The March 20th -26th cover story of The Economist, “Spin, science and climate change,” deftly bypasses the politics surrounding ‘climategate’, to tackle the more important issue: whether any of this has any bearing on climate change science and policy. This is a refreshing bit of journalism that everyone should read.
It is no secret that we have been unimpressed by the quality of reporting of climate science or late. From the insinuation that data were manipulated (for which there remains no evidence, primae facie or otherwise), to the suggestion that “climate skeptics” had somehow been kept from publishing in peer reviewed literature (how, we wonder, does Lindzen keep getting published?), to the blind repetition of false claims of major errors in the IPCC (when only a couple of actual errors – and none of them in the primary (Working Group 1) report – have been found), to the falsehood that climate data have not been readily available (yes, they have), the reporting has been more akin to the populist fearmongering of the McCarthy era than to the celebrated investigative journalism of Watergate. That’s too bad, and not just because sensationalistic journalism may have done lasting damage to some institutions and individual scientists. More importantly, it has done damage to public understanding, quite the opposite of the rightful role of the free press in a democratic society.
In this context, we were delighted to read the article, and “leader” in the March 20th-26th edition of The Economist. And our delight with the The Economist’s take on the story is not that they share our opinion on the politics surrounding climate science. Indeed, they appear to take at face value that the stolen CRU emails reveal ‘shameful mistakes’ by scientists, and the dubious claim that IPCC errors (such as they are) have ‘tended to exaggerate the extent of climate change’. They also repeat a few other contrarian memes – such as the idea that the various “Hockey Stick” climate reconstructions killed off the Medieval Warm Period (they didn’t) – without sufficient criticism, to our taste. Yet this is actually the strength of the The Economist’s articles: rather than engaging in ultimately rather trivial bickerings, they provide a refreshingly accurate and up to date assessment of much of recent climate science.
For example, The Economist emphasizes the obvious yet frequently overlooked point that that even if the most outrageous claims about the land temperature data were true, there would still be the temperature data from the oceans and the satellites to contend with. And they articulate very well the more subtle understanding that the possibility of errors in the instrumental data doesn’t actually have a lot of bearing on our understanding of climate. It is often assumed, they write,
“that data are simple, graspable and trustworthy, whereas theory is complex recondite and slippery…. In the case of climate change, as in much of science, the reverse is at least as fair a picture. Data are vexatious, theory is quite straightforward.”
Those who do not appreciate this point can easily be misled by the cavillous arguments of others who have become adept at focusing on this or that that specific bit of data and using it to convince people that they have uncovered some fundamental flaw in the theory. Yet The Economist doesn’t simply dismiss these criticisms out of hand; they are, for example, exceedingly fair to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Dick Lindzen, who views the possible role of clouds as a strong negative feedback as a reason to believe the climate sensitivity is lower than all the other evidence indicates. (At they same time, they get Linzden to admit that he agrees that the mainstream views on the magnitude of the water vapor feedback -– roughly doubling the direct radiative impact of CO2 — is probably correct).
Our only technical criticism of the The Economist’s main article is that it states that the IPCC ‘expects the temperature to have increased by 1.1o to 6.4 oC by 2100’, without pointing out that this combines the uncertainty in climate sensitivity with the uncertainty in policy. This could easily be taken to suggest that we could keep the global mean temperature to within 1.1oC above 19th century values, without any reduction in fossil fuel use, a virtually impossible result. But this doesn’t detract from the larger point that The Economist is making here – that the uncertainty is itself a reason for action, not a reason to delay action. As they succinctly put it: “The fact that the uncertainties allow you to construct a relatively benign future does not allow you to ignore futures in which climate change is large”.
In sum, The Economist appears to understand what balanced reporting actually means: accurate reporting of science can be done while neither stifling debate nor accepting the criticisms of so-called ‘skeptics’ at face value. The self-described goal of The Economist is to engage vigorously in the “contest between intelligence and timid ignorance,” and they are doing a rather good job of it. Whether this will prove sufficient to win the contest against aggressive ignorance is, of course, another matter.