26 December 2011

The Worst NYT Story on Climate Ever?

UDPATE 1/2/12: The NYT doubles down in a Dec 31, 2011 editorial:
A typical year in the United States features three or four weather disasters costing more than $1 billion. In 2009 there were nine. Last year brought a dozen, at a cost of $52 billion, making it the most extreme year for weather since accurate record keeping began in the 19th century.
How many times does it have to be explained that you should not use economic damage as a proxy for climate patterns? Apparently very many!

Regular readers will know that I think that the print media overall has done a pretty good job on covering the science of climate change, if not always getting the politics right. They will also know what I think about the "debate" over climate change and extreme events (above). But every once in a while I see a story that is so breathtakingly bad that it is worth commenting on. Today's installment comes from Justin Gillis at the New York Times and was published on Christmas Eve. The article is so bad that it might just be the worst piece of reporting I've ever seen in the Times on climate change.

Where to begin? How about the start.

The NYT laments that the work of attributing the cause of extreme events in NOAA is "languishing":
Scientists say they could, in theory, do a much better job of answering the question “Did global warming have anything to do with it?” after extreme weather events like the drought in Texas and the floods in New England.

But for many reasons, efforts to put out prompt reports on the causes of extreme weather are essentially languishing.
Set aside the unattributed "scientists say" -- a favorite construction of Gillis and the Times. The article fails to explain that NOAA already has a robust effort in place focused on climate attribution and which has put out recent assessments about phenomena as varied as the 2011 US tornado season and the 2009/2010 mid-Atlantic coast snowstorms. No one from that effort was quoted in the article nor was any of their work (perhaps because it utterly contradicts the narrative of the story).

The article repeats the tired statistic that the number of billion dollar disasters have increased in recent decades:
A typical year in this country features three or four weather disasters whose costs exceed $1 billion each. But this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tallied a dozen such events, including wildfires in the Southwest, floods in multiple regions of the country and a deadly spring tornado season. And the agency has not finished counting. The final costs are certain to exceed $50 billion.
The article does not explain that $1 billion in 2011 is about the same as $400 million in 1980 (XLS). Nor does it explain that a $50 billion total in losses for 2011 is about exactly the same as the total in 1980, after adjusting for inflation -- however, as a proportion of the overall economy those 1980 losses were 250% larger than those experienced in 2011. That is, the equivalent 1980 losses in 2011 would be $125 billion (XLS). The article completely ignores relevant peer-reviewed research on the subject (see here also).

The article fails to cite the recent IPCC report which covered this exact subject, concluding (PDF):
Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded.
The IPCC SREX report has a lot of other things to say about extremes, which also contradict the narrative of the story. Also neglected is the US government's own review of extreme events in the US, which found no long-term trends.

The article is extremely sloppy when discussing tornadoes:
Tornadoes, the deadliest weather disaster to hit the country this year, present a particularly thorny case.

On their face, weather statistics suggest that tornadoes are becoming more numerous as the climate warms. But tornadoes are small and hard to count, and scientists have little confidence in the accuracy of older data, which means they do not know whether to believe the apparent increase.
Tornadoes are not in the least bit "thorny." You wouldn't know from reading the article that the most powerful tornadoes - the F3,  F4 and F5s which cause almost all of the damage and fatalities -- have actually decreased over the past 50 years (so too has damage, but be careful about interpreting this data). Nor would you know that the NOAA Climate Attribution effort has recently looked at the 2011 tornadoes and found no evidence of causality from increasing greenhouse gases:
So far, we have not been able to link any of the major causes of the tornado outbreak to global warming. Barring a detection of change, a claim of attribution (to human impacts) is thus problematic, although it does not exclude that a future change in such environmental conditions may occur as anthropogenic greenhouse gas forcing increases.
The NYT article relies on a very few people from the usual small circle of folks cited in such articles to say the usual suggestive things - Ben Santer, Jeff Masters, Peter Stott. Not one researcher is cited who actually publishes peer-reviewed work on tornadoes, economic impacts of disasters, or the long-term history of US weather extremes. However, somehow Congressional Republicans show up as the bad guys in the usual good guys-bad guys framing on this topic. No budget numbers are presented nor any specific discussion of what is going on in NOAA. Ink blot.

I still believe that the print media overall does a good job on a difficult subject, but every once in a while you see an article so detached from reality that it is worth noting.

Now, I'm back to my nap by the fruit table;-)


  1. Thanks Roger. I was rummaging C3 archives looking to do my own slip shod version of this, to refute someone who quoted the self same NYTimes article.
    So you save me a lot of time.

    Now I can go back to stoovlin' on the couch.

  2. Thanks for bringing attention to this terrible NY Times piece.

    I had the same reaction as you did when I read the same article published in our local paper.

    I used the article as an example to show family members visiting for the Holidays how terrible investigatory writing has become. The empirical scientific data I showed them from various sources, to counter the points that Justin Gillis was trying to make, were quite eye opening to all. Score one for the "skeptics" here!…

    Yet another glaring example of science being high-jacked by political agenda.

  3. Roger,

    What do you think of the new fashion of changing the null hypothesis (I believe Trenberth is leading the charge here) so that you would have to assume anthroprogenically directed trending, and therefore work to prove otherwise, rather than the reverse?

    I'm assuming that this sort of null change will eventually come for many aspects of climate change (and attribution), but is it really here now? Does a presumed eventual reality therefore scientifically mandate the switch now regardless, so as to be on 'the right side of history'?

  4. Salamano,

    Trenberth's championing of a new null hypothesis will run into the will of mother nature. In reality, the is only one opinion that is correct and its hers. I suspect she'll make her position know pretty clearly over the next 10-15 years.

  5. -3-Salamano

    Trenberth's reversed null is little more than rhetoric. If someone wants to believe that climate change is ever present (a bit like how religious people speak of God, it seems;-), fine.

    Of course, the next logical question is, how big is that effect? Which takes us right back to the actual science of detection and attribution. I don't expect you'll be seeing many research papers or scientists adopting Trenberth's null (except perhaps in the odd NYT article!).

    Of course, none of my research on extreme events depends upon Trenberth's null one way or the other ;-)

  6. Salamano,

    Trenberth can call it anything he wants, but it won't actually be a null hypothesis. Being an actual scientist means being able to appreciate what a null hypothesis IS. Trenberth doesn't.

  7. Roger,

    I am truly mystified as to how you can conclude the print media does a "pretty good job" on climate change.

    I am unaware of the mainstream print media informing their readers that global warming is not "accelerating"; that present global warming is not "unprecedented"; or that AGW is not "unequivocal."

    I am not aware of mainstream print media informing their readers that sea levels are not dangerously rising; that the Antarctica ice sheets are not even remotely endangered from warming; that most of the polar bear populations are well and growing; or that 2011 severe weather events are not out of the ordinary range of natural variability.

    I am not aware of print media regularly informing their readers that IPCC "consensus" science has been spectacularly wrong; that GCM climate models really are lousy climate predictors; or that most govt-funded, IPCC-related climate scientists disparage your own father's climate opinions and expertise.

    The mainstream print media does an insanely poor job of the above and more. That's why your site and my site successfully exist - we inform our readers on climate science issues that the MSM does not report on, or grossly misinforms about.

    As a future endeavor on your site, you should on a regular basis point your readers to the print media climate change articles that you find honest, complete and objective. Or possibly you can compile a post with links to print media 2011 articles that did a "good job" of providing an objective and balanced report of climate science - that would be helpful. (I'm betting that link list is going to be rather tiny.)

    With that said, I'm ready to be convinced that the print media is performing its needed function instead of press release climate science, but it will take more than an ivory tower occupant from just claiming the print media is performing even at "C" grade level.

    In the meantime, most Americans should supplement their NYT and WAPO climate readings with visits to your father's blog and the WUWT blog to read about the unreported/misreported, important issues regarding climate science. (And yes, your blog also.)

  8. -7-C3 Editor

    What do you think about empirical studies of media coverage of climate change?

    Such as our paper on sea level rise predictions (which directly contradicts your claim), the analysis found in Nisbet's Climate Shift report, or the work of Boykoff (as summarized in his recent book).

    I am happy to discuss/debate but you need to provide some data with which we can work with. How about we start with our sea level rise paper as you seem to think that sea level rise coverage has been poor. Where are we wrong?


  9. Does the NYT even have an ombudsman?

  10. Sea Level Drop
    The latest NASA satellite data show that sea levels have dropped 6 mm over the last year – the biggest drop ever recorded since satellite data has been taken. This is hardly the kind of acceleration Rahmstorf had in mind. You’d think the media would be falling all over themselves to report this good news. They have not. Only a tiny few German media outlets have reported the plummeting sea level news.

  11. GoFigure560...
    Yes - Arthur S. Brisbane. He's called the Public Editor. He's impossibly high class. He has called the Times' commenters and comment system a Pandora's Box. He speaks rarely and to little effect.

  12. I get the NYT on Sundays, only. Otherwise, the WSJ daily, and my local paper, the San Diego U-T. As my son said when I questioned the lousy liberal positions of the LATimes, "know your enemy!" So, with the NYT..! And the U-T is poor in
    giving both sides to GW. So I rely on articles like this, on WUWT, onco2science,
    on Resilient Earth, AND on another site that publishes both sides. So, thanks for
    THIS, and for 7 above and what follows...!
    I agree more with 7 than the author, here. If I could only get my local to come
    around, and I have tried, but with litle success. They are good at overseeing
    most politics, but Global Warming..no.

  13. I have to join the fellow skeptics here who find the media coverage of news on "climate change" - or whatever we're calling it these year - completely lacking in context.

    Roger, are you unaware that the Society of Environmental Journalists held a "debate" (in 2007 I think ...), and voted to stop doing balancing stories on climate change?

    No more one scientist says this, but others disagree....?

    One case in point is Discover magazine's year end report on climategate, December 2010 (print edition): nothing to see here, move along.

    It was as if the IAC, itself commissioned by the UN, hadn't CALLED FOR MORE OPENNESS and TRANSPARENCY ~ the very cri de cour of the skeptics!

    As an environmental scientist who is lucky enough to have escaped Boulder after 20 years myself, you really need to get out more.

  14. RP, Jr.;
    Your kowtowing to the MSM is one of several reasons I find your blog NWMT (Not Worth My Time).