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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gavin Schmidt & Joshua Wolfe: "Climate Change: Picturing the Science"

Climate Change in Pictures

Green Inc. | Energy, the Environment and the Bottom Line
New York Times, May 6, 2009, 7:59 am

Climate Change in Pictures

Climate Change In a recently published book, Gavin Schmidt, founder of, attempts to tell the story of climate change in pictures.

Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climatologist, has in many ways become the news media’s conscience on climate science, exposing exaggeration and opinion in climate coverage on the blog he founded,

In a recently published book, “Climate Change: Picturing the Science,” Mr. Schmidt and his co-author, the photographer Joshua Wolfe, attempt to tell the story of global warming with the same no-nonsense approach — albeit this time with photographs.

“There is this tendency in the media to go for the dramatic shots with a very limited palate,” Mr. Schmidt said in a recent conversation with Green Inc. “So any time someone talks about storms, there’s a picture of a wave breaking against a beach, or a picture of a palm tree bending over in the middle of a hurricane, and if you’re talking about the Arctic, then you have to drag out a polar bear.

“In the book, we really tried to expand the range of the imagery,” Mr. Schmidt continued. “We brought in scientists and images of their work, and that humanizes the process enormously. And we also were able to bring out more clearly that the issue about hurricanes or the issue about climate change is that these things are not intrinsically good or bad, but that it is our vulnerability to change that is the real issue.”

Excerpts from our brief chat with the self-deprecating, British-born scentist follow.


Why did you decide to do a photographic book about climate change?


It came about by accident. The photographers had put together a gallery show related to climate change, and they asked me to check their captions. That spiraled out of control until we had a book. But the reason we went ahead with it is that people have limited attention spans, and they need to know something is interesting before they invest time in it — and great imagery is a good way to show that.


How did you choose the photographs?


We looked for photographs that stood on their own as photographs. It’s not a textbook where you just pick images just to illustrate a point, sort of, “Well, we’re going to talk about this now, so let’s get an image of that” – where the pictures are subservient to the text.


You founded RealClimate to add context that you found lacking in climate stories by the mainstream media. In the five years since you started RealClimate, have you seen any improvements in media coverage of climate change?


You still see terrible stories and you still see over-sensationalized headlines and unfortunately, you still see completely mendacious Op-Eds, but overall, I think the answer is yes. You can have an article now that’s talking about the cap-and-trade bill going through Congress, or the latest science, without a bunch of quotes by a contrarian who says, “Oh no, carbon dioxide isn’t a greenhouse gas,” or something like that.

However, a lot of the imagery used to illustrate climate change stories is not always appropriate.

We had a paper in Nature a few years ago that was talking about changing wind patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, possibly because of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That was illustrated in a couple of newspapers by a woman battling her umbrella in the midst of a huge storm, because our results indicated that winds were getting slightly stronger. But we weren’t talking about storms at all.

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