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For what I still consider to be the paper of record, covering climate change seems to be becoming something of an Achilles' heel for the New York Times. Look no further than Is it Hot in Here? Must be Global Warming to see why. The article's hook is essentially this: Over the course of the winter, climate change skeptics used an extra-snowy weather to argue that global warming wasn't happening -- but now that we're seeing heatwaves, climate action advocates are doing the same thing to argue it is! Problem is, this assertion is both untrue and based on a faulty premise -- and it only takes a couple sentences to prove it. It also highlights many of the issues plaguing climate coverage in the media as of late.First, the gist of the article is summed up in the opening sentences:
In any debate over climate change, conventional wisdom holds that there is no reflex more absurd than invoking the local weather. And yet this year's wild weather fluctuations seem to have motivated people on both sides of the issue to stick a finger in the air and declare the matter resolved -- in their favor.This is very misleading. And this is why:
1. I don't know of anybody who is arguing that these heatwaves, or extra-hot "local weather" events are proof enough in themselves that global warming is occurring. The author's assertion is only true of the climate skeptics, who pointed to snowstorms as proof that global warming was a hoax. What climate realists have pointed to, however, is the fact that scientific institutions like NCAR, NOAA, and NASA have noted that many months of this year so far have seen the hottest global average temperatures ever recorded. And that those temps are consistent with predictions from climate models -- which seems to me to count as evidence that the planet is warming.
2. Climate scientists expect precipitation -- like snow -- to increase as climate change progresses; it is included in their models. More intense snow storms, like those that occurred last winter, are actually evidence that climate change is occurring, not vice versa.
3. Finally, average global temperatures -- a good way of looking at climate trends -- were found to be at record highs from the January-June period in 2010. This has been the hottest year on record so far, and is expected to be the hottest ever recorded.
Which seems to be reason enough to discuss whether or not man-caused climate change is playing a role. And that brings us back to the folly of this article. As so often happens in media, a journalist will stumble upon a seemingly cute hook -- Both climate deniers and climate advocates are guilty of using weather as anecdotal evidence to prove their cases! -- and then try to selectively fit the actual facts into that mold. I can admit to being guilty of attempting the same, I'm sure most writers can.
But that doesn't mean it's not a potentially dangerous practice. This New York Times piece, for example, gives the sense that climate scientists and skeptical conservative politicians are on the same plank -- their arguments are promoted as equally valid. For the reasons detailed above, that's simply not true. There is a huge difference between anti-global warming politicians and media outlets seizing on some heavy local snowfall to loudly attack a global trend and scientists observing record-breaking heat waves in a year seeing record-breaking global temperatures, and talking about climate change.
As is even noted -- though buried -- in the article itself, the facts clearly support one side. Which is what's so irksome about the piece; right now, there's much confusion in the public about climate change. And an article like this one, cute though it may be, only propagates that confusion instead of setting the record straight. It seems too often that, especially when it comes to the climate beat, writers are more concerned with mapping out a narrative arc than hewing to the facts. And the national conversation about climate change is so much the worse for it.
For more climate media criticism, and another detailed takedown of the Times piece, see Climate Progress.
UPDATE: In the piece discussed, the Times uses a quote from a post by Wonk Room's Brad Johnson -- and uses it far out of context. Johnson published a good rebuttal to the Times here.