Science Talk

The Climate of Climate Science

James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz professor of biological oceanography at Harvard, talks about climate science and testifying before Congress, and the collaborations between climate scientists and the national security community as well as with evangelicals. And the Union of Concerned Scientists releases a report about the misleading coverage of climate science at Fox News and The Wall Street Journal

Podcast Transcription

Steve:       Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk posted on September 28th, 2012. I am Steve Mirsky. On this episode:

Reporter: What is Le Chatelier’s principle?

Bastardi:   It simply says that any system in distress, physical or chemical in the atmosphere, tries to return to a normalcy, and that is why you are seeing temperatures level off.

Steve:       That's meteorologist Joe Bastardi appearing on Fox News, and what he is saying is utter nonsense as numerous scientists have noted. In this episode, we're going to hear about the results of an analysis of Fox News and The Wall Street Journal's editorial page that demonstrates how the overwhelming majority of their climate coverage is wrong. That analysis was undertaken by the Union of Concerned Scientists and on September 20th, I attended a briefing they held in New York City. The first voice you'll hear is Angela Anderson, director of the Climate and Energy Program for the union. You'll also hear James McCarthy; he's the president of the board of the union. He is also a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is the Alexander Agassiz professor of biological oceanography at Harvard, and he holds faculty appointments in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. He knows things. And he'll have some fascinating things to say that we don't hear enough about, about Republican senators who are not James Inhofe being much more accepting of the science of climate change. You'll also hear the voice of Bryan Walsh, senior writer for Time magazine.

Anderson: When it comes to climate policy, we know there are legitimate debates about the response to climate change. There is widespread agreement on some responses, such as energy efficiency, conservation; those have clear environmental and economic benefits. But on other proposed responses, such as international climate treaties; there is tremendous contention based on a wide variety of issues that individual countries and individual interests have, be they economic values or ideology and, of course, politics. But we've been troubled at UCS to see anti-science argument creep into debates about responding and adapting to climate change. In North Carolina the state legislature has voted to ignore scientific projections of sea level rise, and in Virginia, legislators have voted to avoid even the term 'sea level rise'; they call it 'recurrent flooding'. We also know that broad media coverage of climate change is decreasing, and some media outlets continue to actively spread disinformation and misinformation that actually distorts the science, and we're talking more about that too. But for now we're going to turn to a good conversation with our two panelists with us: Dr. James McCarthy—I know Jim from being chair of our board, but he is also professor of oceanography at Harvard University, and he is a past President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and we also have Bryan Walsh, the  senior writer of Time magazine. Jim let me start with you. Let's start first with the state of the science. What can we say with highest confidence that is true about climate change?

McCarthy: It's been very interesting to watch climate science develop over the last 25 years, and one way to look at markers for our understanding of climate science—and by understanding I mean broadly agreed to facts and positions—would be to look at, kind of, 1990 and 1995, about 2000 and mid-2000s, which are the timings of the release of the big international reports. And so if you went back and look at the first one, and I was an author in the first one which was published in 1990—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—there were a lot of scientists who didn't believe the observations were sufficiently robust. We didn't have a long enough record; the signal wasn't large enough, either for land temperatures or ocean temperatures, to say that that something unusual is happening to the climate. There was also no indication that there was an unusual frequency persistence of extreme events. And sea level rise, well sea level had been rising, it looked about the same. By 2000, it was clear that this trend was continuing in a way that could only be explained by human activities and there specifically greenhouse gases—it couldn't be explained by any natural cycles, certainly it couldn't be explained by solar variability. Also for the first time in about 2000, the data were now sufficiently consistent to show that there were some unusual trends in extreme events—that warm events and wet events and dry events were occurring in ways that we hadn't seen in the past. And in every continent we were seeing organisms change patterns of distribution, timing of migrations, egg laying, nest building and the like, indicating that they were responding to a change in the climate. And for the first time we were also seeing that the rise in sea level was tipping up. It was, if you wish, accelerating. So, today you won't find science published in scientific journals that would refute either the statement that the Earth is warming in an unusual way, that it's warming mostly—and you can debate how much mostly is; it's more than half, but is it closer to 90 percent?—most of the warming is due to human activities. And that the implications of that are now widespread for natural and human systems. By natural systems I mean, you look at the ecology of organisms from low latitude to high latitude you see them responding; by natural systems, look at what's happening with respect to our coastal cities, challenges to infrastructure. Look at our agricultural system—look at the way it's being challenged by changes of precipitation. So I think, you know, that part of the science is really so thoroughly established that you won't find papers in scientific literature that challenge any of that.

Anderson: What about the summer of extreme heat, the drought and even that, coming off a very warm winter—can we say that, that is a result of climate change?

McCarthy: Well, that's the problem of saying any one event is a result of climate change. We know that this has been an unusual past couple of years in the equatorial Pacific; one of the climate cycles, the El Niño-La Niña cycle, and we have been locked in a, sort of, now two-year- strong La Niña cycle. The La Niña is a period that brings more aridity to the center of continents., But we also know that if you follow the projections of a warmer world, one of the patterns will be the drying out of the interior of continents, so—the interior versus the coastal areas. So, if you look at the natural cycle and say, "Well we would have normally expected this last couple of years to have been drier, would it have been from previous La Niñas likely to be as dry as it is now, setting record after record of number of days over 100 degrees and number of days without rain?" You can say, "Well, if other than, you know, this year we actually had a point where there were 400 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere; if it was more like 350 or maybe 280, which is what it was in the middle of the 19th century,  would this have been as likely?" You would say, "No, the odds of this would have been far less likely. It could have still occurred but it would have been an extremely rare event." And as we look forward this is going to be more common.

Anderson: So it seems like over the time that you've spoken about, there was a time when scientists were projecting impacts and not, you know, what they expected to see given the trends. But now we're really at this, there's, kind of, a new part of climate science where we are really saying, "What of the impacts that we're seeing can be attributed to climate science?" And are we going to get better? Is it going to be easier to attribute a particular weather event to climate in the future? Or is it just, always has to be, we have to be quite careful about those kinds of attributions?

McCarthy: Yeah, well you have to be careful. And I think most people don't realize how cautious scientists are. And the most precious thing that scientists have is their reputation as a rigorous and credible scientist. And if you get out on the edge of this and start speculating that we're going to move in a particular direction, and it doesn’t then raises questions about your judgment, and maybe, you know, your projections, your models are based on sound science and they didn't play out, but you have to be really, really careful to be cautious about that. So, what we are seeing, and this is a robust projection from models of the warmer Earth, is the repeat cycle. That is, you look at the 100-year storm, or the 50-year storm or the precipitation of that or a dry period; that the repeat cycles of those are shortening. So, you look at every continent in the last decade, we had events that would have been considered century-scale events, and yet within a decade every continent hit with major precipitation events at magnitudes that you wouldn't expect that frequent. So that's a very likely projection from a warmer world, which spins up the hydrological cycle; more moisture in the atmosphere, warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, and it's more energetic.

Anderson: So, obviously it's hard to have a conversation like this on a TV interview, shall we say…

McCarthy: It's terrible.

Anderson: So, on the other side, when you're watching the TV reports and the news reports of climate science or weather events how do you think the media is doing in terms of covering these connections?

McCarthy: Ah well, not well, not well. And it's hard to talk about the media colossally, but if you do a sampling of, say, daily newspapers you'll find that on average they don't cover the science very well, and they tend to—because, in fact, a lot of newspapers no longer have science reporters, they no longer have in-depth reporting; they're simply calling up a few people and getting a few sound bites. And you would guess from the print media—not the good magazines, but from the newspapers—that there is far more indecision within the scientific community as to what's really happening than is actually the case. And, I think, you know television doesn't do much better. I think certain magazines do, and also, I think, in many regards radio is a better source of information on the state of the science than lot of other media sources.

Anderson: So, how does that compare to your experience, for example, with testifying—your experience with the media—what about testifying before Congress and the level of knowledge with members of, our Congressional representatives in the Senate or the House; is there a parallel there or…?

McCarthy: Well, that's always, sort of, theatrical. I testified for the Senate committee on Environment and Public Works in early August, and the ranking minority member is very vocal on this subject—that's Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma; the chair of the committee is Senator Boxer from California. I've really found those experiences interesting because you do find senators or representatives asking thoughtful questions and often revealing positions that you wouldn't expect. So, for example, in this hearing there were only three other Republicans who came to the hearing—three members of the committee, that's maybe a third of the members, and there are about that twice that many Democrats. And none of the other Republicans who spoke—two of them spoke—would associate themselves with Inhofe's extreme statements. In fact Senator Sessions from Alabama said "Well, I think there's a lot we don't know here," but he said, "I accept the fact that the Earth is warming and that humans have something to do with it." Senator Boozman from Arkansas, afterwards for about 15 minutes, told me, "You know, I think this is a serious problem, but the inflammatory rhetoric is just bogging us down. We've got to figure out how to deal with it." He said, "I'm not a fan of cap and trade, but there have got to be other solutions." So, one of the things you learn from those hearings is something that doesn't come across when you have simply the spokesperson, in this case Mr. Inhofe for the Republican Senate, because he really soaks up all the air time, he's the one who speaks mostly about this. There are some very reasonable people who I think who you can engage in discussions on this, and I wouldn't know that unless I had opportunities like this.

Anderson: That's excellent news. So when you think, all of this conversation, whether it be the media or the Congress, it comes down to, How does the public perceive the issue of climate change? And I just had a meeting with, we probably had about 12 scientists in the room, and we were talking about communicating climate science. And they were, they just knew that if we just could get out more information out to more people, than the public will immediately see how important action on climate is. But we also know, from talking to social scientists, that it's actually not true that simply getting out more information, particularly more scientific, information doesn't necessarily change their minds. We really have to speak to them or connect with their values and be there and, kind of, get folks out of their comfort zones a little bit. Are scientists able to, kind of, make those connections do you think, or are they just too rigorously tied to their training that it makes it difficult for them to talk about these facts, you know, in a way that really does connect to people's lives and values?

McCarthy: Well, most of the public doesn't really have the opportunity to have a conversation with a scientist on certain issues like this. Most of the public, the people they do interact with whose opinions they respect and whose, sort of, values might be close to their own are often not terribly informed on these subjects, and so it's one of the reasons that we've spent a lot of time working with groups who we think could be helpful in validating the message of science. So, one for example, most of us have a good relationship with a physician, and yet I can tell you, it's really very surprising at how little knowledge physicians have of the problems associated with climate change. And increasingly, we're seeing very, very strong public health connections to the climate change that we’re experiencing; not just heat waves—all sorts of respiratory disorders, associated either with change in climate or with the fuels that we're burning today and contributing to the quality of air. So we're working with physicians. I have also spent a lot of time over the last handful of years working with a group that I wouldn't have imagined would be as receptive and productive in this regard and these are the associations of Evangelicals, the National Association of Evangelicals, you know, with 40,000 churches and pastors. And a small handful of scientists had been asked to review and critique—and I'm part of this group—all the statements they send out to their pastors about climate change to make sure they're correct; to make sure that if a local church wants to get involved and looks at its carbon footprint, they're not getting confused by what they would find on the Internet, but they’re getting something that has been passed to them with a level of authority. And the notion of stewardship is strong and deep in that community, and they're also concerned about the people who are going to be most affected by this. The other community that we've spent a lot of time with over the last few years is the national security community. And I recently, on a committee with half-a-dozen former recently retired admirals and generals—we all had clearance, we did a lot of classified material—and every single one of them are extremely concerned about the implications of climate change for national security. And on that topic, I have met with the staffs of many conservative senators, introduced to them by my colleagues in the evangelical community to talk about national security and climate change. So getting other constituencies involved, people who have respect and authority and have an opportunity to communicate in ways that scientists don't with the public is something we try hard to do at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Anderson: We're going to bring Brian into the conversation here. I wonder how you deal with, particularly on the blogosphere, as there are I imagine, writing pieces knowing that a significant segment of the audience just doesn't accept the basics premise of the science.

Walsh:       That's challenging, you know; and you know, there's always a risk in, especially I think, in the past there was way too much of this in terms of what we call 'false balance'; which is to say, you know, pointing out that you need another side to a story that doesn't always have another side. And when it comes again to the scientific basics of climate change that's the case. And you know personally, well I don't feel the need to put in disclaimers or to find one of the smaller number of skeptical scientists for a quote for a story, because I don't think that would accurately, within the bounds of the story, represent what's actually going on. But at the same time, you know, it's difficult because so many of your audience those who are, who do reject that, who are the more skeptical, tend to be the loudest often, and they are often the ones you hear from. And, you know, when you're working in what is essentially, sort of, one of last mainstream publications like the Time magazine is, you know, you are trying to reach a broader based audience and that that means you're challenged in how to do that. I don't, you know, what I look to try to do I think is in many ways the same thing that you're looking to do when it comes to trying to spread that message which is, Alright, what are the areas that we can find more agreement on? So you go to things like business, the business case, for things like alternative energy, energy efficiency—these are areas that have much broader political support, and they don't require you really to delve deeply into climate science or reports anything like that; you just know that this is something that's worthwhile for the United States; ditto with things like energy efficiency that you can, sort of, work on your own. And then maybe even things like health that really get people, that they really get people where they live. You know, one piece I did recently was on the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's book. And it's really amazing to see at that time, environmentalism, especially in the aftermath of that book, became a bipartisan issue and that was because it struck people where they live. It was hard to deny that pollution was a problem when, you know, you had rivers, you know, being ignited into flames in Cleveland, and you had obvious clear air problems, and so people really worked on that. Climate change is going to be more diffuse, and it's going to be invisible, and that's going to be hard both the cover; but it's going to be hard to keep people involved in that because it doesn't strike them at home in the same way that other environmental issues have.

Steve:       Later in the session the Union of Concerned Scientists released the results of their analysis of Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. Here is the brief podcast about that that I produced immediately after the event.

Ekwurzel: We were following up on anecdotal and peer-reviewed assessments to date that suggested that there was bias and mis-representation at the News Corporation of the fact that human-induced climate change is happening; the vast scientific evidence that's out there.

Steve:       Brenda Ekwurzel is a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She announced in New York City on September 21st the results of an analysis of climate change coverage at two major properties of the News Corporation, the Fox News Channel and The Wall Street Journal.

Ekwurzel: What we found in our analysis was that a staggering 93 percent of all occurrences in the last six months in the prime time news of Fox News were misleading occurrences of climate science. Okay for The Wall Street Journal opinion section in the last year, we found a surprising 81 percent of the occurrences were misleading; and of the accurate ones, these were all letters to the editor that were submitted in response to misrepresentations in editorials or other letters. So, a broad swath of News Corporation viewers and readership are being misled about the science.

Steve:       Which brings us back to Joe Bastardi. He is WeatherBELL's chief meteorologist and he is a frequent expert commentator on Fox News. Here he is talking about the impossibility, in his view, that simply increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could have anything to do with an increase in planetary temperatures.

Bastardi: It contradicts what we call the first law of thermodynamics: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. So, to look for input of energy into the atmosphere, you have to come from a foreign source. It's already out there, carbon dioxide being a part of it; maybe the sun.

Reporter:  What is Le Chatelier's principle?

Bastardi:   Well, I will tell you what he…

Reporter: Did I pronounce it pronounce it properly?

Bastardi:   Well, I don't know, but you make a mistake with his name, it won't be as bad as if you make a mistake with mine. It simply says that any system in distress, physical or chemical, in the atmosphere, tries to return to normalcy, and that's why you're seeing temperatures level off. We have warmed up overall over the last 20 to 30 years; over the last 200 years because of sun spot cycles, you can trace it to the sun spot cycles, and you can trace it to the movement of the oceans.

Steve:       Yikes! Calling these statements wrong would be elevating them to the level of reason. The first law of thermodynamics simply stated is: The energy of an isolated system is constant. Well, the Earth is not an isolated system. We have energy reaching us from a giant ball of gas undergoing constant thermonuclear reactions. Bastardi's statement is an equivalent of saying that you can't boil a pot of water by putting it on a fire. Le Chatelier's principle does not say what he says it says. It describes chemical systems in equilibrium. When you disturb a system that's in chemical equilibrium, it will establish a new equilibrium. Climate is not merely a chemical system, and it's not in equilibrium—that big ball of gas constantly inputs energy. But even if climate could be described by Le Chatelier's principle, he is still wrong—you don't return to normalcy following a shock to the system; you establish a new normal, if you want to call it that. Bastardi's statement here again is not even wrong, it's nonsense—as anybody who took a couple of chemistry or physics courses, which Bastardi presumably did, should know—and this is the stuff that gets fed to Fox viewers as science. Well just listening to that requires me to just spend the next few hours sitting quietly in a dark room to lower my blood pressure. So that's it for this episode. Get your science news at our Web site,, where you can check out the new Instant Egg-Head video, "How Do 3-D Glasses Work?" and follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet whenever a new article hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @sciam, S-C-I-A-M. For Scientific American's Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article