NYTimes.com Strikes False Balance On Climate Change

In a report for the New York Times' website about Al Gore's “24 Hours of Reality” event about climate change, ClimateWire lent a megaphone to Canadian climate contrarian Tom Harris. The reporter summarized Gore's event and then, ostensibly to provide balance, turned the rest of the article over to Harris, who thinks Gore's event spent “time and energy on something that's not true.”

ClimateWire quoted Harris' claims that the “amount of climate change impact that humans have is very small,” and “This extreme weather thing is not a function of temperature,” as well as his allegation that “90 percent of the important facts [in Gore's presentations] are wrong or misrepresented.” The article offered no details to support this claim. Nor did mention that the vast majority of scientists agree that humans are changing the climate. And at no point did the article explain who Tom Harris is or why he was quoted evaluating statements about science instead of, say, a climate scientist.

Elsewhere on the Times' website, Andrew Revkin has explained what's wrong with this type of reporting:

The norm of journalistic balance has been exploited by opponents of emissions curbs. Starting in the late 1990s, big companies whose profits were tied to fossil fuels recognized they could use this journalistic practice to amplify the inherent uncertainties in climate projections and thus potentially delay cuts in emissions from burning those fuels. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this strategy was a long memo written by Joe Walker, who worked in public relations at the American Petroleum Industry, that surfaced in 1998. According to this ''Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan,'' first revealed by my colleague John Cushman at the New York Times, ''Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom'' for ''average citizens'' and ''the media'' (Cushman 1998). The action plan called for scientists to be recruited, be given media training, highlight the questions about climate, and downplay evidence pointing to dangers. Since then, industry-funded groups have used the media's tradition of quoting people with competing views to convey a state of confusion even as consensus on warming has built.

So who is Tom Harris? The article identified him as the “executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition” and said Harris “described his group as offering a 'climate-realist perspective.'”

Harris is a mechanical engineer, not a climate researcher. According to a 2007 Toronto Star article, he previously worked for a lobbying group which represented the Canadian Electricity Association and the Canadian Gas Association. The article stated:

Harris argues that there's nothing wrong with industry funding. For the most part, it doesn't support research," he adds, paying only for communications instead.

“All the companies want is to see information coming out about research that supports their side. They wouldn't have to if all sides were covered (by the media).”

His International Climate Science Coalition asserts that “Global climate is always changing in accordance with natural causes and recent changes are not unusual” and seeks to undermine “implementation of costly and ineffectual 'climate control' measures” and expose the “dangerous impacts of attempts to replace conventional energy sources” with renewable energy.

Harris spoke this year at the Heartland Institute's climate skeptics conference. It's worth noting that the New York Times posted an uncritical Greenwire article about the event, which Heartland president Joseph Bast praised as “really nice” and “balanced.” Greenwire and ClimateWire are both part of Environment & Energy Publishing.