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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 12/ 2/2008

Politico Falls Into Climate Coverage Trap

By Andrew Freedman

Outspoken critics of mainstream climate science briefly celebrated last week when the online political news outlet Politico published two articles that asserted there is a "growing accumulation of global cooling science" that may stymie passage of climate change legislation in Congress. The stories generated scathing criticism from many corners of the climate change blogosphere, and prompted an apology from Politico for shoddy reporting.

The stories largely centered on the claims of one meteorologist, Joe D'Aleo of the climate change skeptic organization "Icecap," who is one of many skeptics who have asserted that global average surface temperatures have cooled since 1998. Nevermind for now the numerous scientific rebuttals to such claims.

Keep reading for more on the Politico fallout and what it says about journalistic coverage of climate change...

Politico's reporting exposed an interesting dynamic which has been playing out in the atmospheric sciences community, with some meteorologists hardening in their opposition to the findings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while many climate scientists are becoming more confident in them with each passing day.

As the Politico stories demonstrated, some journalists and policymakers are having trouble discerning which type of atmospheric scientist to trust for accurate climate science information: a meteorologist, such as D'Aleo, or a climate scientist, such as a member of the IPCC?

To some in the climate science community this may seem like a silly question, perhaps akin to a person who has a severe headache who then asks which medical specialist is more qualified to address it, a neurologist or a gastroenterologist? (Hint: go with the neurologist). Sure, they are both doctors, but they specialize in different parts of the human body.

That may be an extreme example, but the point is that it's not always so easy for people, especially people with little scientific background, to distinguish between the credibility of one 'ologist' versus another.

To climate scientists, it's obvious that people should come to them to diagnose a planetary fever, rather than a weather expert. And for the most part, journalists do turn to members of the IPCC and other climate scientists to inform their climate stories. However, some meteorologists such as D'Aleo have become increasingly outspoken in their skepticism of mainstream climate science, and journalists at publications like Politico are struggling to figure out how to navigate the schism between two closely related atmospheric science fields.

Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review recommends that reporters seek out climate scientists rather than meteorologists when reporting on climate change. This is good advice, except that it implies that meteorologists are universally uninformed on climate science or unqualified to offer their views on the issue, which isn't true.

"There has been a notable trend in global-warming skepticism among meteorologists; it's unclear exactly why that is, but it has led to some journalistic confusion about the difference between weather (meteorologists' domain) and climate (Ph.D climate scientists' domain)," Brainard wrote last week. "And that confusion has abetted some of the misunderstanding about global cooling."

For the public and some members of the media (such as the author of the Politico stories, Erika Lovley) the differences between atmospheric science experts can be muted, but they are important in determining one's opinions of climate change and how credible their views are.

Foremost among the differences is that although both meteorologists and climate scientists study and observe the atmosphere, they are focused on different factors and timescales. There is a major distinction between paying attention to short-term weather perturbations, which meteorologists do, and investigating the causes of climate variability, which lies within a climate scientist's domain.

Some of the confusion for journalists and policymakers is a result of the TV weathercast, which has ensured that most people are vastly more familiar with meteorologists than they are with climate scientists. This gap in familiarity could make people inherently more receptive to listening to the climate science views of a meteorologist like D'Aleo who speaks out on climate change, despite the fact that meteorologists don't necessarily have much technical training in that field.

Perhaps contributors to the IPCC should start conveying their research results via Super Doppler radar images?

By Andrew Freedman  | December 2, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Science  
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Comments

Mr. Freedman wrote, "As the Politico stories demonstrated, some journalists and policymakers are having trouble discerning which type of atmospheric scientist to trust for accurate climate science information: a meteorologist, such as D'Aleo, or a climate scientist, such as a member of the IPCC?"

The Politico could side step the whole problem and simply post a chart of the last 29 years worth of lower troposphere temperature.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 2, 2008 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Andrew, as a meteorologist, perhaps I can address the question raised in the article "There has been a notable trend in global-warming skepticism among meteorologists; it's unclear exactly why that is...". Meteorologists have a long history of working with dynamic computer modeling and have seen the limitations firsthand. Climate scientists have the benefit of extremely long (not-yet-achieved) forecast windows to verify forecasts. So in essence, while the meteorologists are seeing the current climate model forecasts failing (due to recent short-term global cooling trends), the climate scientists are saying this is an acceptable noise level and not a concern. It's certainly a difference in scale as you suggest. -Matt Rogers

Posted by: mrwx1 | December 2, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this post. While it's good that Politico corrected its mistake (and promptly, I'd add), it really does highlight the sorry state of scientific literacy that remains at mainstream media outlets (and I include the Post). Not knowing what kind of scientist is most appropriate to question on a topic is a very basic gap in the ability to cover a subject.

At least the media has ceased their worst chronic practice, which they honored all through the late 90s and into the early aughts. That was the habit of, every time there was another study implicating human emissions (or the damage being done by them) they would run out and "counterbalance" the story by finding some nutty fringe case on the oil industry payroll, who'd never had a peer-reviewed article in a climatology-related journal, to say, "well... we really can't be sure of this yet" when in fact the vast majority of climatologists were convinced of this even before 2000 (well before the IPCC finally felt compelled to convene that international conference that produced their definitive statement).

You summed up some plausible reasons why reporters think meteorologists are just as relevant as climatologists on climate issues. One thing you didn't point out is the plausible reason why the few Flat Earth holdouts on manmade climate change disproportionately lean toward the meteorology field. Not only are they not in the right field to talk about it authoritatively, but they are also understandably prejudiced toward seeing an apparent "unpredictability" of what's going on in the atmosphere. They are dealing with very short term time scales and the volatility of noisy predictions just a few days out. They are so used to being wrong, given that they are working amidst so much noise, that they are skeptical about findings on a superficially related subject.

I can't tell you how often I run into know-it-alls on internet forums who give me the "if weathermen can't predict 5 days out, how do you think scientists can know for certain 20 years out" line. People are just really mathematically illiterate these days about the factors of scale, both in size and time. I try to explain to them that in February, you can't predict the exact temperature at 2:34 PM on July 16th, but you can pretty well project that July will be warmer than March, because of larger factors. That's what climatologists are looking at, larger factors - in an admittedly chaotic system of course. Sometimes that helps. But it's an uphill battle in a culture where people know more about Britney Speers than they do about basic scientific concepts.

Posted by: B2O2 | December 2, 2008 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Matt, thanks for your input. One thing I'd like to point out is that climate scientists don't agree that there is a short-term "global cooling trend" as you suggest. Most data sets don't show such a trend, from what I've read. But yes, there is a difference in perspective between the two groups, with climate scientists essentially accepting weather as background noise, whereas to meteorologists the weather can't be dismissed as such.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | December 2, 2008 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Andrew. I've had a great discussion with a few IPCC-contributing climate scientists and at least they DO agree that the cooling trend seen on the global NASA GISS data (since 2005), on the Hadley Centre global land/sea data (since ~2003/2004), and on the satellite-derived sources as referenced above (since 1998) are all short-term and within the acceptable noise level of long-term climate projections. I'm not aware of any other global temperature data sets, but perhaps that can be a subject of a future article for you!

Posted by: mrwx1 | December 2, 2008 1:25 PM | Report abuse

I have read a few interesting discussions concerning the relevance of the current global cooling trend. If I recall correctly, the folks at realclimate said that the current cooling trend was acceptable noise until it went 15 years or more. Or maybe they said 12 years. I should look that up.

Anyway, if the cooling continues until 2018, will the scientist admit that their hypothesis is flawed? I don't think so. How many years has former VP Al Gore been saying we have 10 years? But I think it will be a very difficult sell to the public in general if the current cooling continues another year or two.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 2, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Matt, realclimate has posted about global cooling claims several times. You should check them out if you haven't already, they may agree with you, not sure.

B202: You made some very good points, some of which I have written about in the past for other outlets. The short-term vs. long-term focus of meteorologists and climate scientists is a key difference, and a main reason why the two communities have been diverging on climate change. Some organizations are trying to bridge the gaps between the disciplines, and it will be interesting to see if they succeed.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | December 2, 2008 2:54 PM | Report abuse

B202 wrote, 'I can't tell you how often I run into know-it-alls on internet forums who give me the "if weathermen can't predict 5 days out, how do you think scientists can know for certain 20 years out" line.'

The current climate modeling systems were built on top of the existing weather forecasting systems. If those existing weather forecasting systems could not predict the weather any better than they did, then why should anyone have any faith in the climate model system?

And, the existing climate modeling systems have yet to prove themselves at all. For example, they didn't predict the current cooling trend. It wasn't until the cooling was well under way that the modelers decided to investigate why their model was performing so poorly. They discovered that they had not accounted for the shifting PDO. After entering that, the long term prediction switched from a global warming to global cooling.

So what else has their model forgotten to account for?

Do you think that man has the capacity to understand something as complex as a global climate?

Does anyone else find it odd that a person pursuing a masters degree in climate policy NEVER advocates a single policy? I find that extremely curious.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 2, 2008 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Your assertion that meteorologists are unqualified to interpret global climate trends is flawed. Climatologists use data and research birthed from meteorologists (as well as many other disciplines), select their desired findings, package it, and we are supposed to respect them as the authority on this subject? Absurd. If anything climatologists should be viewed as fringe scientists or practitioners - much like chiropractors.

Posted by: emikael | December 2, 2008 4:08 PM | Report abuse

The great bona fide detractor currently affecting the meteorological community is so very simple.

Too many of the members of this community have committed the unforgivable sin. They have mortally wounded their credibility by questioning the religion of the cult. This cannot be allowed. They would simply be ignored if not for their perceived following on mainstreet with the masses. They must either be silenced or discredited.

If they had almost unanimously been loyal disciple's, their qualifications to comment would never in a thousand years be questioned.

This is all quite amusing and so predictable!

Posted by: AugustaJim | December 2, 2008 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman wrote, "As the Politico stories demonstrated, some journalists and policymakers are having trouble discerning which type of atmospheric scientist to trust for accurate climate science information: a meteorologist, such as D'Aleo, or a climate scientist, such as a member of the IPCC?"

Hmmm.... Isn't one of the most outspoken voices warning of the impending doom we all face, Dr. Hansen, a trained physicist and astronomer? He has testified before Congress. He advised former VP Al Gore on his movie. An astronomer!

Perhaps you could turn that specific criticism inward upon some of the so called "climate scientists" who agree with Dr. Hansen's failed hypothesis and not focus your critical eye entirely upon those who disagree.

I think I will trust a meteorologist over that particular astronomer.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 2, 2008 7:04 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman wrote, "Politico's reporting exposed an interesting dynamic which has been playing out in the atmospheric sciences community, with some meteorologists hardening in their opposition to the findings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while many climate scientists are becoming more confident in them with each passing day."

I challenge you to name the "many climate scientists are becoming more confident in them with each passing day." Name them by name. I am curious to see what you define as many.

Mr. Freedman wrote, "Outspoken critics of mainstream climate science briefly celebrated ..."

What is mainstream? Who decided that, you? Can you define it and state clearly the benchmarks it hit in order to achieve such acceptance? Do me, it appears to be a repackaging of the ol' consensus canard.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 2, 2008 7:11 PM | Report abuse

It is 45.8 degrees here in Islamorada, Florida Keys. Global warming? Where?

Posted by: keyapprs | December 3, 2008 7:39 AM | Report abuse

There is something missing here in the distinction between prediction of climate and weather. Specifically, weather forecast models depend on the initial conditions, that is, the state of the atmosphere (temp, winds, moisture, etc.) as it exists the time the model runs are initiated (7:00 PM, 1:00 AM, 7:00 AM, and 1:00PM; DC local time). Climate predictions do not depend upon today's initial conditions but rather upon "external forcing" such as variations in solar radiation (season), ocean thermal structure, sea ice coverage, land surface conditions (e.g., soil moisture, vegetation type), greenhouse gasses, etc. These "forcings" have very little impact on the much shorter term weather forecasts.

It's true that the models meteorologists rely on are generally unable to skillfully forecast the weather more than, let's say, 5 -7 days in advance; hence the argument that if we can't forecast the weather more than 5 days ahead, how can the climate be predicted seasons or years from now. And, rightfully, meteorologists recognize (if not totally understand) the limitations and uncertainties of routine forecast models. Even if these models were "perfect" there will ALWAYS be uncertainties in the initial conditions such that model skill decreases steadily to effectively nil beyond two weeks or so - at the very most ("Butterfly Effect"). Hence, it is not unreasonable this might undermine the thinking of meterologists about the credibility of climate models.

As mentioned in a comment above, not being able to predict the weather for any given day at a specific location this summer does not preclude reliably predicting that it will be warmer than this winter - as related to the external forcing of earth/sun relationship modified perhaps by ocean temperatures in the Pacific (El Nino or La Nina). Climate models are far from perfect , but this is readily acknowledged by climate scientists, for example, by clearly acknowledging the uncertainties in the magnitude and rate of global changes in temperature.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | December 3, 2008 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Very interesting article in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer today on climate change skepticism among TV meteorologists.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | December 3, 2008 5:18 PM | Report abuse

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