not all British papers are behaving badly. The Guardian has an exhaustive 12-part series on "climategate" that doesn't whitewash the failings of climate scientists, but puts the issue in its proper context. Good reading.
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