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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: A Climate Change Exchange

This "ombudsman's mailbag" could more properly be described as a post office. It goes on for many pages. It contains lengthy and detailed questions from critics of the recent Frontline production "Climate of Doubt" and equally lengthy and detailed responses from Frontline.

In last week's column, I applauded PBS for the resources it has devoted to coverage of the 2012 election campaign and its approach to the conventions, candidates and a number of issues that had not received much, if any, attention by the candidates and by other television networks.

One of the points I made was that:

"It has been widely noted by The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and others that the high-stakes subject of climate change has essentially been absent from the campaign — with neither President Obama or former Gov. Mitt Romney discussing it — and also absent from the now concluded series of presidential debates. This past Tuesday, Oct. 23, PBS's top investigative series, Frontline, aired an hour-long look, called 'Climate of Doubt,' into how it has transpired that an issue that demanded and got serious attention from the public and from candidates Obama and McCain in 2008 and from Romney as governor of Massachusetts, has essentially disappeared from political discourse. This program is now a focus of criticism from those who claim that the threat to the planet from global warming and man's contribution to that is way overstated. But the point here is that only Frontline has addressed this critical issue in-depth for television viewers."

I found the program to be important, valuable and timely, with lots of on-air time for critics to make their case. Here is the review of the program in The New York Times' environmental blog. But this is a hot-button issue and I received about three dozen emails from those who disagree with my brief assessment but, more importantly, about the science and the program. I sent representative samples of those emails to Frontline for its response. The result, I believe, is a valuable exchange of detailed arguments and responses that follows.

The exchange focuses on four letters that capture the main arguments. The responses come from Managing Editor Phil Bennett on behalf of Frontline, in consultation with the film's producer, Catherine Upin.

Here's the First Letter:

In Climate of Doubt, [Frontline Correspondent] John Hockenberry uses a deceptive claim of a 97% consensus by scientists on climate change. I submitted to Hockenberry/PBS: What evidence supports your "97% consensus"? You appear to refer to only 75 of 77 self-identified unnamed "climate scientists" who published more than 50% of papers on "climate change" for the last 5 years — only 2% selected by MSc student Maggie Zimmerman out of 3,146 respondents of 10,257 Earth scientists surveyed, and who answered yes to "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?" Agreeing that "human activity" is a "significant" factor only says it is detectable, not that it is the major cause. Why is that not "cherry picking"?

Contrast the 31,478 listed degreed scientists in the Petition Project, of whom 9,029 had PhDs, who supported: "There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth."

Sources: Lawrence Solomon, 97% cooked stats, Financial Post Jan 3, 2011.
Peter T. Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. EOS Vol. 90 (3) 20 Jan 2009.
Climate Change Reconsidered Appendix 4 The Petition Project, NIPCC 2009 ISBN-13 — 978-1-934791-28-8.

As a research engineer/scientist and IPCC reviewer, I find Hockenberry's piece to be repugnant journalism, harmful to science, and damaging to the public good where citizens need accurate information to weigh and evaluate this important issue.

David L. Hagen, Goshen, IN

Frontline Responds:

Mr. Hagen is referring to a different study than the one we cited in the film.

Our information came from a paper by Anderegg et al, "Expert Credibility in Climate Change," which was a peer-reviewed study published in the June 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study used an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data "to show that 97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field surveyed here support the tenets of ACC [Anthropogenic (human caused) Climate Change] outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

This study is the most recent peer-reviewed paper on the subject to be published in a scientific journal, and is consistent with previous surveys and attempts to poll the views of climate scientists. Previous surveys can be found here. For example, in 2004, Naomi Oreskes performed a survey of all peer-reviewed abstracts on the subject "global climate change" published between 1993 and 2003. The survey failed to find a single paper that rejected the position that global warming over the past 50 years is predominantly man-made. 75% of the papers agreed with the consensus position while 25% did not address the issue.

Our first-hand reporting with scientists supported this view. In the film we quoted from the IPCC and National Academy of Science reports. In 2010, the NAS concluded, "A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems, concludes this panel report."

The Frontline Response Continues:

Below is a sampling of other sources that back-up our reporting:

U.S. Climate Change Research Program, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (2009): "Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced. Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases."

The Geological Society also agrees. From a 2010 position statement, "This position statement (1) summarizes the strengthened basis for the conclusion that humans are a major factor responsible for recent global warming; (2) describes the large effects on humans and ecosystems if greenhouse-gas concentrations and global climate reach projected levels; and (3) provides information for policy decisions guiding mitigation and adaptation strategies designed to address the future impacts of anthropogenic warming."

The World Health Organization: "The climate is changing, the effects are already being felt, and human activities are a principal cause."

European Academy of Sciences: "Human activity is most likely responsible for climate warming."

NASA has adopted the conclusions of the 4th IPCC report. "The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years."

Also National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), "A large body of evidence supports the conclusion that human activity is the primary driver of recent warming. This evidence has accumulated over several decades, and from hundreds of studies."

Statement on climate change from 18 scientific associations: "Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver." (October, 2009)

Other scientific societies:

American Meteorological Society: Climate Change: An Information Statement of the American Meteorological Society "Indeed, strong observational evidence and results from modeling studies indicate that, at least over the last 50 years, human activities are a major contributor to climate change." (February 2007)

American Physical Society: Statement on Climate Change "The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth's physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now." (November 2007)

American Geophysical Union: Human Impacts on Climate "The Earth's climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system — including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons — are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century." (Adopted December 2003, Revised and Reaffirmed December 2007)

American Association for the Advancement of Science: AAAS Board Statement on Climate Change "The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society." (December 2006)

Geological Society of America: Global Climate Change "The Geological Society of America (GSA) supports the scientific conclusions that Earth's climate is changing; the climate changes are due in part to human activities; and the probable consequences of the climate changes will be significant and blind to geopolitical boundaries." (October 2006)

American Chemical Society: Statement on Global Climate Change "There is now general agreement among scientific experts that the recent warming trend is real (and particularly strong within the past 20 years), that most of the observed warming is likely due to increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, and that climate change could have serious adverse effects by the end of this century." (July 2004)

The following scientific organizations endorse the consensus position that "most of the global warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities":
American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Astronomical Society, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, American Institute of Physics, American Meteorological Society, American Physical Society, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO, British Antarctic Survey, Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Environmental Protection Agency, European Federation of Geologists, European Geosciences Union, European Physical Society, Federation of American Scientists, Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, Geological Society of America, Geological Society of Australia, Geological Society of London, International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA), International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Royal Meteorological Society, Royal Society of the UK.

Letter from Russell Cook

What follows is a 13-point letter from Russell Cook, a skeptic of man-made global warming who is a prolific writer and blogger on the subject and who has written many times challenging PBS programs, especially the NewsHour, about the lack of coverage of the counter-arguments. Some of his letters have appeared in earlier ombudsman columns. Several of his articles appear online at the American Thinker.

Here are the 13 points made by Cook, with the Frontline response immediately following each point.

1. COOK: The first 10 minutes of the show was basically 'appeal to authority' — the National Academies declare such-and-so, there's a scientific consensus, etc. Monckton had an article where he pointed out how this is the argumentum ad populum, or headcount fallacy . . . regarded as unacceptable because the consensus view — and whatever "science" the consensus opinion is founded upon — may or may not be correct, and the mere fact that there is a consensus tells us nothing about the correctness of the consensus opinion or of the rationale behind that opinion. What is left out of this Frontline show is how science phenomena do not exist at the pleasure of a show of hands, and consensus is meaningless if any given science finding has been misunderstood by all. Case in point was what I wrote about just a few weeks ago, "PBS NewsHour: Against scientific consensus before they were for it."

FL RESPONSE: Mr. [Christopher] Monckton is not a scientist, and the argument you cite is not in a peer reviewed journal but rather published in a blog. We were careful to base our reporting on the most credible and transparent sources we could find and verify. As Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences and an atmospheric scientist told us in the film, scientists have been trying to shoot down evidence of man-made climate change for years, and they have not succeeded. In the peer-reviewed literature, scientists have been ruling-out alternate explanations and climate scientists have told us the onus is on the skeptics to present them there. Scientists will tell you theories can be overturned, but it has to be done through the peer-reviewed scientific process. If the theories he mentions in that piece could be disproved in scientific journals, then that would be a different story.

2. COOK: The show makes a big point of saying Monckton "admits having no scientific expertise" — Well, Al Gore has no scientific expertise either. If we must ignore Monckton for this reason, then by default we must ignore Gore.

FL RESPONSE: We did not cite Al Gore as an expert. We cited climate scientists, the National Academy of Sciences and IPCC reports.

3. COOK: The show repeats the claim that 97% of scientists believe in climate change — That study has been taken apart here, here, here, and here, and in several other articles. The key missing bit of information is that the survey only involved less than 80 scientists, and the methodology of the questions is suspect.

FL RESPONSE: Mr. Cook is citing a study that we did not use in our film. We relied on peer-reviewed studies.

4. COOK: [Scientist and Founder of the Science and Environmental Policy Project] Fred Singer questioned CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] role in ozone depletion — but there is still an ozone hole over the Antarctic.

FL RESPONSE: In our interview with Fred Singer, we asked about his questioning of CFCs and ozone depletion. Here is what he told us: "I accept the fact that chlorofluorocarbons damage the ozone layer."

5. COOK: Fred Singer questioned the role of 2nd hand smoke — No, he railed against EPA administrator Carol Browner's decision to declare 2nd hand smoke a class A carcinogen when her own EPA-chosen scientists said it doesn't rise to that level. Still harmful, but not a class A carcinogen. A bureaucrat overrode scientists and hid vital information from the public, in other words.

FL RESPONSE: Here is what Singer told us in our interview: "I know nothing about the physiological effects of secondhand smoke. I am not an oncologist. I am not a toxicologist chemist." In any case, he acknowledged that he questioned the findings on second-hand smoke.

6. COOK: The Oregon Petition Project contained non-scientist 'Hollywood celebrities' — no, it didn't, I already covered that false story and its ties to Gelbspan / Ozone Action in my "The Curious History of 'Global Climate Disruption.'" Hockenberry's dismissal of the petition in this manner is blatantly misleading, utterly failing to address the concerns of the highly knowledgeable scientists who have signed it.

FL RESPONSE: We asked Fred Singer about the celebrities and singers and he did not dispute it. Singer also told us "Look they are not specialists in climate." John Hockenberry never said "Hollywood celebrities," he said celebrities. In a 1998 story in the Associated Press, Arthur Robinson, who circulated the petition, said that questionable names, including that of Perry S. Mason and a Spice Girl, were added by pranksters. Critics have said there is no way to verify independently some of the names and titles on the petition.

7. COOK: ClimateGate just a few out-of-context emails — Hardly, Steve McIntyre has plunged into it with mind-blowing detail about how it shows a pattern among that bunch to hide inconvenient truths. Emails out of context? Try reading Trenberth's infamous email. "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't." He was talking about the very same lack of warming Dr. Singer was talking about in the program, and Trenberth is an IPCC scientist.

FL RESPONSE: We reported accurately in the film that 11 different investigations found no tampering of temperature data in "Climategate." Even former skeptic Richard Muller found that the temperature data was right. Gavin Schmidt told us in an interview as others have pointed out that Trenberth was referring to the travesty that ocean temperatures couldn't be measured properly with so few instruments, something he had published in scientific journals.

8. COOK: The program was trying to show Dr. Singer as a buffoon about not seeing current heating — but the IPCC & Trenberth predicted heating that they themselves admitted wasn't happening.

FL RESPONSE: We showed how Singer's temperature selection of "in the last ten years" is an example of what scientists call going "up the down escalator" to make it seem that temperatures are declining when they are actually increasing if you look at all of the data.

9. COOK: Katherine Hayhoe mentioned FOIAs about her global warming advocacy — failed to mention one of the book chapters she wrote was not for a science journal but was for Newt Gingrich's book. FOIA questions about her receiving money for private advocacy are most certainly legitimate.

FL RESPONSE: Hayhoe told us on in our interview this was pro bono and it was for an academic press. The publisher of the book is Johns Hopkins University press.

10. COOK: GOP Rep. [Bob] Inglis tossed out by tea party people? — then why doesn't it follow that Sen. McCain wouldn't be voted out by the same people in his Senate re-election, where he handily won over the tea-party guy JD Hayworth? On top of that, Inglis' last House hearing also featured him declaring ocean acidification was bad by using a demo where he dropped an egg into vinegar . . . but the oceans are collectively at the same alkaline level as baking soda.

FL RESPONSE: McCain also toned down his climate change position during the primary. We reported on Inglis and stand by that reporting as accurate.

11. COOK: The program proclaimed the sea level rise won't be stopped by some Carolina committee's ignorance of it — but sea level rise will also not rise at the request of the IPCC's prediction models, and according to a U. of Colorado study, "over the next 88 years, sea level would be expected to rise five inches in North Carolina" in direct contradiction to the Carolina committee's report.

FL RESPONSE: We contacted the Univ. of Colorado, which denied this claim made on a blog. Steven Neerem, professor at the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research, told us: "I have never made a statement or provided a quote about sea level rise in North Carolina." And also "What Mr. Goddard appears to have done is to linearly extrapolate the last 20 years of satellite data from our website, which would indeed result in only 5" of sea level rise by 2100. However, no reputable scientist would linearly extrapolate 20 years of sea level data (a very short data record) to predict sea level rise 88 years later. Even longer tide gauge records would not give the complete picture, because they do not consider many factors including the acceleration of sea level rise that is expected from rising greenhouse gases. Regional predictions of future sea level rise must factor in the increasing heat content of the oceans and the locations of these changes, the melting of ice around the world and regional variations in sea level rise that result, as well as changes in ocean circulation due to all these factors including the addition of freshwater to the ocean. In addition, our satellite measurements do not include the contribution to relative sea level rise in North Carolina due to land subsidence."

12. COOK: Willie Soon the skeptic got a million dollars from Exxon — no, he actually didn't, the Harvard department he works for got it over a span of time spread out among numerous people. Across the board, what paltry donations the skeptics get ends up looking exactly like starvation wages. Worse, the mere existence of fossil fuel industry funding means either one of two things: they liked what they heard, or they were paying scientists to lie. Disprove the first before assuming the 2nd is true.

FL RESPONSE: We confirmed that Exxon did give to Soon's department. In an interview in Reuters, Soon acknowledged that he had received funding, but denied any group would have influenced his studies. "I have never been motivated by financial reward in any of my scientific research," he said.

13. COOK: Without naming him directly, we heard anti-skeptic book author Ross Gelbspan's long-term assertion that skeptic efforts are no different that tobacco industry tactics which entailed shill experts hired to draw out the issue by creating confusion — there has been an abject failure over the last 20 years to prove such a parallel exists, a point I detail throughout my 50+ online articles and blogs.

FL RESPONSE: Our source was not Ross Gelbspan, but Steve Coll, author of a well- documented book on Exxon. He said in our interview: "some of them actually came out of campaigning on behalf of the tobacco industry." Our independent reporting confirmed that some of the same people and organizations who worked on raising doubt about climate science also worked on behalf of tobacco companies.

Critics: 'No Significant Warming for 16 Years.' Check It Out.

Since PBS is fair and balanced and mandated to give both sides of a debate, when will you do two hours of programming about the other side of the global warming debate? The amount of warming up to 16 years ago that is man-made compared to natural warming is the debate. Check with your global warming believers: there has been no significant warming for 16 years. If it goes another year it will be 17 years and the wheels fall off the money train (global warming). Thank you for your time.

Dan K. Eveleth, MN

Frontline Responds:

Regarding the claim that there has been no warming for the last 16 years, we reported in the film that climate scientists have demonstrated that selecting the beginning and end points of a sample can result in the conclusion that no warming is occurring, even though temperatures are rising outside the sample.

Recently the United Kingdom's National Weather Service posted a response to a recent London Daily Mail newspaper article that included the claim that global warming stopped 16 years ago. The response said: "The linear trend from August 1997 (in the middle of an exceptionally strong El Nino) to August 2012 (coming at the tail end of a double-dip La Nina) is about 0.03°C/decade, amounting to a temperature increase of 0.05°C over that period, but equally we could calculate the linear trend from 1999, during the subsequent La Nina, and show a more substantial warming. As we've stressed before, choosing a starting or end point on short-term scales can be very misleading. Climate change can only be detected from multi-decadal timescales due to the inherent variability in the climate system." The Met Office also said: "Looking at successive decades over this period [1979 to 2011], each decade was warmer than the previous — so the 1990s were warmer than the 1980s, and the 2000s were warmer than both. Eight of the top ten warmest years have occurred in the last decade."

A Frontline Fuzz-Up

The Frontline show on Climate of Doubt fuzzed up the signature of Edward Teller on the Oregon Petition while at the same time implying that anyone could sign. Your spokesperson agreed it was an error due to "rushed last-minute production" or some such formulation, but it is clearly more serious than that — a knowing decision by some person (who?) who recognized that the Teller signature would subvert a certain point of view. Presumably you could find out who made this decision and the chain of command that ratified the decision. (Does it lead to Mr. Hockenberry, whose views are well known?) A bit of attention paid to this would help PBS in the end by recognizing the subliminal pressure to confirm the prevailing opinion that leads to such violations of journalistic integrity.

Lance Wallace, Santa Rosa, CA

Frontline Responds:

Regarding Mr. Wallace's letter, there was, alas, no conspiracy to live up to his conspiracy theory. Dr. Teller's name was blurred in an effort to draw viewers' attention to the content of the petition language shown briefly on the screen, rather than to focus on one of the more prominent of its 31,000 signers. This was a production decision, not an editorial one. That you can still see Dr. Teller's faint signature is evidence that this was not an attempt to airbrush history. How would highlighting Dr. Teller's signature "subvert a certain point of view"? Dr. Teller's skepticism (as a physicist, not a climate scientist) about the scientific consensus about man-made climate change receives abundant attention in "Climate of Doubt" — in fact, it's the focus of the film. In retrospect, we regret that among some viewers the change might have caused more confusion than it avoided. But to suggest that it reveals "subliminal" pressure to skew our reporting is overheated rhetoric, and untrue.

(Ombudsman's Note: I have sympathy with Lance Wallace on this. This was a serious misjudgment, if that's what it was, on the part of Frontline, in my opinion, and a failure to live up to the journalistic standards that have earned the investigative series so much respect over the years. Surely on a subject where there is known to be intense scrutiny from those with opposing viewpoints, it is hard to believe a technique such as blurring a signature of a well-known figure, whether or not made by production personnel, would have passed final editorial review without the agreement of all and without understanding that this could puncture the credibility of the program.)

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