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News dispatches from the climate wars

Is media attention expanding for human-induced climate disruption?

When science gives you results you don’t like, declared Comedy Central’s fake-news anchor Stephen Colbert, a “brilliant solution” is to pass a law banning the results. “Problem solved!” he exulted, enthusiastically brushing his palms back and forth against each other.

Colbert’s five-minute report lampooned North Carolina’s decision about the relation of scientific projections of sea-level rise to public planning for coastal infrastructure and zoning. The state has replaced a controversial, century-length outlook with a limited, less alarming, 30-year view. A Washington Post article recently called the controversy “one of the nation’s most notorious battles over climate change.”

A limited, unscientific survey suggests that news coverage of those battles has accelerated lately. This media report offers a sampling.

Much coverage—from National Geographic to the Telegraph—has engaged the report “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States,” which former Republican treasury secretary Henry Paulson announced in “The coming climate crash,” his high-profile 22 June Sunday New York Times piece. With backers such as Paulson and former Republican treasury secretary George Shultz, says the New Republic, “Risky Business” aims not at Main Street but at Wall Street, attempting “to put a dollar value on the risk climate change represents . . . particularly for businesses.”

Paulson’s commentary called human-caused climate disruption “the challenge of our time” and advocated a carbon tax. In an opinion column the next day, economist Paul Krugman confounded obvious expectations by objecting that although such a tax “may be the best thing we could do, . . . we won’t actually do it.” This means, Krugman said, that conservatives like Paulson must decide whether to “accept second-best answers” put into place by Democrats—for example, efficiency standards, mandates for utility companies to buy homeowners’ solar-panel-generated electricity, federal loan guarantees for solar plants, and new regulations proposed for coal-fired power plants. Otherwise, Krugman charged, such conservatives’ “supposed environmentalism is an empty gesture.”

Environmentalism continues in some cases to get curbed. A report at io9—“a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the world of tomorrow”—describes a Wyoming controversy over some lawmakers’ belief that teaching about climate science “would brainwash kids against the state’s coal and oil industries.” The Dallas Morning News reports that exhibits at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science make “only a few subtle references to one of the most pressing issues in science: how human activities, primarily emissions from coal, oil and gas plants, are contributing to a rapid warming of the planet.”

At the Guardian, Graham Readfearn has reported anecdotally on what really annoys scientists about the state of the climate-change debate. He quotes nine researchers. For instance, Andrew Pitman—director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney—observes, “Many people who would not dream to claim they understand how antibiotics, microprocessors or immunisations work seem happy to wax lyrical on their views on climate change.”

Michael Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, told Readfearn that if “there’s one concept that is typically misrepresented in the public discourse on climate change, it is the concept of uncertainty.” He added:

There are uncertainties in model projections of future climate change. However, these uncertainties cut both ways, and in many cases it appears that model projections have underestimated the rate and magnitude of the climate changes resulting from our burning of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The rapid lost [sic] of Arctic sea ice is one such example.

Rather than being cause for inaction, uncertainty is a reason to act all the sooner.

None of the nine mentioned the ubiquitous canard recycled recently by syndicated columnist Walter E. Williams, who wrote: “Are you for or against global warming, later renamed climate change and more recently renamed climate disruption? Environmentalists have renamed it because they don’t want to look silly in the face of cooling temperatures.” But, in fact, environmentalists consider the underlying canard about “cooling temperatures” itself to be silly. Moreover, even the climate-skeptical opinion page of the Wall Street Journal nowadays regularly uses the phrase climate change.

According to a New York Times article, President Obama recently imputed something like silliness to climate disbelievers. In a commencement speech at the University of California, Irvine, he reportedly used “gleefully sarcastic terms” to ridicule congressional deniers.

So what’s the technopolitical outlook? Two veteran sounders of the climate alarm, Bill McKibben and Al Gore, have recently expressed optimism.

The opening paragraph of McKibben’s New York Review of Books commentary dwells first on alarm:

We may be entering the high-stakes endgame on climate change. The pieces—technological and perhaps political—are finally in place for rapid, powerful action to shift us off of fossil fuel. Unfortunately, the players may well decide instead to simply move pawns back and forth for another couple of decades, which would be fatal. Even more unfortunately, the natural world is daily making it more clear that the clock ticks down faster than we feared. The whole game is very nearly in check.

But optimism arrives in McKibben’s closing:

[A] remarkably hopeful statistic [comes] from Germany. There, in the one country that has taken climate change seriously and done the work to change its energy infrastructure, a new record for renewable energy was set. On [one recent] afternoon Germany generated 74 percent of its electric needs from renewable sources.

In Rolling Stone, former vice president Gore has contributed a long article titled “The turning point: New hope for the climate.” It begins, “In the struggle to solve the climate crisis, a powerful, largely unnoticed shift is taking place. The forward journey for human civilization will be difficult and dangerous, but it is now clear that we will ultimately prevail. The only question is how quickly we can accelerate and complete the transition to a low-carbon civilization.”

Concerning technological advances, Gore says:

• Our “ability to convert sunshine into usable energy has become much cheaper far more rapidly than anyone had predicted.”

• A decentralized grid will evolve fast, involving “rooftop solar cells, on-site and grid battery storage, and microgrids.”

• The “cost of battery storage [is] declining steadily—even before the introduction of disruptive new battery technologies that are now in advanced development.”

• “In poorer countries, where most of the world’s people live and most of the growth in energy use is occurring, photovoltaic electricity is not so much displacing carbon-based energy as leapfrogging it altogether.”

• “The cost of wind energy is also plummeting, having dropped 43 percent in the United States since 2009—making it now cheaper than coal for new generating capacity.”

Concerning the economics and politics of climate, he says:

• Political forces seeking “to choke the development of alternative energy” will fail.

• Carbon emissions must be made costly and “the massive subsidies that fuel the profligate emissions of global-warming pollution” must be eliminated.

• Belatedly but luckily, President Obama has “taken hold of the [climate] challenge with determination and seriousness of purpose.”

• “More and more, investors are diversifying their portfolios to include significant investments in renewables. . . . A growing number of large investors . . . have announced decisions to divest themselves from carbon­intensive assets.”

And what about media coverage that questions, opposes, or attacks scientists’ climate consensus? A Washington Times editorial and several other media pieces, including a widely published column by Cal Thomas, publicized charges by blogger Steven Goddard that historical temperature records have been distorted to bolster the consensus. On that basis, the editorial mocks what it calls “the global warming scam” and asserts, “The planetary thermometer hasn’t budged in 15 years. Wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and other ‘extreme’ weather events are at normal or below-normal levels. Pacific islands aren’t submerged. There’s so much ice the polar bears are celebrating.”

But Politifact has investigated Goddard’s post by consulting experts, even including climate skeptic Anthony Watts. Here’s Politifact’s conclusion:

As for what the blog said, we found that experts across the spectrum found fundamental flaws in its analytic methods. By relying on raw data, it ignored that the number and location of weather stations and the methods of measuring temperatures across the United States have changed greatly over the past 80 years.

The experts we reached or whose work we read generally agree that the corrections for flawed data produce valid results. The bare bones approach used in the blog post provides no solution to the issues of weaknesses in the raw data.

We rate the claim Pants on Fire.


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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