Atoning for Climate-Gate

December 18th, 2009 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Before we take a two-week hiatus for the holidays, I’d like to commend the Albuquerque Journal for recently publishing articles that atone somewhat for its running – just before the Copenhagen summit – the alleged climate change exposé now known as “Climate-Gate”.

Last month, the Journal was among more than 325 American newspapers that ran (in the Journal’s case, in the “A” section) a wire story about hacked emails, which cast climate scientists in a political light and gave credence to those who say global warming is a “fiction.”

Considering its scope and resources, the Journal couldn’t be expected to independently assess and counter reports about the information allegedly found in thousands of emails hacked from a top climate research center in the United Kingdom and dumped on a Russian Web server.

But to its credit, it did run this month a body of reportage casting doubt on the impression left by the original story it had carried, variations of which ran worldwide. (Sorry, no link seems to be available of what the Journal ran last month.)

The progressive group Think Progress says conservatives hijacked the climate change issue with that story, and it posts a detailed account of the hacking saga in an article called “A Case of Classic SwiftBoating: How the Right-Wing Noise Machine Manufactured ‘Climategate’.” That article contends that:

Polluter-funded climate skeptics, along with their allies in conservative media and the Republican Party, sifted through the e-mails, and quickly cherry picked quotes to falsely accuse climate scientists of concocting climate change science out of whole cloth.

The site adds that the coverage given the contrived email story reveals a troubling and “increasing willingness for traditional media outlets, from the Evening News to the Washington Post, to largely reprint unfounded right-wing smears without context or critical reporting.” (Links are theirs.)

The Journal, however, after printing the original report has since provided some critical reporting and/or context (along with columns, both local and national, and letters to the editor championing both “sides”). Among the articles of substance: a Washington Post analysis that ran Dec. 8, a McClatchy Newspapers Q&A report the Journal ran on its Sunday Dimension cover Dec. 13, an Associated Press self-described “exhaustive review” of the emails that ran on A-11 that same Sunday and, most importantly, the UpFront column by John Fleck Dec. 15.

The Post analysis that ran on Page One Dec. 8 (one criticism: it was not labeled as analysis), summarized the email controversy by saying the original stories cast climate scientists in a political light and gave ammunition to those who think climate change is overblown. But it stated that the emails “don’t provide proof that human-caused climate change is a lie or a swindle.”

The informative McClatchy report that ran Dec. 13 included, among other things, an explanation of scientists’ use of the word “trick” in talking about research data, which the early reports had used pejoratively as evidence scientists were trying to manipulate data. The McClatchy summary says the “trick” alluded to in the email “meant using two sets of data together to show temperature trends,” which was publicly discussed in an article in Nature and not nefarious, as the original story had implied.

The AP account in the Journal was headlined “Climate Scientists Expressed Doubts, But E-mails Show No Signs Data Was Fudged,” the content of which can be read here.

Fleck expands on the email conversations in his column, noting that more than a thousand scientific emails are “now available for all to read on the Internet.”  He adds:

In a world where we must depend on the integrity of scientists to help guide societal decisions, some of the e-mails are troubling, showing some researchers trying to spin the data to win arguments with their political opponents. . . .

But he directs the conversation back to local data:

Here in the Southwest, the question of whether we can trust climate science – not the few scientists involved in the e-mails but the enterprise as a whole – matters a great deal because of what the science’s leading practitioners have been telling us in recent years.

Among those practitioners are authors of a Bureau of Reclamation report, released last month, which Fleck says shows the ‘00s to be the driest 10-year stretch in the Colorado River Basin since record-keeping began more than 100 years ago.

He also talks with University of New Mexico professor Dave Gutzler, whom he describes as “annoyingly cautious” when it comes to research on southwestern climate, which, as Fleck says, is “what you want in a scientist.”

Gutzler (whom Fleck says was not among the hacked e-mail correspondents) would tell you that the dwindling Colorado and melting arctic ice are not proof of climate change, Fleck says, adding:

The natural ups and downs of climate from year to year and decade to decade make it genuinely difficult to tease out long-term trends and determine their cause, (Gutzler) said in an interview.

But taken together, he says rising CO2 from the coal, oil and gasoline we burn to fuel our lives is the most likely explanation for the all those changes in climate we are now seeing, from the shrinking arctic sea ice to the drying Colorado.

“Observations of CO2 concentrations, solar variability, laboratory measurements of the greenhouse effect, measurements of heat storage in the oceans, observations of glacier retreat and polar icecaps, modeling studies of paleoclimate and the 20th century, etc. etc., all taken together, support the general consensus that climate is warming, and will continue to get warmer, as greenhouse gas concentrations increase,” Gutzler wrote.

“Nothing in the hacked e-mails, Gutzler said, has changed any of that,” Fleck wrote.

We can only hope these follow-ups helped change any public misconceptions created by the first stories to emerge from those hacked e-mail accounts.

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