A couple of America’s leading media outlets finally dug into the recent controversy surrounding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last week. The Observatory first criticized U.S. news outlets two weeks ago for not paying more attention to the issue.
Last Tuesday, The New York Times ran a front-page article by Elisabeth Rosenthal under the headline, “U.N. Panel and Its Chief Face a Siege on Their Credibility.” On Wednesday, the Associated Press ran one over the wire headlined, “Scientists seek better way to do climate report.” The difference between the two headlines—the Times focused on the panel’s faults, the AP on its attempts to address them—is important. Each tells half the story, but it is the latter that should lead.
That focus would defy the media’s preference for a conflict narrative and the “front-page thought,” but the story here is not the fact that the IPCC and climate scientists have made mistakes. From the batch of e-mails taken from the University of East Anglia in November to more recent allegations of errors and poor sourcing in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, these mistakes have done little to undermine the fundamental theory that human industry is contributing to global warming, or prove that the field of climate science is riddled with corruption. The story, properly told, is about whether or not the responsible parties are responding appropriately to flaws in the system (correcting the record where necessary and working to prevent the recurrence of past mistakes).
Bearing this in mind, it is easy to see why—as Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm first pointed out—Rosenthal buried her lede in the ninth paragraph, which reads:
The panel, in reviewing complaints about possible errors in its report, has so far found that one was justified and another was “baseless.” The general consensus among mainstream scientists is that the errors are in any case minor and do not undermine the report’s conclusions.
That is something that needs to be mentioned in the first few paragraphs. From there, a reporter can explain that errors were nonetheless made, which should remind the world of three things: that the exact timing and scale of certain impacts of climate change are subject to a lot of uncertainty; that some scientists will behave defensively, even to the point of negligence, when they feel threatened; and that all quality control-systems sometimes fail. Thereafter, the question becomes: What is being done about these problems?
Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how Rosenthal’s piece played out. After her assertion about “the general consensus about mainstream scientists,” she doesn’t actually quote a single one. Instead, as freelance journalist Keith Kloor wisely observed at his Collide-a-Scape blog, “the piece leaned too heavily” on Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. It was fair enough to quote Pielke, who raised legitimate questions about potential conflicts of interest pertaining to the business interests of IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri. But first, readers needed to hear from a few climate scientists who could explain the upshot of other recent controversies surrounding the IPCC and what is being done to improve the integrity of its work.
Published a day later, the AP’s story accomplished that task by focusing on various climate scientists’ responses to alleged mistakes in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007. The article, by Seth Borenstein, began with a catchy lede about the “steady drip of unsettling errors,” but then transitioned admirably into the decidedly unsexy explanation that the Fourth Assessment Report is actually a collection of “four separate reports on different aspects of global warming,” and that:
No errors have surfaced in the first and most well-known of the reports, which said the physics of a warming atmosphere and rising seas is man-made and incontrovertible. So far, four mistakes have been discovered in the second report, which attempts to translate what global warming might mean to daily lives around the world.
Borentein goes on to quote a number of scientists involved with the IPCC, who help to explain why “the nature of the science and the demands of governments for a localized tally of climate change effects and projections of future ones make the second report a bit more prone to mistakes than the first report.” The story is not as viscerally engaging as the war of words waged between Pachauri and Pielke in Rosenthal’s Times article, but in the end it is more enlightening.