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The Worst NYT Story on Climate Ever?


December 29, 2011

Regular readers will know that I think that the print media overall has done a pretty good job on covering the science of climate change, if not always getting the politics right. They will also know what I think about the “debate” over climate change and extreme events (above). But every once in a while I see a story that is so breathtakingly bad that it is worth commenting on. Today’s installment comes from Justin Gillis at the New York Times and was published on Christmas Eve. The article is so bad that it might just be the worst piece of reporting I’ve ever seen in the Times on climate change.

Where to begin? How about the start.

The NYT laments that the work of attributing the cause of extreme events in NOAA is “languishing”:

Scientists say they could, in theory, do a much better job of answering the question “Did global warming have anything to do with it?” after extreme weather events like the drought in Texas and the floods in New England.

But for many reasons, efforts to put out prompt reports on the causes of extreme weather are essentially languishing.

Set aside the unattributed “scientists say” — a favorite construction of Gillis and the Times. The article fails to explain that NOAA already has a robust effort in place focused on climate attribution and which has put out recent assessments about phenomena as varied as the 2011 US tornado season and the 2009/2010 mid-Atlantic coast snowstorms. No one from that effort was quoted in the article nor was any of their work (perhaps because it utterly contradicts the narrative of the story).

The article repeats the tired statistic that the number of billion dollar disasters have increased in recent decades:

A typical year in this country features three or four weather disasters whose costs exceed $1 billion each. But this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tallied a dozen such events, including wildfires in the Southwest, floods in multiple regions of the country and a deadly spring tornado season. And the agency has not finished counting. The final costs are certain to exceed $50 billion.

The article does not explain that $1 billion in 2011 is about the same as $400 million in 1980 (XLS). Nor does it explain that a $50 billion total in losses for 2011 is about exactly the same as the total in 1980, after adjusting for inflation — however, as a proportion of the overall economy those 1980 losses were 250% larger than those experienced in 2011. That is, the equivalent 1980 losses in 2011 would be $125 billion (XLS). The article completely ignores relevant peer-reviewed research on the subject (see here also).

The article fails to cite the recent IPCC report which covered this exact subject, concluding (PDF):

Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded.

The IPCC SREX report has a lot of other things to say about extremes, which also contradict the narrative of the story. Also neglected is the US government’s own review of extreme events in the US, which found no long-term trends.

The article is extremely sloppy when discussing tornadoes:

Tornadoes, the deadliest weather disaster to hit the country this year, present a particularly thorny case.

On their face, weather statistics suggest that tornadoes are becoming more numerous as the climate warms. But tornadoes are small and hard to count, and scientists have little confidence in the accuracy of older data, which means they do not know whether to believe the apparent increase.

Tornadoes are not in the least bit “thorny.” You wouldn’t know from reading the article that the most powerful tornadoes – the F3,  F4 and F5s which cause almost all of the damage and fatalities — have actually decreased over the past 50 years (so too has damage). Nor would you know that the NOAA Climate Attribution effort has recently looked at the 2011 tornadoes and found no evidence of causality from increasing greenhouse gases:

So far, we have not been able to link any of the major causes of the tornado outbreak to global warming. Barring a detection of change, a claim of attribution (to human impacts) is thus problematic, although it does not exclude that a future change in such environmental conditions may occur as anthropogenic greenhouse gas forcing increases.

The NYT article relies on a very few people from the usual small circle of folks cited in such articles to say the usual suggestive things – Ben Santer, Jeff Masters, Peter Stott. Not one researcher is cited who actually publishes peer-reviewed work on tornadoes, economic impacts of disasters, or the long-term history of US weather extremes. However, somehow Congressional Republicans show up as the bad guys in the usual good guys-bad guys framing on this topic. No budget numbers are presented nor any specific discussion of what is going on in NOAA. Ink blot.

I still believe that the print media overall does a good job on a difficult subject, but every once in a while you see an article so detached from reality that it is worth noting.

Now, I’m back to my nap by the fruit table;-)

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