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Ombudsman -- George Will's Column on Global Warming

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Next, it went to The Post's op-ed editor, Autumn Brewington, who said she also reviewed the sources.

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The editors who checked the Arctic Research Climate Center Web site believe it did not, on balance, run counter to Will's assertion that global sea ice levels "now equal those of 1979." I reviewed the same Web citation and reached a different conclusion.

It said that while global sea ice areas are "near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979," sea ice area in the Northern Hemisphere is "almost one million sq. km below" the levels of late 1979. That's roughly the size of Texas and California combined. In my mind, it should have triggered a call for clarification to the center.

But according to Bill Chapman, a climate scientist with the center, there was no call from Will or Post editors before the column appeared. He added that it wasn't until last Tuesday -- nine days after The Post began receiving demands for a correction -- that he heard from an editor at the newspaper. It was Brewington who finally e-mailed, offering Chapman the opportunity to write something that might help clear the air.

Readers would have been better served if Post editors, and the new ombudsman, had more quickly addressed the claims of falsehoods.

Editors also missed opportunities to move the debate to washingtonpost.com. Will's column attracted hundreds of comments online, and the three-day cutoff period for comments could have been extended to allow more. Experts could have been quickly engaged to debate Will's assertions. Clarifications from the Arctic Climate Research Center could have been posted.

There is a disturbing if-you-don't-agree-with-me-you're-an-idiot tone to much of the global warming debate. Thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent in the current dispute. But that's where The Post could have helped, and can in the future.

On its news pages, it can recommit to reporting on climate change that is authoritative and deep. On the editorial pages, it can present a mix of respected and informed viewpoints. And online, it can encourage dialogue that is robust, even if it becomes bellicose.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.


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