Outspoken critics of mainstream climate science briefly celebrated last week when the online political news outlet Politico published two articles that asserted there is a "growing accumulation of global cooling science" that may stymie passage of climate change legislation in Congress. The stories generated scathing criticism from many corners of the climate change blogosphere, and prompted an apology from Politico for shoddy reporting.
The stories largely centered on the claims of one meteorologist, Joe D'Aleo of the climate change skeptic organization "Icecap," who is one of many skeptics who have asserted that global average surface temperatures have cooled since 1998. Nevermind for now the numerous scientific rebuttals to such claims.
Keep reading for more on the Politico fallout and what it says about journalistic coverage of climate change...
Politico's reporting exposed an interesting dynamic which has been playing out in the atmospheric sciences community, with some meteorologists hardening in their opposition to the findings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while many climate scientists are becoming more confident in them with each passing day.
As the Politico stories demonstrated, some journalists and policymakers are having trouble discerning which type of atmospheric scientist to trust for accurate climate science information: a meteorologist, such as D'Aleo, or a climate scientist, such as a member of the IPCC?
To some in the climate science community this may seem like a silly question, perhaps akin to a person who has a severe headache who then asks which medical specialist is more qualified to address it, a neurologist or a gastroenterologist? (Hint: go with the neurologist). Sure, they are both doctors, but they specialize in different parts of the human body.
That may be an extreme example, but the point is that it's not always so easy for people, especially people with little scientific background, to distinguish between the credibility of one 'ologist' versus another.
To climate scientists, it's obvious that people should come to them to diagnose a planetary fever, rather than a weather expert. And for the most part, journalists do turn to members of the IPCC and other climate scientists to inform their climate stories. However, some meteorologists such as D'Aleo have become increasingly outspoken in their skepticism of mainstream climate science, and journalists at publications like Politico are struggling to figure out how to navigate the schism between two closely related atmospheric science fields.
Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review recommends that reporters seek out climate scientists rather than meteorologists when reporting on climate change. This is good advice, except that it implies that meteorologists are universally uninformed on climate science or unqualified to offer their views on the issue, which isn't true.
"There has been a notable trend in global-warming skepticism among meteorologists; it's unclear exactly why that is, but it has led to some journalistic confusion about the difference between weather (meteorologists' domain) and climate (Ph.D climate scientists' domain)," Brainard wrote last week. "And that confusion has abetted some of the misunderstanding about global cooling."
For the public and some members of the media (such as the author of the Politico stories, Erika Lovley) the differences between atmospheric science experts can be muted, but they are important in determining one's opinions of climate change and how credible their views are.
Foremost among the differences is that although both meteorologists and climate scientists study and observe the atmosphere, they are focused on different factors and timescales. There is a major distinction between paying attention to short-term weather perturbations, which meteorologists do, and investigating the causes of climate variability, which lies within a climate scientist's domain.
Some of the confusion for journalists and policymakers is a result of the TV weathercast, which has ensured that most people are vastly more familiar with meteorologists than they are with climate scientists. This gap in familiarity could make people inherently more receptive to listening to the climate science views of a meteorologist like D'Aleo who speaks out on climate change, despite the fact that meteorologists don't necessarily have much technical training in that field.
Perhaps contributors to the IPCC should start conveying their research results via Super Doppler radar images?