Open Letter to The New York Times
December 27, 2005
Byron Calame, Public Editor
The New York Times
RE: Coverage of climate science news
Dear Mr. Calame,
I am a reader of the New York Times and a human geographer with research interests in science and the media. As you are aware, our nation presently faces many formidable challenges—not the least of which are the ramifications of our dependence on foreign oil and the well-documented changes in the earth’s climate.... As I present the below case study involving coverage of the issue of climate change by the New York Times, I ask that the same be brought to the attention of your science reporters and editors so that they might reconsider some of their procedures.
Research has shown that “balance,” one of the standards of professional journalism, can at times lead to biased news coverage. While reporting on science, journalists often attempt to balance their story by including rebuttals by other experts. This framing technique can create a false impression that the scientific findings are highly controversial. Particularly troubling is the use of industry-affiliated “skeptics” as commentators in articles relating to climate change. Repudiations from a handful of “climate contrarians” engenders confusion among readers, leaving them unaware that the scientific knowledge is robust and the international scientific community agrees—significant anthropogenic climate change is a current reality.
Case study: John Christy and the New York Times
Beginning in the early 1990s, John Christy and Roy Spencer (C/S) have published a number of analyses of tropospheric temperature trends derived from satellite microwave sounding unit (MSU) data. These researchers had (erroneously) found little warming in the troposphere and the paradox created thereby has not only become a hotbed of scientific inquiry but a highly valuable device for climate skeptics. In the words of the Santer, et al. team, whose research has helped to substantiate tropospheric warming: On the basis of [the C/S] records, it has been argued that the troposphere has not warmed … thus casting doubt on the usefulness of climate models (which predict that anthropogenic warming should have occurred), the reliability of thermometer-based observations of surface warming, and the reality of human-induced climate change (Science 300, 1280 ).
The confirmation of our warming troposphere is one segment of a plethora of scientific findings evidencing dangerous anthropogenic climate change; yet many, including some of our policy-makers, have referred to the (now discredited) MSU findings of C/S while attacking efforts to mitigate global warming. According to NPR, Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma was at least partially relying on the C/S work when he (now repeatedly has) proclaimed, on the floor of the Senate, “global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” John Christy (University of Alabama in Huntsville) has testified to Congress that “numerous studies indicate the present biosphere is being invigorated by the human-induced rise of CO2 [carbon dioxide]…. CO2 is not a pollutant.” While Inhofe has received generous financial contributions from the energy sector, Christy is affiliated with conservative think-tanks and groups that receive funding from the fossil fuel industry.
Now I shall recount an apparent “tipping point” in the “controversy” surrounding the scientific evidence of tropospheric warming. The below trio of new studies published in Science (9/2/05) should silence those relying on the C/S findings to dispute the reality of anthropogenic climate change:
C.A. Mears, F.J. Wentz, Science 309, 1548 (2005).
B.D. Santer et al., Science 309, 1551 (2005).
S.C. Sherwood, J.R. Lanzante, C.L. Meyer, Science 309, 1556 (2005).
Advance notice of the above research led to a story by the New York Times, “Studies find atmosphere is warmer” (8/12/05, Section A, National Desk), that explained:
[C]limate experts … said that the new studies were very significant, effectively resolving a puzzle that had been used by opponents of curbs on heat-trapping greenhouse gases…. [The Mears and Wentz paper] identifies a fresh error in the [C/S findings] that, more firmly than ever, showed warming in the troposphere, particularly in the tropics.
This Times article also noted that Christy and Spencer “conceded … that they had made a mistake but [and this is significant] said that their revised calculations still produced a warming rate too small to be a concern.”
Notwithstanding the fact that the Times has published many exceptional and informative stories on climate change, there has been a trend of including dismissive comments from John Christy when reporting on this topic—here are three examples:
Ø “Report warns New York of perils of global warming” (6/30/99, Section B, Metropolitan Desk):
[Christy] said people mistakenly considered the climate to which they were accustomed the normal one. “I get the feeling people think they have the right to a particular climate” [Christy] said. “The system doesn’t let you have that.”
Ø “Can global warming be studied too much?” (12/3/02, Section F, Science Desk):
“We are still struggling with the ‘what will be’ question, especially at regional scales, which makes answering the ‘what will be dangerous’ question too difficult to handle,” said [Christy]. As a result, he said, any emissions plan should be “economically benign.”
Ø “Deciding how much global warming is too much” (2/1/05, Section F, Science Desk):
“If we just significantly minimize our vulnerabilities to the extremes which occurred during the last 250 years, we’ll be O.K. for the next 100,” said [Christy] who has long opposed cuts in emissions. As for rising seas, he said “You’ve got 100 years to move inland.”
While attracting minimal press coverage, others within the scientific community have, over the last decade, published peer-reviewed findings that indicated a warming troposphere. At this point I shall attempt a précis of the extensive body of MSU derived tropospheric temperature studies that contradict C/S; ... First of all, Prabhakara, et al. published the following three MSU analyses but failed to receive coverage from the Times or any other mainstream media outlet:
C. Prabhakara, J. J. Nucciarone, J. -M. Yoo, Clim. Change 30, 349 (1995).
C. Prabhakara, R. Iacovazzi, J. -M. Yoo, G. Dalu, Geophys. Res. Lett. 25, 1927 (1998).
C. Prabhakara, R. Iacovazzi, J. -M. Yoo, G. Dalu, Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 3517 (2000).
The below findings were discussed in a Times article headlined “As debate persists, new study confirms atmospheric warming” (8/13/98, Section A, National Desk):
F.J. Wentz, M. Schabel. Nature 394, 661 (1998).
This team is associated with the research group “Remote Sensing Systems” or “RSS.” Comments from Christy constituted a substantial portion of this Times piece that closed with a statement from him connecting the 1997-98 El Niño to the warming atmosphere.
The following two studies received some newspaper coverage; however, rebukes by Christy appeared in many of the press reports.
C. Mears, M. C. Schabel, F.J. Wentz, J. Clim. 16, 3650 (2003).
The following are excerpts from the Times story, “New view of data supports human link to global warming” (11/18/03, Section F, Science Desk), that was based upon this later RSS study:
The finding is subtle but significant, experts say, particularly because previous studies … showing no warming, have been highlighted by opponents of curbs on heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe emissions linked to recent warming.
[Christy], who has long been an outspoken critic of catastrophic climate predictions, said, “We’ve had enough years of this human-induced forcing to get some boundaries on it, and it’s just not going in the dramatic and catastrophic direction.”
[C/S] … [drew] strong interest … from companies and elected officials questioning whether global warming was happening. More recently … [C/S] concluded that there had been a slight, but inconsequential warming.
B.D. Santer et al., Science 300, 1280 (2003).
This Santer, et al. work compared the C/S MSU data set with that of RSS (2003); while attracting no coverage by the Times, it did receive attention from a handful of other newspapers, such as the Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA). The Press story (6/12/03) included: “Christy said [his work] indicates global warming is a natural Earth cycle. ‘Why hasn’t the troposphere not warmed if the climate is changing? Or maybe the climate is not changing like some think’ [Christy] said.”
When, in 2003, researchers Vinnikov and Grody published their MSU study in Science (302, 269), Cox News Service (9/11/03) reported that “[Grody] said Christy got a copy of the report … and tried to persuade Science editors not to publish it. ‘He was very harsh in his reaction,’ Grody said.” Reference this same study, the Wall Street Journal (9/12/03) reported that “[Christy] went so far as to say he believed the journal [Science] had a strong bias in favor of global warming.”
Teams led by Qiang Fu have published three refereed MSU papers:
Q. Fu, C. M. Johanson, S. G. Warren, D. J. Seidel, Nature 429, 55 (2004).
Q. Fu, C. M. Johanson, J. Clim. 17, 4636 (2004).
Q. Fu, C. M. Johanson, Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L10703 (2005).
A Nature article (5/6/04) introducing the analysis of Fu, et al. (hereafter “Fu”) published in that journal quoted Kevin Trenberth, Head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who explained that these findings were “a stunningly elegant and accurate method of clarifying global trends.” Although the Nature story included Christy’s criticisms of this study, Christy took the unusual step of posting a critique of this analysis on the Internet—at the website of the Cooler Heads Coalition (5/5/04). Not only is this a non-refereed venue, but the Cooler Heads Coalition also has connections with the fossil fuel industry.
The Fu Nature study received international coverage: “Scientists claim final proof of global warming,” the Times [London] (5/6/04); “Scientists claim new evidence of warming,” the Guardian [UK] (5/6/04); and “New interpretation confirms global warming,” the Hindu (6/3/04). The Times [London] reported “The discovery resolves one of the most contentious anomalies in climate science, which has often been invoked by the Bush Administration to question whether man-made global warming is happening.”
At the same time, this Fu analysis received far less notice by the US media and was ignored by the New York Times. (The two later Fu, et al. studies attracted even less media coverage.) The Seattle Times (5/6/04) and the UPI (5/10/04) ran articles on this Nature paper and both included discordant comments from Christy. The Seattle Times noted: “Christy … believes that humans are changing the climate, but that the changes are modest and not likely to cause ecological disaster. ‘Most of the predictions are too alarmist,’ he said.” And the UPI reported: “[Christy] said the [Fu] … results are wrong. Furthermore, Christy said, he and his colleagues previously had tried the method Fu used and found it did not work.”
At least two mainstream science magazines mentioned the Fu Nature article, such as the Scientific American, “New study may resolve long-standing global warming debate” (5/6/04), and Discover, “The Year in Science (2004): top 100 stories” (January 2005). In rating climate change as the #1 science story, Discover observed:
[S]keptics have long argued that the [climate] models … can’t explain why the lower atmosphere has apparently warmed less than Earth’s surface. That argument took a knock in 2004.… [Fu] concluded [there was a] masking [of] what is in fact a large warming of the lower atmosphere.
One might expect that with this profusion of scientific findings that invalidate the work of C/S, John Christy would no longer enjoy the highly influential role as a source for the New York Times. However, only eleven days after the 8/12/05 Times article, Christy reappeared on the pages of this newspaper in a related story, “Panelist who dissents on climate change quits” (8/23/05, Section F, Science Desk), that mentioned Christy’s skepticism of “human-caused warming” posing a “serious threat.”
Although hardly alone, Christy has been an outspoken, driving force in the well-funded effort to cast doubt on the reality of destructive climate change. It is not my intention to portray the New York Times as the chief promoter of Christy’s sophisms; nonetheless, it is hard to overstate the significance of how this story has been covered. I ask that, in an effort to better inform readers about climate change, the New York Times place more emphasis on scientific consensus rather than balance. Lastly, it is my hope that this letter persuades the Times to assume a leadership role, a position not unfamiliar, and act as vanguard against the fallacious assertions of industry-affiliated climate skeptics—such as John Christy.
I look forward to your response.
[Footnotes excluded here]
Second Open Letter to The New York Times
January 9, 2006
Byron Calame, Public Editor
Andrew C. Revkin, Environment Reporter
The New York Times
RE: Rebuttal on topic of coverage of climate science
Dear Mr. Calame and Mr. Revkin:
This letter is in response to emails from Mr. Revkin. (Thank you Andy for responding rapidly and in such detail. Also, thank you for all of your work on important ecological issues.) I had no intention that my letter of December 27th would be interpreted as personal criticism of the work of any journalist; I sincerely hope that it has not been perceived as such. I copied my letter to Andy as a courtesy as he had written most—but not all—of the articles referenced in the same.
That said, I understand why Andy responded as he did. Nevertheless, I wish to refocus on the big picture that I was attempting to address—not only in my letter of December 27th but in my article published in Global Environmental Change—which is how climate skeptics affiliated with the fossil fuel lobby manipulate science and exploit journalism in order to delay mitigation of dangerous climate change.
My original letter set forth some of the background of John R. Christy. There has been a distinct pattern since the 1990s relating to the MSU work of Christy and Spencer (C/S of the University of Alabama at Huntsville [UAH]) in which a number of scientists have published work that disputed the UAH findings, C/S would then reprocess their data and arrive at results similar to their original findings (minimal tropospheric warming). Christy and Spencer would then discount the contradictory study as having been dealt with. It appears that at times, Christy actively worked to suppress the publication and/or media coverage of such error-finding studies.
At long last, the UAH work has been discredited. As I pointed out in my first letter, John R. Christy has affiliations with the fossil fuel industry and over the years has accumulated a great deal of press for his prognostications that minimize the severity of climate change. John Christy has been and is still successful in confusing the public and policy-makers while he continues to deny the fact of a substantially warming troposphere.
There is a concerted and well-funded effort by industry lobbies to maintain a constant drum beat, within mainstream media and the public forum in general, of deceptively downplaying the urgency and scale of climate change. This pounding away by an ensemble of fossil fuel industry affiliated skeptics including Christy is reprehensible and has contributed to our current dilemma—being that the U.S. public has, in some aspects, fallen behind the rest of the world on this urgent issue. When mainstream media prints or broadcasts disinformation relating to the potential gravity of climate change it violates the trust of an audience that assumes some level of informed interpretation of the situation by the media.
As to Christy’s input on “policy issues,” I for one am deeply suspicious as to why Christy is vociferous in his repudiation of any policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There is scientific consensus on the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In juxtaposition, I offer additional published statements of John Christy in order to flesh out his policy positions; these perspectives are highly dismissive of the international scientific consensus. The following are excerpts from John R. Christy’s (2002) “The Global Warming Fiasco” in Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death; this book was a project of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Ronald Bailey, Editor; the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), received from ExxonMobil: $405,000 in 2002, $465,000 in 2003, and $270,000 in 2004:
Has human activity been responsible for some of the last century’s temperature rise? The IPCC 2001 claims the following:
There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human factors.
Note carefully what the preceding IPCC quote actually says. The evidence is “new and stronger.” But is this evidence truly “convincing” or “beyond doubt” or “stronger than a DNA test?” The evidence is described only as “new and stronger” and hides the fact that uncertainties and inconsistencies are not only still present but in some cases growing.
The alarmist media reports … become the source of downstream hysteria promoted by those with extreme environmental agendas. Such pronouncements by ideological environmentalists that the globe’s weather is worsening are actually false.
The types of bad weather people really care about are not changing enough to notice.
And in John R. Christy’s writing (03/11/2001) “Global warming distress signals overblown” posted on the UAH website he argues:
In recent weeks a torrent of reports have proclaimed that the Earth’s climate will become so catastrophically bad in the coming century that we must do something to stop it.
Despite recent headlines … the bulk of the scientific findings in the IPCC report, in my view, don’t support the doomsday scenarios.
Incidentally, reports that new computer model forecasts prove that human-induced global warming is a reality are misguided. Computer models can’t prove anything.
“Uncertainty” appears everywhere in the IPCC text …
What does the present rhetoric and, in my view, misrepresentation of the IPCC report really mean? It could mean government-mandated higher prices for energy from fossil fuels, which produce [CO2].
[R]egulations passed to force reductions in CO2 emissions (i.e. limit access to energy) will have no measurable effect on the climate or sea level—no matter what direction the climate chooses to take.
I think the Earth’s temperature will rise in the next century, but not to the extent you would notice in terms of weather affecting your particular spot.
Reference the Fu et al. studies, I note that in 2005 the National Research Council, in reviewing the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) report on temperatures trends in the lower atmosphere, found:
[Beginning] with a summary of the most important, major comments …
The Fu et al. results are potentially of key importance to the issue of tropospheric temperature trends … Currently, there is minimal discussion, and the data are labeled as “controversial”. A more thoughtful and balanced appraisal is necessary …
The Fu et al. work may be central to the issue of measuring and interpreting the vertical profile of temperature change and is no more difficult or controversial than addressing the spurious radiosonde trends or the differences between the [RSS], [UAH], and University of Alabama* [*it appears that “Alabama” is an error here and should be University of Maryland] (UMD) interpretations of the MSU data.
Given that the Fu et al. results appear in the peer reviewed literature, it is inadequate to dismiss them as “controversial”.
The Fu et al. results have the potential to be centrally important to the issue of tropospheric temperature trends and should be discussed more thoroughly … The only published criticism of the Fu et al. approach is by Tett and Thorne (2004) with other criticisms in the grey literature. The Fu et al. method has since been followed up by several studies which show that it is robust … The potential clarification that the Fu et al. method can contribute to the central issues is very significant.
I conclude by reiterating my request to Mr. Calame: that he consider the merits of my argument, now contained in these two letters, for discontinuing the use of John Christy and other industry-affiliated climate skeptics as sources for climate change articles in the New York Times.
[Footnotes exluded here]
Check out these sites:
- AAAS - What We Know
- Adaptation Clearinghouse
- AGU: GeoSpace: Earth & Space Science
- AGU: Plainspoken Scientist: Communicating Science
- American University School of Communication: Climate Shift
- Association of American Geographers
- Carbon Brief
- Center for Climate Change Communication
- Center for Environmental International Law (CIEL)
- CICERO (Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo)
- Climate Central
- Climate Change at the National Academies
- Climate Change News
- Climate Communication
- Climate Feedback
- Climate Home
- Climate Nexus
- Climate Reality Project
- Climate Solutions
- Climate Strategies
- ClimateShift (American University School of Communication)
- Daily Climate
- Dan Grossman Media
- Dr. James Hansen
- Energy Post
- Fiona Harvey, UK environmental reporter
- Global Weirding with Katharine Hayhoe
- Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change & the Environment (LSE - London School of Economics & Poliitical Science)
- InsideClimate News
- Int'l Environmental Communication Association
- Media Matters
- NASA: Global Climate Change
- National Academies: Climate Change
- Nature: Climate Change
- NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research)
- Planet Ark - World Environment News
- Real Climate Economics
- Regime Shifts DataBase
- Ross Gelbspan's Heat is Online
- Skeptical Science
- State of the Planet (The Earth Institute - Columbia University)
- Stephen Schneider, Climatologist (In Memoriam)
- Think Progress - Climate
- Tribes & Climate Change
- UCAR (University Corporation for Atmospheric Research)
- UNFCCC Newsroom
- Union of Concerned Scientists
- Yale Climate Connections
- Yale Environment 360
- Liisa Antilla Kellems
- MA: King's College London; BA: University of Washington; Association of American Geographers; International Environmental Communication Association; PUBLISHED WORK Antilla, L. (2010) “Self-censorship and science: a geographical review of media coverage of climate tipping points,” Public Understanding of Science 19(2): 240-256; Antilla, L. (2005) “Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change,” Global Environmental Change 15(4): 338-52