NY Times article misrepresented Gore statements on sea level, hurricanes; mis-ID'ed global warming skeptic as "rank-and-file scientist"

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN & ROB DIETZ

In its article on global warming, The New York Times used a false comparison to suggest that Al Gore was incorrect about the rise in sea levels and baselessly suggested that Gore made a false claim about hurricanes. The Times also misidentified Don Easterbrook, calling him a "rank-and-file" scientist, when, in fact, he has expressed skeptical views about global warming that put him at odds with the scientific consensus on the issue.

In a March 13 article, "From a Rapt Audience, a Call to Cool the Hype," New York Times science writer William J. Broad claimed that former Vice President Al Gore's portrayal of the threat of global warming in his award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Classics, May 2006), has received criticism "not only from conservative groups and prominent skeptics of catastrophic warming, but also from rank-and-file scientists." The article began by naming Don J. Easterbrook, "an emeritus professor of geology at Western Washington University," as one of Gore's critics, whom Broad described as a "rank-and-file scientist ... who told his peers that he had no political ax to grind." In fact, Easterbrook has expressed skeptical views about global warming that put him at odds with the scientific consensus on the issue. In addition, Broad failed to note the connection between two scientists quoted in his article and the oil and gas industry, and he used a false comparison to suggest Gore was incorrect about the rise in sea levels and falsely suggested that Gore endorsed the view that global warming affects hurricane frequency.

Also, Media Matters for America has documented that scientists identified as skeptics in Broad's article -- Richard Lindzen, Bjørn Lomborg, Roy Spencer, and Benny J. Peiser -- all have made statements questioning global warming that have either been debunked or discredited by the scientific community, which Broad did not report. The night before the story appeared in print, it was trumpeted by conservative Internet gossip Matt Drudge on March 12 with the headline: "NY TIMES PLANS HIT ON GORE, NEWSROOM SOURCES TELL DRUDGE," although Drudge did not link to the story until it was posted on the Times' website.

Don J. Easterbrook

From the Times' March 13 article, which featured several quotes from Easterbrook and suggested that he is a "middle ground" scientist and not a "skeptic[] of catastrophic warming":

"I don't want to pick on Al Gore," Don J. Easterbrook, an emeritus professor of geology at Western Washington University, told hundreds of experts at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. "But there are a lot of inaccuracies in the statements we are seeing, and we have to temper that with real data."

[...]

Criticisms of Mr. Gore have come not only from conservative groups and prominent skeptics of catastrophic warming, but also from rank-and-file scientists like Dr. Easterbook [sic], who told his peers that he had no political ax to grind. A few see natural variation as more central to global warming than heat-trapping gases. Many appear to occupy a middle ground in the climate debate, seeing human activity as a serious threat but challenging what they call the extremism of both skeptics and zealots.

But as Grist Magazine's weblog, Gristmill, noted, an October 12, 2006, press release, announcing a talk Easterbrook gave to the Geological Society of America claimed that "Easterbrook predicts that temperatures should cool between 2065 until 2100, and that global temperatures at the end of the century should be less than 1 degree cooler than at present." The release further noted that "Easterbrook challenges the theory that the global warming of the past century was caused by human input of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere." This view puts Easterbrook at odds with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which released a report in February that found that "[c]ontinued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming," and that the "best estimate" for the "low scenario" of temperature change in the next century is a "likely range" of an increase between "1.1°C to 2.9°C."

Robert M. Carter

Broad also cited Robert M. Carter as asserting that "[n]owhere does Mr. Gore tell his audience that all of the phenomena that he describes fall within the natural range of environmental change on our planet. ... Nor does he present any evidence that climate during the 20th century departed discernibly from its historical pattern of constant change." Broad identified Carter simply as "a marine geologist at James Cook University in Australia," but he failed to note that Carter is a global warming skeptic with ties to the oil and gas, coal, and timber industries.

Carter identifies himself as a "founding member" of conservative Australian think tank Australian Environment Foundation (AEF). A June 13, 2005, article in the Australian Canberra Times reported that, upon its launch, the "Australian Environment Foundation's registered office and principal place of business is listed as right-wing lobby group, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA)," which according to an August 9, 2003, Inter Press Service report, is funded by "mostly mining, oil, tobacco and energy companies." The IPA's funders reportedly include "Western Mining Corporation, Esso Australia (a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil), the top fifteen electricity companies - BHP, Shell, Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, Clough Engineering (and) Telstra (telecommunications company)."

Paul Reiter

Paul Reiter, director of the Insects and Infectious Diseases Unit at the Institute Pasteur, was identified as a "[b]iologist[]" and "an active skeptic of global warming's effects." The article did not report that Reiter also has extensive connections to the oil and gas industry. For instance, he is listed as a member of the "Science and Economic Advisory Council" to the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy. ExxonSecrets.org calculated that the Annapolis Center has received nearly $700,000 from Exxon Mobil since 1998, based on ExxonSecrets.org analysis, the site reports, of Exxon Mobil Corp.'s corporate documents and tax filings. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a conservative think tank, also lists Reiter as one of the organization's "CEI Experts." As Media Matters has noted, CEI is a conservative institution largely funded by the energy industry and has received substantial funding from the fossil fuel industry, including more than $2 million from the Exxon Mobil Corp. since 1998. According to the weblog Think Progress, Exxon no longer provides funding to CEI. On March 19, 2006, The Washington Post further reported: "The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which widely publicizes its belief that the earth is not warming cataclysmically because of the burning of coal and oil, says Exxon Mobil Corp. is a 'major donor' largely as a result of its effort to push that position."

Reiter has also been published in Tech Central Station daily, which from 2000 to October 2006, was run by the Republican lobbying firm DCI, and according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), DCI is also a "registered ExxonMobil lobbying firm." UCS further reported that "Tech Central Station contributors on the global warming issue are the familiar spokespeople from ExxonMobil-funded organizations, including Sallie Baliunas, Robert Balling, David Legates, Patrick Michaels, Willie Soon, George Taylor, and others," and additionally has received at least $93,000 in funding from Exxon. According to an October 27, 2006, ABC News report, in a joint letter, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) called upon Exxon to cease funding organizations "whose public advocacy has contributed to the small but unfortunately effective climate change denial myth." In their letter, according to ABC News, "[t]he senators singled out the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, and the Tech Central Station Web site as beneficiaries of Exxon's efforts to sow doubt within the public about the scientific consensus behind global warming." (For full report, please refer to the January 3 UCS press release and click on "Full Report" PDF link.)

More misinformation

In addition to not noting some scientists with skeptical views about global warming, Broad used a false comparison about sea levels to suggest that Gore's claims in his book, An Inconvenient Truth (Rodale Books, May 2006), and in his documentary, are inconsistent with the scientific community. Broad also falsely suggested that Gore was endorsing the view of some researchers that global warming increases the frequency of hurricanes.

Sea levels

The Times article set up a false comparison by stating that the IPCC report, which "estimated that the world's seas in this century would rise a maximum of 23 inches," was in contrast to Gore's claim, "citing no particular time frame" that seas would rise "up to 20 feet." But the article was comparing apples and oranges. In the book, Gore wrote that if the West Antarctic ice shelf "melted or slipped off its island mooring into the sea, it would raise sea levels worldwide by 20 feet." He added that "the West Antarctic ice shelf is virtually identical in size and mass to the Greenland ice dome, which also would raise sea levels worldwide by 20 feet if it melted or broke up and slipped into the sea" (Page 190):

The East Antarctic ice shelf is the largest ice mass on the planet and had been thought to be still increasing in size. However, two new studies in 2006 showed first that the overall volumes of ice in East Antarctica now appear to be declining, and that 85 percent of the glaciers there appear to be accelerating their flow toward the sea. Second, it showed that air temperatures measured high above this mass of ice appear to have warmed more rapidly than air temperatures anywhere else in the world. This finding was actually a surprise, and scientists have not yet been able to explain why it is occurring.

East Antarctica is still considered far more stable over long periods of time than the West Antarctic ice shelf, which is propped up against the tops of islands. This peculiar geology is important for two reasons: first, its weight is resting on land and therefore its mass has not displaced seawater as floating ice would. So if it melted or slipped off its island mooring into the sea, it would raise sea levels worldwide by 20 feet. Second, the ocean flows underneath large sections of this ice shelf, and as the ocean has warmed, scientists have documented significant and alarming structural changes on the underside of the ice shelf.

Interestingly, the West Antarctic ice shelf is virtually identical in size and mass to the Greenland ice dome, which also would raise sea levels worldwide by 20 feet if it melted or broke up and slipped into the sea.

Gore made the same claim in the film:

GORE: If [the West Antarctic ice shelf] were to go, sea level worldwide would go up 20 feet. They've measured disturbing changes on the underside of the ice sheet. It's considered relatively more stable, however, than another big body of ice that's roughly the same size -- Greenland would also raise sea level almost 20 feet if it went.

The IPCC, however, addressed rising sea levels as they are affected by "[c]ontinued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates." A chart projecting the rise of sea levels in six different scenarios showed that the "the best estimate for the high scenario," which defined the "likely range" of temperature increases over the next century to be from "2.4°C to 6.4°C," resulting in an increase in sea levels between 0.26 m and 0.59 m, which converts to a range of 10.24 to 23.23 inches. The IPCC further claimed that "[c]ontraction of the Greenland ice sheet is projected to continue to contribute to sea level rise after 2100" and that "[i]f a negative surface mass balance were sustained for millennia, that would lead to virtually complete elimination of the Greenland ice sheet and a resulting contribution to sea level rise of about 7 m," which is equivalent to approximately 23 feet. The apple-to-oranges comparison Broad made on sea levels was also noted by Bob Somerby on his weblog, The Daily Howler.

Hurricanes

The Times article claimed that Gore "cites research suggesting that global warming will cause both storm frequency and deadliness to rise," then reported that, in fact, "this past Atlantic season produced fewer hurricanes than forecasters predicted (five versus nine), and none that hit the United States," a fact the article suggests contradicts Gore's claim. From the article:

He pointed to hurricanes, an icon for Mr. Gore, who highlights the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and cites research suggesting that global warming will cause both storm frequency and deadliness to rise. Yet this past Atlantic season produced fewer hurricanes than forecasters predicted (five versus nine), and none that hit the United States.

But while Gore attributed the claim "that global warming is even leading to an increased frequency of hurricanes" to "some" scientists in his book, he also acknowledged "[t]here is less agreement among scientists about the relationship between the total number of hurricanes each year and global warming." From the book (Page 81):

A growing number of new scientific studies are confirming that warmer water in the top layer of the ocean can drive more convection energy to fuel more powerful hurricanes.

There is less agreement among scientists about the relationship between the total number of hurricanes each year and global warming -- because a multi-decade natural pattern has a powerful influence on hurricane frequency. But there is now a strong, new emerging consensus that global warming is indeed linked to a significant increase in both the duration and intensity of hurricanes.

Brand-new evidence is causing some scientists to assert that global warming is even leading to an increased frequency of hurricanes, overwhelming the variability in frequency long understood to be part of natural deep-current cycles.

In the update to the film Gore said: "There is no scientific consensus linking the absolute number of hurricanes to global warming." From the update:

GORE: In the year that has passed by since the end of filming An Inconvenient Truth, there have been several brand-new scientific studies that have further firmed up the emerging consensus that links stronger hurricanes with higher ocean temperatures, particularly higher temperatures in the top layer, the top 200 feet, where the heat energy drives strength into these ocean-based storms. There is no scientific consensus linking the absolute number of hurricanes to global warming. There's some indication that on a worldwide basis, the number stays fairly steady. But when hurricanes do form out of these delicate and mysterious atmospheric conditions in the oceans, then global warming makes them stronger. And, when they get stronger with more moisture, they become more destructive.

Further, the recent IPCC report appeared to agree with Gore's assessment, concluding that "[b]ased on a range of models, it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical SSTs [sea surface temperatures]." [Emphasis in original.]

From the IPCC report:

Based on a range of models, it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical SSTs. There is less confidence in projections of a global decrease in numbers of tropical cyclones. The apparent increase in the proportion of very intense storms since 1970 in some regions is much larger than simulated by current models for that period.

From the March 13 New York Times article:

Still, Dr. Hansen said, the former vice president's work may hold "imperfections" and "technical flaws." He pointed to hurricanes, an icon for Mr. Gore, who highlights the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and cites research suggesting that global warming will cause both storm frequency and deadliness to rise. Yet this past Atlantic season produced fewer hurricanes than forecasters predicted (five versus nine), and none that hit the United States.

"We need to be more careful in describing the hurricane story than he is," Dr. Hansen said of Mr. Gore. "On the other hand," Dr. Hansen said, "he has the bottom line right: most storms, at least those driven by the latent heat of vaporization, will tend to be stronger, or have the potential to be stronger, in a warmer climate."

[...]

Some of Mr. Gore's centrist detractors point to a report last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body that studies global warming. The panel went further than ever before in saying that humans were the main cause of the globe's warming since 1950, part of Mr. Gore's message that few scientists dispute. But it also portrayed climate change as a slow-motion process.

It estimated that the world's seas in this century would rise a maximum of 23 inches -- down from earlier estimates. Mr. Gore, citing no particular time frame, envisions rises of up to 20 feet and depicts parts of New York, Florida and other heavily populated areas as sinking beneath the waves, implying, at least visually, that inundation is imminent.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Climate Change
Network/Outlet
The New York Times
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