False Balance Lives At The New York Times

March 15, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: Think Progress

Climate Change Reporting

By Joe Romm:

One of the country’s best climate reporters proves once again that false balance is alive and well at even the best papers.

The article in question is “Rising Sea Levels Seen as Threat to Coastal U.S.” by Justin Gillis. It’s on the new Climate Central report whose news release we reposted earlier today. As Gillis explains:

About 3.7 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide and risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades because of the sea level rise caused by global warming, according to new research.

If the pace of the rise accelerates as much as expected, researchers found, coastal flooding at levels that were once exceedingly rare could become an every-few-years occurrence by the middle of this century.

This isn’t terribly controversial among climatologists I talk to, though this report appears to be the first to add storm surges to warming-driven sea rise, spell out the danger in every U.S. coastal region and “estimate the proportion of the national population at risk from the rising sea.”

Gillis quotes the author, of course:

“Sea level rise is like an invisible tsunami, building force while we do almost nothing,” said Benjamin H. Strauss, an author, with other scientists, of two new papers outlining the research. “We have a closing window of time to prevent the worst by preparing for higher seas.”

But Strauss is the only scientist quoted in the article. To ‘balance’ Strauss, the Times quotes one of the top anti-scientist disinformers in the country, Myron Ebell, of the could-not-be-more debunked Competitive Enterprise Institute (see, for instance, “Santer, Jones, and Schneider respond to CEI’s phony attack on the temperature record“).

I’m assuming it’s the New York Times editors who are the ones who are still demanding this nonsensical balance — see Science Times stunner: “… a majority of the section’s editorial staff doubts that human-induced global warming represents a serious threat to humanity”).

Even so, that’s no excuse for this misleading paragraph:

The rise appears to have accelerated lately, to a rate of about a foot per century, and many scientists expect a further acceleration as the warming of the planet continues. One estimate that communities are starting to use for planning purposes suggests the ocean could rise a foot over the next 40 years, though that calculation is not universally accepted among climate scientists.

The handful of climate researchers who question the scientific consensus about global warming do not deny that the ocean is rising. But they often assert that the rise is a result of natural climate variability, they dispute that the pace is likely to accelerate, and they say that society will be able to adjust to a continuing slow rise.

Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington research group, said that “as a society, we could waste a fair amount of money on preparing for sea level rise if we put our faith in models that have no forecasting ability.”

First off, the way this is written, it suggests Ebell is one of “the handful of climate researchers,” which he most certainly is not. He’s just a spokesperson for anti-science disinformation promoted and partially funded by polluters.

Second, why does the New York Times have to publish a full paragraph of the erroneous and questionable beliefs of the tiny fraction of actual climate researchers who don’t accept the broad scientific understanding?

Third, again, why cite only one actual scientist and put him up against a non-scientist disinformer? When Gillis wrote about sea leavel rise in November 2010, he quoted a dozen actual climate and cryo-scientists with only John Christy for ‘balance.’ (see Coastal studies experts: “For coastal management purposes, a [sea level] rise of 7 feet (2 meters) should be utilized for planning major infrastructure”). At least that was closer to the right ratio.

For the record, the one-foot rise over the next 40 years is a projection from a major scientific study by five leading experts, including lead author Eric Rignot of the Jet Propulsion Lab (see “JPL bombshell: Polar ice sheet mass loss is speeding up, on pace for 1 foot sea level rise by 2050“).

Most of the leading experts on sea level rise who have published or spoken about this are now expecting one meter (39 inches) of SLR by 2100 or more if we keep listening to folks like Ebell and do nothing to reduce emissions. Indeed, as Gillis notes in his earlier piece, the two most widely used means of projecting future sea level rise, “yield approximately the same answer: that sea level could rise by 2 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet between now and 2100. A developing consensus among climate scientists holds that the best estimate is a little over three feet.”

Well, if seas are projected to rise 39 inches in the next 90 years (with much more upside risk than downside), it’s certainly not very controversial that they would rise around 12 inches in the next 40 years. So again, there’s no particular need to counterbalance any of these projections. Indeed, it would have made more sense to talk to an expert who thinks the projection is too low, because if we are headed for 6 1/2 feet by 2100, then one foot by 2050 could be on the low side:

Boykoff on “Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change”:  Freudenburg: “Reporters need to learn that, if they wish to discuss ‘both sides’ of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate “other side” is that, if anything, global climate disruption is likely to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.”

New York Times coverage of climate change has been improving, but they keep falling into the trap of false balance:

They would do well to adopt the NPR ethics handbook, which explicitly targets and rejects false balance

Note:  Michael Tobis (and Stephen Ban) gave us the top figure.


Readers Comments (0)


Reload Image

More in ENVIRONMENT (50 of 78 articles)
Fracking pit in Springville, PA, by Helen Slottje, 2009, via Flickr creative commons