Global climate change has long been a difficult subject for journalists to cover, given its fusion of complex earth science concepts with heated partisan politics. There are numerous pitfalls one can fall into when reporting on climate change, two of which have recently risen to the fore. The first concerns a series of controversial articles by syndicated Washington Post columnist George Will, which bring up the issue of misleading reporting of climate science. The other issue, which will be tackled here next week, deals with how to portray the relationship between extreme weather events and global warming.
During the past three months, George Will has written three columns on global climate change, each of which has been controversial. Will's February 15th column entitled "Dark Green Doomsayers" prompted a wave of criticism from climate scientists and science writers, not to mention everyday readers, and eventually caused the Washington Post's ombudsman to address the matter on March 1.
The Post's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, found some problems with the piece, but did not find evidence that Will committed factual errors or distorted facts in the February 15th article. However, avoiding those cardinal journalistic sins does not constitute the end of Will's responsibility to readers. There is another important consideration, which is whether he provides readers with misleading climate science information that conflicts with what scientists know about the climate system. This is more nuanced than blatantly stating falsehoods, but it is perhaps just as important.
Keep reading for more on the problems with George Will's presentation of climate science information...
Will's climate change columns are a case study in how one can cherry pick scientific data to fit their own agenda. Take his most recent climate change column, for example, which ran in the Post last week. It contained the statement:
"Reducing carbon emissions supposedly will reverse warming, which is allegedly occurring even though, according to statistics published by the World Meteorological Organization, there has not been a warmer year on record than 1998."
Will appears to have borrowed this nugget from climate change skeptic web sites, which have elevated the argument that global warming has stopped or reversed to the status of an Internet 'meme.' However, it has been debunked time and again.
Will's statement (and another like it in a previous column) is correct in the sense that the World Meteorological Organization considers 1998 to be the warmest year since the start of the instrumental record (although NOAA data indicate 2005 was just as warm). But he fails to accurately convey a fundamental facet of the global warming story, which is that human influences on the climate system take place within the context of the planet's natural climate variability.
As a forthcoming scientific study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters makes clear, man made global warming is not likely to take place in a monotonic manner, in which each year is warmer than the next. Instead, as can be seen throughout the observational climate record, there will be zigs and zags in the temperature graph. Sometimes the planet may halt its overall warming trend for as long as a decade or two, as may be occurring now, but at other times such a trend will accelerate. The important point is that over decades-long, statistically significant timescales, the climate is likely to continue to warm, with potentially profound consequences for the planet.
The study, by David R. Easterling of the NOAA National Climatic Data Center and Michael F. Wehner of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, was written in response to those like Will who assert that periods without a clear warming trend proves that global warming is not occurring.
"...it is reasonable to expect that the natural variability of the real climate system can and likely will produce multi-year periods of sustained "cooling" or at least periods with no real trend even in the presence of longterm anthropogenic forced [man made] warming," the study states.
"Claims that global warming is not occurring that are derived from a cooling observed over such short time periods ignore this natural variability and are misleading."
As Easterling and Wehner note, the record warm year of 1998 occurred during an unusually strong El Nino event, which exerted its own natural warming influence on the planet. In other years, natural variability may instead work to counteract some of the man made warming trend.
Will's previous two columns contained another misleading statement about climate science, this time concerning sea ice. In his February 15 piece, Will wrote:
"As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."
According to climate scientists, citing "global" sea ice statistics like that is nearly meaningless in the context of global climate change, since it is well known that Arctic sea ice (i.e., the North Pole) should diminish in a world warmed by greenhouse gas emissions, while the Antarctic sea ice would remain stable or even grow. Such patterns are predicted by the computer models scientists use to help predict climate shifts, and is verified by their understanding of climate dynamics.
George Will's recent columns demonstrate a very troubling pattern of misrepresentation of climate science. They raise some interesting questions about journalism, specifically concerning the editing process. Editors and fact checkers are there to ensure that publications like the Washington Post don't print factually incorrect information. But how much oversight should there be of opinion pieces that address scientific subjects such as climate change, particularly when they are written by persons with little scientific training? Is there any additional role for editors to play in ensuring that scientific facts are not manipulated into making assertions that most scientists say are misleading, and essentially inaccurate? Or is it necessary to err on the side of allowing opinion writers flexibility in how they use facts to present their point of view, regardless of whether their argument may be viewed as flawed in the eyes of the mainstream scientific community?