by Judith Curry
A segment on climate change last Monday evening produced a storm of protest from critics who felt the program mislead viewers — by a faulty application of journalistic balance — about the very real threat of global warming and man’s contribution to it, as well as a sprinkling of support from those who think that threat is overstated and that balance was just the right touch for the NewsHour. – Michael Getler, PBS
Watch Skeptic No Longer Doubts Human Role in Global Warming on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
In summary: the show was centered around Richard Muller, and his ‘conversion’ from skeptic to believer. Several other people were interviewed, including Bill Collins and Anthony Watts.
The ‘storm’ of protest in the green blogosphere is summarized in the links provided by Lubos Motl. Apparently PBS was inundated with comments. This motivated the PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler, to write a lengthy piece on this issue entitled Climate Change Creates a Storm. Some excerpts:
It was not the PBS NewsHour’s finest 10 minutes. In my view, and that of hundreds, even thousands of others, the program stumbled badly. On the other hand, it was not the end of the world, so to speak.
But almost from the moment it ended, email began pouring into my mailbox, hundreds of them. A representative sampling is posted below. Some are quite long. At the same time, several analytical and opinion pieces attacking or supporting the segment were posted online — almost certainly driving more email traffic — by liberal and conservative commentators, and man-made climate change supporters and criticshere, here and here.
Later in the week, a petition arrived listing 15,000 names associated with “Forecast The Facts,” a group demanding an investigation into “how and why PBS NewsHour promoted falsehoods about climate change and slander against climate scientists.” They focused on the broadcast segment and an accompanying blog post by Michels involving a more extended interview with another guest on the program, Anthony Watts, who the “Facts” group described as a “climate change denier and conspiracy theorist.” I will come back to him as well.
The reason I wrote, at the top of this column that, although the segment was badly handled, it wasn’t the end of the world, is as follows.
Michels, at the start, talked about “the world of climate change, where most scientists and a much smaller group of skeptics remain bitterly divided.” He talked further in the interview about whether politicians “listen to the 97 percent of scientists who say that it is real or they pay attention to the vocal community of skeptics will determine to a large extent what regulations and what laws get passed.”
Aside from interviewing Muller in the broadcast, he interviewed William Collins, senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who talked about the rapid changes in global warming and the human-enhancement of that change, and Jon Krosnick of Stanford University who pointed out that “the voices of skeptics on climate change are very loud in this country and particularly effective in Washington at the moment. But they are a very, very small group.”
Michels also pointed out, usefully, that “neither presidential candidate is talking about climate change but, in Congress, it’s a different story; 74 percent of Senate Republicans publicly question the science of global warming” and more than half in the House.
And physicist Muller got the last word: “We will be experiencing weather that’s warmer than Homo sapiens ever experienced. And I tend to think that’s going to be bad and we should do something about it and we can …”
But the missteps created by the program and committed on the air and online dominate the reasons why this segment is being most widely viewed as falling short of NewsHour standards. I feel that way as well. And the main factor was the choice and appearance of Anthony Watts as someone interviewed on the broadcast, and also interviewed at much greater length by Michels on the NewsHour’s “Rundown” blog. My focus is only on the broadcast, which is what most people wrote and commented about to me.
Watts did not seem to get more time than some of the other major figures but he seemed to dominate the program. Watts is a broadcast meteorologist, entrepreneur and the founder of the “Watts Up With That?” blog that focuses on global warming. He is a leading skeptic, especially about the role of humans in the warming process, and his blog is billed as among the most popular and widely viewed on the subject.
Although global warming strikes me as one of those issues where there is no real balance and it is wrong to create an artificial or false equivalence, there is no harm and some possibility of benefit in inviting skeptics about the human contribution and other factors to speak, but in a setting in which the context of the vast majority of scientific evidence and speakers is also made clear.
What was stunning to me as I watched this program is that the NewsHour and Michels had picked Watts — who is a meteorologist and commentator — rather than a university-accredited scientist to provide “balance.” I had never heard of Watts before this program and I’m sure most viewers don’t, as part of their routines, read global warming blogs on either side of the issue.
I’m not being judgmental about Watts or anything he said. He undoubtedly is an effective spokesperson. But it seems to me that if you decide you are going to give airtime to the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a scientist.
As it turned out, Michels, in his blog post on Monday, revealed that Watts had been recommended to him by The Heartland Institute, that he described as “a conservative, Chicago-based non-profit that is one of the leading groups that doubt that climate change — if it exists — is attributable to human activities.” The Heartland connection, which has included some funding, was not mentioned on the air.
Watts is articulate and confident and used his time well to make some strong assertions. A key one that he is associated with is his past efforts to show that climate warming data is inaccurate because weather stations where measurements are taken often soak up heat from their surroundings. Michels did not challenge that view, which has been disputed, and, in a highly unusual move, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent this statement to The NewsHour:
“The American public can be confident in NOAA’s long-standing surface temperature record, one of the world’s most comprehensive, accurate and trusted data sets. . .
The NewsHour also heard, after the broadcast, from a scientist whose views had been included in the broadcast. As Michels later wrote in his blog: “In our broadcast piece, we said that ‘… Judith Curry, professor of earth sciences at Georgia Tech, who suspects natural variability accounts for climate change — not human-produced CO2 — said Muller’s analysis is ‘way oversimplistic and not at all convincing …’ Curry wrote to us earlier today to say that she believes we didn’t characterize her position fully and said she was ‘appalled’ with what we said.
“Here’s what Curry told us: ‘It is correct that I found Muller’s analysis ‘way oversimplistic and not at all convincing’, but the statement implies that that I don’t think human-produced CO2 accounts for any of the climate change we have been seeing. This is absolutely incorrect. For my views on climate change, see my blog Climate Etc. In my most recent posts on the Arctic sea ice decline, I estimated that about half the decline could be attributed to human induced CO2, which is in line with the latest analyses from the CMIP5 climate models.’
“In retrospect, we should have said that Curry suspects natural variability accounts for some amount of climate change, but she also believes human-induced CO2 plays some role in what has been happening to the planet.”