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Self-identified climate "agnostic" repels muzzling proposition

A Washington Post dispute illuminates editors' challenge in distinguishing climate fact from climate opinion.

Recent contentiousness on the Washington Post opinion page calls to mind the media hubbub that ensued from an October Los Angeles Times edict against counterfactual climate-science letters to the editor. Where's the line beyond which climate opinion insults climate fact?

It's an old argument. Eight years ago, the climatologists at the blog RealClimate, condemning a pair of Washington Post columns, charged that the Post lacked "quality control . . . that ensures minimal journalistic standards, such as intellectual honesty and basic fact-checking." In the online discussion that followed, one of the bloggers made clear that he would have expected the Post simply to take the almost unheard-of action of rejecting submissions from two long-established national columnists, Robert Novak and George Will.

This time it's Charles Krauthammer, the Oxford- and Harvard-educated physician, Pulitzer winner, and Fox News TV commentator. He has recently repeated what he wrote in 2008 about his stance on climate science:

I'm not a global warming believer. I'm not a global warming denier. I'm a global warming agnostic who believes instinctively that it can't be very good to pump lots of CO2 into the atmosphere but is equally convinced that those who presume to know exactly where that leads are talking through their hats.

Market-capitalism-opposing "priests" of environmentalism, he added, had "proclaimed the ultimate commandment—carbon chastity."

In a February 2014 column, Krauthammer invoked the climate skepticism of physicist Freeman Dyson, promoted the claim that warming has stopped, condemned "the cynical attribution of any politically convenient natural disaster to climate change," cited two climatologists' Wall Street Journal op-ed declaring climate models "spectacularly wrong," and mocked the notion of settled climate science as "nothing but a crude attempt to silence critics and delegitimize debate."

At about the same time, the Post received the petition announced in the press release "110K call on the Washington Post to end climate change denial in its editorial page." The originating organization, called Forecast the Facts, alluded to the Los Angeles Times's policy in charging that the Post "routinely prints inaccuracies on climate change and is home to prominent climate change deniers" Will and Krauthammer.

The release quoted the organization's campaign director, Brant Olson of Berkeley, California. Olson published a nearly 700-word letter—the length of an op-ed—in the Post following Krauthammer's 11 April column. There Krauthammer had characterized Forecast the Facts as "totalitarian" and as "perfectly" illustrating the "argument that the left is entering a new phase of ideological agitation—no longer trying to win the debate but stopping debate altogether, banishing from public discourse any and all opposition."

Olson's letter declared that his organization had been merely "asking for factual accuracy." Scientists have "different answers" to evolving climate questions, he wrote. "They use scientific modeling and observed data to make educated guesses," he reported, and asserted, "What is no longer in doubt . . . is that humans are warming the planet." Citing authoritative sources, he directly contradicted Krauthammer on warming's halt and on the link between extreme weather and a changing climate. Though there's "plenty of room for reasonable disagreements about climate change," he wrote at the end, "Krauthammer's quarrel with well-established scientific conclusions is not only unreasonable but also built on misinformation that should have no place in a space intended to further an informed debate."

Given that the Post's opinion editors disagree with Krauthammer on climate science, it might be noteworthy that both of the ensuing letters to the editor disagreed not with Krauthammer but with Olson. The first began:

The . . . letter from Brant Olson of Forecast the Facts argued that the Post should stop publishing "misinformation" about climate change on its opinion pages. Apparently, Olson thinks there cannot be two opinions on this issue if one of those opinions conflicts with "the conclusions of climate scientists." He then went on to say that climate scientists have "different answers" as to what civilization will look like in the future based on computer modeling and "educated guesses." Despite these different answers, he alleged that there is a consensus among climate scientists and that anyone who disagrees with it is spreading "misinformation."

The letter went on to counter Olson by pointing to the climate skepticism of Judith Curry, who chairs Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. (She will step down on 1 July.) "The debate is far from settled," the letter asserted, "and the Post should do everything within its power to further a balanced discussion."

The second letter argued that Olson "certainly proves Krauthammer correct about the 'intolerance' and a 'totalitarian' attitude by some with regard to dissenting viewpoints on climate change."


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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