Global Warming Again
I sent the following letter today to the Public Editor at the New York Times:
Dear Mr. Brisbane:
The article by John Broder that appeared on Nov. 27th and that was headlined “Another Charge for A Global Climate Effort” was a report on the Durban meetings. It included the following summary of the latest report of the IPCC: “A few weeks ago, the panel released a detailed assessment of the increasing frequency of extreme climate events like droughts, floods and cyclones, noting the necessity of moving quickly to reduce emissions and adapt to the inevitable damage.” Aside from the fact that the report was hardly detailed, the clear implication of the article is that extreme climate events were on the increase in all of the types of weather mentioned.
That, however, is not what the report said. Its executive summary, which is the only part of the report now available, said that while increases in temperature were likely, there was little evidence to suggest an increase in tornados and flooding. To quote the report directly: “It is very likely that there has been an overall decrease in the number of cold days and nights and an overall increase in the number of warm days and nights on the global scale….There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e. forty years or more) increase in tropical cyclone activity….There is low confidence in observed trends in small spatial-scale phenomena such as tornadoes and hail….There is limited to medium evidence available to assess climate-driven observed changes in the magnitude and frequency of floods at regional scales….” (p.5)
Nor is it what was reported in the Justin Gillis story on the IPCC report, headlined as “UN Panel Finds Climate Change Behind Some Extreme Weather Events” that had appeared on Nov. 18th. Gillis said “Whether inland flooding is getting worse because of greenhouse gases is murkier, the report said. Nor, it found, can any firm conclusions be drawn at this point about a human influence on hurricanes, typhoons, hail storms or tornados.” That was a more factual presentation of what the IPCC report said, but the headline and the general tone of the article suggested multiple dire consequences with a few exceptions when, in fact, this IPCC report is very different from earlier IPCC reports in that it is far more modest in its predictions of catastrophic weather change. That is what I thought should have been the lead in an article on the report.
I wonder how the reporters reached these conclusions, and I thought that you were the person who could check on that. Had Mr. Broder relied on a verbal summary of the report supplied by someone else? That seems likely because network news reports have made the same mistake in reporting. Or had Mr. Broder or Mr. Gillis misread the report? That would have been easy to do because the report is written in a barely discernable garble of the English language, full of definitions leading nowhere, and crucial facts not highlighted at the beginning, as would be the case if the people associated with the report had among their number someone who took and grasped Freshman English. Are the reporters willing to own up to having misread the report? Or do they simply think they were making arcane findings comprehensible?
The first mentioned possible cause of their mistakes is, of course, the most serious. It would seem to me rudimentary to journalism that people reporting on a report would have read it. The IPCC report is not the Pentagon Papers, but even so it deserved to have come before the eyeballs of the reporters who wrote the story. You can say better than I whether reading is any longer considered part of the process of “reporting”.
I am aware that, by and large, and until recently, the view that global warming is taking place and that it is in large part the result of human activity is the point of view that the Times has adopted. It treats as established science what a consensus of the field thinks is true, as ought to be the case because journalists are not themselves experts in climate science and even if they were, they would in that case be reporting as experts rather than as reporters. But it would do your readers a service to at least accurately report what respected statements of findings say. Moreover, it would seem in the public interest to every once in a while review the state of knowledge on which the consensus of experts is built. The Times last did that in an oblique way when you reported on the stations that report on temperatures around the world. That report suggested to me that the stations were few and rather rickety and so their data was not to be much relied on. That was a conclusion I drew, perhaps because I am skeptical of overall claims of human induced global warming, but it was one I drew on the basis of evidence provided, not evidence not provided. You will notice, by the way, that the most recent report, like its predecessors, does not provide the evidence on which it was based but alludes instead to a consensus of opinion based on both data and judgment, a methodological procedure that does not build confidence in the findings.
I suppose that in these days of Presidential candidates declaring themselves to be against both evolution and global warming, as if these were matters of opinion, I must declare that I am not anti-science. I do think that mankind evolved from earlier species, and that there might indeed be a long term climate cycle that places those of us living today in a warming phase. I am less confident about estimates of changes in temperature when, after all, our records of directly measured temperature go back a hundred and fifty years in advanced parts of the world and perhaps, at best, fifty years for world wide climate, a measurement only made possible by satellite and balloon measurements. And how much of the globe is covered by even the most modern of measurements so as to buttress the claim that there is indeed global climate change? An article on that issue would be most informative.
Emeritus Professor of Sociology
Editor and Chief Writer for “w. end ave.: an e-journal of culture and politics”