NY Times drew false equivalence between Will and Gore

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In drawing a false equivalence between a February 15 column by George Will and Al Gore's statement that global warming "is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented," New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin wrote that "[b]oth men, experts said afterward, were guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements." But while the major theme of Will's column -- that human-caused global warming is not occurring -- has been completely rejected by what Revkin describes as "a strong consensus among scientists," Revkin did not note that the IPCC has stated that humans "[m]ore likely than not" have contributed to an increasing likelihood that many of the types of events Gore cited will occur.

In drawing a false equivalence between a distortion-riddled column written by George Will and former Vice President Al Gore's statement that global warming "is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented," New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin wrote in a February 25 article that "[b]oth men, experts said afterward, were guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements." But while the major theme of Will's February 15 Washington Post column -- that human-caused global warming is not occurring -- has been completely rejected by what Revkin himself describes as "a strong consensus among scientists," Revkin did not note that the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that humans "[m]ore likely than not" have contributed to an increasing likelihood that many of the types of events Gore cited will occur.

Indeed, as the blog Climate Progress noted, Revkin himself contributed to a February 9 Times article reporting that "[c]limate scientists say that no single rare event like the deadly heat wave or fires [in Australia] can be attributed to global warming, but the chances of experiencing such conditions are rising along with the temperature":

The firestorms and heat in the south revived discussions in Australia of whether human-caused global warming was contributing to the continent's climate woes of late -- including recent prolonged drought in some places and severe flooding last week in Queensland, in the northeast.

Climate scientists say that no single rare event like the deadly heat wave or fires can be attributed to global warming, but the chances of experiencing such conditions are rising along with the temperature. In 2007, Australia's national science agency published a 147-page report on projected climate changes, concluding, among other things, that "high-fire-danger weather is likely to increase in the southeast."

The flooding in the northeast and the combustible conditions in the south were consistent with what is forecast as a result of recent shifts in climate patterns linked to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research.

In his February 25 article, Revkin wrote:

Mr. Gore, addressing a hall filled with scientists in Chicago, showed a slide that illustrated a sharp spike in fires, floods and other calamities around the world and warned the audience that global warming "is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented."

Mr. Will, in a column attacking what he said were exaggerated claims about global warming's risks, chided climate scientists for predicting an ice age three decades ago and asserted that a pause in warming in recent years and the recent expansion of polar sea ice undermined visions of calamity ahead.

Both men, experts said afterward, were guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements.

Mr. Gore removed the slide from his presentation after the Belgian research group that assembled the disaster data said he had misrepresented what was driving the upward trend. The group said a host of factors contributed to the trend, with climate change possibly being one of them. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gore said he planned to switch to using data on disasters compiled by insurance companies.

Mr. Will, peppered with complaints from scientists and environmental groups who claimed the column was riddled with errors, has yet to respond. The Post's ombudsman said Mr. Will's column had been carefully fact-checked. But the scientists whose research on ice formed the basis for Mr. Will's statements said their data showed the area of the ice shrinking, not expanding.

Similarly, Revkin claimed in the article that President Obama has engaged in global warming "hype" by referring to natural disasters:

President Obama has not been immune from the lure of hype. As president-elect, Mr. Obama, making a video appearance at a California climate conference, began by saying that the science pointing to human-caused warming was beyond dispute -- a statement backed by a strong consensus among scientists. But he went on to push the point, taking the same step as Mr. Gore onto shakier ground.

"We've seen record drought, spreading famine and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season," Mr. Obama said, linking this to global warming.

While climate scientists foresee more intense droughts and storms, there is still uncertainty, and significant disagreement, over whether recent patterns can be attributed to global warming.

As Revkin noted, the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters -- which compiled the data set Gore cited during the slideshow -- said that "climate change could affect the severity, frequency and spatial distribution" of natural disasters but that they "are unable to say" whether warming is in fact responsible for a recent increase in such disasters. Revkin did not note, however, that the IPCC stated in its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report that it is "[m]ore likely than not" (defined in the report as a greater than 50 percent chance) that humans have contributed to an increasing likelihood that the types of events Gore cited will occur. According to the IPCC, it is "[m]ore likely than not" that human activity has contributed to increases in the frequency of "[w]arm spells/heat waves" and "[h]eavy precipitation events" as well as an increase in "[a]rea affected by droughts." In addition, the IPCC states that it is "[m]ore likely than not" that human activity has contributed to "[i]ntense tropical cyclone increases." The IPCC stated of most of those assessments: "Magnitude of anthropogenic contributions not assessed. Attribution for these phenomena based on expert judgement rather than formal attribution studies."

In a "Summary for Policymakers," the IPCC includes the following table:

Further, in drawing the false equivalence between Gore and Will, Revkin quoted risk communications consultant David Ropeik saying that they are "merely two leaders of their tribes waving the tribal flag." Revkin identified Ropeik only as "a consultant on risk communication who teaches at Harvard University." As Brad Johnson noted in a Wonk Room blog post on ThinkProgress.org, Ropeik runs a "risk communication" firm whose clients have included energy companies.*

*UPDATE: In addition to energy companies, Ropeik's website lists the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other businesses, organizations, and government entities as clients he has worked with.

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