Something Is Rotten at the New York Times

Nov 21, 2013 | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Something is rotten at the New York Times.

When it comes to the matter of human-caused climate change, the Grey Lady's editorial page has skewed rather contrarian of late.

A couple months ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its 5th scientific assessment, providing the strongest evidence to date that climate change is real, caused by us, and a problem.

Among other areas of the science where the evidence has become ever more compelling, is the so-called "Hockey Stick" curve -- a graph my co-authors and I published a decade and a half ago showing modern warming in the Northern Hemisphere to be unprecedented for at least the past 1000 years. The IPCC further strengthened that original conclusion, finding that recent warmth is likely unprecedented over an even longer timeframe.

Here was USA Today on the development:

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the internationally accepted authority on the subject, concludes that the climate system has warmed dramatically since the 1950s, and that scientists are 95% to 100% sure human influence has been the dominant cause. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the past 1,400 years, the IPCC found.

And here was the Washington Post:

The infamous "hockey stick" graph showing global temperatures rising over time, first slowly and then sharply, remains valid.

And the New York Times? Well we instead got this:

The [Hockey Stick] graph shows a long, relatively unwavering line of temperatures across the last millennium (the stick), followed by a sharp, upward turn of warming over the last century (the blade). The upward turn implied that greenhouse gases had become so dominant that future temperatures would rise well above their variability and closely track carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere....I knew that wasn't the case.


Rather than objectively communicating the findings of the IPCC to their readers, the New York Times instead foisted upon them the ill-informed views of Koch Brothers-funded climate change contrarian Richard Muller, who used the opportunity to deny the report's findings.

In fact, in the space of just a couple months now, the Times has chosen to grant Muller not just one, but two opportunities to mislead its readers about climate change and the threat it poses.

The Times has now published another op-ed by Muller wherein he misrepresented the potential linkages between climate change and extreme weather--tornadoes to be specific, which he asserted would be less of a threat in a warmer world. The truth is that the impact of global warming on tornadoes remains uncertain, because the underlying science is nuanced and there are competing factors that come into play.

The Huffington Post published an objective piece about the current state of the science earlier this year in the wake of the devastating and unprecedented Oklahoma tornadoes.

That piece accurately quoted a number of scientists including myself on the potential linkages. I pointed out to the journalist that there are two key factors: warm, moist air is favorable for tornadoes, and global warming will provide more of it. But important too is the amount of "shear" (that is, twisting) in the wind. And whether there will, in a warmer world, be more or less of that in tornado-prone regions, during the tornado season, depends on the precise shifts that will take place in the jet stream--something that is extremely difficult to predict even with state-of-the-art theoretical climate models. That factor is a "wild card" in the equation.

So we've got one factor that is a toss-up, and another one that appears favorable for tornado activity. The combination of them is therefore slightly on the "favorable" side, and if you're a betting person, that's probably what you would go with. And this is the point that I made in the Huffington Post piece:

Michael Mann, a climatologist who directs the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, agreed that it's too early to tell.

"If one factor is likely to be favorable and the other is a wild card, it's still more likely that the product of the two factors will be favorable," said Mann. "Thus, if you're a betting person -- or the insurance or reinsurance industry, for that matter -- you'd probably go with a prediction of greater frequency and intensity of tornadoes as a result of human-caused climate change."

Now watch the sleight of hand that Muller uses when he quotes me in his latest Times op-ed:

Michael E. Mann, a prominent climatologist, was only slightly more cautious. He said, "If you're a betting person -- or the insurance or reinsurance industry, for that matter -- you'd probably go with a prediction of greater frequency and intensity of tornadoes as a result of human-caused climate change."

Completely lost in Muller's selective quotation is any nuance or context in what I had said, let alone the bottom line in what I stated: that it is in fact too early to tell whether global warming is influencing tornado activity, but we can discuss the processes through which climate change might influence future trends.

Muller, who lacks any training or expertise in atmospheric science, is more than happy to promote with great confidence the unsupportable claim that global warming will actually decrease tornado activity. His evidence for this? The false claim that the historical data demonstrate a decreasing trend in past decades.

Actual atmospheric scientists know that the historical observations are too sketchy and unreliable to decide one way or another as to whether tornadoes are increasing or not (see this excellent discussion by weather expert Jeff Masters of The Weather Underground).

So one is essentially left with the physical reasoning I outlined above. You would think that a physicist would know how to do some physical reasoning. And sadly, in Muller's case, you would apparently be wrong...

To allow Muller to so thoroughly mislead their readers, not once, but twice in the space of as many months, is deeply irresponsible of the Times. So why might it be that the New York Times is so enamored with Muller, a retired physicist with no training in atmospheric or climate science, when it comes to the matter of climate change?

I discuss Muller's history as a climate change critic and his new-found role as a media favorite in my book "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars" (the paperback was just released a couple weeks ago, with a new guest foreword by Bill Nye "The Science Guy").

Muller is known for his bold and eccentric, but flawed and largely discredited astronomical theories. But he rose to public prominence only two years ago when he cast himself in the irresistible role of the "converted climate change skeptic".

Muller had been funded by the notorious Koch Brothers, the largest current funders of climate change denial and disinformation, to independently "audit" the ostensibly dubious science of climate change. This audit took the form of an independent team of scientists that Muller picked and assembled under the umbrella of the "Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature" (unashamedly termed "BEST" by Muller) project.

Soon enough, Muller began to unveil the project's findings: First, in late 2011, he admitted that the Earth was indeed warming. Then, a year later he concluded that the warming was not only real, but could only be explained by human influence.

Muller, in short, had rediscovered what the climate science community already knew long ago.

I summarized the development at the time on my Facebook page:

Muller's announcement last year that the Earth is indeed warming brought him up to date w/ where the scientific community was in the the 1980s. His announcement this week that the warming can only be explained by human influences, brings him up to date with where the science was in the mid 1990s. At this rate, Muller should be caught up to the current state of climate science within a matter of a few years!

The narrative of a repentant Koch Brothers-funded skeptic who had "seen the light" and appeared to now endorse the mainstream view of human-caused climate change, was simply too difficult for the mainstream media to resist. Muller predictably was able to position himself as a putative "honest broker" in the climate change debate. And he was granted a slew of op-eds in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, headline articles in leading newspapers, and interviews on many of the leading television and radio news shows.

Yet Muller was in reality seeking to simply take credit for findings established by other scientists (ironically using far more rigorous and defensible methods!) literally decades ago. In 1995 the IPCC had already concluded, based on work by Ben Santer and other leading climate scientists working on the problem of climate change "detection and attribution", that there was already now a "discernible human influence" on the warming of the planet.

And while Muller has now admitted that the Earth had warmed and that human-activity is largely to blame, he has used his new-found limelight and access to the media to:

1. Smear and misrepresent other scientists, including not just me and various other climate scientists like Phil Jones of the UK's University of East Anglia, but even the President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences himself, Ralph Cicerone.

2. Misrepresent key details of climate science, inevitably to downplay the seriousness of climate change, whether it is the impacts on extreme weather and heat, drought, Arctic melting, or the threat to Polar Bears. See my own debunking of various falsehoods that Muller has promoted in his numerous news interviews e.g. here or here.

3. Shill for fossil fuel energy, arguing that the true solution to global warming isn't renewable or clean energy. No, not at all! Muller is bullish on fracking and natural gas as the true solution.

To (a) pretend to accept the science, but attack the scientists and misrepresent so many important aspect of the science, downplaying the impacts and threat of climate change, while (b) acting as a spokesman for natural gas, one imagines that the petrochemical tycoon Koch Brothers indeed were probably quite pleased with their investment. Job well done. As I put it in an interview last year:

It would seem that Richard Muller has served as a useful foil for the Koch Brothers, allowing them to claim they have funded a real scientist looking into the basic science, while that scientist-- Muller---props himself up by using the "Berkeley" imprimatur (UC Berkeley has not in any way sanctioned this effort) and appearing to accept the basic science, and goes out on the talk circuit, writing op-eds, etc. systematically downplaying the actual state of the science, dismissing key climate change impacts and denying the degree of risk that climate change actually represents. I would suspect that the Koch Brothers are quite happy with Muller right now, and I would have been very surprised had he stepped even lightly on their toes during his various interviews, which he of course has not. He has instead heaped great praise on them, as in this latest interview.

The New York Times does a disservice to its readers when it buys into the contrived narrative of the "honest broker"--Muller as the self-styled white knight who must ride in to rescue scientific truth from a corrupt and misguided community of scientists. Especially when that white knight is in fact sitting atop a Trojan Horse--a vehicle for the delivery of disinformation, denial, and systematic downplaying of what might very well be the greatest threat we have yet faced as a civilization, the threat of human-caused climate change.

Shame on you New York Times. You owe us better than this.

Michael Mann is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (now available in paperback with a new guest foreword by Bill Nye "The Science Guy")