Wanted: Climate Front-Pager

Reviews vindicating scientists get strong blog coverage, but more high-profile stories are needed

Over the last two days, two reports have, respectively, reaffirmed the integrity of the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the scientists involved in the so-called “Climategate” affair. Unfortunately, while the reports have received a lot of attention in the blogosphere, high-profile coverage in newspapers and magazines has been woefully lacking.

On Tuesday, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which advises the Dutch government, released a review of the IPCC’s 2007 report on the impacts of climate change. It found that report contained no errors that undermined the panel’s main conclusion that manmade global warming poses serious threats to human society. On Wednesday, independent investigators in the United Kingdom released their analysis of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia who were embroiled in a series of controversial e-mails hacked and leaked from the university last year. The investigation found that, despite accusations of impropriety, the scientists had conducted their work with rigor and honesty.

To be sure, both the Dutch report and the investigation in the U.K. raised a few important, but relatively minor, concerns about the climate scientists’ research and behavior. The former was a response to a handful of minor mistakes in the 2007 report uncovered last winter. One of the most glaring was a statement that 55 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level—when, in fact, that is the amount vulnerable to flooding, and only 26 percent of the land is below level—but the Dutch agency took responsibility for that blunder, admitting that it did not make the distinction clear in data that it gave to the IPCC in 2005.

In addition to that error, and one related to the melt rate of Himalayan glaciers (which has drawn significant attention), the environmental assessment agency found one more significant error in the IPCC report—related to climate change’s effect on crop yields Africa—as well as a handful of lesser problems attributable to typos and citation errors. In addition, the agency found that a number of conclusions in the report’s summary statements could not be adequately traced to scientific evidence in the underlying chapters, and that the summaries tended to single out the negative impacts of climate change.

In a similar vein, the “Climategate” investigation in the U.K., which was called for by the University of East Anglia but run independently by former civil servant Sir Muir Russell, criticized climate scientists for “a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness” with regard to dealing with public requests for information and complying with freedom of information laws. Both the Dutch review and the Russell report are, however, just the latest in a series of reviews dispelling the notion pushed by many global-warming skeptics this winter that climate science is a corrupt field coming apart at the seams.

A report from British parliament’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee at the end of March and an independent investigation by Lord Ronald Oxburgh in April also cleared the climate scientists at the University of East Anglia of any misconduct on malpractice. Likewise, in two separate reports released in February and July, investigative panels at Pennsylvania State University absolved scientist Michael Mann, who was also caught up in the “Climategate” affair, of wrongdoing. Another more comprehensive review of the IPCC’s research assessment process is expected from the InterAcademy Council, an association of science academies from around the world, toward the end of the summer.

Each of these reviews has, in turn, drawn significant coverage in mainstream media and independent blogs of all varieties and points of view (see round-ups here, here, and here for instance). But only a few brief articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines, and they were usually buried deep inside. It is not surprising that editors have been reluctant to highlight each and every report as it came along (lamentably, documents and letters of this sort are commonly dismissed as having little news value). However, journalists love a good trend, and, as the BBC’s Richard Black noted on this blog, these reports are “beginning to look like a pattern.” As such, the press (especially the American press) needs to give this story more comprehensive, high profile treatment.

The story is primarily about the mounting rebuttal of this winter’s assaults on climate scientists and their work, but also about how the scientific process and assessment of research can be improved. Again, all of the inquiries so far have recommended that individual scientists and the IPCC boost transparency and refine some their methodologies, especially where quality control of data and information is concerned. With the panel gearing up for its fifth assessment report, reporters must explore how they are going to do that.

Likewise, American journalists have plenty of opportunities to place this story in domestic context. The National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academies of Science has released three installments of its five-part report, “America’s Climate Choices,” which look at the science of climate change as well limiting it and adapting to it. The two remaining installments—one about response options and one a summary—are expected later this year. There has also been some interesting research on public opinion about global warming in the U.S.A. poll from Stanford, and one from Yale and George Mason Universities, which recently found high levels of concern, conflicted with others from Gallup and the Pew Research Center, which found much lower levels of worry.

Indeed, with so much material to work with, it is safe to say some front-page coverage—from The New York Times on down to local papers—is warranted, if not long overdue. It has been a bewildering year where climate science is concerned, and readers need to understand that while there is plenty of room to improve the research and communications process, its fundamental tenets remain as solid as ever.

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