New York Times' climate skeptic debacle: How a new profile sets back science

Paper of record issues bizarrely sympathetic treatment of prominent skeptic John Christy, totally misses the point

Published July 16, 2014 7:37PM (EDT)

                       (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)
(Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

The New York Times missed the mark big time in its new profile of John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and prominent climate skeptic who "finds himself a target of suspicion" -- and derision, and sometimes even insults -- from his peers. Ostensibly, it's an examination of the way that climate science has become politicized, to the extent that those with dissenting views are silenced or attacked by the cult of mainstream climate science. In reality, it's an overly credulous and sympathetic portrayal of someone who, his claims having been almost completely discredited, is trying to spin the story in a way that makes him out to be a victim.

Perhaps, writer Michael Wines speculates, the reason why other climate scientists are so mean to Christy (people drew mean cartoons about him!) is because he's "providing legitimacy to those who refuse to acknowledge" that the consequences of climate change are likely to be dire. The use of the word "legitimacy" is questionable: Unlike those who contest the scientific consensus on climate change with little or no background in climate science themselves, Christy does boast a bevy of credentials, as Wines is careful to denote. Christy's actual research, on the other hand, along with the data that he insists, in the profile, to be beholden to -- well, that's been deflated, disproven and debunked by all manner of other, highly qualified experts. A dispute over his inaccurate climate models that Wines dismisses as a "scientific tit for tat," meanwhile, is seen by others as a conscious attempt to misinform the public, in the interest of promoting climate skepticism.

A difference in perspective, perhaps. But in downplaying the many and legitimate issues with Christy's research, Wines fails to treat this "skeptic" with much skepticism of his own. And worse still, the profile plays into an image that Christy has been working to build -- one not of an anti-science "denier," but instead of a modern-day Galileo, one who dares to contradict mainstream opinion and who will be vindicated by history -- in this case, when the effects of climate change turns out to not be so bad, after all. See, for example, the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed Christy authored this February with fellow skeptic Richard McNider. In response to comments by Secretary of State John Kerry, who accused climate skeptics of belonging to the "Flat Earth Society," they wrote:

But who are the Flat Earthers, and who is ignoring the scientific facts? In ancient times, the notion of a flat Earth was the scientific consensus, and it was only a minority who dared question this belief. We are among today's scientists who are skeptical about the so-called consensus on climate change. Does that make us modern-day Flat Earthers, as Mr. Kerry suggests, or are we among those who defy the prevailing wisdom to declare that the world is round?

This interpretation of history, as Joe Romm pointed out at the time, is yet another misconception, as the flat Earth myth was a pre-scientific belief, disproven by -- you guessed it -- science. Christy and McNiders' inflated perception of themselves only serves to further confuse the public's understanding of the scientific consensus on climate change. Their rhetoric, while appealing, falls apart upon examination.

As for the contention, among environmentalists, that Christy may be "a pawn of the fossil-fuel industry who distorts science to fit his own ideology"? Wines dismisses that in a parenthetical comment from Christy (“I don’t take money from industries”), and leaves it at that. This, again, plays right into Christy's desire to be seen as misunderstood -- he's been careful to avoid associations not just with polluting industries, but with most of the groups dedicated to spreading climate denial. He doesn't attend the Heartland Institute's annual climate denial conferences, he told the Times' Andrew Revkin several years back, because he wants to avoid "guilt by association."

Yet Christy's perspective on global warming -- that the effects will be mild, and potentially even beneficial -- is more or less aligned with those voiced by the participants in Heartland's most recent conference, which took place last week. Aside from a few remaining loonies, most deniers have by now conceded the two most basic facts of climate change: that the climate is changing, and that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases are at least partially responsible. Christy's not special in this regard. Instead, he's part of a growing movement that Will Oremus, writing in Slate, describes as an effort to rebrand climate denial as "climate optimism": the idea that climate change, while real, isn't something worth worrying about -- and certainly not worth making an effort to mitigate. In some ways, this is even more dangerous than flat-out denial, which is at least easy to shut down; climate optimism, instead, conflates science with conservative political ideology, as Oremus explains:

In fact, it’s not unreasonable to see the climate fight as part of a much broader ideological war in American society, says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The debate over causes is often a proxy for a debate over solutions, which are likely to require global cooperation and government intervention in people’s lives. Leiserowitz’s research shows that climate deniers tend to be committed to values like individualism and small government while those most concerned about climate change are more likely to hold egalitarian and community-oriented political views.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the evidence on both sides is equal. There’s a reason the climate deniers are losing the scientific debate, and it isn’t because academia is better funded than the energy industry. All of which helps to explain how climate optimism might be a more appealing approach these days than climate denial. Models of how climate change will impact society and the economy are subject to far more uncertainty than the science that links greenhouse gas emissions to the 20th-century warming trend. The costs of mitigating those emissions are more readily grasped: higher energy bills, government spending on alternative energy projects, lost jobs at coal plants.

Accepting climate change, but not accepting that we should do anything about it: It's that ideologically driven belief, and not a debate over science itself, that is the real way in which climate change has become politicized.

None of this is to suggest that there shouldn't be a debate about science, or that all climate science is settled. Most of what we know about the future effects of climate change, including just how severe they will be, remains decidedly unsettled, and will remain so until they actually come to pass. Because 97 percent of scientists agree that human activity is contributing to changes in our climate, the debate now can and should be about what the evidence suggests, and what we ought to do about it. But the reason why Christy has attracted so much vitriol is because he's on the radical fringe of both of those conversations: he's using error-laden research and misleading claims to advocate for some adaptation and zero mitigation. The American Association for the Advancement of Science compares such a strategy to barreling down the highway without the benefit of seat belts or airbags; more colorfully, in Wines' article, MIT professor Kerry Emanuel suggests “It’s kind of like telling a little girl who’s trying to run across a busy street to catch a school bus to go for it, knowing there’s a substantial chance that she’ll be killed. She might make it. But it’s a big gamble to take.”

Christy's supporters are already up in arms about that one. But the comparison is apt, and it's the reason why, even if history does turn out to vindicate Christy, he won't be remembered as an anti-establishment hero. He'll just be someone who, against all evidence to the contrary, got really, really lucky, and put not just a little girl, but the entire world at risk in the process.

By Lindsay Abrams

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