NYT’s Andy Revkin backtracks (but not nearly enough)

In some ways it’s been the “same old, same old” this week in the blogosphere. First, there was another confused piece on climate change from New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, this time postulating that “stable temperatures” and “a recent spate of relatively cool years” might blunt momentum for an international agreement on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. That was followed in short order by a scathing critique from Joe Romm at Climate Progress, excoriating Revkin’s “litany of misinformation and confusion” as something that might be expected from disinformation specialist Marc Morano of Climate Depot.

But this time it was different. For a closer examination shows that Revkin has corrected two of the most egregious errors in his article, presumably after reading Romm’s convincing and detailed deconstruction. So perhaps there is still hope for Revkin, at least someday. Unfortunately, major misinterpretations of climate science still remain in Revkin’s piece, and even worse, he gives credence to the views one of the most  reprehensible fossil fuel industry apologists around, Patrick Michaels. All of that virtually ensures that Revkin’s latest essay will be a staple of contrarian disinformation for months to come.

[Update, Sept. 26: It's still not clear whether Revkin's corrections made it into the print edition of the Times. The article apparently ran on September 23 on page A6, a day or so after it appeared online.]

Romm’s critique gets right to the point with three direct quotes:

The top climate reporter for the NYT has published what is arguably the worst article of his career, replete with statements that simply are scientifically inaccurate or misleading beyond belief:

The world leaders who met at the United Nations to discuss climate change on Tuesday are faced with an intricate challenge: building momentum for an international climate treaty at a time when global temperatures have been stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years….

The recent spate of relatively cool years is particularly noticeable because it followed a seesawing from unusually cool temperatures to unusually hot ones in the 1990s, said Vicky Pope of Britain’s climate agency, called the Met Office….

The global average temperature is now only an imperceptible .01 degree Fahrenheit higher than it was in 1999, according to the British meteorology office.

That litany of misinformation and confusion is what you expect from the Swift boat smearer’s website, not the paper of record.

I decided to check out the quotes, as I found it hard to believe that Revkin could get key information (conveniently put in bold by Romm) so wrong. And it turns out that Romm’s cut-and-paste skills are indeed intact (as seen in the  original version copied at a hiking forum), but that Revkin had changed the quoted sentences in the mean time.

We’ll take the three quotes in reverse order.

The reference to global temperature now being “an imperceptible .01 degree higher” than 1999 was a mangled reference to a British Meteorology Office study on short-term trends. The passage now reads:

The global average temperature is now only 0.13 degree Fahrenheit higher than it was in 1999 … [Emphasis added].

Actually, Revkin still hasn’t got it quite right, as the quoted figure is the slope of the linear trend (or “increase”) over the decade 1999-2008. But a more serious problem is the omission of any reference to NASA’s GISS temperature analysis. NASA shows a much higher increase over that same decade, namely, 0.19 deg C, more than double the HadCRU trend of 0.07 deg C per decade. So not only is the so-called “plateau” more of a “slowdown”, but it rests very much on the choice of data sets.

The above reference to a “recent spate of relatively cool years” has been corrected as well:

The recent spate of years with stable temperatures is particularly noticeable because it followed a seesawing from unusually cool temperatures to unusually hot ones in the 1990s, said Vicky Pope of Britain’s climate office, called the Met Office. [Emphasis added]

However, the fact that the change was even necessary points up a confusion at the heart of Revkin’s treatment, namely the failure to distinguish clearly between variations within a decade and those from one decade to the next. Here, a quote from Vicky Pope in the same press release describing the above Met Office study would have been useful:

Decades like 1999–2008 occur quite frequently in our climate change simulations, but the underlying trend of increasing temperature remains.

That underlying trend can be clearly seen in this chart of decadal increases in global temperature:

Global surface decade

As seen above, the increase in average global temperature in the 2000s relative to the 1990s ranges from 0.17 deg C in HadCRU to 0.19 deg C for NASA GISS. Astonishingly, this fact is not mentioned even once by Revkin. And yet it is much more relevant statistic for characterizing global warming than the short-term trends discussed at length by Revkin.

A similar confusion is evident in Revkin’s overarching thesis (only slightly altered from the original by insertion of the word “relatively”):

The world leaders who met at the United Nations to discuss climate change on Tuesday are faced with an intricate challenge: building momentum for an international climate treaty at a time when global temperatures have been relatively stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years.

As Romm notes, this statement appears to be based, not on any scientific consensus, but on a single study ( Keenlyside et al. 2008 published in Nature). Here’s how Revkin understands that study:

[Co-author] Mojib Latif, a prize-winning climate and ocean scientist from the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel, in Germany, wrote a paper last year positing that cyclical shifts in teh ocean were aligning in a way that could keep temperatures over the next decade or so relatively stable, even as the heat-trapping gases linked to global warming continued to increase.

[Update, Sept. 26: Clarification and elaboration of passage on Keenlyside et al.]

But, in fact, as has been pointed out by Romm and at RealClimate.org, the study projects an increase of close to 0.2 deg C for the “next decade”  (i.e. 2010-2020 centred on 2015) over and above the decade about to end (centred on 2005). And very rapid warming is projected from 2015, “catching up” to the IPCC projection by 2030.

In all fairness to Revkin, it is true that the projection does show a possible  “plateau” from now to 2015. On the other hand, the projection also clearly shows growing decadal increases, with no cooling whatsoever. The moderate projected increase for the decade just ended has already been surpassed by a long shot. It is projected to be followed by  much larger increases in coming decades. It must be emphasized once again, this is just one study, one that is at odds with the overwhelming mainstream consensus. Revkin is wrong to highlight this one study as if it were one pole of current climate science.

Naturally, all of this confused discussion of a meaningless, short-term “plateau” or “pause” without any reference to the ongoing, relentless decade-over-decade warming trend plays right into the hands of uber-contrarian Patrick Michaels. And this is possibly the most galling part of Revkin’s exposition. Here we have someone who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret corporate funding over the years to push bogus science in the service of an anti-regulation agenda, and Revkin treats him as just another legitimate voice in the quest for journalistic “balance”.

In fact, the “pause in global warming” meme and its numerous variants are staples in the contrarians’ arsenal of arguments. Instead of lending it credence, Revkin should expose this tired contrarian talking point for the sham that it is. After all, the only ones pushing it are the so-called “skeptics” amply funded by hidden fossil fuel interests.

Even better would be an investigation, or at least acknowledgment, of the perfidy of phony science disinformation campaigns based on such memes, such as the  imminent Monckton tour of Canada, sponsored by the Friends of Science. Or come to that, how about looking at the farce playing out in Washington – one in which Patrick Michaels happened to have played a large, if unwitting, role – namely the so-called suppression of the EPA’s Alan Carlin.

In the past, Revkin has lamented that communication of the urgency of tackling climate change has proved difficult. Surely, though, a large part of the responsibility lies with Revkin and other sincere journalists. They have  continued the perpetuation of misunderstandings and failed abjectly to correct those misunderstandings or shed light on their dubious sources.

Andy Revkin, wake up. It’s time to start exposing the spin instead of succumbing to it.

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26 responses to “NYT’s Andy Revkin backtracks (but not nearly enough)

  1. Thank you for a very clear and sober explanation of why careful examination and good judgment lead to disappointment with Andy more often than one would like. I follow both Andy and Joe, and value Joe’s knowledge and coverage very highly, though he sometimes treads on his own message with over-excitability. Your points are exactly the right ones.

  2. After reading Revkin’s article, and the comments left by deniers saying things like “Looks like the NYT is finally admitting that AGW is a hoax after all,” I decided to write a post in layman’s terms (thinking that maybe an analogy to American football would help people get it).

    http://akwag.blogspot.com/2009/09/how-is-peyton-manning-like-global.html

    [DC: I think you've scored a touchdown. But will it (and your readers) be converted? Let's hope so.]

  3. To offset the scientific established FACTS of Global Warming the NYT’s must plot a nefarious campaign to place subterfuge and spin uncertainty. As these Spin-misters have no science to back their message, they are left to quote the proven falsehoods of others. They must do the bidding of all the players just to keep the money game going. For they have no sole and care not for truth or honor! Why would anyone think they would really choose sides. Their game is unraveling and soon they will crawl back into the caves with their Fossil fueled sponsors. My fear is they won’t do it soon enough!

    [DC: I can't quite figure out where you're "coming from". But for the record, I don't think Revkin is part of a "nefarious campaign". In other words, he's not spinning, he's being spun.]

  4. Let’s not blame Andy for this until we have more info. There was a piece somewhere – CJR?, a month or two back, about a different NYT blog, which said that that blog *did* have an editor.

    And if that one did, then Dot Earth almost certainly does as well. So. How do we find out who this shadowy presence might be?

    I’d like to offload this task, so if someone else could try to find out…? or even find a URL for the CJR-or-wherever piece.

    [DC: The article discussed here appeared in the New York Times print edition. So it wasn't edited by the blog editor. Of course, other editors may have made changes. But in general it would be very exceptional for editors to rewrite pieces themselves. Rather they would be more likely to ask for changes.

    Still I'm not sure there is a lot of evidence for that. Frankly I've noticed the same sort of confusion from Revkin whenever he discusses the recent temperature record. It seems to be point of weakness.]

  5. This has been going on for ages but in the great scheme of things I doubt that the IPCC/GISS/HAD etc are listening and hence our Governments are getting the real story of AGW from the IPCC/CRU/GISS etc and not fron the NYT. Sure votes might count but Obama is already president and he has the time to agree to a new deal as we all have.

    [DC: It's clear that Obama understands the urgency of the issue very well. But my fear is that if even Andy Revkin gets it wrong, then (misinformed) public opinion might spook wavering congressional support.]

  6. As I note above, I don’t know if Revkin’s corrections of the two worst errors pointed out by Romm actually made it into the print edition of NYT. The article ran on September 23 on page A6. Are there any NYT print subscribers out there who can shed light on this?

  7. > “The article ran on September 23 on page A6″

    …in the New York edition. It’s not in whatever edition California subscribers get.

  8. I always thought editors, you know, edited. Blue pencil and all. But I’m a dinosaur.

    You’ve heard the old joke about the writer and editor who survived a plane crash in the Sahara?

    They stumbled across the burning sands for a day or two, desperately thirsty, and finally came to a tiny oasis — a couple of palm trees and a little pool of water.

    The writer crawled to the edge of the pool and dipped his face in and started to drink, and then a stream of yellow liquid arched over his head, splashing into the water.

    He turned in shock as the editor was zipping up his pants and screamed “What are you DOING?”

    And the editor replied “I’m improving it.”

    Well, maybe those days are history. But I wonder.

    You could ask directly, this is the go-to guy:

    http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/thepubliceditor/index.html

  9. This may help.

    http://www.google.com/search?q=%22New+York+Times%22+editor+%22Clark+Hoyt%22+%22Andy+Revkin%22

    I’m not trying to decide what you should think here, just suggesting your take on what happened is worth presenting to the people there clearly and directly and asking them to respond to you, and publicly if possible.

  10. Hank,
    I don’t really have a “take on what happened”; I’m just pointing out misunderstandings and curious omissions on Revkin’s part.

    Some of it is somewhat understandable, I suppose. For instance, it seems Mojib Latif’s work and statements have been widely misunderstood. (I’m currently in correspondence with him to try and clarify some matters, and nail down some exact numbers for the Keenlyside et al Nature projections).

    That you think “my take” may be worth presenting as a critique is flattering, but I don’t think I have enough credibility to take that on (I’m not even a scientist). I have made my basic criticism known at DotEarth – so far no response.

    You and Anna both seem to feel editorial mucking may be a factor here. I’m not even sure how to approach that aspect. I suppose the only way one could judge editorial impact would be to see a version before the editor did, well, whatever editors do, whether in the newsroom or in the desert.

    Seriously, my understanding is that an editor might suggest or make changes for style, length or clarity, but actual changes to the content of a fairly technical story like this one would surprise me.

  11. I also asked the specific question about whether the two corrections made it into print or not. So far, no answer on that on eeither, but it is still the weekend.

    To be clear, I don’t really care whether Revkin corrected those two mistakes because of Romm or not. But it does show that Romm’s understanding of the temperature record is stronger than Revkin’s. Unfortunately there are those who take against Romm because his tone prevents them from seeing the correctness of his argument. Case in point: Keith Kloor.

  12. Hank, Anna or anyone else interested –

    You might consider commenting at DotEarth. Here is the pointer to my first comment (well down at #86).

  13. Now it has come down to whether warming is .07 (HadCRU ) or .19 (GISS) per decade. And those figures are from the good guys. Lets say the average is .13 per decade. That means it will take nearly 100 years to get to over 1 degree. Jeez. Some tipping point.

    [DC: You have misunderstood the central point. We see warming in the 2000s (relative to the 1990s) in both HadCRU (0.17C) and NASA GISS (0.19C). And of course warming is expected to accelerate over the coming decades. Even Keenlyside et al project more warming in 2010-2020 (0.18C) than in 2000-2010, and then ever more rapid warming (0.32C in 2020-30). ]

  14. Deep, I don’t comment at Dot Earth anymore. Took up too much time, no discernible benefit, and IMO the Times aims for eyeballs and “lively discussion” in their blog comments – which thus serve as flypaper for otherwise-potential-activists.

    re Hank’s
    > You could ask directly [Clark Hoyt]

    Been there, done that, multiple times. Stonewalled every time – or at least, he hasn’t responded. He’s a placebo public editor.
    (again, in my opinion)

    I don’t think it’s productive, to try to engage them on their own turf.

  15. DC you keep quoting expectations as though they are facts.

    “We see warming in the 2000s (relative to the 1990s) in both HadCRU (0.17C) and NASA GISS (0.19C). And of course warming is expected to accelerate over the coming decades. Even Keenlyside et al project more warming in 2010-2020 (0.18C) than in 2000-2010, and then ever more rapid warming (0.32C in 2020-30).”

    The FACT is that the present situation is wholly unprojected. No-one forecast the lack of warming in the last decade. Projections of accelerated warming in the future (based on CO2 forcing) is little more than wishful thinking. Would you bet your mortgage on the average model future performance?

    [DC: You keep claiming that the "the lack of warming in the last decade" is a "fact". I've patiently explained to you over and over that there was, in fact, warming in the 2000s relative to previous decades. Further comments to this effect on your part will be treated as redundant, per comment policy.

    The point of quoting Keenlyside et al was to demonstrate to you that the blogger you quoted previously in the Freeman Dyson thread misinterpreted Latif, one of the co-authors of that paper. You were happy to quote "expectations" from that source when you thought it confirmed your preconceptions.

    Of course, Revkin has also misunderstood Latif, as I point out above.]

  16. DC

    Thank you for patiently explaining to me over and over that
    “there was, in fact, warming in the 2000s relative to previous decades”

    That is not my point:-

    ” No-one forecast the lack of warming in the last decade”

    It is the last decade we are talking about not the last 2 decades.

    I am more than happy to cite Hadcrut, GISS, NCDC,RSS MSU,UAH MSU data that supports the lack of warming – indeed cooling – since 2001.

    Once again, how do we explain the lack of warming in the face of ever increasing CO2?

    [DC: I'm not sure where that quote comes from, but you and your fellow contrarians are the only ones "talking about" the "lack of warming" in the "last decade."

    The short-term trend, when properly analyzed, is not statistically different from IPCC projections. And so far there is little change in the long-term trend at all, although there is some evidence of acceleration of that trend in the last decade, relative to previous decades. This has been explained to you over and over, but frankly, my patience is running out.]

  17. This is a terrific explanation, nicely done.

    When I was a journalist, reps from a tobacco advocacy group and the Canadian medical society toured the country in the early 1990s to talk to the editorial teams at major newspapers. In a nutshell, they wanted to get them on board, and not print any phony science or studies published by smokers’ rights groups. In other words, they were trying to nip the smoking astroturfing push in the bud — and I think it was quite successful.

    Time to do it for global warming, too. That anyone is quoting Michaels is absurd. Revkin is a disappointment.

  18. Oh, BTW… Any editor worth his or her salt will edit closely with the writer, or ask for clarifications or comments before making significant changes to the story.

  19. What’s sad is how Revkin’s article has made the rounds and given deniers ammo to justify their absurd positions. Case-in-point: George Will in today’s WashPost quoted the Revkin article extensively.

    I like the idea of the tour to educate journalists and ed boards.

  20. Pingback: Memo to George Will, WashPost: When you quote someone who is wrong, even if it is the NYT’s Andy Revkin, then you’re wrong, too | Going Green

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  22. I’d go farther than you do in assessing what Andy is doing. I don’t think he’s writing what he believes. The idea that his understanding of the meaning of what temperature records there are is weaker than Romm’s seems preposterous. Andy knows what “relatively cool” means. He would have known what was being published the moment he approved it. Andy has been deeply immersed in this issue for more than twenty years.

    I listened to the award ceremony when they gave him the John Chancellor award last year.

    John Chancellor, according to Tom Brokah, who spoke at that ceremony, came from the “lusty school of Chicago journalism”. People from this school took as their obligation: “to print the news and raise hell”.

    Later, in ringing tones, Ira Lipman proclaimed: “Through his reporting, John Chancellor dispelled lies and ignorance. For the first time the new age of TV journalism enabled the world to see the ugliness of racial hatred. And the result was a great advance for the cause of civil rights…. And that’s why journalism is so important today. it is our first line of defence against those who would subject the world to lies and ignorance”.

    But Andy was catering at that time to those spreading lies and ignorance about the climate issue, daily, on his blog. And now things have gone from bad to worse. I agree with Romm’s judgement: this is the “worst article of his career”. Andy is starting to believe he can write lies.

    We’re not at the dawn of the age of television journalism anymore, where it is important for journalists to be the first line of defence against lies and ignorance. We are in the Internet Age. The formal citation honoring Andy with the Chancellor award did not mention dispelling lies and ignorance.

    Insteand it said, we ought to recognize and honor Andy because “you respect different sides of this polarizing issue by sticking to the facts”.

    But “relatively cool” was a lie when he wrote it, and it remains a lie even though he altered it when he realized it wasn’t flying too well. All that’s left for us to honor is the way Andy can “respect different sides of this polarizing issue”, and it not only isn’t enough, it is the opposite of what civilization, at its best, gives awards for.

    Andy said at that award ceremony that there are “deniers” who show up daily on his blog Dot Earth. Imagine John Chancellor running a blog, blithely explaining to an award ceremony there are all these racists advocating that blacks be re-enslaved who show up daily on it, who he shows respect to.

    Andy also said there are people on Dot Earth who he calls “catastrophists”. As Andy stated at the ceremony, “somehow”, the “deniers”, the “catastrophists”, and everyone else, “kind of hash it out, and overall, there’s a sense of trajectory, and that leads to a sense of hope.”

    This is preposterous. Deniers are spreading what John Chancellor would have called “lies and ignorance”. Deniers are people who would sum up the intense studies of the last thirty years by some of the best and brightest minds civilization has produced as the big problem we face is that Earth is cooling. This is ignorance at best, and lies at worst. Given what is at stake if civilization gets its response wrong, it is looking more and more to be criminal.

    The most prominent “catastrophist” in the world, and this was confirmed in the title of the recent New Yorker article about him, is James Hansen. Hansen was there. Hansen stood up at that award ceremony and stated “… I now consider Andy to be the best science writer that I know.”

    Hansen had his growing doubts, as he had expressed prior to the ceremony through Romm’s blog saying “Andy, It does seem to me that you now go out of your way to make a “fair and balanced” summary of everything that I write, which is why I hesitate to send you things these days. Sometimes there are actually conclusions worth reporting without denigrating them down to speculations disputed by experts.”

    But Hansen was big enough to show up and grant Andy the respect he deserved, at that time, for the sum total of two decades of his life’s work.

    What has happened to Andy is a tragedy. He has become an example of what not to do as a reporter.

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