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Forbes’ rich list of nonsense

Filed under: — group @ 6 January 2011

Guest commentary from Michael Tobis and Scott Mandia with input from Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, and Kevin Trenberth

While it is no longer surprising, it remains disheartening to see a blistering attack on climate science in the business press where thoughtful reviews of climate policy ought to be appearing. Of course, the underlying strategy is to pretend that no evidence that the climate is changing exists, so any effort to address climate change is a waste of resources.

A recent piece by Larry Bell in Forbes, entitled “Hot Sensations Vs. Cold Facts”, is a classic example.

Bell uses the key technique that denialists use in debates, dubbed by Eugenie Scott the “Gish gallop”, named after a master of the style, anti-evolutionist Duane Gish. The Gish gallop raises a barrage of obscure and marginal facts and fabrications that appear at first glance to cast doubt on the entire edifice under attack, but which on closer examination do no such thing. In real-time debates the number of particularities raised is sure to catch the opponent off guard; this is why challenges to such debates are often raised by enemies of science. Little or no knowledge of a holistic view of any given science is needed to construct such scattershot attacks.

The approach also works somewhat in print, if the references are sufficiently obscure and numerous. Ideally, someone will take the time to answer such an attack, but there is a fundamental asymmetry of forces at work. It is, in fact, easier to form an allegation than to track down a reasonable explanation of what it means and how it really fits in to the balance of evidence. Also, the skills required to reflect the science are deeper than the ones required to attack it; hence the defenders are outnumbered and outgunned. Still, sometimes an article is prominent enough that it merits a detailed response.

The slightly out of the ordinary thing about Bell’s piece is that he casts his attack not as an attack on science (his usual method) but on the media:

As 2010 draws to a close, do you remember hearing any good news from the mainstream media about climate? Like maybe a headline proclaiming ‘Record Low 2009 and 2010 Cyclonic Activity Reported: Global Warming Theorists Perplexed’? Or ‘NASA Studies Report Oceans Entering New Cooling Phase: Alarmists Fear Climate Science Budgets in Peril’?” he begins.

But the remainder of the article is true to the form. Bell gallops through all the purported “good news” that the media ignored. The implication is that the media is complicit in overstating the climate change story.

But these aren’t the sorts of observations that most people generally receive from the media. Instead, they present sensational statements and dramatic images that leave lasting impressions of calving glaciers, drowning polar bears and all manner of other man-caused climate calamities.

Many intentionally target impressionable young minds and sensitive big hearts with messages of fear and guilt. Take, for example, a children’s book called The North Pole Was Here, authored by New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin. It warns kids that some day it may be “easier to sail than stand on the North Pole in summer.” Imagine such images through their visualization: How warm it must be to melt that pole way up north. Poor Santa! And Rudolph! Of course it’s mostly their parents’ fault because of the nasty CO2 they produce driving them to school in SUVs.

Lots of grown-ups are sensitive people with big hearts too. Don’t we all deserve more from the seemingly infinite media echo chamber of alarmism than those windy speculations, snow jobs and projections established on theoretical thin ice?

Whether the enemy is the “mercenary” scientific community, the “power hungry” liberal politicians or the “sensationalist” press matters little. What matters is to suggest the public has been manipulated, before starting the manipulation in earnest. The strategic point is to divert attention from what most scientifically informed people consider the key facts: the climate is changing as a result of human intervention. The longer we delay taking policy action, the more damage we will take and the more an effective policy will cost. It is conceivable and increasingly foreseeable that we will delay long enough that useful policy becomes infeasible and both human civilization and the biosphere will be permanently damaged.

The near-silence of the media on these matters is considered by many to be a key part of the problem. Yet, in this context, Bell suggests we are ignoring “the good news”.

Does he have a point? Is there really much of substance that qualifies as good news justifying his conclusion? The value of his piece depends crucially on how newsworthy his good news was, and how these items fit into the big picture.

We counted eleven assertions of fact in his gallop. Let’s look at each of them and place them in context. Bell especially emphasizes his first two points, so we examine them in detail (quotes from the article are bolded).

Record Low 2009 and 2010 Cyclonic Activity Reported

Bell’s first claim is not a confidence builder.

It’s possible that Bell is referencing a specific metric of hurricane activity (Accumulated Cyclone Energy), but that does not give a full story, nor does it show ‘record lows’. According to NOAA the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, which ended Dec 31, was one of the busiest on record. In the Atlantic Basin a total of 19 named storms formed – tied with 1887 and 1995 for third highest on record. Of those, 12 became hurricanes – tied with 1969 for second highest on record. Five of those reached major hurricane status of Category 3 or higher. 2010 was just behind 2004 and 2005 for earliest occurrence of a third category 4 hurricane.

It is true that none of the 12 hurricanes made landfall in the US (though tropical storm Hermine made landfall in US and hurricane Karl made land fall in Mexico but caused major flooding in Texas. But the climate system cares nothing for national borders. This may be just a lucky break . Looking in detail it is attributable to some other features of the prevailing winds last year.

What is certainly untrue is that there was “record low” cyclonic activity in the Atlantic!

What about elsewhere? A tie for the strongest eastern Pacific hurricane on record (Celia). A category 5 hurricane hitting the Philippines (Megi).

Did the press ignore this story? Even on this Bell’s leading point is dubious. But in the context of climate change, sea surface temperatures continue to increase and strong tropical cyclones continue their upward trend. So Bell leads off with a real clunker.

NASA Studies Report Oceans Entering New Cooling Phase

Bell’s second point, also from the lead paragraph:

According to two separate NASA studies, one conducted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the other by the Langley Research Center, the oceans now appear to be heading into another natural periodic cooling phase within a typical 55- to 70-year dipolar warm/cool pattern.

We traced this claim to an internet article by Justin Berk that says:

Two separate studies through NASA confirm that since 2003, the world’s oceans have been losing heat. …

Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, published his first report about the warming oceans. The article Correcting Ocean Cooling published on NASA’s Earth Observatory page this week discussed his and other results. Willis used data from 1993-2003 that showed the warm-up and followed the Global Warming Theory. In 2006, he co-piloted a follow-up study led by John Lyman at Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle that updated the time series for 2003-2005. Surprisingly, the ocean seemed to have cooled. He was surprised, and called it a ‘speed bump’ on the way to global warming.

But the excellent article “Correcting Ocean Cooling” which Berk references (and to which Bell is implicitly referring) for this actually explains how Willis went back and found that his earlier report of cooling was erroneous!

So the new Argo data were too cold, and the older XBT data were too warm, and together, they made it seem like the ocean had cooled,” says Willis. The February evening he discovered the mistake, he says, is “burned into my memory.” He was supposed to fly to Colorado that weekend to give a talk on “ocean cooling” to prominent climate researchers. Instead, he’d be talking about how it was all a mistake.”

Berk is so happy to find the word “cooling” in an article that despite the title “Correcting Ocean Cooling” he doesn’t bother to read or understand the whole point of the article. It’s really a very compelling example of how superficial this kind of journalism is; Berk gets something backwards, Bell picks it up, and Forbes, no less, uses it to lead off an article (albeit an op-ed column).

What’s more, the NASA article itself is from 2008, so even if the press had reported it as news as Larry Bell suggests, it would not have been in 2010. But in fact, the news was that the previous evidence of cooling was erroneous. Bell’s second point is simply wrong as well.

Now that we have some sense of the quality of Bell’s research, we’ll go a little more quickly through most of the other points, saving for last a case where he might have a stronger point.

A special press conference called by IPCC spokesman Kevin Trenberth announced “Experts warn global warming likely to continue spurring more outbreaks of intense activity.” Christopher Landsea, a top U.S. expert on the subject, repeatedly notified the IPCC that no research had been conducted to support that claim–not in the Atlantic basin, or in any other basin.

This famous controversy occurred in 2004 and is not 2010 news. Nor was it ignored by the press. We doubt that Landsea went so far as to claim that “no research had been conducted to support that claim” but if he did he is certainly incorrect. This topic goes back at least to 1987 with a paper in Nature by Kerry Emanuel. Kevin Trenberth offers some salient points about the controversy from his point of view:

  1. I was not an IPCC spokesperson and I was not advertised as such. Landsea claimed otherwise.
  2. I did not call the press conference, it was called by Harvard university (Paul Epstein and Jim McCarthy), I participated.
  3. There was a ton of research including my own on changes in the hydrological cycle that were pertinent but not specifically Tropical Storm based, as well as Kerry’s work.
  4. Landsea did not notify IPCC once, let alone repeatedly. He called a press conference and resigned from IPCC but he was not even part of IPCC. He had been asked by me to write something as a contributing author. It was a horrible distortion of many facts.

A globally viewed December 2005 BBC feature alarmingly reported that two massive glaciers in eastern Greenland, Kangderlugssuaq and Helheim, were melting, with water “racing to the sea.” … Only 18 months later, and despite slightly warmer temperatures, the melting rate of both glaciers Kangderlugssuaq and Helheim not only slowed down and stopped, but actually reversed.

This again is not 2010 news since it happened in 2007. It is a fact that after a massive retreat from 1991 to 2005 Kangderlugssuaq regained a tiny fraction, less than a tenth, of that retreat by 2007. This may be of interest to glacier dynamicists, but its climatological importance is nil. Glaciers worldwide are in massive retreat. Indeed, Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier lost another 5.2 square km in 2009.

[The] ice cap has been accumulating snow growth at a rate of about 2.1 inches per year

The top of the ice caps are growing slightly as expected, since warmer air contains more moisture which will fall in those places as snow. The issue that the public ought to pay attention to is the much larger and accelerating melt at the edge of the ice sheet. This is not especially 2010 news, but in any case it is sleight of hand. The real action is the instability at the edges, which already dominates the accumulation in the interior and looks likely to overwhelm it.

The new sea level, which has been stable, has not changed in the last 35 years.

Just wrong:


Figure showing the last 18 years of sea level rise derived from satellites and validated against tide gauges. (Update: longer records available here).

Next:

… if you want a grant for a research project in climatology, it is written into the document that there ‘must’ be a focus on global warming.

There are many grants supported by the grant agencies. Some are very broad and some very narrow. While it is possible that some grants specify “global warming”, it is relatively unusual. Currently open climate calls in the US through NSF can be seen at here. The claim simply isn’t true.

The Indian Ocean, for example, was higher between 1900 and 1970 than it has been since.

This is at least a current topic. It probably is based in Patterns of Indian Ocean sea-level change in a warming climate, Han et al. Nature Geoscience 2010. They conclude that “sea level has decreased substantially in the south tropical Indian Ocean whereas it has increased elsewhere. This pattern is driven by changing surface winds associated with a combined invigoration of the Indian Ocean Hadley and Walker cells, patterns of atmospheric overturning circulation in the north–south and east–west direction, respectively, which is partly attributable to rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases.”

So yes, there are apparently parts of the Indian Ocean where sea level has declined. This just leaves more water to pile up elsewhere. In fact, it shows how powerful the forces of climate change already are, in order to be able to outweigh the generally rising ocean volume in a limited area. It is hard to see how this rises to a general interest topic or how it qualifies as “good news” though.

The Northwest Passage has certainly opened up before.

This is untrue in recorded history. The traversals prior to 2007 were in very specialized boats and often took years. In 2007 and 2010, genuine shipping lanes opened up for the first time. It was possibly open in the mid-Holocene about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago and was certainly open millions of years ago. But since the opening of the passage itself received far too little attention (in our opinion), it is hard to see what Bell is complaining about.

in February 2009 it was discovered that scientists had previously been underestimating the re-growth of Arctic sea ice by an area larger than the state of California (twice as large as New Zealand)

“Previously” is grossly misleading. This was an instrumental glitch that lasted a few weeks. And February 2009 was not in 2010 either.

… previous estimates of Greenland and West Antarctica ice melt rate losses may have been exaggerated by double.

We’ve saved this for last because here Bell has a fraction of a point; as far as we can tell the only thing he raises that is 1) current and 2) arguably of general interest and 3) arguably good news. The use of the word “exaggerated” however is malicious and unjustified.

There are a number of ways of estimating the large scale mass balance of the ice sheets. Prominent among them uses information from the GRACE satellite, which measures the gravitational field of the earth. By its nature, the resulting measures are very large scale. They are complemented by precise local measures of ice altitude, for example, which are precise but cannot give broad coverage. To estimate ice cap melting the GRACE results also have to be combined with an estimate of the post-glacial rebound from the last ice age (which is still affecting the mass distribution of the Earth’s crust). Observing a planet is tricky business.

A recent publication by Wu et al makes the claim that:

“these [previous] results were not properly corrected for glacial isostatic adjustment, the phenomenon that the Earth’s crust rebounds as a result of the melting of the massive ice caps from the last major Ice Age around 20,000 years ago. These movements of the Earth’s crust have to be incorporated in the calculations, since these vertical movements change the Earth’s mass distribution and therefore also have an influence on the gravitational field.”

There is some contention here. If it proves true, it is an example of science at its best; a sequence of corrections converging on objective truth. The original estimates would have been corrected, pretty much by a factor of two as Bell says.

So this is current, substantially good news, and possibly salient for a general audience. On the other hand it is only good news about bad news; the ice retreat may have been overestimated, but we are still talking about hundreds of billions of tons more ice melting than accumulating every year, and this rate still shows signs of accelerating.

In this case, it is worth noting that all the evidence is that the ice sheets are losing mass and that the loss is accelerating. The Wu et al paper would be simply a recalibration of the net loss. This is good news, but not great news, and is certainly no evidence at all that climate change is negligible.

Please notice how we are trapped in a polemical double bind here.

What the naysayers will do is celebrate every correction that makes matters look less dangerous and criticize every correction that makes matters look more dangerous. In the former case, the older measure will have been “exaggerated”, and “corrected” by some noble and courageous hero. In the latter case, the newer measure is treated as the “exaggeration”. Thus, every single change in the estimate of any quantity is treated as evidence of the grand conspiracy.

What should be celebrated as advances of truth are instead recast either as the bad scary science defeated by the good non-scary science or the other way around. This is especially evident in the clumsy way the Willis tale is told, wherein the casting is confused because one person takes both roles.

So what remains of the criticism Bell raises? Very little indeed! The only unreported good news is that ice cap melting might have been overestimated, though it is still large and probably accelerating. The other ten of his eleven points are essentially nonsensical. I am not being partisan or oppositional here. I examined every point with an open mind and came up with ten points that boil down to complete nonsense and the last one a bit heavy on the spin.

Ultimately, though, the criticism of the press is ludicrous. The naysayers ought to be thrilled at the lack of interest in climate change shown in the press, at least in North America. The longer we delay, the bigger the topic gets, and the more ridiculous the refusal of the press and policy sector to grapple with it becomes.

Yet widely respected publications like Forbes seem eager to promulgate great clouds of rhetorical ink to make the problem seem ever more trivial and distant. If there is good news of general interest, of course it should be reported. But Bell seems to want, instead, to invent it.


334 Responses to “Forbes’ rich list of nonsense”

  1. 51
    David Miller says:

    In #39 sHx writes:

    One day, perhaps, convoys of specially designed cargo ships led by powerful ice-breakers will make the navigation routinely for one or two months of the year.

    That day has already arrived. There’s no doubt that pretty small icebreakers could have made it through the thin ice for at least the months of August and September the last three years. Whether and when they’ll do so with freighters following is a business decision for the shipping companies to make.

    Hell, it’s January now, and according to http://topaz.nersc.no/topazVisual/matlab_static_image.php?action=NA_ARC_NWA_Function&file_prefix=ARC&match_date=20110106&depth=0005&variable_name=hice anything that could go through a meter of ice could go through right now.

    For a stark illustration of how much ice we’ve lost in the last few years, compare that image to one two years ago (http://topaz.nersc.no/topazVisual/matlab_static_image.php?action=NA_ARC_NWA_Function&file_prefix=ARC&match_date=20090106&depth=0005&variable_name=hice) and note the near complete loss of ice more than a meter and a half or so.

  2. 52
    Tony Loman says:

    I read the Bell article when it was published and wanted to look up the references but who among us can take a day off to do the work you have done in this review? Thanks to the real climate people for that. My reactions were almost exactly the same as Ray Ladbury’s (15, above). If Forbes is willing to tolerate and publish flawed analyses like Bell’s, what does that say about the rest of the magazine. Will Forbes publish a retraction or at least require Bell to explain himself?

  3. 53
    Maya says:

    “For the same reason, I hoped that NASA-GISS would not claim 2010 the hotest year on record even if it was true according to some creative calculations.”

    [edit - no criticism of grammar or spelling please - stick to substantive points]

    Secondly, arguably the most complete dataset of global temperatures in the world is not “some creative calculations.”

    “If the hotest year keeps coinciding record cold weather (from Englad to Florida), the public will rapidly loose interest.”

    [edit]

    As for the “record” cold weather, really now, it’s been discussed to death already. Meanwhile, where I live, it was recently thirty degrees (F) warmer than average, and nearly every day in the past year has been warmer than average. That didn’t make the news, but it’s about as relevant as any other weather event that does.

    I’m being relatively nice, but if you persist in acting like a troll, other posters here won’t be. It gets in the way of any productive discussion. Just saying.

  4. 54
    Nick Dearth says:

    #46 brought this to mind

  5. 55
    Keith Kloor says:

    The substance of the criticism regarding the Forbes piece is on target.

    Not so much the charge that the media shows a lack of interest in climate change. Despite most daily journalism being event driven (politics, sports, etc), I see a remarkable variety of climate change-related reportage and commentary every day.

    But anyway, so let me get this straight: when the media isn’t generally screwing up the climate change story, it’s ignoring it?
    http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2011/01/07/cry-me-a-river/

  6. 56
    Jathanon says:

    Great piece! I saw the original on another blog and did some fact-checking myself and determined it was bologna.

  7. 57
    J Bowers says:

    It’s possible that Bell is referencing a specific metric of hurricane activity (Accumulated Cyclone Energy), but that does not give a full story, nor does it show ‘record lows’.

    Aha! Thanks! I’ve ended up rubbing my stubbly chin over that a number of times.

  8. 58
    M. Joyce says:

    I ran across that article a few days ago and quickly blew it off as another puff piece from the deniosphere. However, it does appear in “Forbes” which is still a somewhat widely read publication. Thanks for the excellent point by point rebuttal. I will be offering this link to many deniers in the upcoming months (I say “offering” not “directing” because rank and file deniers almost never venture away from denier blogs).

    Another thing about “Forbes”: they are pretty much complete deniers in their purported field of expertise, namely, economics. Despite the proven abject failure of supply side economics, Steve Forbes is still a vociferous supporter of that failed paradigm. These deniers, almost to a person, deny that the world came to the very edge of another full fledged Great Depression in the same manner that they also deny ACC. They have no facts to back them up and plenty of facts that destroy their contentions yet they still cling to their unsupported positions. Supply siders and AGW deniers are often one in the same. They also have firm belief that deities actively control the physical world.

    Arguing religion is always a pointless endeavor so it is indeed frustrating that deniers’ positions are ultimately religion based. Remember, it is these people who believe that a deity granted human beings unalienable rights despite the fact that for hundreds if not thousands of years deities granted no such thing. A deity didn’t create the Magna Carta and neither did a deity create the US constitution and bill of rights.

    It might appear that I digress by bringing up religion in a science blog but I’m not. It is this religious sensibility of deniers that make their acceptance of science so difficult for in faith all things are possible when in fact all things are not.

    Thanks again for the rebuttal and keep up the excellent work.

  9. 59
    S Martin says:

    ‘Mainstream science has apparently got to be perfect before it’s worth listening to’

    Yes, actually it does.

    [Response: Really? And how many other things in your life do you demand perfection for? - gavin]

  10. 60
    RichardC says:

    Balazs says, “I understand that the number of forming hurricanes is a more relevant number, but our records over the oceans is limited to satellite era. ”

    Not true. Ships were keeping watch as well.

  11. 61
    CMS says:

    “The traversals prior to 2007 were in very specialized boats and often took years. In 2007 and 2010, genuine shipping lanes opened up for the first time.”

    Sunday, 10 September, 2000, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
    The Northwest Passage – without ice

    A Canadian police patrol boat has completed a voyage through the fabled Northwest Passage without encountering any pack ice.

    The Canadian patrol boat the St Roch II – renamed after an earlier Canadian expedition in 1944 – made the journey in nine weeks, less than half the time expected.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/918448.stm

  12. 62
    Anna K says:

    Will you write to Forbes with a letter to the editor and a request to publish (an edited-for-the-right-audience version of) your scientific rebuttal? I think the continual publishing of these sorts of misleading articles is incredibly damaging, and it can only be stopped by educating the publishing institutions themselves

    If so, I would be very happy to work on it with you.

    You’ve got my email via the comment form. :)

  13. 63
    Tom Yulsman says:

    I have a similar reaction to Keith — except more pointed. Michael Tobis and Scott Mandia dishonor journalists who work tirelessly to get the story right.
    http://www.cejournal.net/?p=4815

  14. 64
    GFW says:

    Oh crap, my comment at 20 is wrong.

  15. 65
    sHx says:

    @40, 41, 43, 44

    I think I ought to stress this in my original comment: “Of course, whether Northeast and Northwest passages are navigable is not the issue, but whether they are open for business is. So far the navigation has remained at proof of concept level.”

    I am aware of commercial shipping through the NE and NW passages. That’s precisely the ‘proof of concept’ I was talking about. Yachts, Kayaks, Hobie 16s and rubber dingies -presumably all suitably escorted and/or equipped- don’t exactly prove the concept of commercial shipping.

    Many people are under the mistaken impression that Arctic navigation became possible only within the last decade or so. That is not correct.

    For the record, NW passage has been navigated on many occasions since Amundsen’s expedition. And only Russians know how often NE has been used by their navy. Even the planned Russian convoys for the summer of 2011 (how many ships? how many trips? how much cargo? how many escort ships? how much profit? how much interest?, etc) is still at the ‘proof of concept’ level.

    As far as business is concerned, the Arctic waters is still a no-go zone.

  16. 66
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Heraclitus @29, That is indeed good news…unless you happen to be an oxygen-breathing fish in the vicinity…or anything that depends on those fish for nourishment.

  17. 67
    Imback says:

    MT and SM, in light of complaints from KK and TY, perhaps you should change your description of the US press from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless”.

  18. 68
    Mike M says:

    “Much global warming alarm centers upon concerns that melting glaciers will cause a disastrous sea level rise.”

    The operable word here is ‘disastrous’. The rate of sea level rise has NOT accelerated at all per the predictions of you alarmists. The sealevel.colorado.edu graph proves that it just ain’t happening and it’s even slowing down slightly of late, (not surprisingly because so are many glacier melting rates). The rate of sea level rise has varied widely and was MUCH greater many thousands of years ago when we were at a peak warming period coming out of the last ice age, (and CO2 was much lower than now…).

    Trying to discredit Larry Bell for mentioning “sea level” when we all know he means “rate of sea level rise” is awfully cheap.

    [Response: You are misquoting Bell and getting your facts wrong. Bell quoted Morner who really does believe (or claims to) that sea level is not rising at all. It was not a cheap shot to criticise that, rather you are wishfully thinking that Bell is not as dissembling as he actually is. Plus, read Church and White (2006) - there has been an acceleration in sea level rise even if you just stick to the tide gauges. - gavin]

  19. 69
    Scott Mandia says:

    Tom,

    (Speaking for myself)

    Climate change is the biggest story of the century but it is not being treated as such by most. There are a handful of exceptional journalists that do a great job day in and day out but they really are few and far between.

    Astronomers tell us that an asteroid is very likely going to impact earth by mid- to late-century that will cause mass extinctions, fires, floods, food losses, water shortages, mass emigration leading to civil wars, rising seas that will flood millions and millions, etc. Do you think that story would be a headliner for quite some time? In that case, do you think Lindsay Lohan would be front page news or that voting for American Idol would trump voting in political elections? If our politicians were ignoring the coming crisis wouldn’t the press be pounding them daily to “do something and do so quickly”?

    Melodrama aside, it is clear to me that the story of the century is not a priority by most. Please do not take the closing lines personally. As you know, I am very much committed to providing rapid, high-quality information to media and lawmakers. I meant no offense to you.

    As a footnote, I was very disheartened by the massive press that the climategate accusations received vs. the lack of press that the many exonerations received. The whole issue really tarnished the press in general but I still hope that attitudes will change because I believe the press is key to changing the hearts and minds of Americans on the vital issue of climate disruption.

  20. 70
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Tom Yulsman and Keith Kloor,
    Maybe journalists are working 24/7 to “get it right”. Unfortunately, the final product in mainstream media presents a picture of science that is unrecognizable to scientists. I am not speaking just as a scientist. I’ve done science journalism of a sort, albeit with the advantage of writing for a monthly that catered to a fairly technically savvvy audience. I know what it takes to get a story right. So I ask you, why does the mainstream media so rarely get the story right?

  21. 71
    Michael Tobis says:

    Thanks all for the corrections on the Northwest Passage. We had trouble tracking details down. It seemed very clear that what is happening of late is very different from the historical case and the discussion here remains consistent with that view.

    Regarding tropical storm activity, as I currently understand it the strong global decadal variability is not well understood. It’s my understanding that the prediction is not for more frequent storms, but for more frequent severe storms. Last season was not lacking for extremely impressive tropical storms even if the total count and integrated energy was low.

    [Response: Total count for the Atlantic (19) was among the few highest on record (!), consistent with the pre-season predictions we made using our own statistical model, where a high count was predicted largely on the basis of unprecedented SSTs in the main development region for tropical cyclones. - mike]

    Knutson et al http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v3/n3/full/ngeo779.html 2010
    doi:10.1038/ngeo779
    says:

    ” future projections based on theory and high-resolution dynamical models consistently indicate that greenhouse warming will cause the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones to shift towards stronger storms, with intensity increases of 2–11% by 2100. Existing modelling studies also consistently project decreases in the globally averaged frequency of tropical cyclones, by 6–34%. Balanced against this, higher resolution modelling studies typically project substantial increases in the frequency of the most intense cyclones, and increases of the order of 20% in the precipitation rate within 100 km of the storm centre.”

    It’s far from clear that the patterns of 2010 are inconsistent with the above.

    mt

    [Response: Michael--one has to be very careful here, in particular to distinguish very different behavior between the different basins. Kerry Emanuel's work suggests in increase in tropical cyclone frequency in the Atlantic, but not in other basins. - mike]

  22. 72
    Michael Tobis says:

    Both Yulsman and Kloor have made substantial useful contributions to climate science journalism, although both seem to somehow miss the seriousness and urgency of the policy imperative. I should disclose that I have had vigorous disagreements with both in the past.

    Still, I do not understand why they take umbrage at the present piece, which, while it generalizes so far as to criticize the “business press”, does not broadly address the climate coverage of the press in a more general sense.

    mt

  23. 73
    Hank Roberts says:

    > dishonor journalists
    Comment left at Tom’s page, but shorter: I don’t think MT and SM dishonor journalists; I think they believe journalists can be more effective. I may be wrong; they may be wrong; the journalists may also overrate their own effectiveness.

  24. 74
    Tom Yulsman says:

    Scott:

    The fact is that I agree with most of what you say. As I said in my post, I have cancelled all but basic cable service in my home because I cannot stand to watch what passes for “news” on television. The vacuousness of it all is like a mind-eroding prion. I will not have it in my home. I will not have it infect my children. (And so far, so good! They are well on their way to helping make the world a better place!)

    And I am sorry if I gave any offense by reacting so strongly in my post. But you should know where I’m coming from. You and Michael made a black and white statement about journalism that — and I’m sorry to be blunt here — dishonored the hard work of hundreds if not thousands of good journalists who are toiling to get the story right. As I said in my post, there is no one “press.” Especially in today’s fractured media world, there innumerable “presses,” and many of them are doing a darn good job.

    Much of what passes for news in mass media is certainly horrible. We agree! But there is an entire other universe of excellent work that is reaching millions of people. It happens in small ways, such as in High Country News, Climate Central, and The Daily Climate, and in very big ways, such as National Geographic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, etc.

    So I hope you will excuse me for fiercely defending my colleagues. They deserve vociferous and unstinting support, not the constant, corrosive drumbeat of excoriation and vituperation that is so often the norm.

    Lastly, Michael: Thank you for your supportive words. I do appreciate them! But you did generalize about the press. And that is what I reacted to.

    So for the record, the column in Forbes is a pathetic piece of work. As I wrote to a colleague last night who was attacked in the piece, Larry Bell is not worth the firing of a single neuron. Except for the fact that Forbes reaches so many readers. So correcting the scientific record certainly was called for. I’m just not sure why it had to be accompanied by such an ill-considered, generalized attack on the work of all journalists.

    – Tom

  25. 75
    Keith Kloor says:

    Ray (70)

    Bryan Walsh at Time (another example of someone doing a great job on the climate beat), had an interesting piece yesterday on the spate of sudden bird and fish deaths that has been widely reported in the media as an unusual phenomena or coincidence.
    http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2011/01/05/why-the-aflockalypse-is-business-as-usual%E2%80%94and-why-thats-not-good/

    It turns out that the events are not at all that unusual.

    Walsh writes that the media played a role in making it seem unusual. The money quote:

    “Scientists know this—if you start looking for something in a large enough data set, chances are you’ll find it. So when one perfectly timed bird death event occurs, it gives the media license to keep looking for similar events—and as a quick trip through the news archives show, it won’t be hard to find them.”

    Here’s the parallel to what’s going on with this incessant, disproportionate criticism of climate change journalism, and it’s exemplified by this post:

    From Walsh’s post: “if you start looking for something in a large enough data set, chances are you’ll find it.”

    Tom Yulsman, in his post that he links to, makes a good argument for the density and variety of climate change reportage and commentary–on a daily basis. (Remember, the Forbes piece discussed here was just commentary, not even a straight news article.)

    Yet the authors of this RC post, as does Joe Romm on a regular basis at Climate Progress, choose to highlight only the stories that advance their argument: that climate journalism sucks and its largely missing the story of the century.

    That’s not my read (and I read a ton of this coverage every day), but because some critics selectively choose the the outwardly bad or partially flawed stories out of a very large data set, the impression is that climate change is either being ignored or covered badly by the media.

    That is not just overly simplistic, it is inaccurate.

    [Response: Hold on a little. It is in the nature of the beast that people are moved to react to either things they like a lot, or that the really didn't like. Things (and stories) that are 'ok' (perhaps not perfect, but not terrible either) are simply not going to get as much commentary. And since this is exactly what the media does as whole (average events are rarely reported, while outliers are), I think it odd that you appear to think blogs should be much different. And it certainly isn't the case that we never praise good articles (we did very recently on the GIllis Keeling story, and have praised recent Economist coverage as well). But for every egregious mishmash like Bell's article, there are a dozen more exactly the same, a few mediocre pieces and one or two great pieces. And yet the last time I was on the radio, I was asked what "if" global warming was happening, and for the last TV interview the sub-caption was "Global warming: trick or truth". It is not churlish of us to want the media to do a better job - regardless of the fact that a few individuals do a great job. The problem is not with the best, the problem is with the worst, or the simply too-busy. - gavin]

  26. 76

    B 46: My biggest problem with climate alarmism is that it will totally erode the trust in science and people won’t listen even if climate scientist really have the answer. I don’t think the current level of uncertainties in climate science are acceptable for policy making. Those, who keep pointing fingers to Big Oil are welcome to turn off the heat and walk bare foot (which is about the level of energy conservation needed for carbon free economy).

    BPL: My problem with climate deniers is that the situation is genuinely alarming. What part of “human civilization is going to collapse completely in this century unless we control global warming” do you not understand?

  27. 77
    SecularAnimist says:

    Tom Yulsman wrote: “It happens in small ways, such as in High Country News, Climate Central, and The Daily Climate, and in very big ways, such as National Geographic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, etc.”

    I would encourage you to read the article by Joe Romm at ClimateProgress that I linked to in a previous comment:

    Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change ‘fell off the map’ in 2010
    The NY Times and others blow the story of the century

    There are some good reasons to accuse the so-called “mainstream” media in the USA of a serious, systemic failure to accurately report on the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

  28. 78
    Septic Matthew says:

    71, comment by mike: [Response: Michael--one has to be very careful here, in particular to distinguish very different behavior between the different basins. Kerry Emanuel's work suggests in increase in tropical cyclone frequency in the Atlantic, but not in other basins. - mike]

    As we noted before, Emanuel wrote that there “might be” increased frequency of major cyclones in some places. “Might be” and “might not be” are denotatively almost synonymous, but have connotatively different emphasis: “might be” is almost “probably won’t be” whereas “might not be” is almost “probably will be.” Your paraphrase “suggests” is close enough, but the main thrust of the Emanuel work is that total blobal cyclonic energy is predicted by the model to decline.

  29. 79
    Septic Matthew says:

    ah, nuts! I meant total global cyclonic energy.

  30. 80
    Susan Anderson says:

    re Fire cartoon, please provide credits when you copy these: Marc Roberts wants and needs the traffic, and his wonderful humor often hits the spot:
    http://www.marcrobertscartoons.com/
    and http://www.throbgoblins.blogspot.com

    His “trick” one is wonderful:
    http://www.marcrobertscartoons.com/index.php?globalid=2076

    I’d recommend finding the “science” tag and checking all of them (shit hitting fan is hilarious, for example)

    Sorry my web skills don’t allow a copy here.

    61. Tom Yulsman

    On the contrary, we need a lot more from hardworking people who ID common errors and misconceptions and are willing to put their lives and reputations on the line to “balance” (I wish) the flood of misinformation. Kudos to Tobis and Mandia. They’ve had physical and legal threats but persist. They’ve teamed up with the likes of Dr. Abrahams’ who is known for his polite, painstaking, and devastating deconstruction of Lord Monckton’s profitable but inaccurate and biased presentations which were so popular with our science-denying legislators.

    Check it out:
    http://www.climaterapidresponse.org/

    Not sure about Tobis, but here’s a bio on Scott Mandia:
    Scott A. Mandia

    Scott is Professor of Earth and Space Sciences and Assistant Chair of the Physical Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College, Long Island, New York, USA. He has been teaching introductory meteorology and climatology courses for 22 years. He received his M.S. – Meteorology from the Pennsylvania State University in 1990 and his B.S. – Meteorology from University of Lowell in 1987. In 1997, he won the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

  31. 81
    Septic Matthew says:

    shoddy climate reporting isn’t new. You have probably seen this one from about 25 years ago:

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=n39JAAAAIBAJ&sjid=pgsNAAAAIBAJ&pg=4671,5141658&dq=james-hansen+desert&hl=en

  32. 82
    Susan Anderson says:

    Ah, lots of others have weighed in on Tom Yulsman’s comment. I forgot to say I am a loyal reader of his CEJournal and a relatively loyal commenter on DotEarth, and share his concern that attacking our somewhat more neutral friends is a little problematic. However, the problems on the other side are so huge, it is hard not to say at the moment a large body of information is being ignored by those who should be deeply concerned for their own and their families’ futures. I am alarmed, and I think everyone should be.

  33. 83
    Sir says:

    59
    ‘Mainstream science has apparently got to be perfect before it’s worth listening to’
    “Yes, actually it does.”

    When science gets something wrong, as in melting glaciers in the Himalayas, it is corrected. Deniers never correct even obvious errors when confronted. Deniers on this blog keep harping on a point even after it is shown, with references, to be wrong.

  34. 84
    Keith Kloor says:

    Uh, minor correction to clumsy verbiage. In case it’s not clear, in comment #75, I meant to say that the disproportionate criticism of climate journalism is exemplified by this particular post on Forbes article–as an example of looking for something in a large data set that would seem to fit a pattern.

  35. 85
    Nick Barnes says:

    sHx: Beluga Shipping has proved the concept, by bringing home six-figure savings from the northern sea route last summer. We are past proof of concept, into an early-adopter phase. Of course it is a new line of work, in which some companies will thrive while others fail, and some businesses will avoid it to minimise their risk, but it’s not “proof of concept” any more. Questions such as “how equipped” and “how escorted” are easy to answer with Google (for instance, last summer’s two E3-class Beluga ships were escorted for part of their passage by two small ice-breakers).

    One interesting aspect is that the NSR may have ice and weather risks, but unlike the Suez route there is very little exposure to piracy.

    You evidently know little about the many amateur passages by light vessels in the last few seasons if you can suggest “suitably escorted”. Consider Børge Ousland’s circuit last summer, from Oslo along the northern sea route and then the NWP and across the north Atlantic back to Oslo. In a single season, unpowered, in an unescorted regular catamaran (and encountering no large ice at all). Unescorted is part of the point: one could sail a dinghy to the pole “escorted” by a Russian nuclear-powered breaker, but such an expedition wouldn’t demonstrate anything.

  36. 86
    Robert Way says:

    Regarding Wu et al’s (2010) paper it should be noted that there was somewhat of a rebuttal posted on skepticalscience.

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Are-ice-sheet-losses-overestimated.html

    I think I brought up some of the important points on the topic in the article.

  37. 87

    The point of the article is about historically responsible business publications like Forbes and the Wall Street Journal publishing grotesque pseudoscience. It seems a shame to divert it to the related but distinct question of the performance of the mainstream press.

    But it gives me an occasion to sneak in a bit of bombast and grandiosity, so I will not resist the temptation.

    The mainstream press in the US is trained and indoctrinated in a belief that politics is a tug of war between two extreme positions wherein the truth lies in between. On matters where this is approximately or arguably true, they do a good enough job. On matters where one (or both) of the two parties is plainly unrealistic, the method rides off the rails.

    In the case of climate, they dutifully represent a position midway between mild, muddled concern as an excuse for WPA-style make-work on the one hand, and derisive dismissal on the other.

    In the case of economics and sustainability, the shibboleths of full employment and perpetual growth, upheld by both parties, are never questioned.

    The press is concerned with next week and the politicians with next year, so these positions are understandable. But they leave us with a dire long term prognosis as long as we lack institutions that are motivated to protect the interests of the coming generations.

    It may be unreasonable to expect this long view of people who call themselves “journalists”; the word “day” appears right in their names. A contributor to my blog suggested “annalists” for people taking the long view. One might even suggest “secularists”. Unfortunately both words are taken.

    But the problem with mainstream reporting on these matters, the point that Joe Romm often makes and that his frequent correspondent Jeff Huggins makes regularly, is a point I’ve seen Andy Revkin make as well. Editors do not see climate change as “newsy” and consequently it is hard enough to get stories into print, never mind onto the front page. The public, not seeing the story on the front page, concludes implicitly that it isn’t very important. Even in the not-entirely-unprecedented but all too rare event that the story is well balanced and appropriate, it generally isn’t given any prominence.

  38. 88
    Didactylos says:

    Balazs (46): There is a simple way to deal with climate alarmism. Get your climate information from people who are neither alarmists nor deniers. People who tell you exactly how bad it may or may not be. People like scientists.

    There will always be people running screaming down the street yelling “we’re all gonna diiiiiiie!!!”

    I don’t take them seriously. Neither should you. However, what we have to do here is look at the conservative estimates, the best and worst case scenarios, and apply some judgement. Unless you are elderly and extremely selfish, then action is the only rational choice. If you are young, or have children or grandchildren to think about, or if you just care about the future of humanity – relatively small changes now will have a big impact further down the road.

  39. 89

    So the answer to the mass animal deaths is essentially a statistical version of “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” ??

    Then again – do we now have access to better tools to track these events? Like Google Earth:
    http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=201817256339889828327.0004991bca25af104a22b

    Gosh, the next time we see a mass death of humans from heat – like 35,000 in Europe – do we plot that along with the black birds?

  40. 90
    Richard Ray says:

    Fantastic takedown of the Forbes article. Your work here, which must clearly be taking valuable time away from your *real* work, is nonetheless extremely valuable. We can only hope that some small fraction of Forbes readers come here to see it.

    A couple of technical points….

    The paper on the Indian Ocean sea levels by Han et al in Nature Geosci does show falling sea level in a fairly localized region. But this is completely based on models, not sea-level observations, and accounts only for steric and wind-driven effects. They ignore any possible contribution to sea-level rise from ice melt. They acknowledge this in the paper, and they note that accounting for melt could well change their negative to either zero or positive. Since mass-influx and steric contributions to sea-level rise are roughly comparable, this is an important point.

    But Bell refers to the Indian Ocean between 1900 and 1970, so maybe he wasn’t using the Han paper. Who knows. Anyway, there are no good tide gauges in that region that cover the entire 20th century. Han shows one plot of sea levels for Zanzibar, but the time series is really far too short to say much.

    Finally, concerning my good friend Frank Wu’s paper on Greenland ice loss (also in Nature Geosci), there is a great deal of grumbling about that paper going on — the results are so far not widely accepted. I expect a few letters to Nature disputing it. What Wu tried to do is very difficult: separate glacial rebound and ice melt in a simultaneous inversion of gravity and GPS data. It may be that the data simply cannot support doing that, not yet anyway. Time will tell, but my guess is that the Wu numbers are not the last word.

  41. 91
    Michael says:

    More comment on Tom and keiths pov.
    I agree that there are some journalists that are trying to convey a scientifically literate story. But they are overwhelmed by the sheer awfulness of pieces like Bells, which is aided by the editorial policies of a significant part of the media that actually give prominence to this sort of excrement.

  42. 92

    At SkepticalScience, some context re the Wu et al. study is provided:
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Ice-Sheet-mass-loss-melting.htm

  43. 93
    dhogaza says:

    Richard Pauli:

    So the answer to the mass animal deaths is essentially a statistical version of “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” ??

    Mass deaths of birds such as the red-winged blackbird/starling incident are uncommon, but not unknown. There’s no reason to invoke global warming or any such thing for these. In fact, the first news story I read about this included a quote from an ornithologist who was looking into the incident, who said exactly that – such incidents are known to happen occasionally.

    Birds of the Great Basin, a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in subject (and not just because I know the illustrator!), includes a section on a variety of mass bird kills in the area. Loons in a storm apparently mistaking the sheen of wet, moon-lit pavement for the surface of a lake and unable to take off again, birds passing low through a town crashing willy-nilly into buildings, etc etc.

    [Response: Part of an outstanding series of Great Basin natural history guides by U Nevada Press I might add...--Jim]

  44. 94
    System says:

    So throw in a term like “anti-evolutionst” and it’s obvious Larry Bell’s article is nonsense!

    [Response: Pointing out that the rhetorical techniques of multiple anti-science campaigns are similar is a useful point to make. It doesn't mean that Bell ipso facto is talking nonsense - but examination of the specific cases reveals that, in fact, he was. - gavin]

    Add this to impressive arguements like “they used to believe in a flat earth”. Any post on global warming that mentions the “smoking doesn’t cause cancer lobby” and “big oil” is bound to support the science.

    [Response: No, why should it? But if you don't think that the tobacco industry was behind the perfection of the 'merchants of doubt' technique to avoid regulation, and if you don't think that oil companies pay people a lot of money to further the same strategy today, you need to get out more. Who is paying CEI to fire off lawsuits left right and center to harass individual scientists? Who funds CFACT and Marc Morano? Who is the biggest contributor to Joe Barton's and Jim Inhofe's campaign chest? Scientific arguments can be resolved without discussing any of this (as they are above), but to claim that mention of the anti-science campaigns invalidates correct scientific is equivalent to the ad hom that you are accusing us of. - gavin]

  45. 95
    Dan H. says:

    Richard,
    As far as the animal deaths, the fish in Chesapeake Bay have been attributed to a rather sudden cooling of the waters in December.
    Thus far, no solid explanation as been given for the birds, although birds deaths of this quantity are not unprecedented

  46. 96

    #65–

    Sorry, I agree with Nick Barnes. (#85.)

    It’s always possible to define as you wish–but a definition of “open for business” that excludes increasingly frequent commercial tourist cruises (you can book now for 2011), the 2009 600,000 Euro savings realized by Beluga transport, the 2010 transit made by a 70,000 tonner, and three consecutive years of Arctic Canada resupply via NWP, will, I suspect, seem a bit perverse to many.

    And, as Nick said, many of last year’s transits were NOT in ice-capable vessels, not escorted in any way.

    Of course, the environment remains difficult and potentially risky. But what is happening now would have been unimaginable in the 90s, or at any previous time. That is the point here. This really is very, very different.

  47. 97
    Hank Roberts says:

    KK, I still don’t know what you mean. Do you mean this RC topic is “disproportionate criticism” of the Forbes article? Or something else?

    “Paul said he would rather speak five words that were understood than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue. That hits me. I want people to know what I mean…. I use plain Anglo-Saxon words.” — Billy Sunday

  48. 98
    Hank Roberts says:

    KK, I still don’t know what you meant. Can you be clearer? It sounds on your second try like you think this RC topic is disproportionate criticism — too critical of — the Forbes article. Do you have a less critical view of it?

  49. 99
    ghost says:

    So, Forbes seems to be telling Munich Re, Swiss Re, and the other Res that are pretty worried over AGW that they’re fools, and that Forbes doesn’t want their business? Seems like a queer business strategy to me. Whoops there goes another lost subscriber after that clinker. On the journalist thing, it may be that serious journos work 24/7 to get the climate story correct, but the general perception seems to be that the publication ownership plays 5 minutes each 7 days to quash such serious work in order to placate advertisers.

  50. 100
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Keith, I don’t go looking for bad climate journalism. It finds me. I hear it on BBC and to a somewhat lesser extent NPR. The 24-hour News channels hardly cover it at all, and when they do, they screw it up so badly, I wish they’d just kept quiet. As to the news weeklies, I don’t even read Time or Useless News and World Report or NewsWeak anymore. I wouldn’t train a puppy on the Wall Street Urinal or Forbes anymore. The Gray Lady is a joke. The Washington Post has fallen victim to the “Fair and Balanced” myth.

    The News agencies (AFP, UPI, Reuters) are staffed by science illiterates.

    Yes, there have been a couple of good pieces in National Geographic, but they stand out all the more against the abysmal background. And The Economist runs an ocasional good piece when they aren’t getting sucked in by pie-in-the-sky techno-fixes. And I still listen to NPR, although their motto might as well be “NPR–it’s not just for smart people anymore!”.

    If it were just climate, I could maybe write it off to propaganda by the Exx-Mob, but the coverage of particle physics, biology, astronomy and especially medicine is equally abysmal.

    I sympathize with the science journalist. I really do. I realize they are writing for a readership with the attention span of a gnat and no understanding of scientific method. However, I don’t think that fully explains the horrendous state of science journalism. Frankly, I don’t remember the last time I read a piece of science journalism in mainstream media and didn’t think, “I’m a stupider person for having read that!”


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