Energy Water and Life

October 22, 2012

David Brooks Did Not Do His Homework on Global Climate Change


Story by Karyn Boenker Contributor

This summer, the planet experienced catastrophic wildfires and heat-related disasters all over the world. Devastating, record setting fires burned in the United States, from Montana down to New Mexico. Heat waves took out power for millions and killed nearly 100 people.

In 2007, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that “increasing fire risks” and “morbidity from heat waves” would be one of the first major impacts of global climate change.

All around us, we are beginning to see tangible, physical evidence that global climate change is happening. Yet, U.S. reporters continue to confuse the debate and stall solutions. David Brooks from the New York Times is the latest.

On October 18th, 2012, David Brooks published A Sad Green Story on the New York Times’ opinion page. In his article, Brooks claims that 2003 was the high mark for attention to the issue of global warming. Since then, he states, the topic has become marred by partisanship, which began with the release of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. Unfortunately, this overplayed claim about scapegoat Al Gore does not appear to have any evidence behind it. Nor do several claims about renewable technology in the United States.

What drives our attention to global climate change?

In 2011, Texas A & M associate professor Xinsheng Liu performed an analysis of media and congressional attention to global climate change. He and his co-authors found that high profile international events, like the release of a report from IPCC or the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), were the greatest drivers of attention. Additionally, presidential politics played a significant role.

Earlier this year, Drexel Univerity professor Robert J. Brulle, co-authored a report assessing the factors influencing concern over climate change from 2002–2010, and  found that the years between 2007-2009 saw the most significant changes in concern in the United States about global climate change.

Photo: Robert J. Brulle, Jason Carmichael and J. Craig Jenkins. Shifting Public Opinion on Climate Change

During these years, an IPCC report was released in 2007. The Presidential election took place in 2008 and subsequently President Barack Obama supported cap-and-trade legislation meant to regulate greenhouse gas emissions with free market policies. In 2009, the infamous Climategate scandal undermined the IPCC’s credibility  (which has since been restored by eight investigative committees across the world).

All these events repeatedly garnered media attention, and significantly, Brulle’s research shows that the more often a topic is covered in the media, the more concern is expressed by the public. Thus David Brooks’ claim that 2003 was ‘the golden spring’ for green issues just does not add up. The same goes for his lament about Al Gore.

Global climate change is an ongoing problem, not a fad. It has not seen the end of its days in the spotlight, because it is not going to go away, even if some people want to cover their eyes and block their ears when the problem is mentioned.

Global climate change science is not a popularity contest

Floods, fires, and other natural disasters have already dominated the news cycle over the last few years according to Yahoo’s yearly review. Nearly every scientific organization on Earth agrees that global climate change is happening. Slowly, the dots will be connected in the media and we will be able to openly discuss disaster prevention, response, and recovery, instead of fighting over the predictions and science related to increases in global temperature.

Photo: The history of temperature on Earth since 500AD.
Courtesy of NASA

The fact is, according to NASA, the Earth has heated exactly 0.7 degrees Celsius in the last century. About one-third of that heating has occurred since 1980. This kind of accelerated heating has never been observed in nature. NASA’s natural timeline of global heating shows that within a century there typically occurs 0.08-0.14 degrees Celsius of heating. That means the planet is heating nearly 10 times faster than it has in the past 800,000 years.

Beyond bogus social science, Brooks also made false claims about green technology. In this case, he repeated a widely debunked statement about $90 billion made by Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate. Brooks added that investments by Obama appeared to be a “wasteful disappointment.”

This is a strange observation considering that the United States is the top producer of solar products, natural gas, and geothermal energy. The real disappointments may actually be coal, where China out produces the United States, nuclear where the United States doesn’t even make the top ten, and oil, where it places third in an international market.

David Brooks has received wide criticism for his article, most notably from Ezra Klein at The Washington Post. Brooks’ claims, that the global climate change spotlight peaked in 2003 and its bi-partisan approval in the movie theatre with Al Gore, are not supported by evidence. Nor are his feelings about green, local, renewable energy.

Since 2007-2009 there has not been another presidential election or IPCC release (however, there were annual UNFCCC events). When these did occur, each gained significant media attention and this will likely continue. The next IPCC release is set for 2014. This year, if Barack Obama wins the presidency,  he has promised a renewed focus on green jobs, energy efficiency, and transportation. Yet, a president cannot create a green revolution alone. It will take support from private, public, and media representatives willing to perform rigorous research on difficult problems and to refute the naysayers.

The truly sad story is not about global climate change’s waning popularity – as if! Were this true 74% of Americans would not be convinced the problem is affecting weather in the United States. In reality, the sad truth here is that a respected, intelligent reporter like David Brooks did not bother to do his fact-checking before presenting his opinion about issues that affect the entire global community.

Photo credit: (Feature Image)  John McColgan, Wildland Firefighter

About the Author

Karyn Boenker
Karyn Boenker, MS, is a freelance journalist and environmental scientist. She writes human interest stories while traveling the world and enjoys communicating scientific topics with a touch of humor.