George Will and Journalistic Malpractice

Caught in a series of factual errors, or what many are calling outright lies about climate science, Washington Post columnist George Will has upped the ante for himself and his employer with his latest column on global warming.

Rather than issue a retraction and simply move on, today he reiterated his baseless claims that sea ice coverage is similar to 1979. His source? An electronics gadget blog that has a very dubious record on climate science.

Actual researchers have pointed out exactly the opposite: that arctic ice is disappearing at a frightening rate. "The pace of change is starting to outstrip our ability to keep up with it," said Mark Serreze, senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado - a co-author of a recent Arctic amplification study.

Describing the phenomenon as clear proof that global climate change in underway, the centre says on its website that “analysts at the Canadian Ice Service and the U.S. National Ice Center confirm that the Northwest passage is almost completely clear and that the region is more open than it has ever been since the advent of routine monitoring in 1972.”

"It's not getting better; it's continuing to show strong signs of warming and amplification," added NASA ice scientist Jay Zwally. "There's no reversal taking place."

You get the idea.

Perhaps more interesting than refuting baseless claims that global warming all a big mistake, the reaction from George Will’s boss gets much more to the root of the problem.

When confronted with a tidal wave of complaints from his readership that his star columnist was spreading misinformation about climate change, Washington Post editor Fred Hiatt had the following lame response:

“It may well be that he is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject — so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point. Debate him.”

Here’s the rub: the media treats climate change as if it were a mere political debate. Within this frame, opinions matter as much as facts and it is somehow important to tell both sides of the story, even if there is no other side.

Scientists resolved the veracity of climate change about ten years ago. Climate change is instead a scientific consensus – the result of the largest peer-review exercise in human history. It is of course important to debate the science, but that happens within the scientific community, not in the popular press by lay people.

Think of the analogy with tobacco. Would it be ethical in the 21st century for a newspaper editor or TV producer to provide equal time to industry-funded “experts” asserting there is no link between cigarettes and cancer? Such industry funded media mischief went on for decades. Many millions of dollars of advertising were sold as a result of this “provocative” debate. Many people died during this period of industry-funded “controversy” questioning the obvious link between lung disease and cigarettes. Thankfully we have finally moved beyond providing equal time to lung cancer skeptics.

Must we also endure decades of so-called debate about climate science? Such journalistic malpractice has created a situation where the voting public remains dangerously ill-informed on what many researchers will believe will be the defining issue of this century. The decisions we make (or not) in the next five years will determine nothing less than the fate of the planet.

Hyperbole? Hardly.

While Al Gore might be derided for drawing the connection between climate change and extreme weather events, many climate scientists are already there.

In other words: if you want to see climate change, look out the window.

The devastating wildfires that swept through Australia this month were the worst in the nation’s history – and were directly linked to climate change. "Climate change, weather and drought are altering the nature, ferocity and duration of bushfires," said Gary Morgan, head of the government-backed Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre.

Climatologist Professor David Karoly said the hot temperatures in southeastern Australia were "unprecedented. The records were broken by a large amount and you cannot explain that just by natural variability," he said. "What we are seeing now is that the chances of these sorts of extreme fire weather situations are occurring much more rapidly in the last ten years due to climate change.”

The Australian Firefighters Union tasked with the grim job of dealing with these unprecedented infernos came away with a first-hand realization about our changing climate that might be lost on Mr. Will in the comfort of his Washington digs:

“The firefighters union has now joined Green politicians and environmental activists in arguing that the deadly infernos are a climate change wake-up call to Australia.

Closer to home, New York City is planning infrastructure upgrades to cope with a warming world and increased incidence of extreme weather.

Meanwhile in California, the state is dealing with unprecedented drought. "We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history," said Water Resources Director Lester Snow last month."

Need more?

How about the grim prediction this week from the world’s leading climate scientists that global warming could lay waste to large parts of the US and make even northern cities uninhabitable due to scorching temperatures.

"With severe drought from California to Oklahoma, a broad swath of the south-west is basically robbed of having a sustainable lifestyle," warned Christopher Field, of the Carnegie Institution for Science when testifying this week before the US Congress.

None of this really matters. It remains all too easy for pundits like George Will to poo-poo the entire scientific community for their shoddy work. Perhaps the editors of the Washington Post even enjoying the controversy because it bumps up their circulation.

But maybe journalism is not entirely about selling ad space. Maybe we should instead consider that it might be a good idea, in the face of truly apocalyptic consequences, to err on the side of caution.

Or even accuracy…

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