Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Propaganda at work: Tierney in the New York Times

A recent article about climate change by John Tierney in the New York Times manages to drape an impressive number of distortions on a slender piece of truth. Students of propaganda can admire Tierney’s skill in using an observation from social psychology to undermine any serious concern about climate change.

First, the valid part. Tierney says, “Today’s interpreters of the weather are what social scientists call availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil fuels.” We’ll allow him to skew things with that word, “sinfulness,” but it’s a signal of his rhetorical methods.

He also notes, “When judging risks, we often go wrong by using what’s called the availability heuristic...Slow warming doesn’t make for memorable images on television or in people’s minds, so activists, journalists and scientists have looked to hurricanes, wild fires and starving polar bears instead. They have used these images to start an “availability cascade,” a term coined by Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and law at the University of Southern California, and Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.”

All true enough. Tierney cites Sunstein: “’Many people concerned about climate change,’ Dr. Sunstein says, ‘want to create an availability cascade by fixing an incident in people’s minds. Hurricane Katrina is just an early example; there will be others. I don’t doubt that climate change is real and that it presents a serious threat, but there’s a danger that any ‘consensus’ on particular events or specific findings is, in part, a cascade.’”

At least Sunstein acknowledges that climate change is a risk. But Tierney is more interested in making the consensus look like a defense mechanism, rather than a response to anything in the real world.

Tierney uses the existence of these availability cascades to suggest that much of the recent news you’ve heard about climate change is just alarmism. For example, Tierney maintains: "A year ago, British meteorologists made headlines predicting that the buildup of greenhouse gases would help make 2007 the hottest year on record. At year’s end, even though the British scientists reported the global temperature average was not a new record — it was actually lower than any year since 2001 — the BBC confidently proclaimed, “2007 Data Confirms Warming Trend."

This is a misleading interpretation of the UK's Met Office's report. According to a story on Bloomberg, "2007 was one of the 10 warmest years ever, based on global recorded temperatures, according to the Met Office, the U.K. weather forecaster. Last year 'was certainly a top-10 year,' Barry Gromett, a Met Office spokesman, said today by telephone. 'It was maybe the seventh-warmest year'' based on preliminary figures, since estimates began around 1850, Gromett said. The Met Office said in June that 2007 may be the world's warmest year. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said on Dec. 13 that 2007 may be the world's fifth warmest since records began in 1880…”

Tierney comes up with similar garbled versions of recent controversies about Antarctic ice versus Arctic sea ice, the relatively quiet 2007 hurricane season, and recent papers about theorized links between global warming and hurricanes. At no time does he cut the IPCC view on climate change any slack, while denialists like Roger Pielke get the most respectful airing.
Tierney's method is a familiar one. He seizes on a dispute about climate change and finds a complacent spin to make the risk dwindle to nothing. He speculates about the disturbed psyches of those worried about climate change, and labels them "availability entrepreneurs." The facts are left blinking, dazed, wondering how they were just swindled.

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