This is an excerpt from my book Carbonomics. After documenting the deceptions perpetrated by the anti-science, warming-deniers funded by the oil industry, I turn to and example of gross exaggeration by one of the best known environmental reporters. (from chapter 4)
Of Islands and Sea Levels
Exxon is worth about half a trillion dollars. Ross Gelbspan, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, rather less. But he enjoys taking on the giant. Al Gore, for one, has commended him for his efforts, and he deserves the praise.
But page 2 of Gelbspan’s 2004 book Boiling Point begins with a curious statement: “The evidence [for global warming] is not subtle.” Gelbspan finds the case for global warming terrifyingly obvious. But if the evidence really is so obvious, why don’t the scientists notice? Why do they keep doing all these complicated studies and end up only 90 percent sure? Are they a bit dense? Perhaps they should read Gelbspan’s book.
Gelbspan’s certainty that global warming is obvious runs through his work as a reporter, making him incautious. Consider this excerpt from Boiling Point about a group of Pacific islands:
In November 2000, officials began the permanent evacuation of more than 40,000 people from their traditional home. As the British newspaper The Independent noted, “[this] could be the dress rehearsal for millions of people around the globe affected by risingsea levels.” … The islands are just 12 feet above sea level, and water levels are rising at 11.8 inches per year.
Gelbspan tells us—based on an article in The Independent—that the sea level is rising 11.8 inches per year due to global warming. But an experienced reporter writing his second book on global warming should have noticed something fishy about 11.8 inches per year. That really is awfully fast.
So how might an investigative reporter proceed? First, a close reading of the source newspaper article, which can be found on Gelbspan’s Web site, reveals it does not say the sea level was rising 11.8 inches per year. Instead it says “The islands … are sinking 11.8 inches a year.” That’s a little different.
To check further, a reporter might next try the IPCC’s 2001 report. Download the Summary for Policymakers from the group’s Web site, and search for “sea level.” The second hit reads, “Global mean sea level: Increased at an average annual rate of 1 to 2 mm during the 20th century.” That’s in Table 1. There are about 25 millimeters to an inch. Two millimeters annually is less than a tenth of an inch per year.
So 11.8 inches per year is about 100 times too fast to be caused by global
warming. The islands’ problem is not the tenth-of-an-inch per year rise in sea
level. The problem really is that the islands are sinking. Here’s a news report
from 2000 explaining why.
The move from the Duke of York group [of islands] is mostly due to a spectacular clashing of tectonic plates. The shift is extremely violent and this month saw a magnitude eight earthquake and several in the seven range. … The islands are sinking 30 centimetres (11.8 inches) a year. (Michael Field, Agence France Presse, November 28, 2000)
The problem really is that the islands are sinking, and they are sinking because of plate tectonics—that is, one part of the earth’s crust is sliding under another. This has nothing to do with global warming.
Unfortunately, Gelbspan’s misstatement of the facts appears to be part of a pattern in which Gelbspan and some other members of the press inadvertently undermine the credibility of the science of global warming by overstating its conclusions. For example, in the same book, Gelbspan says, “Were the Greenland Ice Sheet (or a substantial part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet) to slide into the oceans, it could cause a rapid rise in sea levels. Since about half the world’s population lives near coastlines, the consequences could be chaotic.”
“Slide,” “rapid,” “chaotic.” All possibly true on the centuries-long timescales that climate scientists normally consider. But when I read that passage, I formed an image like one in an old-time newsreel, in which someone breaks a bottle of champagne across a ship’s bow, and the ship slides into the water with a great splash. What Gelbspan and other reporters need to point out when they say “rapid” is that in a worst-case scenario—beyond anything the IPCC predicts—“rapid” means Greenland’s ice will take 100 years to slide into the sea and the sea level will rise about half an inch per year.
Warning of extreme possibilities is valuable so that people can consider the risks. But reporting extremes as if they are the likely outcome, and reporting them in misleading language, ends up making people more skeptical of the science—to the delight, I am sure, of the oil companies.