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Environment

Choosing Sides

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There's big news today that will reinforce the hardening belief among many climate scientists and climate advocates that there is nothing constructive to be learned from climategate. That would be a huge mistake. Alas, perhaps the die is already cast. In the volatile climate change debate, journalism has come under increasing attack in the blogosphere since the Climategate story broke in late 2009. Call it the creeping Rommification of media criticism, in which individual journalists are harshly upbraided for their commentary or news coverage. Joe Romm, as anyone who has followed his blog knows, has practiced a highly personalized form of journalistic criticism. Over the years, Andy Revkin has been a frequent target of Romm's broadsides. I've long thought it curious that the scientists at Real Climate, an influential and well-respected lot, have never expressed public disapproval of Romm's behavior. Romm has an impressive grasp of climate science and he's plugged into beltway politics, but even his admirers, if they were given truth serum, would admit that his unrestrained attacks on well-meaning journalists further poisons the climate debate. Or maybe I've got that wrong and they would sooner admit that Romm's heavy-handed posts are necessary to keep journalists in line. I'm starting to think it's the latter, for the gang at Real Climate has practically leapt off the sidelines in recent months to single out journalists, such as Fred Pearce and Tom Yulsman, for what Gavin Schmidt has termed the "pathologies of media reporting" on climate change. Now I think it's perfectly acceptable for climate scientists to engage journalists in the blogosphere, and RC is way more polite and evenhanded than Romm. That said, of late I've noticed that they've been registering their approval and disapproval of media stories more frequently. But even in their approving appraisals, they can't help hurling a few digs, such as this one directed at Revkin:

Those who do not appreciate this point can easily be misled by the cavillous arguments of others who have become adept at focusing on this or that that specific bit of data and using it to convince people that they have uncovered some fundamental flaw in the theory.

To put this in a larger context, one has to understand that climate scientists are not happy that Revkin--more than any other journalist--has explored the political and scientific fissures revealed by climategate. Now, has the story been hyped in the media and manipulated by Morano? Yes. Does this mean Revkin was wrong to delve into issues raised by Judith Curry and Mike Hulme? No, not even in the wake of the latest news. Still, you get the feeling from RC and climate advocates that any broader analysis of climategate is illegitimate because no crime was commited. That's certainly the message that George Monbiot has been receiving for months. Last week he wrote in his column that he's "been assailed by climate scientists and environmentalists" since he started writing on the affair. For a taste of that ill will, check out this recent William Connolley post, in which he writes that "Monbiot is still rubbish." But one of Connolley's readers, noting Monbiot's long record of defending climate science, can't help remaining puzzled:

But you still have to wonder that if you've "lost" moonbat errr Monbiot, what what wrong, and how can it be handled better. Was Monbiot just swayed by the right-wing blogology & noise?

Connolley's response to the comment is notable because it demonstrates the "tribalist" atttitude described by Judith Curry, which at the end of the day, may well be the most damning thing one can say about climategate. Which isn't saying much, obviously. But the trouble is, that tribalist mindset is what keeps climate scientists from acknowledging "what went wrong." Anyway, here's the response by Connolley to his puzzled commenter:

Well, that is a good point. I think the answer is that Monbiot isn't really "'on our side'" at all, because in the end he is oon his own side. I don't think that is unreasonable - it isn't indended as a criticism - but I do criticise the people who say "Monbiot is one of you and even he says X so X must be true". Monbiot has his own interests - writing stories, mostly - and as others have said, being a journo givees him a very different perspective on FOI. And of course he knows nothing about the doing of science.

So Curry's point remains quite relevant, no matter what the latest panel says about climategate. Connolley's main problem with Monbiot is that he's not "on our side." This entrenched, tribalist attitude may be what's driving Real Climate's sudden emergence as a press critic. They are kinder and gentler than Romm, but they're still doing what he does: dividing journalists into two teams: their side and the opposition's. Is that really the best way to advance the climate debate? It's ironic that Connolley accuses Monbiot of knowing nothing about science. I'd say the same could be said of Connolley with respect to journalism. We're not supposed to take sides. UPDATE: At his site, William Connolley says I've misconstrued his meaning; he also has some worthwhile observations on my post. UPDATE: Nothing but "bupkis"--for the second time--Michael Tobis gloats, re: the the latest report exonerating climate scientists. Andy Revkin, over at Dot Earth, has a useful overview and larger perspective.

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