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Two Weeks of Intense Climate Dialogue Over Columnist George Will’s Flawed Column

With luck and the passage of time, the annals of climate change will neither note nor long remember (thank you, Abe Lincoln) the communications imbroglio that for some, and too many, characterized the last two weeks of February 2009.

There were blossoms amidst these weeds and thorns, no doubting that. Slogging through the abundant muck was the downside.


Essay


Here, I enter late into a discourse that has consumed countless, and clearly too many, reading and writing hours and sentient moments since the February 15, 2009, publication of columnist George Will’s clearly flawed “Dark Green Doomsayers” opinion column.

A Selective, and Intentionally Partial, Listing
of Articles, Blog Entries, and More
Related to George Will Editorial Column
of February 15, 2009

The blogosphere has been literally ablaze since then with charge and counter-charge, accusation, denial, and, ouch, slur.

It’s gotten ugly out there. My own gradual immersion into the quicksand – make that quagmire – should afford the perspective to see the big picture, and not get consumed with the pettiness and name-calling that has characterized too much of the blogosphere.

We’ll see. Try, I tell myself, to find the constructive side of these fiery exchanges, the needle in this rhetoric-filled hay stack.

Reader, beware. This piece could be, but won’t be, replete with endless links to countless worthwhile and other entries on this subject. (For those so inclined, see the sidebar for a collection of these links.)

Cutting to the quick:

The conservative newspaper, Newsweek, and TV talking-head Will on February 15 posted what has become his annual piece rebutting what most of the science community has come to understand about climate change and human influences. His column repeated points long familiar to those following “skeptics” on the issue.

The initial uproar that immediately ensued was, characteristically, voiced primarily by liberal climate change activists, in this case pointing to what many perceive as scientific shortcomings in Will’s column. It’s not clear where, if anywhere, their angst might have gone were it not for a “news analysis” 10 days later by New York Times science reporter Andrew C. Revkin, expressing concern that hyperbole on the climate change issue “is an ever-present temptation on all sides of the debate.”

Revkin on Will and Gore – A ‘False Dichotomy’?

Whether he intended it or not, Revkin’s piece seemed to activists and some “mainstream” climate scientists and others to equate former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore and Will. Revkin reported that Gore earlier that month had used a slide wrongly implying a closer than warranted connection between climate change and fires, floods, and other calamities.” (Revkin had blogged earlier on the subject, and he reported that Gore, further informed on the subject, soon removed the slide from his stock presentation.)

“Both men, experts said afterward, were guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements,” Revkin reported in that February 25 article. Ouch on that sentence perhaps?

Among those complaining to Revkin about what he called “a false dichotomy,” was highly regarded Scripps Institution of Oceanography climate expert Richard Somerville, who has made no secret of his serious concerns over global warming and the need to address it aggressively.

Gore “may have got a slide wrong and may have misinterpreted or misunderstood the science in places,” Somerville wrote in a comment on Revkin’s blog. “He sometimes has the big picture approximately right but is not error-free about all the details.”

By contrast, according to Somerville, Will “is absolutely and totally wrong …. His claims are scientifically baseless and have been refuted many times.”

Revkin’s column, Somerville said, “has them appearing comparable and comparably mistaken. This just doesn’t square with the facts.”

… and then a brawl broke out.

Out came the Revkin defenders and detractors, the Will apologists and bashers. Off with their heads, they railed, not in so many words but rather in a lot more. Make that screeds, in some cases.

Enough of a brouhaha, it turns out, that Will even returned to the climate change subject in a second column, less than two weeks after his first. His February 27 column – “Climate Science in a Tornado” – started off: “Few phenomena generate as much heat as disputes about current orthodoxies concerning global warming.”

But rather than focus on the substantive scientific objections to his earlier column, Will by the second paragraph was deep into bashing of The New York Times (“a trumpet that never sounds retreat in today’s war against warming”) and what he called “meretricious journalism in the service of dubious certitudes.”

Naming Revkin and pointing to the headline that accompanied Revkin’s February 25 news analysis, Will wrote, “Regarding exaggeration, the Times knows whereof it speaks.” He referred to the newspaper’s “reporting and editorializing – sometimes a distinction without a difference” on climate change.

Will dismissed criticisms of his science claims in his first column and his reporting on sea ice levels as “mistaken.” (See related article with this posting.)

Will’s final jab: “The Times (“All the news that’s fit to print”) … should unleash Revkin and his unnamed experts.”

There’s more.

Drexel University Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science Robert J. Brulle fired-off a “Dear Mr. Will” letter. In it, he reviewed Will’s assertions of The Times‘ earlier coverage of the “global cooling” threat and concluded that Will had “completely misrepresented the historical coverage of the issue.” He backed up his charge with quotes on the subject from the paper decades ago. “It’s not the NY Times that is dishonest in its coverage, it is you!” Brulle concluded.

Not one to run quickly from a good spat, Revkin weighed in with his own critique of Will’s second column. The headline: “Experts: Big Flaw in Will’s Ice Assertions.”

Revkin went to the source of University of Illinois sea ice data reported by Will. Those experts and others unnamed, Revkin wrote, agreed, in Revkin’s words, that “Mr. Will’s overarching premise about sea ice and messages it holds related to human-caused climate change, was wrong.”

Post Ombudsman Sites ‘A Disturbing Tone’

Think it’s all over? It isn’t.

On Sunday, March 1, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander chimed in, saying Will’s initial column had triggered e-mails from “hundreds of angry environmental activists and a few scientists.” Alexander acknowledged that the “ruckus” only grew when his earlier attempt to answer their concerns backfired for, in this writer’s view, its inaccuracies and defensive posturing.

‘By mid-week, it was a bit like watching chairs being thrown in a bar fight,” Alexander wrote. He wrote too that “opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren’t free to distort them.”

Alexander reviewed the fact-checking done by Will’s own staff and by Post editors on the initial Will column. He wrote that he, Alexander, “reviewed the same Web citation [relied on by Will] and reached a different conclusion.”

“Readers would have been better served if Post editors, and the new ombudsman, had more quickly addressed the claims of falsehoods,” Alexander wrote.

He pointed too to a “disturbing if-you-don’t-agree-with-me-you’re-an-idiot tone to much of the global warming debate” and said “thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent in the current dispute. But that’s where the Post could have helped, and can in the future.” (Will’s column is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group.)

To think that Alexander likely reached that conclusion of a “disturbing tone” without having immersed himself in the muck of the blogosphere that characterized so much of that debate!

‘Furious Assault … Roaring Whirlwind’

“A furious assault in the blogosphere,” veteran scientist Charles Petit headlined his summary of the “terrible, illuminating row” on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker website. “It’s not just a cat and dog fight, but a roaring whirlwind of coyotes, stoats, wolverines, and other beasts ripping and snapping away.”

Petit, a former president of the National Association of Science Writers and former US News & World Report and San Francisco Chronicle science writer highly regarded by his science writing peers, showed no mercy on Will’s columns: “Surprise, surprise, he did not back down,” Petit wrote. “He fired off another column Friday that ratcheted up the prose and, remarkable given how wrong he appears to be, beefed up further the assertion that climate science is voodoo.” (Petit illustrated his comment with a cartoon of Popeye and Bluto fighting it out, saying his other option would have been to use Beetle Bailey and Sgt. Snorkel.)

On another front, “NYT‘s Revkin embraces false balance,” headlined liberal blogger Joe Romm, saying Revkin “remains stuck in the he-said she-said school of climate journalism that typifies everything wrong with the traditional media’s coverage of the issue of the century.”

In a parody of Romm’s headline on climateprogress.org, Tom Yulsman headlined a blog piece “Climate Extremist Savagely Attacks NYT‘s Revkin.” [Editor's Note: This piece was initially posted on March 5, 2009, and then slightly edited on March 6, 2009. Also, see Yulsman comment below.]

Writing of Revkin, who he regards as a long-time personal acquaintance and friend (not noted in his blog entry), Yulsman wrote that Revkin “did err in equating Will’s column to Gore’s speech. The column is untrue almost in its entirety.”

“There’s no excuse for his brand of blogging. It accomplishes nothing,” Yulsman wrote of Romm’s wordy entries.

There’s more, including unfounded allegations of “evil” motives and intents not worthy of further elaboration.

The end. Or is it? In the end, there in fact were gems of knowledge, insight, credible information that, through the two weeks, eked out between the seams of senseless bluster and point/counterpoint. It was far from climate change communication’s finest moment, but in the end all was not lost for those willing to slog through the trenches and the toxic rants and petty exaggerations.

Welcome to the new world of interactive journalism, with all its warts. Whether this particular series of exchanges will further inform or further inflame consideration of serious climate change issues and policies remains unclear. There’s always a chance the outcome will be more beneficial than simply time-consuming and mentally draining. One can hope.


A Selective, and Intentionally Partial, Listing
of Articles, Blog Entries, and More
Related to George Will Editorial Column of February 15, 2009

(Editor’s Note: This is a listing of some of the voluminous articles and responses addressed in the March 5, 2009, update story on the journalism and global warming controversies generated by columnist George Will’s February 15, 2009, opinion column. This list could go on and on. But, mercifully, will not. For those so inclined, many of the resources listed here themselves contain links to additional postings, and in some cases further compilations and collections of related posts.)

George Will’s February 15 syndicated column, “Dark Green Doomsayers“.

The Vine, The New Republic, “Can George Will Save the ‘Global Cooling’ Myth? Uh, No“.

Grist story, “George Will Is An Idiot“.

Albuquerque Journal science writer John Fleck 2/15/09 piece, “George Will and the Global Cooling Scare“.

Climatesciencewatch.org 2/15/09 piece, “George Will Recycles Climate Disinformation Talking Points in Feb. 15 Washington Post Column“.

First of a number of Climateprogress.org blogs by Joe Romm, “Is George Will the Most Ignorant National Columnist?“.

Talking Points Memo, 2/16/09, “Where There’s a (George) Will, There’s a Way … to Deny Global Warming“.

Talking Points Memo, “Hiatt, Will, On Global Warming Misinformation: Talk To The Hand“.

Climateprogress.org 2/20/09 piece, “The Day DC Journalism Died“.

Discover Magazine Carl Zimmer 2/21/09 piece, “You Call That Fact Checking?“.

Mediamatters.org 2/22/09 piece, “In Reported Response to Will Controversy, Wash Post Ombudsman Compounds Global Warming Misinformation“.

Andy Revkin, New York Times 2/23/09 dot.earth blog piece, “Gore Pulls Slide of Disaster Trends” (plus 179 comments as of 3/4/09).

Americanprogress.org 2/23/09 blog, “A Matter of Fact: The Washington Post Should Correct George Will’s ‘Dark Green Doomsayers’ Column” (pdf).

Michael Tobis 2/25/09 blog posting, “Only In It For The Gold: Revkin Beyond the Pale“.

Climateprogress.org 2/25/09 Joe Romm piece, “NYT‘s Revkin embraces false balance, equates Will’s active disinformation with Gore’s effort to understand and communicate climate realism“.

Columbia Journalism Review 2/26/09 piece, “The George Will Affair“.

George Will’s second global warming column, 2/27/09, “Climate Science in a Tornado“.

John Fleck 2/27/09 defense of NYT‘s late science writer, Walter Sullivan, against Will criticisms, “In Defense of Walter Sullivan“.

Andy Revkin, New York Times dot.earth 2/27/09 blog piece responding to Will’s second column, “Scientists: Flaw in Will’s Ice Assertions“.

John Fleck 2/28/09 piece, “Cherry-Picked Facts Heat Up Climate Debate“.

Realclimate.org 2/28/09 blog piece, “What George Will Should Have Written“.

Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander addresses Will column controversy, The Heat From a Global Warming Column, 3/1/09.

CEJournal 3/2/09 Tom Yulsman blog, “Hostilities Mount in Climate Change Wars“.

Roger Pielke Jr. 3/2/09 blog posting, “Q&A Thread in Response to Joe Romm“.

Collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor 3/2/09 blog, “The Church of Al Gore“.

CEJournal 3/3/09 Tom Yulsman blog, “The Believers“.

MIT KSJtracker Charles Petit 3/2/09 blog, “A furious assault in the blogosphere, by the big media guns of climate change worry, on George Will“.

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Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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6 Responses to Two Weeks of Intense Climate Dialogue Over Columnist George Will’s Flawed Column

  1. Tom Yulsman says:

    Bud:

    Thank you for pulling all of this together and putting it into some sort of meaningful perspective!

    I want to point out one thing and ask respectfully that you correct the record. You accurately note the headline of one of my posts: “Climate Extremist Savagely Attacks NYT’s Revkin,” but it is inaccurate to leave it at that.

    As the first sentence in my post shows, the headline was a parody of Romm’s tone, which was the point of the posting. After the headline, here’s how the post opens:

    “Well not really. In describing Joseph Romm’s withering critique at his Climate Progress blog of Andrew Revkin’s climate coverage, that headline is an example of sensationalism and hyperbole. Of exactly the kind that characterizes Romm’s own post today — and much of his work at Climate Progress.”

    I do not believe that Romm is a “climate extremist.” The whole point of my involvement in this blogospheric controversy was to argue for civility and reason. But as this post stands now, it looks like I was trying to accomplish the opposite. A fair reading of what I wrote in my own blog and at others would confirm that.

  2. Gary Braasch says:

    Dear Bud: You state: “In the end, there in fact were gems of knowledge, insight, credible information that, through the two weeks, eked out between the seams of senseless bluster and point/counterpoint.” Oh? They eked out so thinly that I think you would help us all by listing them. In my view, this Will-Gore-Revkin skirmish and others like it serves only to obscure the scientific results that we all need to see ever more clearly. Will’s and Gore’s ideas on the science could easily be fact-checked in a “truth box,” like that used sometimes to confirm political ad claims. In my view Will would have come out the loser and the faker. But it’s not important: The knowledge and credible information we should be hearing is about the implications of the science (including what we don’t know), the changes in Arctic sea ice, the affects on some weather events and other current observations which are changing the view of how fast our world is changing even since the IPCC in 2007. Nearly lost in the loud media kerfuffle were the reports at the AAAS about how carbon emissions, sea level rise, ice loss, ocean acidification and other measurements were running at or above the IPCC’s highest predictions AND that natural systems to absorb the record amounts of carbon were failing to keep up. This should have made the front pages everywhere, and occupied the minds of all those who chose instead to B.S. about the opinions of two non-scientists. Gary Braasch

  3. Dan Rogers says:

    Gore and his acolytes assert that man is changing the climate by burning fossil fuels. George Will doesn’t believe that’s true. Neither do I.

    Too many reputable scientists disagree with what has become the orthodox gospel of climate change. The insistent cries of “heresy” from the “consensus” crowd have become the most compelling evidence that the Skeptics are indeed correct. Climate change is occurring, as it always has, and humans have little or nothing to do with it.

  4. Mac says:

    So it transpires that George Will was correct after all – the data is in.

    1980 Southern Hemisphere = 4.7 million sq km
    1980 Northern Hemisphere = 15.0 million sq km Total = 19.7 million sq km

    2009 Southern Hemisphere = 5.8 million sq km
    2009 Northern Hemisphere = 14.1 million sq km Total = 19.9 million sq km

    In essence people are drawing blood over an additional 0.2 million sq km of ice.

  5. lgcarey says:

    I would suggest that an element missing from the summary is note of what I believe to be the most significant factor in kicking off a major controversy in the first place: Will’s quote-mining in the original column (and continued in the second). Entirely aside from the dust up over the NSDIC global ice figure, Will repeatedly used out-of-context quotes from and references to reputable sources to make them appear to be saying exactly the opposite of what they actually said (thus, the “alarmist” Times article on global cooling was actually very nuanced and non-alarmist, the WMO never stated that there has been no global warming for the last decade, etc.). It was this “insulting your intelligence” aspect of Will’s argument that fueled such an explosion of criticism far beyond far left greenies (and not so much the substance of the argument, which most expect from Will at this point – there probably would have been relatively little comment if he had relied on sources he could quote accurately). People may expect to find that sort of misleading style of argument in certain areas of the blogosphere, but are not willing to put up with it in the Washington Post.

  6. Bud Ward says:

    Thanks for these comments. Remember, Mac, to beware drawing sweeping conclusions based on spot data. See Zeke Hausfather’s posting in March 5, 2009, Yale Forum update re sea ice data. Braasch’s challenge to find the needle in this messy haystack is a good one — I’ll try to point to those in a coming post. As for the suggestion that humans “have little or nothing to do” with the observed warming, extensive and well-reviewed scientific findings indicate that is not the case. Those findings have not been successfully refuted, and suggestions of no human impact have not withstood scientific scrutiny.