February 21, 2010

Asleep at the wheel

Climategate: The World’s Biggest Story, Everywhere but Here

The biggest scandal of our times is a non-story to U.S media. Why are the London papers covering the Climategate collapse, but not ours?

by Charlie Martin

It’s been called the “biggest scientific scandal in history.” It has everything to earn Pulitzer consideration: lies and misconduct in high places, political implications, even massive financial transactions that may or may not be legitimate or even legal. It’s big news … as long as you read the Telegraph, the Guardian, the London Times, or even major Indian papers.

It’s no news at all if you read the U.S. mainstream media.

In the ninety days — three months exactly at the time of this writing — since the Climategate files story broke, there has been an amazing amount of breakout in the climate science story, with major error after major error being uncovered in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report IV (AR4). There has been the discovery of suspicious conflicts of interest on the part of the chair of the IPCC, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, and the expanding story of the financial connections between the carbon trading cabal and the scientific climate clique in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Dr. Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit has “stepped aside” while under investigation, after which the UK government said it appeared there may have been criminality in CRU’s refusal to fulfill Freedom of Information requests. Scientist members of the IPCC have resigned, not wishing to continue to be associated with the poor quality of work being revealed.

And the UN chief diplomat in charge of climate change matters, Yvo de Boer, resigned in a sudden move that shocked UN climate watchers.

But search the major U.S. papers. There is a story in the Washington Post that at least mentioned some of the recent problems, prompted by Senator James Inhofe’s recent floor speech. What do they have to say about the biggest scientific scandal? The Post quotes U.N. Foundation President Timothy E. Wirth, whose nonprofit group has highlighted the work of the IPCC, saying that the pirated e-mails gave “an opening” to attack climate science, and that the scientific work “has to be defended just like evolution has to be defended.”

That would, by the way, be the same Timothy Wirth who was the original negotiator of the Kyoto Protocol.

Still, they mentioned it, and did quote Roger Pielke Jr., if not his strong criticism of the IPCC results. The Los Angeles Times? The most recent piece ran on January 10:

So, is the massive dumping of snow from the Mid-Atlantic to New England proof positive that climate change is untrue, as doubters such as Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) have taken the opportunity to trumpet? (His family built an igloo, declared it Al Gore’s new home and put up signs asking people to honk if they liked global warming).

To be sure, the IPCC has been forced to acknowledge errors and unsubstantiated statements in one of its landmark 2007 reports. The irregularities had to do with predictions of the expected effects of warming. None of them, however, undermined the report’s consensus that the planet has warmed and that man’s activities have contributed to the warming.

Inhofe’s igloo? Yes. Biggest scientific scandal? Not so much.

The New York Times — can we still say “paper of record” with a straight face? — hasn’t covered the recent developments at all.

After the London papers covered the collapsing credibility of the IPCC, after the LA Times made fun of Inhofe’s igloo, after the Washington Post ran a story reassuring its readers that the climate science was still sound even if there were some procedural errors, the New York Times has run, apparently, nothing. What we do have is a piece in NY Times reporter Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog on February 12, taken from “a prolonged exchange of e-mail messages Thursday with a heap of authors from past and future reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with some stray experts” that gives a lot of space to a prolonged fantasy of what science historians might say in 2210, that includes:

But this was the first time the media reported that an entire community of
scientists had been accused of actual dishonesty. Such claims, if directed for
example at a politician on a matter of minor importance, would normally require
serious investigation. But even in leading newspapers like the New York Times,
critics with a long public record for animosity and exaggeration were quoted as
experts. As we know, the repetition of allegations is sufficient to make them
stick in the public’s mind, regardless of whether they are later shown (or could
easily be shown at the time) to be untrue.

On February 10, we have the “Distracting Debate over Climate Certainty.” Quoting Andrew Kent:

I still have problems with this whole business of debating the levels of
certainty associated with global warming science. My view is that ultimately
it’s a waste of mental energy, since we’ve already got enough certainty to know
that it’s a good idea to take out an insurance policy against the worst-case
scenario — and by the time you’ve got the hindsight to have “no error bars,”
it’s already too late to do anything about GHGs

Are there any mentions of Professor Phil Jones’ admission in a BBC interview that he isn’t good at keeping records, that his notes were so disorganized that he couldn’t comply with the Freedom of Information requests, that there had indeed been no statistically significant warming since 1995, and that there was still significant uncertainty about the Medieval Warm Period and even about climate science in general?

Not that I can find.

I contacted all three papers — the LA Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times — asking for comment, or for a pointer to the stories I had missed. Only one of the three replied, and they wouldn’t speak for attribution or on the record.

It’s truly a puzzle. This is a story that affects the future of human civilization, if some of the believers are right. It ties financially to people right up to the top of American politics, as well as major industries throughout the U.S. and the world. What’s more, the story would seem to be all wrapped up, ready for aggressive investigative reporters with the resources of the Times to expose. Some of the perpetrators have even begun to confess. Why wouldn’t the Times cover it at all?

Are there any mentions of Professor Phil Jones’ admission in a BBC interview that he isn’t good at keeping records, that his notes were so disorganized that he couldn’t comply with the Freedom of information requests, that there had indeed been no statistically significant warming since 1995 and that there was still significant uncertainty about the Medieval Warm Period, and even about climate science in general?

Thanks to Gerard Vanderleun of the American Digest blog — and his link to Tom Nelson, one of my new favorite climate aggregators — we might have an answer. Nelson ran into this audio recording (warning: 105MB mp3 file) of the first Shorenstein Center/Belfer Center seminar on news coverage of climate change. One of the speakers was Andrew Revkin of the New York Times. Here’s part of what Revkin had to say, transcribed by Tom Nelson:

One thing that’s interesting to note … in this administration shift is that all
the coverage that I did of all those obfuscations, editing, censorship and stuff
that the Bush administration got involved in was a no-brainer getting that on
the front page of the New York Times … Now, theoretically, should I be just as
aggressively writing about these revelations? [nervous laugh]. There’s total …
complete differences between what was going on then and some of the things
you’ve heard about recently in terms of the scientific integrity of the IPCC …
The bottom line is, there was a predisposition at my newspaper to say hey,
that’s a great get; there’s a major front page story … when Phil Cooney …
editing climate reports and all that stuff … it fit a very comfortable theme
that all environmental stories for the longest period of time had, which is
there’s bad guys and good guys. Shame on you, shame on you.

Could it possibly be that the Times would sit on a story of this magnitude simply because it doesn’t say “shame on you” to the right people?

There may be some some additional insight to be gained by reading two pieces from Columbia Journalism Review: “MIA on the IPCC,” published January 29, and and “U.S. Press Digs Into IPCC Story,” two weeks later.

The January 29 piece says, reasonably:

In the days after the story first broke, The New York Times and The Washington
Post each ran one print article about the Himalayan glaciers error. The
Christian Science Monitor, now published online, produced one piece, and the
Associated Press and Bloomberg sent a couple of articles over the wire.

Unfortunately, that’s about it. Meanwhile, outlets in the UK, India, and Australia have been eating the American media’s lunch, churning out reams of commentary and analysis. Journalists in the U.S. should take immediate steps to redress that oversight.

It then runs through some of the other IPCC issues that had come to light by then, and concludes:

So, yes, an “old row” it is, but a very important one, to which the American press should pay more attention (taking a cue perhaps from the Guardian, which thought the flap between the Sunday Times, the IPCC, Ward, and Pielke was newsworthy enough). For, indeed, the row continues. Over the last week, Pielke has posted a number of entries on his blog revisiting his criticisms of the IPCC’s work on disaster losses and responding to Ward’s defense of the panel. … Today, he announced that next Friday he will debate Ward at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. The event is titled, “Has Global Warming increased the toll of disasters?”

That’s a great question. Unfortunately, the debate is in London, which probably means we’ll be hearing crickets in the U.S. media while coverage of this momentous topic continues elsewhere.

But by the 15th, CJR wrote:

Last Tuesday, The New York Times ran a front-page article by Elisabeth Rosenthal
under the headline, “U.N. Panel and Its Chief Face a Siege on Their
Credibility.” On Wednesday, the Associated Press ran one over the wire
headlined, “Scientists seek better way to do climate report.” The difference
between the two headlines — the Times focused on the panel’s faults, the AP on
its attempts to address them — is important. Each tells half the story, but it
is the latter that should lead.

In two weeks, CJR has moved from saying that U.S. media should cover the controversy to specifying what the “right” lead should be. CJR continues:

Bearing this in mind, it is easy to see why — as Climate Progress blogger Joe
Romm first pointed out — Rosenthal buried her lede in the ninth paragraph, which

The panel, in reviewing complaints about possible errors in its
report, has so far found that one was justified and another was “baseless.” The
general consensus among mainstream scientists is that the errors are in any case
minor and do not undermine the report’s conclusions.

That is something
that needs to be mentioned in the first few paragraphs. From there, a reporter
can explain that errors were nonetheless made, which should remind the world of
three things: that the exact timing and scale of certain impacts of climate
change are subject to a lot of uncertainty; that some scientists will behave
defensively, even to the point of negligence, when they feel threatened; and
that all quality control-systems sometimes fail. Thereafter, the question
becomes: what is being done about these problems?

That is, the “correct” view is that these problems don’t call the science into question, and the “right” question is to ask “what can be done about these trivial little problems?”

This appears to be one of the rare occasions on which we can observe the “consensus narrative” being shaped.

The CJR observes, correctly, that “outlets in the U.K., India, and Australia have been eating the American media’s lunch, churning out reams of commentary and analysis.” But it then concludes that there are no substantial problems; the “correct” view is that the scientific issues, and even more so the way that shoddy science was put together for political impact, aren’t particularly important and don’t call any of the conclusions into questions. Except, one assumes, the ones that have been determined to be false, like the impending doom of the Himalayan glaciers in 2035, or even the claim that the IPCC reports represented the best peer-reviewed science.

Which is, sure enough, the message being presented in the U.S. media. No scandal, no scientific misconduct, and certainly no actual fraud or criminality.

Motivations are slippery things, but consider just the facts: we have a mysterious lack of coverage of the repercussions and debate over Climategate in the world media.

Along with that, we have Revkin’s admission that for an environmental story to be of interest at the Times, it must ” … fit a very comfortable theme that all environmental stories for the longest period of time had, which is there’s bad guys and good guys.”

Finally, over the span of two weeks, the CJR — which may be less influential than it once was, but is still widely read between Harlem and Times Square — starts by saying that the U.S. media should be reporting this story, and moves to saying what the right reporting should be.

What the CJR has done, by accident, is answer its own question. The story has been covered the way it was, and to the small degree it was, because it doesn’t have a good guy to cheer and a bad guy to which the media can say “shame, shame.”

Or perhaps, it’s just that the wrong people have turned out to be the bad guys.

Charlie Martin is a Colorado computer scientist and freelance writer. He holds an MS in Computer Science from Duke University, where he spent six years with the National Biomedical Simulation Resource, Duke University Medical Center. Find him at, and on his blog at


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