Is the New York Times coverage of global warming fatally flawed?
Two dreadful, tunnel-vision articles in the New York Times suggest the “paper of record” must rethink how it covers the most important issue of our time.
Yes, the NYT has the biggest climate team, but their reporting by stovepipe (rather than by team), renders that staff largely useless. Indeed, it may be less than useless, as these articles make clear.
Let’s start with today’s front-page story “Severe Drought Adds to Hardships in California” on the state’s record drop in snowpack and rainfall. Even though there is abundant science that both impacts are precisely what we would expect from human-caused climate change, reporter Jesse McKinley never mentions the subject at all. Quite the reverse, he opens the piece:
The country’s biggest agricultural engine, California’s sprawling Central Valley, is being battered by the recession like farmland most everywhere. But in an unlucky strike of nature, the downturn is being deepened by a severe drought that threatens to drive up joblessness, increase food prices and cripple farms and towns.
So not only does McKinley ignore a likely contributor to the drought and snowpack loss, he attributes the whole damn thing to “an unlucky strike of nature.”
No wonder the public is not terribly concerned about global warming and fails to understand that humans are changing the climate now. The only surprising thing is that the NYT itself is surprised that the public is under-informed (see here).
The NYT did not make this mistake when it reported on Australia’s drought — because it used team-based reporting (see here). I will return to this point at the end.
Moreover, the impacts California is experiencing are not some obscure or distant prediction of climate change — they are so well-known and well accepted that even that bastion of climate denial, the Bush administration, not only acknowledged them in a December 2008 U.S. Geological Survey report, Abrupt Climate Change, but warned they may be just around the corner (see here):
In the Southwest, for example, the models project a permanent drying by the mid-21st century that reaches the level of aridity seen in historical droughts, and a quarter of the projections may reach this level of aridity much earlier.
Indeed, these impacts in California should be incredibly well known to the media now that Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has spoken out about them (see here):
In the pessimistic scenario, the snow pack will decrease by 70 to 90 percent … You’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.
So in spite of the fact that the New York Times has expanded its climate team, it continues to be guilty of the same kind of reporting it has (mal)practiced for years:
- The NY Times Blows the Wildfire Story
- The NY Times Blows the Drought Story, too.
- The New York Times blows the bark beetle story
Now let’s turn to equally flawed reporting related to climate policy and economics. On Thursday, the NYT published a story by John Broder “E.P.A. Expected to Regulate Carbon Dioxide.” I will excerpt it at length to highlight its serious flaws:
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to act for the first time to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists blame for the warming of the planet, according to top Obama administration officials.
The decision, which most likely would play out in stages over a period of months, would have a profound impact on transportation, manufacturing costs and how utilities generate power. It could accelerate the progress of energy and climate change legislation in Congress and form a basis for the United States’ negotiating position at United Nations climate talks set for December in Copenhagen.
The environmental agency is under order from the Supreme Court to make a determination whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant that endangers public health and welfare, an order that the Bush administration essentially ignored despite near-unanimous belief among agency experts that research points inexorably to such a finding …
Ms. Jackson knows that she would be stepping into a minefield of Congressional and industry opposition and said that she was trying to devise a program that allayed these worries. “We are poised to be specific on what we regulate and on what schedule,” Ms. Jackson said. “We don’t want people to spin that into a doomsday scenario … “
That is not likely to assuage critics, including many Democrats from states dependent on coal-generated electricity and manufacturing jobs, where such regulation could significantly increase costs. Representative John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who has long championed the interests of the auto industry, said that the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions by the E.P.A. would set off a “glorious mess” that would resonate throughout the economy.
Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, warned Ms. Jackson during her January confirmation hearing that she should not undercut Congress’s authority by using the agency’s regulatory power to address global warming. Mr. Barrasso called the use of the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon “a disaster waiting to happen.”
Many environmental advocates, however, said the E.P.A.’s action was long overdue, but added that it was only as a stopgap until Congress passed comprehensive climate change legislation.
“It’s politically necessary, scientifically necessary and legally necessary,” said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club, a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case …
Jeffrey R. Holmstead, the former head of the agency’s office of air and radiation, said that a finding of endangerment from emissions of heat-trapping gases did not initiate immediate regulation but started a clock ticking on a process that typically took 18 months to two years.
“Potentially, it’s a huge mess, not only for E.P.A. but for state regulatory agencies, because the Clean Air Act is second only to the Internal Revenue Code in terms of complexity,” said Mr. Holmstead, now director of environmental strategies at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.
He said that under the clean air law any source emitting more than 250 tons of a declared pollutant would be subject to regulation, potentially including schools, hospitals, shopping centers, even bakeries, which has prompted some critics to call it the “Dunkin’ Donuts rule.”
But Mr. Bookbinder and other supporters say the regulations can be written to exempt these potential emitters. Ms. Jackson said that there was no timetable for issuing regulations governing carbon emissions and that her agency would not engage in “rash decision making.”
But she also said that the Supreme Court decision obliged her to act …
That’s right, the New York Times published an entire article on the plans by the Envi
ronmental Protection Agency — the agency charged with protecting humans and the environment from pollution — to obey the Supreme Court ruling and regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but never once mentioned a single benefit to the environment or human beings from regulating greenhouse gases. In short, the NYT left out the point of the entire effort.
[It’s also lame (but typical) that they put the Sierra Club in opposition to congressional opponents of action, rather than, say, leading proponents of action in both houses.]
But, as you can see, Broder catalogued at length a variety of presumed costs of action identified by opponents — including absurd ones like the supposed Dunkin’ Donuts rule. It is pretty damn hard for readers to do a mental cost-benefit analysis of EPA greenhouse gas regulations if the media repeatedly discuss costs but never mention a single specific benefit.
This article is particularly egregious since it comes on the heels of a study that leading U.S. journalist Eric Pooley wrote for Harvard critiquing the media for this precisely this mistake (see here). Pooley analyzed dozens of media articles on last year’s climate debate in the Senate and concluded:
The press failed to perform the basic service of making climate policy and its economic impact understandable to the reader and allowed opponents of climate action to set the terms of the cost debate. The argument centered on the short-term costs of taking action-i.e., higher electricity and gasoline prices-and sometimes assumed that doing nothing about climate change carried no cost.
The NYT‘s coverage of climate is media malpractice. And if the reporters are stuck in their silos and unable to see the big picture — if NYT reporters act as if having a big climate team means they don’t to explain key issues fully to the reader since that’s someone else’s job — then the weight of this flawed coverage falls on the head of the editors.
THE NEED FOR TEAM-BASED REPORTING (AND BETTER EDITORS)
As I wrote earlier this month (here), the NYT‘s own reporting on Australia was much better than their earlier AP-inspired stories on the subject, no doubt because “Andrew C. Revkin contributed reporting from New York.” The story noted:
The firestorms and heat in the south revived discussions in Australia of whether human-caused global warming was contributing to the continent’s climate woes of late — including recent prolonged drought in some places and severe flooding last week in Queensland, in the northeast.
Climate scientists say that no single rare event like the deadly heat wave or fires can be attributed to global warming, but the chances of experiencing such conditions are rising along with the temperature. In 2007, Australia’s national science agency published a 147-page report on projected climate changes, concluding, among other things, that “high-fire-danger weather is likely to increase in the southeast.”
The flooding in the northeast and the combustible conditions in the south were consistent with what is forecast as a result of recent shifts in climate patterns linked to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research.
That is how it is done — though even here, the editors buried the story is on page A9, the paragraphs cited are at the very end, and the headline (again, typically written by an editor) is “Australia Police Confirm Arson Role in Wildfires.”
Apparently, the editors believe that blaming individual bad guys is the best way to frame the story, not blaming us all for all our contribution to human-caused global warming. But I digress.
In the past, I think the media and scientists felt they had to bend over backwards not to attribute any single weather event 100 percent to human-caused global warming — but today there is no excuse whatsoever for a senior reporter at a major newspaper not reporting that what is occurring now is precisely what climate science has been predicting would happen.
In particular, the NYT reporting today — “There’s been no meaningful precipitation since last March,” and “Last month, California officials estimated the snowpack in the Sierra, a primary source of water for the state when it melts in the spring, at 61 percent of normal” — is not about short-term weather events, but rather major climate events — ones predicted to become increasingly common thanks to human emissions of greenhouse gases.
Indeed, I think we can now safely say the media can’t responsibly attribute any major climate event predicted to become more common because of global warming — like a lengthy drought or loss in snowpack — 100 percent to an “unlikely strike of nature.”
The NYT editors seem no better than their Washington Post counterparts (see here).
The bottom line: Once again, if you want to find the best journalism now on climate — the most science-based, the most fact-based, the most integrated and comprehensive, the most relevant to your lives and the lives of your children and the people you care about and indeed all of humanity — you must go to the web, specifically the blogosphere.