False framing: Why is the NY Times spreading "half-truths" about global warming?

Blog ››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

The New York Times' Elisabeth Rosenthal framed a front-page article around a series of attacks on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its chairman, Rajendra K. Pachauri. But after suggesting in its original headline that these attacks somehow undercut the IPCC's "credibility," the Times waited until much later in the article to acknowledge that they are actually based on a series of "half-truths" and that "mainstream scientists" agree that they don't undermine the IPCC's conclusions that humans are warming the planet.

The Times has since replaced the article's original inflammatory headline -- "U.N. Climate Panel and Its Chief Face a Siege on Their Credibility" -- with a new headline that reads: "Skeptics Find Fault With U.N. Climate Panel."

But the article's false framing hasn't changed -- the Times treats the attacks on Pachauri and the IPCC as front-page news and relegates the evidence that the attacks are unfounded to page A9.

Here is the portion of Rosenthal's article that the Times chose to put on the front page of its February 9 print edition:

Just over two years ago, Rajendra K. Pachauri seemed destined for a scientist's version of sainthood: A vegetarian economist-engineer who leads the United Nations' climate change panel, he accepted the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the panel, sharing the honor with former Vice President Al Gore.

But Dr. Pachauri and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are now under intense scrutiny, facing accusations of scientific sloppiness and potential financial conflicts of interest from climate skeptics, right-leaning politicians and even some mainstream scientists. Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, called for Dr. Pachauri's resignation last week.

Critics, writing in Britain's Sunday Telegraph and elsewhere, have accused Dr. Pachauri of profiting from his work as an adviser to businesses, including Deutsche Bank and Pegasus Capital Advisors, a New York investment firm - a claim he denies.

They have also unearthed and publicized problems with the intergovernmental panel's landmark 2007 report on climate change, which concluded that the planet was warming and that humans were likely to blame.

The report, they contend, misrepresents the state of scientific knowledge about diverse topics - including the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers and the rise in severe storms - in a way that exaggerates the evidence for climate change.

With a global climate treaty under negotiation and legislation

In other words, the original headline, the new headline, and nearly everything the Times printed on the front page consist of simply repeating critics' attacks on the IPCC and Pachauri.

But are these attacks even true? One would have to read past the jump to find out. Here's a run-down of the article's problems.

NY Times Framing: Pachauri accused of "profiting" from outside consulting contracts. The Times reports in the second paragraph that "critics ... have accused Dr. Pachauri of profiting from his work as an adviser to businesses." The Times simply notes in that paragraph that Pachauri "denies" this claim.

REALITY: Pachauri says payments actually go to "prestigious nonprofit research center." Not until the seventh paragraph (after the jump) does the Times get around to debunking the profiteering allegation:

Several of the recent accusations have proved to be half-truths: While Dr. Pachauri does act as a paid consultant and adviser to many companies, he makes no money from these activities, he said. The payments go to the Energy and Resources Institute, the prestigious nonprofit research center based in Delhi that he founded in 1982 and still leads, where the money finances charitable projects like Lighting a Billion Lives, which provides solar lanterns in rural India.

"My conscience is clear," Dr. Pachauri said in a lengthy telephone interview.

[...]

Dr. Pachauri, 69, said the only work income he received was a salary from the Energy and Resources Institute: about $49,000, according to his 2009 Indian tax return, which he provided to The New York Times. The return also lists $16,000 in other income, most of it interest on accounts in Indian banks.

Dr. Pachauri acknowledged his role as an adviser and consultant to businesses, but he said that it was his responsibility as the panel's chairman to disseminate its findings to industry.

NY Times framing: IPCC errors call into question conclusion that humans are warming the planet. In the fourth and fifth paragraphs of the article -- on the front page -- Rosenthal suggests that "problems" with the 2007 IPCC report call into question its conclusion that "the planet was warming and that humans were likely to blame":

They have also unearthed and publicized problems with the intergovernmental panel's landmark 2007 report on climate change, which concluded that the planet was warming and that humans were likely to blame.

The report, they contend, misrepresents the state of scientific knowledge about diverse topics - including the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers and the rise in severe storms - in a way that exaggerates the evidence for climate change.

REALITY: Scientists agree that the "errors are ... minor and do not undermine the report's conclusions," and IPCC calls one of the error allegations "baseless." Not until the ninth paragraph (again, after the jump), does the Times explain that scientists agree that the minor errors identified by critics do not undermine the overwhelming scientific consensus -- confirmed in the 2007 IPCC report -- that humans are warming the earth. After noting that "[s]everal of the recent accusations have proved to be half-truths," Rosenthal writes:

The panel, in reviewing complaints about possible errors in its report, has so far found that one was justified and another was "baseless." The general consensus among mainstream scientists is that the errors are in any case minor and do not undermine the report's conclusions.

Still, the escalating controversy has led even many of them to conclude that the Nobel-winning panel needs improved scientific standards as well as a policy about what kinds of other work its officers may pursue.

[...]

In one case, the report included a sentence that said the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. The sentence was based on a decade-old interview with a glaciologist in a popular magazine; the scientist now says he was misquoted. The panel recently expressed "regret" for the error.

The panel was also criticized for citing a study about financial losses after extreme weather events that found an increase in such losses of 2 percent a year from 1970 to 2005. That study had not been peer reviewed at the time, although it was later on.

The panel has called the complaint "baseless," noting that the study was cited appropriately and that other scientific data pointed to a recent rise in severe storms.

As Media Matters has documented, moreover, regardless of the IPCC's acknowledgement of the Himalayan glacier error, scientific studies do show that glaciers are melting all over the world.

NY Times portrays Lord Monckton as a credible critic. In the Times article, Rosenthal quotes "leading climate skeptic" Lord Christopher Monckton, apparently as a credible voice in the global warming debate:

Nonetheless, Christopher Monckton, a leading climate skeptic, called the panel corrupt, adding: "The chair is an Indian railroad engineer with very substantial direct and indirect financial vested interests in the matters covered in the climate panel's report. What on earth is he doing there?"

A former adviser to Margaret Thatcher who also assailed Dr. Pachauri in a critique in Copenhagen that has since been widely circulated, Lord Monckton is now the chief policy adviser to the Science and Public Policy Institute, a Washington-based research and education institute that states on its Web site: "Proved: There is no climate crisis."

[...]

Lord Monckton said the incidents reflected a pattern of willful misrepresentation by scientists with financial and professional interests that render them unsuitable to give neutral advice.

REALITY: Monckton is a conspiracy theorist who frequently advances climate-related falsehoods. What the Times leaves out is any indication that Monckton is an extremist who traffics in falsehoods and absurd conspiracy theories. In 1987, Monckton wrote an article in which he advocated requiring the entire population to undergo monthly HIV tests and forcibly quarantining "for life" those who test positive.

Among other climate misinformation, Monckton falsely claimed last year that the earth is in a "cooling" period and announced that carbon dioxide is "harmless." Monckton also claimed that the Copenhagen climate treaty negotiations were an attempt to "impose a communist world government on the world" and that President Obama would likely sign such agreement because he "has very strong sympathies with that point of view." Monckton went on to falsely claim that the treaty would have "precedence over [the United States] Constitution."

So if the Times story consists largely of reporting on a series of "half-truths" being spread by, among others, a dishonest conspiracy theorist, why doesn't the Times' headline and its first five paragraphs make that clear?

Posted In
Environment & Science, Climate Change
Network/Outlet
The New York Times
Person
Christopher Monckton
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.