Objectivity and Global Warming

Those of you who read the major story on the front page of the Jan. 17, 2015, N.Y. Times may have been struck by a glaring omission. The story is headlined: “2014 Breaks Heat Record, Challenging Global Warming Skeptics.” It presents information about the record global temperature of last year and the ongoing trend of an ever-hotter climate. But one thing is missing—actual temperatures! Astonishingly, not a single temperature reading is included in the piece.

Here are some excerpts from the article: “Last year was the hottest on Earth since record-keeping began in 1880.” “Extreme heat blanketed Alaska and much of the western United States.” “In the annals of climatology, 2014 surpassed 2010 as the warmest year.” “The 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1997.” One would think that the principle of objectivity plainly demands that the reader be told what the temperature levels were. But no mention is made of the actual temperature for any period of time covered in the article. (There is an accompanying weather map for 2014 and a chart of the annual climate trend since 1880; big on graphics and small on words, both show only the amounts by which the temperature deviated from the 20th century’s average.)

The only plausible explanation for this omission from the article is that the temperature increase—described as portending “profound long-term risks to civilization”was embarrassingly trivial. Here are the relevant data (all temperatures are Fahrenheit), taken from the source used by the Times article, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

  • The average global temperature during 2014 was 58.24˚, beating the previous high in 2010 by . . . 17/100 of a degree!
  • The change in temperature between 1880 (56.50˚) and 2014 (58.24˚) was 1.74˚an increase of 0.013˚ per year, or a minuscule 1.3˚ per century!

The article further notes: “Skeptics of climate change have long argued that global warming stopped around 1998 . . .  [b]ut the temperature of 1998 is now being surpassed every four or five years.” Again, no actual numbers are offered, so let me offer some. The average temperature in 1998 was 58.13˚; in 2005 and 2010, it was 4/100 of a degree higher; by 2014—the record year—it had risen by 11/100 of a degree. Yet we are supposed to “expect the heat to get much worse over coming decades.” One can see why the reporter might have been disinclined to use concrete numbers.

The article does allude to these tiny increases in temperature, but in a dismissive and non-informative manner. A number of scientists argue that climates go through natural cycles and that there had been some warming in the decades prior to 1998, but virtually none since then. Here the Times cites John Christy, an atmospheric scientist “known for his skepticism about the seriousness of global warming,” who said “that 2014 had surpassed the other record-warm years by only a few hundredths of a degree, well within the error margin of global temperature measurements [italics added].” Dr. Christy is quoted as saying: “Since the end of the 20th century, the temperature hasn’t done much. It’s on this kind of warmish plateau.”

How does the Times reporter deal with this claim? Not by giving us the data on the actual temperatures now and in 1998. Instead, the claim is shrugged off through the reporter’s assertion that “the vast majority of those who study the climate say the Earth is in a long-term warming trend that is profoundly threatening.” That is the whole of the response to Dr. Christy’s point: i.e., numbers don’t matter on questions of science, only the majority vote does.

So here we have a striking example of non-objective reporting. The story is supposed to reveal a dangerous and continuous rise in global temperatures—while the reporter withholds the facts that would make a reader seriously doubt the validity of his theme.♦♦ 

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