Global Cooling, Confused Coverage

Politico article demonstrates gross misunderstanding of climate science, journalism

Proving that old misunderstandings are not easily resolved, Politico published an anachronistically bad article about climate science yesterday. The piece, by Erika Lovley, began by stating that:

Climate change skeptics on Capitol Hill are quietly watching a growing accumulation of global cooling science and other findings that could signal that the science behind global warming may still be too shaky to warrant cap-and-trade legislation.

First of all, Lovley does not review (or even mention) a single piece of climate research that supports the notion of a “growing accumulation of global cooling science.” Second of all, she bases her entire piece on the arguments of Josef D’Aleo and a section on climate change that he wrote for the 2009 Old Farmer’s Almanac (that bastion of peer-reviewed science!). D’Aleo is co-founder of The Weather Channel and a career meteorologist with a master’s degree in meteorology, but he does not have a doctorate in climatology. Generally speaking, that is an important distinction that all climate reporters should be aware of when choosing sources for their reporting.

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). And that confusion has abetted some of the misunderstanding about global cooling. Lovley writes that:

Armed with statistics from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climate Data Center, D’Aleo reported in the 2009 Old Farmer’s Almanac that the U.S. annual mean temperature has fluctuated for decades and has only risen 0.21 degrees since 1930 — which he says is caused by fluctuating solar activity levels and ocean temperatures, not carbon emissions.

Data from the same source shows that during five of the past seven decades, including this one, average U.S. temperatures have gone down. And the almanac predicted that the next year will see a period of cooling.

Well, yes, the mean temperature in the U.S. has gone up and down over the last century, but it’s global mean temperature that really matters in this debate. Furthermore, if Lovely had called the people behind that data, she would have learned that the scientists at Goddard firmly believe the world is getting warmer. Lovley gets to the Northern Hemisphere, at least, shortly thereafter when she quotes D’Aleo delivering one of the most common, and fairly easily rebutted, arguments in the skeptic’s playbook: “Recent warming has stopped since 1998.”

First, 1998 was an anomalously warm year (due to a particularly strong El Niño effect in the Pacific), so it is not a particularly good baseline for comparison. Second, the statement relies on only one data set (i.e. temperature record), from the Hadley Climate Centre in the U.K.’s Met Office (weather service), which happens to represent the lower end of warming. Other data sets show greater warming since 1998, and although the Hadley Centre data still lists that year as the hottest on record, others agree that 2005 was hottest and that 1998 and 2007 are tied for second place. Finally, the last and perhaps biggest problem with D’Aleo’s statement is that ten years is really too short a time period to show anything useful about climate. (Both Grist and New Scientist have made all of this abundantly clear; and, like Goddard, the Hadley Centre does not dispute the scientific consensus on climate change). The bottom line: in the long run, the Earth as a whole is still getting warmer.

This brings us back to the confusion about weather and climate, and the fact that short-term changes in the former are irrelevant to long-term trends in the latter. Yet every winter, the onset of cold inspires climate skeptics to once again attempt to “debunk” global warming and journalists to once again fall for the maneuver. I reported on that phenomenon in 2007, and New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin covered it in March 2008. Despite journalists’ earnest, and somewhat successful, efforts to move past the basic points that global warming is happening and that human industry is the cause, lingering confusion about the basics of climate science continues to plague public understanding.

To be sure, covering climate change is difficult; and covering temperature trends is an especially perilous task. Even when Revkin wrote his March Times story about skeptics “seizing” on cold weather to rebut anthropogenic warming, he received largely unwarranted criticism from energy expert and Climate Progress blogger Joseph Romm. The same thing happened two weeks ago when Revkin covered a study in the journal Nature (a far more reliable venue than the Old Farmer’s Almanac), which predicted that the world would soon enter a prolonged cold spell. Revkin was careful to report that the study drew criticism from other scientists, and that the study’s authors agree that we need to cut carbon emissions and that humans control the fate of the climate. That wasn’t enough to preclude criticism from Romm. Of course, Romm went after Lovley, too, in a stinging review at The Huffington Post, but it does go to show that reporters are often stuck in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario.

That said, Politico should bear full responsibility for yesterday’s terrible article. Not only did Lovley exhibit a thorough misunderstanding of climate science, she also demonstrated a pretty shocking ignorance of good journalistic practice. Every shred of information in her piece suggests that Lovley followed the playbook of the communications office (read: spin room) of Senator Jim Inhofe, the most adamant skeptic in Congress. She notes, for example, that “more than 31,000 scientists across the world have signed the Global Warming Petition Project,” which asserts that human influence on climate can’t be proven, and that “Inhofe’s staff has been steadily compiling a list of global cooling findings.” Of course, few of the 31,000 have advanced degrees in climatology. And when it comes to the science itself, one wonders if Lovley even bothered to look up a single peer-reviewed study about global temperature trends, or whether she simply took Inhofe’s word for it.

In a final act of journalistic folly (and a lame attempt at “balance”), Lovley’s last paragraph quotes Al Gore spokeswoman Kalee Kreider rebutting the argument against global warming. Now Gore and Kreider probably know more about climate science than Inhofe does, but they are still not scientists. And, to make matters worse (I know, it doesn’t seem possible), Lovley has a sidebar to her story that is even more asinine than the main article. It’s about “The Gore Effect,” by which severe cold sets in whenever the former vice-president is due to speak about global warming:

“While there’s no scientific proof that The Gore Effect is anything more than a humorous coincidence,” Lovley writes, “some climate skeptics say it may offer a snapshot of proof that the planet isn’t warming as quickly as some climate change advocates say.”

The vacuity is almost too much to bear.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.