Waiting to hear 'we're sorry'

The supposed consensus on global warming has melted like a Himalayan glacier in an IPCC report. Scientists are admitting error and apologizing. So what's with the rearguard action by journalists?

We could be burning the last newspaper for warmth and they'd still be warning us about global warming. But now the scientists are admitting they bungled their research and misspoke themselves, don't the reporters and opinion writers on whom so many rely to keep informed also owe the public an apology?

Last month Phil Jones, the University of East Anglia director of climate research who concedes he inexplicably wrote "some very awful e-mails," admitted to the BBC that it may have been hotter during the "Medieval Warm Period" than it is today and there has been no "statistically significant" warming in the last 15 years. I'm not entirely sure why these admissions are noteworthy; after all, trying to hide the Medieval Warm Period is a bit like trying to hide that big hot yellow thing in the sky.

Science, we are constantly told, relies on solid facts, not the rubbish scattered all over the blogosphere. So presumably climate scientists all knew there was no statistically significant warming in the last 15 years and just didn't tell us. As for the Medieval Warm Period, well, we've known for centuries that the Vikings farmed Greenland back then. So why didn't all these scientists object to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) infamous 2001 "hockey stick" graph flatlining temperature over the past 1,000 years?

Inquiring minds want to know: The New York Times admitted this Wednesday that "Grudgingly, many climate scientists are beginning to engage critics, admit mistakes and open up their data" and said scientists "are learning a little humility and trying to make sure they avoid crossing a line into policy advocacy."

Unlike the press. That same New York Times story promptly assured us the public "uproar threatens to undermine decades of work" and that "Some of the most serious allegations against Dr. Jones ... and other researchers have been debunked." And it described the IPCC's critics as "citing several relatively minor errors in its most recent report."

The Associated Press, likewise, claims the IPCC is seeking outside review of its methods because "Critics have found a few unsettling errors, including projections of retreats in Himalayan glaciers, in the thousands of pages of the reports. Scientists say the problems are minor ..."

Hockey stick? What hockey stick? This is not science. It's not even journalism. It is now seven years since two Canadian researchers, Stephen MacIntyre and Ross McKitrick, demolished the "hockey stick" graph, forcing NASA to redo its homework and put Al Gore in the deep freeze because, as Lorne Gunter wrote more than two years ago, "The hottest year since 1880 becomes 1934 instead of 1998, which is now just second; 1921 is third. Four of the 10 hottest years were in the 1930s, only three in the past decade ... The 15 hottest years since 1880 are spread over seven decades. Eight occurred before atmospheric carbon dioxide began its recent rise; seven occurred afterwards."

How can reporters assigned to write about the IPCC's credibility problem fail to Google "IPCC hockey stick"? It's called "research." For that matter, why did journalists tell us the IPCC was an "international panel of climate scientists" (New York Times editorial board) when that organization's own website says it's "comprised of government delegations"?

And shouldn't a few opinion writers also be considering an apology on grounds both of content and tone, such as the Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson, who wrote on February 3, 2007 that "There will remain denials about the IPCC report from the fringe ... just as there are those who believe the Earth is flat." And his newspaper's editorial board, which said the same day: "Global-warming skeptics and deniers now find themselves in the company of creationists, flat-Earthers and those who dispute the scientific consensus that HIV is the cause of AIDS."

A week later John Baird, then federal environment minister, assured both David Suzuki and Elizabeth May "I'm not a member of the Flat Earth Society." I'm not so daft as to expect him to apologize for channelling goofy journalism. But what of my Citizen colleague who claimed on November 20, 2007 that the IPCC's "first three reports this year have demolished the credibility of the last of the climate-change skeptics"? Or Toronto talk show host John Moore last October in the National Post: "Time is running out for the global warming deniers"?

We've seen some very awful columns and news stories and I think those who wrote them owe all of us an apology. Then they can do an online search for "medieval warm period."

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson