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Monday, March 24, 2008

Climate Progress: NASA's Hansen responds to the NYTimes's Revkin

BLOGGER'S NOTE: The post and 20 comments below were lifted from the Climate Progress blog.

This post ends with a Climate Progress exclusive: James Hansen’s response to the NYT’s Andy Revkin piece commenting on Hansen’s (draft) article on why we need a CO2 target of 350 ppm. But first the backstory.

Revkin used me as the “balance” for his piece:

Some longtime champions of Dr. Hansen, including the Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm, see some significant gaps in the paper (it is a draft still) and part ways with Dr. Hansen over whether such a goal is remotely feasible.

I complained directly to Revkin about the first part of that characterization. I was going to let it go at that, but then I got e-mails from people directing me to a media interview of Hansen (and Mark Bowen, whose new book is Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming). The reporter cited Revkin’s quote directly to Hansen to argue the paper is “controversial.”

Well, obviously, the reporter should have called me directly, rather than taking some hearsay characterization from another member of the media. But that just isn’t the state of journalism today. [Note to media: You don’t need to cite me in order to say that a paper saying we need to go back to 350 ppm is “controversial” — it’s kind of obvious, given that we’re at 385 ppm, rising 2 ppm a year, and not currently doing anything to stop emissions from rising, let alone concentrations, but I digress.] Anyway, at that point I felt obliged to write Hansen an email titled, “I don’t see ’significant gaps in the paper’ “:

I complained to Revkin about that characterization.

I think it is a solid and important paper and told everyone to read it: 2008/ 03/ 17/ hansen-et-al-must-read-back-to-350-ppm-or-risk-an-ice-free-planet/

I just say you don’t know how much we can overshoot and for how long, which your paper acknowledges. You quite naturally take a conservative approach — best not to overshoot too much for too long. Since I don’t believe we can possibly get to 350 ppm this century, I interpret your paper to say that we should shoot to stay below 450 ppm this century [almost certainly politically impossible but worth a shot] and 1) plan on going to 350 by 2150 and/or 2) waiting to see if the science becomes clearer on the overshoot issue and we need to act faster.

I don’t think we disagree about much on the technical side. On the action side, you need a WWII-scale effort ASAP for decades. Whether we can get 450 or 400 or 350 with such an approach is something neither of us knows for sure.

Hansen forwarded my email to Revkin with this cover note (which he has given me permission to reprint):


It does seem to me that you now go out of your way to make a “fair and balanced” summary of everything that I write, which is why I hesitate to send you things these days.

Sometimes there are actually conclusions worth reporting without denigrating them down to speculations disputed by other experts.

In reporting the first significant paper that I wrote (in 1981) on this topic Walter Sullivan included grumpy caveats of a couple of people but then wrote something to the effect “these caveats were all noted in the paper by Hansen et al.” (remarkable in indicating he actually read the paper, which covered 10 pages in Science) — unfortunately the version of the Sullivan article that I kept seems to be an abbreviated version which does not include this little bit.

I guess that the “fair and balanced” approach is not aimed at me — it seems to infest a current popular style, which goes something like: well those are some opinions, what are yours? Which encourages responses, and propagation of responses, by people who don’t really understand what they are talking about. Maybe this style is inherent with modern electronic communications. But I liked the old style, which had a little more permanence.


20 Responses to “NASA’s Hansen responds to NYT’s Revkin”

  1. David B. Benson Says:

    I hold that it is possible to lower CO2 concentration to 350 ppm before the century is over. It does require a massive effort, amounting to 1–2% of the world’s GDP. Once started, as Joe has pointed out elsewhere, managers and engineers will probably figure out more efficient ways to accomplish the goal. So, about 1% of GDP for 70 years ought to do it.

    The longer we wait to start, the greater the total cost and the more damage to the oceans.

  2. Andy Revkin Says:

    Several things:

    1) Joe, you did assert there’s a significant gap in saying the paper doesn’t say how long the concentration of CO2 could overshoot Jim’s chosen goal of 350 ppm before tracking back to that level. That is a hugely important question in terms of how hard society has to work, and how quickly. Am I missing something?

    2) Jim and I go back a long way, and I think — even though he’s focused on this “balance as bias” idea now — he’d see most of my 20 years of coverage as fair and ACCURATE. I’ve written repeatedly about the “tyranny of balance” in traditional news coverage and how it impedes effective coverage of complex science. (A book chapter including a discussion of this issue is here: episodes/ 2006/ 12/ 08/ chapter.html)

    That doesn’t mean stories can’t frame the extent of discourse (see my piece tonight on ecological disruption and climate). What they do need to do is characterize the voices and not just include them.

    3) A Dot Earth post on a DRAFT paper posted by Jim expressly to gain review and comment is NOT the same as a news story written once that paper has been formally peer-reviewed and published in a journal. When Jim’s paper has passed those steps, I’ll write a fair and accurate story about it.

  3. tidal Says:

    Noting Hansen’s point about the perversion of “fair and balanced” in the mainstream media w.r.t. climate science, and specifically Revkin’s approach… I am reminded of this comment on Andy’s DotEarth blog: 2008/ 03/ 04/ the-never-ending-story/ #comment-15568

    Quote: “I enjoy Revkin’s blog because I do believe it’s a fair and balanced coverage of the warming issue. In very few places do I actually see fair and balanced reporting or admissions of the uncertainties in exactly what is global warming, whether it really is bad and how do we curb it… Testament to Revkin’s job on this blog, which I have been reading since the beginning, is that I actually have no idea how he feels about the subject.”

    Well, there you have it, Andy! You have generously conceived and created one of the most influential and popular blogs on environment and climate - under the prestigious banner of the NY Times, no less. And based on your “fair and balanced” style, at least some of your regular readership apparently “actually have no idea how he feels about the subject.”

    Surely that is not the outcome that Revkin is aiming for, nor is it is personal opinion. Nonetheless, it is the direct outcome of his style of presenting the information.

    I am also reminded of another comment on DotEarth, possibly on the same thread as my link, that lambasted the misuse of “balance” on issues that clearly do not warrant it. The poster imagined a caricature of a future NYTimes obituary to one of the Apollo astronauts that included commentary from the “the moon landings were a staged hoax in a hangar” crowd… for “balance” of course…

    While I have a great admiration for the work that Andy is doing… KUDOS TO JOE AND JIM FOR CALLING HIM OUT ON THIS!

  4. Paul K Says:

    tidal does not understand the difference between a reporter and an advocate. “actually have no idea how he feels about the subject.” is indeed high praise to a reporter.

  5. Joe Says:

    Paul (and Andy) — I actually think that’s why blogs for reporters are double-edged swords. Nobody knows what the standards are. Is this the same as a column? If so, then you can express an opinion and don’t need to present a “balancing” quote. Is it just a newspaper column with less solid reporting behind it?

    Please somebody define what the heck the rules are?

  6. Joe Says:

    Andy: I wrote –

    “The paper does suffer from one inherent analytical weakness that makes it (a tad) less dire than it appears — and some people believe the core element of this analysis is wrong (see very end of post), although I don’t.”

    One weakness that might change the results “A tad” in a paper whose core analysis I agree with is not “some significant gaps” — in my book.

  7. Ken Levenson Says:

    What I find bizarre in this whole “affair”:
    1. Hansen’s 350 figure has been out there since December.
    2. Everyone knew this paper was coming and there was time to frame it any which way a reporter (Mr. Revkin) might want to.
    3. Hansen’s credibility is unassailable. (until he makes a mistake - but how long has it been?)
    4. Worse, the age old tactic of “citing a quote machine” (a common enough journalistic tool for daily deadlines) - in this case Mr. Romm - was done badly. Clark Hoyt can’t be pleased!!! ;)
    5. At the same time the NYTimes has very little problem parroting unnamed “administration sources’” b.s. on A1. (Sorry, Mr. Revkin - you get the business card you get the bad stuff too.)

    If I might get edgy:
    We’ve all now read the cascade of bad scientific reports - the environmental equivalent of the “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” report. Or perhaps more like Stalin’s reports of the massing German forces at the Russian border. If believe they’re going to attack - maybe you should do something about it!!!!!!!!

    Yes, it’s true the day and time and the extent of global carnage are in question. Is The Times really going to continue the gentlemanly expenditure of resources and wait for the carnage? Although it feels like impending doom, we are at war with mother nature now - and her Panzer divisions are coming over the hill.

    We must wait for a new Administration but what is The Times waiting for?

  8. Joe Says:

    Ken: Good point — especially #3. I think I’ll do a blog post on that. The media never credits people who have been right a long time — nor does it discredit people who have been wrong a long time.

    I cite Hansen so much since he’s been right longer than anybody else.

  9. Ken Levenson Says:

    Sorry, one more thought….

    Hansen is the United States “climate change science czar”, if you will - right? He’s the General, the top dog - for The United States of America, right?

    And what he’s done is give a “press preview” to a report that will be coming out later in Science - right? He’s self-leaked, not so covertly, if you will.

    Can you imagine if a similarly positioned U.S. military general, 5 star minimum - probably must the the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, leaked a report prior to official publication stating that the U.S. has a “missile gap” with the Russians and the Russians are turning on all their U.S. targeting again and is proceeding toward launch, and now the only question is how many nuclear missiles we will be able to stop and which cities will be obliterated???????

    Would The Times put that on their “military blog” or would it be A1, top, in 2″ letters?????!!!!!!!

    Something is very wrong….

  10. Earl Killian Says:

    Our goal should not be a single number, but a graph of CO2 as a function of year. I believe that 350ppm is an appropriate point on that graph. I also don’t believe we will get there before 2100. Why is it relevant to have a goal that far out? Because it makes it clear that our long-term planning must include CO2 drawdown after 2050, and it will reduce the temptation who think “if 450ppm is OK, maybe 460ppm wouldn’t be so bad”.

    There are a number of feasible ways this drawdown might be accomplished. For example, one could grow algae and then dump it into the oil fields we shut down a few decades earlier. We could create GreenFreedom sort of plants powered by large solar farms in the deserts of the world, and likewise sequester the hydrocarbons that are produced. (I suggest sequestering hydrocarbons to CO2 for safety and density.) If we manage to touch 450ppm in 2050, and begin removal at 1ppm per year, we could get to 350ppm by 2150, as Joe suggests. 1ppm per year is a massive investment (think of half of our current coal and oil infrastructure combined–in reverse). Nonetheless, it will probably be a necessary investment. We should be planning on it.

  11. Ken Levenson Says:

    thanks Joe. and just to underline:

    Hansen is not just the most credible person out there, he’s the U.S. Government’s official authority on the subject.

    Bush may choose to undermine the deadly serious statements of the professionals working for him - but why do others?

  12. Anna Haynes Says:

    > “Yes, it’s true the day and time and the extent of global carnage are in question. Is The Times really going to continue the gentlemanly expenditure of resources and wait for the carnage? ”

    If we shrank our carbon footprints, what would happen to The Times’s advertising revenues?

    What would happen to the circulation of the paper paper?

    Is the Times in good enough shape to withstand these hits?

    And if Times management chooses not to face them, what will be the hit to the paper’s reputation?

  13. David B. Benson Says:

    Ken Levenson — The United States does not have an ‘official authority’ on the subject. THe closest thing is the Natinal Academy of Sciences, formed by Lincoln originally, to advice the United States Government on all aspects of science.

  14. Ken Levenson Says:

    David Benson,

    Fair enough. Hansen isn’t officially the “official authority”, as it were. But I’d say that’s a distinction without a difference.

    I’d like to know what other individual in the U.S. Government has the same or greater command of the issue as Hansen does?


  15. David B. Benson Says:

    Ken Levenson — How about even anyone not paid (directly) by the USG?

    What counts is being the world’s foremost authority on some subject. James Hansen is cetainly that regarding climate change.

  16. Ken Levenson Says:


    I would agree.

    But to acknowledge that Hansen is The United States of America’s number one guy (not as a private citizen), gives him an institutional weight that not even the NY Times should be able discount.

    (In fact the Times often sucks up to such power - but I digress….)

  17. Risa Bear Says:

    Joe, I linked to Andy for awhile. He writes well, does a lot of research, sometimes says the good things. But after a couple of posts left me feeling uneasy — as though I were watching debunking of, rather than reportage on, climate change — I delinked. I would be glad to find this was hasty.

    A blog is bylined and appears regularly under that byline, so it seems to me the rules for it should be the same as for a column: one’s own opinion, not subject to “slant” from the editorial board — unless otherwise stated, so that we are all forewarned.

    Hopefully Andy does have a public position, and will tell us what it is, or, if the blog’s position is that of the power structure, that he will tell us so. To mix a couple of metaphors, knowing exactly whose voice is on the other end of the line is important when the Panzers are coming over the hill.

    Oh, my opinion? That Mr. Hansen has earned the right not to gratuitously spun. I’m still hoping that’s not what happened here. I’m glad he’s reading and responding here, and I look for great things from him and/or from The NYT as we enter possibly the most dangerous period in human history.

    Risa Stephanie Bear

  18. Paul K Says:

    Hansen’s credibility may be unassailable, still his 6C sensitivity for doubled C02 is not settled science.

  19. Ken Levenson Says:

    In the service of making a plug for my blog I’d like to quote a memo just sent out by, our immediate topic of conversation, Mr. Hansen -

    “Rampant Negativity - No Reason to be so Glum - Predictably, as scientific evidence clarifies that the dangerous level of atmospheric CO2 is at hand, there are cries that it is impractical to avoid climate catastrophe. Such negativity is part of the playbook of those who stand to gain from business-as-usual. A recent report by the Scripps Howard News Service claims that I stated “we must reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent within 12 years or it will be too late to prevent a climate catastrophe”. What nonsense.”

    Read it all here - ~jeh1/ mailings/ 20080324_Rampant.pdf

    While my gut tells me it’s more dire than Hansen generally relates it, I for one think “the worst” can be avoided and we can stabilize levels and so too the climate. My humble contribution to fighting it is this checklist
    Download it, edit it for your local conditions, make it your own, and pass it on.

  20. Ken Levenson Says:

    Paul K,

    I agree - very little seems settled. For me it’s all about the trend lines. And I’d wager that 6 degrees is too conservative.

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