The Cowardice of the Media

Another approach to understanding the cowardice of the media is to contemplate the litigious nature of the partisans.

Journalist Amy Fisher on being sued by anti-vaccine extremists for accurate reporting:

So, we won. But not before thousands of hours (and countless dollars) were spent proving how fair the story was. This is the nature of the beast. And the beast doesn’t tire, it seems, of taking whacks at those who dare to describe it.

A few weeks ago, Age of Autism caught wind of the fact that my Wired article is going to be included in the next edition of the annual compilation Best American Science Writing. The site promptly published a post. “Remember Amy Wallace? I sure wish I didn’t,” the writer began, adding: “For those lucky enough not to, I apologize for ruining your day.”

The post then asserted that the inclusion of my Wired piece in the book was simply payback from the pharmaceutical industry. How, you may wonder, did they make that leap? Well, this year’s collection is being edited by Dr. Jerome Groopman, the Harvard professor, scientist and writer. And according to Age of Autism, “Drug companies Immunex and Hoffman-La Roche have funded Groopman’s research. He has authored a chapter on viral infection in a symposia published by Novartis, and has served on the speaker’s bureau of Ortho Biotech, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson…”

They keep going in their list of supposed conflicts, but you get the idea. The point is this: When you enter the vaccine-thicket, one thing you can rely upon is that experts will be vilified. To the extent you attempt, with thorough reporting, independent research and cogent analysis, to become something of an expert yourself, you likely will be labeled a villain, too.

And then, what if a partisan gets to be attorney general?

The fact that the courts seem to remain sane on many of these cases is some consolation. But litigation is not fun (especially for the defendant) or cheap, and not every judge is all that well-grounded in reality.

Props for Jay

Jay Rosen is the person best at making sense of modern journalism, especially in America.

He doesn’t usually think of science journalism in particular, but his comments are often strikingly on target for our interests as well.

There’s an excellent interview with Rosen in The Economist

Some of it reflects on the quandary that someone like Revkin faces:

I do not think journalists should “join the team”. They bridle at
that, for good reason. Power-seeking and truth-seeking are different
behaviours, and this is how we distinguish politics from journalism. I
think it does take a certain detachment from your own preferences and
assumptions to be a good reporter. The difficulty is that neutrality
has its limits. Taken too far, it undermines the very project in which
a serious journalist is engaged.

Suppose the forces that want to convince Americans that Barack Obama
is a Muslim or wasn’t born in the United States start winning, and
more and more people believe it. This is a defeat for journalism—in
fact, for verification itself. Neutrality and objectivity carry no
instructions for how to react to something like that. They aren’t
“wrong”, they’re just limited. The American press does not know what
to do when neutrality, objectivity, balance and “report both sides”
reach their natural limits. And so journalists tend to deny that there
are such limits. But with this denial they’ve violated the code of the
truth-teller because these limits are real. See the problem?


That’s the whole problem in a nutshell, along with the fact that journalists are stunningly blind to the problem.

There is a tradeoff between valid goals: on the one hand, journalistic independence, and on the other, journalistic participation in actually evaluating the truth of competing narratives. On the whole, journalists overvalue independence and undervalue truth. In the limiting case they become utterly useless.

Portrait of Jay Rosen lifted from the cited Economist piece

Fox Clears Everything Up Tonight

via National Review

Sean Hannity will host a special on global warming tonight at 9 p.m. EST on Fox News.

They clearly dedicated time and energy to this over the past several weeks, including lengthy interviews with me and a couple of colleagues.

DVR it to torture certain dinner and holiday guests.

Chris Horner

I am sure Fox will apologize for all the wild allegations of the last few months, right? Right?

Quote of the Week, Elaborated

Hi Michael – as I write below, I was indeed pleased and surprised to see my quote at the top of your blog. But it is sufficiently different from what I would say if I were to craft the sentence carefully, that I felt motivated to elaborate. I don’t want you to alter the quote itself because any alteration would be no more faithful to the original than your version. But if you feel like posting the letter, I try to clarify and justify the argument. Fairly concisely, or at least that was my goal.

Let me know what you think.


A word from the horse’s mouth…

I was surprised and pleased to see my words at the top of MT’s blog. It wasn’t a perfect quote of what I think I said, but I’d already forgotten the exact words when Michael asked me to repeat it mere seconds after.

What do I mean “to scare the people out of their wits”? Well, the “out of their wits” part is just melodrama. But the part about scaring people is completely serious.

I believe strongly that the threat of anthropogenic climate change is such that fear is the proper response. In a very real sense what we are doing may kill (many of) us. For those of us in the wealthy world, the risks may be smaller and come later. But deaths from extreme events, famines or other causes are growing steadily more likely with our GHG emissions, and while we may or may not be the victims, we are responsible even if we are not. And it is first and foremost those who understand best why that is so – the scientists who study the subject – who must convince the rest of us to fear the consequences of not acting.

This of course is a major simplification of the situation. I will not raise issues of the transmission of ideas and arguments between scientists, politicians, activists, the media and others. But the point is this: those of us who have seen the picture and have been scared by it – a reaction that is widespread in the scientific community – are morally obligated to do our best to get others to feel the urgency and severity of the problem. For there to be a possibility to act to prevent it, it is necessary both to believe that climate change is a huge risk, and to have an emotional reaction to that belief.

The last part of the quoted statement – that scientists are ill-trained and ill-suited for this task – I suspect is less controversial than the claim that it should be our task. The question then is, if you buy the premise that how to deal with the fact that scaring people is not part of our job description: what we should actually do? I will end here with only this thought: it can’t be done quickly, but it can’t be done quickly enough.

"Super-Extreme" Weather in Indonesia

Jakarta Globe, August 19 2010:

Jakarta. Indonesia has been experiencing its most extreme weather conditions in recorded history, meteorologists warned on Wednesday as torrential rains continued to pound the capital.

All regions across the archipelago have been experiencing abnormal and often catastrophic weather, an official from the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) said.

“We have reached a super-extreme level of weather this year, the first time in our history, and this is much worse than what we experienced back in 1998, when the La Nina caused extreme weather in the country,” Edvin Aldrian warned.

Edvin, who leads the climate change and air quality division at the agency, told the Jakarta Globe that a combination of a heating planet and the La Nina climate cycle were behind the unseasonable downpours.

“The combination of global warming and the La Nina phenomenon makes everything exceed normalcy,” he said, adding that global warming causes higher temperature in sea waters, and La Nina boosts humidity and the likeliness of rains.

Sea temperatures, Edvin said, were also at a level considered normal for Indonesia’s rainy season, not for the dry season. “It is about 28 to 29 [degrees] Celsius now. Normally, for August it should have been around 24 to 26 degrees.” August 16, 2010:

A large-scale bleaching event due to high ocean temperatures appears to be underway off the coast of Sumatra, an Indonesian island, reports the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

An initial survey by the conservation group’s “Rapid Response Unit” of marine biologists found that 60 percent of corals were bleached. Follow up assessments “revealed one of the most rapid and severe coral mortality events ever recorded” with 80 percent of some species dying.

“It’s a disappointing development particularly in light of the fact that these same corals proved resilient to other disruptions to this ecosystem, including the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004,” WCS Indonesia Marine Program Director Dr. Stuart Campbell said in a statement.

Campbell, and other members of the research team, linked the event to a sharp rise in sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea. Temperatures reached 34 degrees Celsius (93°F)—4 degrees Celsius higher than long term averages for the area—in May 2010.

“If a similar degree of mortality is apparent at other sites in the Andaman Sea this will be the worst bleaching event ever recorded in the region,” according to Dr. Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. “The destruction of these upstream reefs means recovery is likely to take much longer than before”.

This appears to be, at least as yet, nothing on the scale of what has happened elsewhere in terms of human impact, but is another substantial climatological anomaly. There appear to be some crop losses in Indonesia as well.

Of course, coral mortality leads to reduced fish catches, too.

Is Anthropogenic Forcing Quasi-Linear?

In following up on the World Climate Report (Pat Michaels’ sute) article comparing 1936 to 2010

July 1936 T anomaly

July 2010 T anomaly

a couple of folks have hastened to provide anomaly maps of 1936 and 2010 on the same scale. Sure enough, they are not exactly identical. (Click for better images) Surely the author of the article ought to have done as much. In fact, it isn;t difficult to produce comparable anomaly maps here as contributor NewYork points out.

I’m not sure how compelling this all is either way.

What I find even less compelling is the argument on the WCR site from telconnection indices. That just restates the problem; it doesn’t resolve it. And then there is this:

The WCR article concludes:

There are several things of note:

1) The July 2010 combined value is the highest since 1950—nearly 50% greater than the second highest value which occurred in 1952.

2) The combined index has been mostly positive since 1981, and mostly negative from 1955 through 1980. This behavior imparts an overall positive trend since 1950.

3) The 2010 value is about 3 times greater than the value expected based on the trend alone.

Is anthropogenic global warming behind any of this behavior?

It is hard to know for sure, but one thing that is certain is that if global warming does have a hand in the game (perhaps through the trend term), what it’s holding is pretty weak.

(emphasis added).

The argument seems to be that since this year is so far off the trend line, that the anomaly cannot possibly be caused by the same “thing” that caused the trend. One would expect a sounder argument from a professional, but I am seeing versions of this all over the place. The system is nonlinear. There are thresholds, and regime shifts. “Tipping points” if you will. The current year is so anomalous in so many ways that it demands explanation. The fact that it is off the trend line is no secret. The idea that its strangeness cannot possibly be because of anthropogenic forcing since the trend itself has been modest simply doesn’t hold water.

Examples in mundane life? How about blowing up a balloon? The more pressure you put into the balloon, the larger it gets. Up to a point. Then the balance of forces shifts, and it finds a new equilibrium, in shreds all over the room.

This reminds me of the argument that n-g made about the fraction of the Nashville flood (the earlier one, remember?) attributable to anthropogenic change. I simply don’t think these linear arguments stand. There are reasons to anticipate new configurations of the atmosphere during the rapid shifts we have now initiated. It’s not reasonable to assume that it’s just business as usual plus a gentle additive trend in all variables. It may turn out that way (one can hope) but you can’t assume it. And on the evidence of this year, that mild scenario is not the one that is going to play out.

To be fair, the WCR article didn’t really commit to this argument, but it seemed to me to wave in that general direction. A lot of the people who think we are not in very deep trouble seem to have a small-perturbation view of anthropogenic climate change. But it’s only a small perturbation until it ain’t, and nobody really knows when nonlinear adjustments cut in. The simulation models seem unexcitable on this front, but how much do we trust the simulations outside the realm of observational experience?

Fair is Fair

I’m not a great fan of Pat Michaels. But whether you like a person or not doesn’t affect whether they are right or wrong.

In the context of whether recent events in eastern Europe and western Asia have a precedent, Michaels comes up with this.

Surface temperature anomalies (°C) for July, 1936 (figure from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies).

It certainly looks like the same pattern we saw this year over the eastern hemisphere, perhaps slightly less intense, but not much so. North America is different, but ENSO is neutral to cool and the Atlantic is hot, similar to this summer. This calms me down a bit, since I don’t actually want an unprecedented climate disaster.

Further, let’s admit this gives ammunition to RP Jr., who says disasters are MORE about human habitation and management practices than about weather extremes. In fact that is true, and Roger’s tendency to overemphasize it at the expense of other factors shouldn’t cause us to forget it.
While this may take a bit of the edge off of recent arguments, neither of these items should encourage us to let down our guard too much. First of all, the Pakistan human disaster is BECAUSE of water management, not despite it: the population has greatly increased because the Indus river has been channelled and diverted all across the otherwise barren land. So now there is a much enhanced population in a much expanded flood plain. (I think Russian mismanagement of their environment both pre and post communist is well-known and demonstrated here.)
Secondly, even if the pattern is not entirely unprecedented, it is not a good pattern. So while the attribution to climate change may be weakened (and again, let’s not jump the gun in either direction here, let’s let the weather guys think about it for a while) it still isn’t good news that we are seeing wild oscillations, and we still have reasons to suspect these are becoming more frequent.

Finally, we still have an open question. How will we know when we’ve “rolled a 13“?

Seeking Inexpert Review

I realize that the Red and Blue dialogs here and here are not my usual fare. I have often said that this blog isn’t intended for a general audience, though of late I’ve been trying to shift toward a broader appeal.

The dialogs are a proposed format for an extended series of outreach pieces for a very broad audience.

I’d like feedback, not so much from regular readers, as from their associates who might not be especially interested in science or who might be young novices.

So if you would be so kind as to pass these pieces on to such people of your acquaintance and ask them to contribute an opinion, I’d greatly appreciate it.

I seek feedback on whether this informal dialog format is seen as accessible, and effective in at least identifying and describing the issues. (I don’t expect it to be entirely convincing as yet; that will take some more work.) In particular, I would like to know whether some people outside the climate tribes find it interesting enough to want more.

The Red and Blue Show, Episode 2

Yo, Blue!

Hey Red, How are things?

Not too bad, but didn’t we leave off in the middle of something important a few days ago?

I guess so, ready to move it on forward a bit?


So, like, remind we where we left off, cause there was quite a lot of it!

Sure. Do you remember where we started?

You asserted the existence of the greenhouse effect and increasing CO2…

I asserted with confidence that the greenhouse effect is real and commonplace, and that CO2 is increasing demonstrably.

Would you say “the science is settled”?

I would say that the question of whether there is a greenhouse effect, and how it works in enormous and precise detail, is worked out about as well as anything in physics.

I would say that the observation of anthropogenic carbon dioxide not just increasing in the air but ACCUMULATING in the air is observed about as well as any observationally based conclusion in earth sciences.

Seriously, Blue, would you say the Science is … … Settled???

I try to avoid those exact words (“The S is S”) because of an old denialist trick that they will be happy to wheel out on any occasion. But if you’re serious, sure, those two questions are two settled questions. OK?

Whooaa… Chill… dude…
So then I asked if it was enough CO2 to make a difference, as if I didn’t know the answer to that one.

Yeah, but it was the right question to ask at that moment, so thanks. Then what?

I asked about global warming and the conversation suddenly got all complicated and you were all worked up about something.

Worked up! You have no idea!

OK, We’ll review, cause this is the part where we start diverging from the conventional wisdom a bit.

First of all, the sensitivity is likely between 2.5 C and 3 C per CO2 doubling or equivalent. Nature might add to the carbon we release, but (knock wood) probably not immediately that much. Our distant descendants, should we manage to have any, may have to deal with it on a big scale in thousands of years.

Um, didn’t you used to say that about ice sheets?

Err, yes, we used to, and we don’t anymore. Heh. Anyway, let’s leave the methane business aside for now, we are trying to get at the core of the argument.

So 2.5 C to 3.0 C?

Probably between 2.5 C and 3 C per CO2 doubling or equivalent (or really 0.6 to 0.7 C perW/m^2 at the TOA).

err, I’ll take the first one, thanks

and almost surely between, say 1.5 and 5C .

Hang on! Hang on! I saw you said 2.5 on Kloor’s. Isn’t that false precision?

It’s spelled “2.5”, its pronounced “roun’ two ‘n’hafferso”, and it means “between 2.5 C and 3 C” . Did you want me to say “2.75”? That would be even worse false precision and sound even more arrogant!

Why not just “about three”, so you don’t sound stuck up like that?

Because then them sumbutches’d get on muh case for exaggeratin’!!!

Say, how come you sound all Texan when you get excited?

Wah thuhail not?

So now you’re going to talk about the weird events in Asia?

We’ll talk about it after the commercial break


What was that all about?

Man’s got t’earn a livin’

OK, so you have this sensitivity number pinned down, and so you know more or less how much co2 or equivalent would cause so much heating? But how much is too much?

“Warming” is better than “heating” here… It’s an important distinction.

That said, that’s the part that is what you might call “unsettled”. There’s been an international consensus on the political side that we ought to avoid so much climate change that it is “dangerous”, which brings us to what people are starting to call “climate disruption”. But at this point it gets out of physical science and a whole lot of other stuff kicks in.

Like what, for instance?
There’s ecology and wildlife management. There’s agriculture. There’s water supplies. There’s public health. There’s flood control. There’s tourism. There’s shipping. Lots of really big systems developed in a stable climate and need to ask themselves what will happen to them. And all the other systems will change too. And all of this will feed back through the economy and back into energy demand.

Many major systems natural and artificial are adapted to a stable climate
All that from a couple of degrees?
Well, a lot of people ask that question. Some folks just argue, look how as soon as we got air conditioning, how so many people moved out of the northern areas and into the southern areas in the US. The guy who first said people might warm up the planet, Arrhenius, was a Swede, and apparently he thought this would be a beneficial side effect of progress. Lots of people think that’s right.

But consider that only 5C separates the present world from the ice age. As I explained last time, for the past several thousand years the temperature has apparently been extremely steady.

A lot of other changes come along with the smallish-sounding temperature change

Remember that I’m trying to say it isn’t the warming that causes the change. The warming is just part of the change. You might even say the climate disruption causes the warming.

Wait, what was that about several thousand years? The famous “hockey stick” only goes back a few hundred years, maybe a thousand, right?
Yeah, but there’s plenty of evidence it has been cooling gradually for about eight thousand years from the interglacial peak.
You mean it was hotter eight thousand years ago?

Yup, pretty much everybody agrees to that.

So why all the excitement to prove that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than today, when climate science already admits there is a precdeent to being warmer than today in the geologically recent past?

That is a fine question, and one which I for one have no answer!

But if it’s recently been warmer than this, why worry at all? I mean, who is to say today’s temperature is better than some other temperature?
A reasonable question, one of the better ones in the skeptics’ quiver, yet one with many answers.

First of all, there’s the temperature, but there is also the rate at which it changes. It’s really the rate of change where we are getting into territory that nature doesn’t normally see. Second, as I said last time, the temperature isn’t really the problem; it’s just a measure of the problem.

When climate changes slowly, both artificial and natural systems adapt without really even making a big deal of it. Skating on the canals comes in and out of fashion in Holland over the centuries, vineyards start up or fail here and there, but these are tiny, slow, incremental changes. Whereas no, we are talking about rapid climate change, getting faster and faster with each decade.

So to some extent, it is the rate of change that matters. But then there is the total change, which matters a lot for sea level rise, and some other things like mountain runoff and so on. 8000 years ago, we didn’t have megacities near the shorelines. Nor did we have cities in places like Phoenix or Las Vegas.
Well, there weren’t any cities by modern standards, were there?
No, not really. Two hundred years ago there were no cities of a million people. Now we have dozens of swaths of city that have ten million or more. So in terms of how we organize ourselves, everything has changed very recently. Modern civilization has never seen a period of moderate natural climate change, never mind super-accelerated change.

The anticipated rates of change are far outside human experience and are almost unheard of in the entire geological record.
ALMOST unheard of?

There were a couple of weird events that seem connected to abrupt climate change, the most recent being about 55 million years ago. Here, look:

The event saw global temperatures rise by around 6°C (11°F) over 20,000 years, with a corresponding rise in sea level as the whole of the oceans warmed.[2] Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations rose, causing a shallowing of the lysocline. Regional deep water anoxia may have played a part in marine extinctions.

This was about the time of the first mammals. A very long time ago. Nothing like that since then, and here we are looking to do that in a century or two, not 20,000 years.

Changes in GMST of a few degrees in the geologic record are associated with major rearrangements of nature
OK, so this brings us back to the big question. How much warming is dangerous?
Or, really, how much warming will correspond to a dangerous level of climate disruption?

Yep, that’s the real question alright. We know how to connect CO2 to warming, give or take a factor of two. We know that 5 C or 6 C on a global scale is huge. But we don’t know where the danger point is.

Wait, wasn’t everybody saying 2 C is the “limit posed by science”, just last fall before the Copenhagen blowout?

A lot of people were saying that, and some of them were scientists. I’m not sure they should have, though, because we don’t really know where that danger point is.

So it could be 3 C or 4 C, giving us way more time?

Yes, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a man I admire greatly, was one of those talking about the 2 C limit, and he admitted as much in a recent article.

SCHELLNHUBER:From today’s scientific perspective, we could possibly live with a warming of two to three degrees. … The overwhelming majority of climatologists assume that a global temperature rise of four degrees would be an immensely dangerous route that we should avoid at all costs.

DER SPIEGEL: Why then have you, as one of the creators of the two-degree target, imposed such a magical limit to which all countries must slavishly adhere?

SCHELLNHUBER: Politicians like to have clear targets, and a simple number is easier to handle than a complex temperature range. Besides, it was important to introduce a quantitative orientation in the first place, which the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change managed to elegantly wangle its way out of. And let’s be honest: Even if we aim for the two-degree target, we’ll end up somewhat higher. Whenever there’s a speed limit, most drivers tend to go a little faster.

Hans von Storch objects vehemently: “I would say, this is pretty shocking, and clearly non-Mertonian: Scientific assertions taylored according to political utility.”

And here we see the rock and the hard place yet again, the dilemma between clarity and effectiveness that the late and lamented Stephen Schneider was the first to discuss publicly. In this case, trhough, von Storch has a strong case. I felt all through the run-up to Copenhagen that this claim needed some sort of caveat.

The truth is, 2 C is the lowest we could possibly have gotten, and 2 C is already possibly dangerous.

The reason, again, is not that 2 C of warming is an issue. It is that 2 C of warming will be accompanied by many other changes. 2 C is a measure of the problem, but is not actually the problem.

We don’t actually know the threshold of dangerous human interference in climate.

Aha, so you guys really are alarmist chicken littles, right? We have decades to get our act together!
Again, again, and yet again. We have to say it until it bores us to tears, and then maybe the message will get through. Uncertainty cuts both ways.

Uncertainty cuts both ways. It’s possible that the threshold of dangerous climate change is lower than 2 C. Suppose it were around 0.7 C for instance?
But… Isn’t that about where we are now?


That’s ridiculous. That’s a third of what they were saying at Copenhagen. And even that was sort of made up just to get people moving! what possible evidence could you have for 0.7 C being dangerous?

Well, there’s this for instance…

Er, yeh. Yikes…

That’s a satellite view of eastern Russia about a thousand miles square. You can see the location of Moscow noted in the lower left, but you can’t see any sign of the huge city because it’s obscured. The white puffy bits are ordinary clouds, but the smoky bits are, well…


The recent events in eastern Europe and South Asia may well change the balance of evidence to make matters even more urgent than they appeared last year.

So is it too late?
It’s never too late to make things better, but things may already be worse than we thought.

Here, have a nice cup of coffee…

Wild Image and Tame Text from NASA

Here’s the July temperature anomaly according to GISS:

NASA’s gloss on the Earth Obervatory site is measured:

The extreme weather events in Russia and Pakistan have fueled speculation about the role of climate. The GISS release stated, “The location of extreme events in any particular month depends on specific weather patterns, which are unpredictable except on short time scales. The weather patterns next summer will be different than this year. It could be a cooler than average summer in Moscow in 2011.” The GISS release went on to explain, however, that global warming does affect the probability and intensity of extreme events. Climate can drive precipitation because temperature affects the amount of water vapor that air can carry. Likewise, in areas experiencing drought, global warming can increase temperature extremes that exacerbate wildfires.

Nothing about the peculiarity of the peculiar pattern, though. And that’s the question.