the observatory

U.S. Press Digs Into IPCC Story

Articles still fall short of ambitious work in the U.K.
February 15, 2010

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?

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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.

Still, one can’t help but feel that even the Times and AP articles combined do not do the story justice. It would be wonderful to see an American newspaper publish a multi-part series (in print or online) that really takes the time and space necessary to give readers the full context, in a semi-narrative fashion, of the IPCC’s recent woes. An example of what that would look like was the twelve-part series the Guardian published last week about so-called “ClimateGate” affair.

The first sentence in the series, by veteran science writer Fred Pearce, began by acknowledging that “many may think [the paper] should not publish for fear of wrecking the already battered cause of fighting climate change.” The Guardian was right to ignore those voices. They preach the same head-in-the-sand mentality that led FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) to criticize The Observatory two weeks ago for calling for more coverage of the IPCC’s travails.

The only way that the public can possibly understand the full context of these issues is to report them at length. The Guardian covers a lot of well-trodden ground related to the batch of e-mails taken from the University of East Anglia last November, but claims to find “previously undisclosed evidence of slipshod use of data and apparent efforts to cover that up. It also finds persistent efforts to censor work by climatic skeptics regarded as hostile….”

In detailed, semi-narrative fashion, Pearce recounts the stories of long and ongoing battles between scientists and skeptics over the “hockey stick” temperature graph and data from sources such as Chinese weather stations and Siberian tree-rings. Pearce is intensely critical of the scientists at points, but he includes frequent disclaimers that, in every instance, the “slipshod use of data” did not “undermine climate science, despite what the skeptics say.” The headline of the second part in the series unambiguously states, “Claims based on email soundbites are demonstrably false – there is manifestly no evidence of clandestine data manipulation.” Pearce doesn’t pull any punches. He just methodically examines each point of criticism in turn, explaining which ones he thinks are legitimate, which ones “bogus,” and why.

Over the course of his analysis, Pearce describes the genesis and metamorphosis of the “war” between climate scientists and skeptics over the last ten to fifteen years. The detailed chronology gives readers a useful appreciation—lacking in shorter accounts—of the motivations and passions at play in the ongoing controversy. So, while Peace holds scientists to the fire for what he judged to be “systematic attempts to block [data and information] requests from skeptics” and “strenuous efforts to … ‘censor’ their critics,” he also explains why some of their reactions were “understandable.” The headline of the first part in the series notes that: “whether it was democracy in action, or defense against malicious attempts to disrupt research, climate scientists were driven to siege mentality by the persistence of skeptics.”

Ultimately, Pearce seems to conclude that the skeptics’ persistence was often more justifiable than the scientists’ siege mentality. But the series also leaves room for debate on that matter. For instance, in part six, Pearce charges that “the [e-mail] correspondence raises awkward questions about the effectiveness of peer-review – the supposed gold standard of scientific merit – and the operation of the UN’s top climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” However, he then immediately acknowledges that: “The scientists involved disagree. They say they were engaged not in suppressing dissent but in upholding scientific standards by keeping bad science out of peer-reviewed journals.”

No only that, but they get a chance to say it right Pearce’s series in the form of online annotations to the text. An introduction to each article explains that (in what it calls a “unique experiment”) the Guardian “will allow web users to annotate the manuscript to help us in our aim of creating the definitive account of the controversy. This is an attempt at a collaborative route to getting at the truth.” The approach seems effective. In part six, for instance, NASA climate modeler Gavin Schmidt—who has made a number of annotations throughout series—mounts a convincing defense that his colleagues were, in fact, defending the integrity of peer review rather than straining it. Regardless of whether you agree with Pearce or Schmidt, the Guardian’s approach appropriately acknowledges that evidence leaves room for some degree of interpretation.

It is this kind of detailed, intellectually honest (even technologically innovative) reporting that news outlets like The New York Times should be striving for with their coverage of the recent controversies related to the IPCC. Coverage in the U.S. still feels like the proverbial tale of blind men examining different quarters of an elephant. Readers need the point-by-point master narrative. How exactly did this crisis in public confidence crystallize over the last month or so? How did various criticisms of the IPCC roll out? Which of those are legitimate? Which false? And what, if anything, can be done to improve the IPCC’s work?

It is not a story that can be told without a significant amount of context, but news outlets have a responsibility to get it right. If that means sacrificing the front-page thought and running a twelve-part series online instead, so be it.

[Update, 12:00 p.m.: The Washington Post also weighed in with a front-page story on Monday, which provides a decent, but succinct account of the IPCC controversy, mentioning possible ramifications for climate regulations and legislation in the U.S. In the last week, The Christian Science Monitor, Scientific American, Mother Jones, and Foreign Policy have also run analyses of the situation.]

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