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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Climate’s Clint Eastwood: Joe Nocera Mis-Cites Me TWICE In Failed Effort To Smear James Hansen

by Joe Romm, Climate Progress, March 5, 2013

Memo to Nocera: You really need to issue a retraction and multiple apologies, rather than writing yet another error-riddled smear job on Hansen.

The good news is that I’m home from Johns Hopkins, sans pancreatic neuro-endocrine tumor, with a very good prognosis.

The bad news is NY Times business columnist Joe Nocera took this moment to utterly misrepresent two (!) posts of mine in a shameless effort to smear the nation’s top climatologist, James Hansen.

The ugly news is that, as we’ll see, Nocera’s whole approach to Hansen is like Clint Eastwood’s was to Obama this summer — an incoherent monologue full of misrepresentations, aimed at an invisible (straw) man.

Now, remember, Nocera is still unforgiven for his error-riddled February 19, 2013, column that mis-stated Hansen’s position, quoted a private email comment out of context, and made one of the most egregious economic errors ever seen in the NY Times. And Nocera had the gumption to rawhide Hansen’s Keystone tactics, whipping them for being “utterly boneheaded.”

Of course, to be forgiven, Nocera would have to retract his errors and then apologize, rather than doubling down with yet another error-riddled column today, “A Scientist’s Misguided Crusade.”

You may wonder how I ended up in the line of fire here, especially since my name never actually appears in the piece. That’s because Nocera pulls a magnum force miscue here, one that is unique in my nearly 7 years of blogging: He hyperlinks to Climate Progress to back up his misguided smears not once, but twice. You might call that utterly boneheaded. Here is the rookie quote:
Yet what people hear from Hansen today is not so much his science but his broad, unscientific views on, say, the evils of oil companies. In 2008, he wrote a paper, the thesis of which was that runaway climate change would occur when carbon in the atmosphere reached 350 parts per million — a point it had already exceeded — unless it were quickly reduced. There are many climate change experts who disagree with this judgment — who believe that the 350 number is arbitrary and even meaningless. Yet an entire movement,, has been built around Hansen’s line in the sand.
Who are “the many climate change experts who disagree with” Hansen’s judgment? Why, they are just little ‘ole me, Joe Romm. Now, Joe N, you must know flattery will get you nowhere. Yes, I do like to think of myself as a climate change expert. But I am just one solitary person — or rather one person minus about 20% of my pancreas, but let’s give Nocera the benefit of the doubt and round up to one. Not “many,” though.

And the thing is that my post doesn’t say what Nocera says it does. It doesn’t say 350 “is arbitrary and even meaningless.” Here’s how it opens (emphasis added):
To James Hansen (and his fellow 350 ppm-ers):

You make a compelling case we must ultimately return atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million to avoid catastrophic climate impacts (see “Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al.”).
Doh! Say it isn’t so, Joe. This is not exactly a stinging indictment of 350 ppm.

As an aside, it is lame but not unheard of for bloggers to pull the “many experts disagree” trick (i.e., not name specific experts) and use a single link — but at least they usually link to someone who supports their view. But I’d say it is journalistic malpractice for someone writing an article that appears both online and in print to not name one expert — especially when there online column links to a post that actually undercuts what they claim.

As a double aside, it is precisely to avoid this problem that I tend to cite old posts of mine by full name — so you know what the post is about and you can have high confidence it says what I claim it says (because after thousands of blog posts with probably tens of thousands of links, I know all too well that people rarely actually click on those links, which no doubt is what Nocera was counting on).

The point of my post is clear in the very next sentence:
But you have made an uncompelling case about how President-elect Obama should go about achieving 350 ppm in your new draft essay…
The post is primarily about the “how” — the policies needed to achieve 350 ppm and how difficult they would be to enact. I do say (emphasis added), “I am not entirely convinced that 350 ppm is needed this century from a purely scientific perspective.” But as the post makes clear, that was primarily about practicality — and, to repeat, this is hardly a stinging indictment of 350.

Oh, but it gets worse. Click on the link for Nocera’s phrase “he wrote a paper” and that is also a link to Climate Progress!!! That had a sudden impact on me, as you can imagine. (I have taken screenshots of the original HTML code for the story, for those who worry about that sort of thing.)

Yes, Nocera doesn’t even link to the original paper — he links to my discussion of it. Flattering, I suppose, but it certainly does entitle me to explain what Hansen et al. meant — and it ain’t what Nocera says. It is not about how “runaway climate change would occur when carbon in the atmosphere reached 350 parts per million.” It is about how 450 ppm may be a tipping point “such that change proceeds out of our control.”

As I explain:

The key paleoclimate finding of the article:
“We infer from the Cenozoic data that CO2 was the dominant Cenozoic forcing, that CO2 was only ~450 ppm when Antarctica glaciated, and that glaciation is reversible.”
That is, if we stabilize at 450 ppm (or higher) we risk returning the planet to conditions when it was largely ice free, when sea levels were higher by 70 meters — more than 200 feet!
So Nocera is just dead wrong.

He is also wrong to strongly imply that this is just the work of James Hansen — “he wrote a paper.” As my posts make clear, this is a multiple-author paper with many prestigious scientific authors, “NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al.”

I end the explanatory post this way (emphasis in original):
My Bottom Line: Let’s start working now toward stabilizing below 450 ppm, while climate scientists figure out if in fact we need to ultimately get below 350.
Note that I am buying the thesis that we should try to stabilize below 450 ppm, which is really the only way to keep the 350 ppm option plausibly open.
Finally, and this is as egregious as anything else, both of those posts were written in 2008!
My whole point was we need to pay attention to how the science evolves. Now Nocera may be unwilling to update his position even when people call him out for blunders that would get a college economics major an ‘F’. But the science has gotten considerably more alarming in the past 5 years for those who pay attention, so my position has evolved accordingly.
You can read my review of the recent literature here: “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces.” Here are a few relevant studies:
So yes, in the last 5 years, the science has certainly come down in favor of getting as close to 350 ppm as quickly as we can — any which way you can, really — even though that definitely isn’t easy (see “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm”). Gosh, why would I write a post with that title in 2011 if I thought 350 was “meaningless”?

No sane, moral society would risk triggering the permafrost feedback or causing multiple devastating impacts that are likely to be a reversible on a scale of centuries. We must pay any price, bear any burden to avoid it.

And yes, the allusions to Eastwood’s filmography have a point. I am a huge fan of Eastwood movies, but his brilliant acting and directing don’t make him competent to offer political analysis. Similarly, Nocera is well qualified to explain whether we should pay a fistful of dollars for Apple stock, for instance, but these 2 recent articles should pretty much disqualify him from participating in the climate debate, at least until they are formally corrected.

Final Memo To Nocera and the NY Times: This is journalistic malpractice pure and simple. So we are way past retraction. It is your crusade against Hansen that is misguided. You really should run an entire article apologizing for what you’ve done and correcting your errors.

Readers can reach the NYT public editor here.

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