Journal Editorial Report distorted methane study, falsely suggesting it undermined global warming science
Research ››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN
The Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot falsely claimed that a new study by the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics undermines the science behind global warming.
On the January 21 edition of The Journal Editorial Report -- the first edition of the show to air on Fox News following its departure from the Public Broadcasting Service -- Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul A. Gigot falsely claimed that a new study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, which found that live plants produce 10 to 30 percent of atmospheric methane, "is turning conventional wisdom about global warming on its head." Editorial page deputy editor Daniel Henninger then claimed that "this is causing big problems for the tree-huggers," telling viewers that methane "is a greenhouse gas, the sort of stuff the Kyoto Treaty is meant to suppress." In fact, in a press release published three days before the Editorial Report aired, the study's authors pointed out that human-caused emissions -- not natural emissions -- "are responsible for the well-documented increasing atmospheric concentrations of methane since pre-industrial times." The authors added that plant emissions do not contribute to "the recent temperature increase known as 'global warming.' "
As Media Matters for America has noted, there is broad scientific consensus that the dramatic global warming observed in recent decades is largely attributable to human-released greenhouse gases and other human activities.
From the January 21 edition of Fox News' The Journal Editorial Report:
GIGOT: Item one: Tree-huggers beware. A new study is turning conventional wisdom about global warming on its head. Dan?
HENNINGER: Well, you know, Paul, if you go onto a website of [President] Ronald Reagan's stupidest quotes, the one you'll always find is the one he said in 1981, which is that trees cause more pollution than automobiles. Well, maybe Ronald Reagan was a genius.
Because the eminent Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, has just reported in Nature magazine that plants, trees, forests, emit 10 to 30 percent of the methane gas into the atmosphere. This is a greenhouse gas, the sort of stuff the Kyoto Treaty is meant to suppress. So, this is causing big problems for the tree-huggers if plants, in fact, do cause greenhouse gases; and I have just one message for them: The next time you are out for a walk in the woods, breathe the methane.
Contrary to Gigot and Henninger's claims, the Planck Institute's study does not turn "conventional wisdom about global warming on its head," nor is the revelation that plants emit methane "causing big problems" for environmentalists. In fact, the study's first sentence [subscription required] points out that methane's "atmospheric concentration has almost tripled since pre-industrial times" -- an increase far greater than the 10 to 30 percent of methane emitted by plants.
Moreover, in a January 18 press release titled "Global Warming -- The Blame Is not with the Plants," the study's authors responded to media "misinterpretation" of their findings:
The most frequent misinterpretation we find in the media is that emissions of methane from plants are responsible for global warming. As those emissions from plants are a natural source, they have existed long before man's influence started to impact upon the composition of the atmosphere. It is the anthropogenic [human caused] emissions which are responsible for the well-documented increasing atmospheric concentrations of methane since pre-industrial times. Emissions from plants thus contribute to the natural greenhouse effect and not to the recent temperature increase known as 'global warming'. Even if land use practices have altered plant methane emissions, which we did not demonstrate, this would also count as an anthropogenic source, and the plants themselves cannot be deemed responsible.
In addition, Henninger's suggestion that trees cause pollution is misleading. In their January 18 press release, the study's authors noted that while reforestation programs may have a slight negative effect on efforts to control methane emissions, plants' ability to absorb carbon dioxide -- the most damaging greenhouse gas -- means that "the potential for reduction of global warming by planting trees is most definitely positive." The authors added: "The fundamental problem still remaining is the global large-scale anthropogenic burning of fossil fuels."
The Editorial Report's distortion of the study echoes a similarly misleading characterization of the study by nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh. On the January 11 broadcast of his show, Limbaugh read portions of a January 11 Reuters article about the study but omitted the part that noted that "[c]oncentrations of the gas [methane] in the atmosphere have almost tripled in the last 150 years." Instead, Limbaugh told his listeners: "Well, hot damn. God is to blame for global warming."
From the January 11 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show:
LIMBAUGH: All right. Some of these other news items here. From Reuters: German scientists have discovered a new source of methane, which is a greenhouse gas, second only to carbon dioxide in its impact on climate change.
What is this new source of methane?
The culprits are plants. They produce about 10 to 30 percent of the annual methane found in the atmosphere, according to researches at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg. The scientists measured the amount of methane released from the plants in controlled spearmints, and they found -- that's for you in Rio Linda - they found it increases with rising temperatures and exposure to sunlight. Well, hot damn. God is to blame for global warming.