Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday, Wednesday & Friday.

Journalists Relied on James Hansen’s Say-So

SPOTLIGHT: Tomorrow, June 23rd, is the 30th anniversary of James Hansen‘s historic climate testimony to a US Senate committee.

BIG PICTURE: Nine years after the 1988 event that triggered decades of climate change media coverage, the person who orchestrated the event was interviewed by PBS’s Frontline. Timothy Wirth, a prominent Democratic congressman, and one-term senator, told PBS:

We knew there was this scientist at NASA, you know, who had really identified the human impact before anybody else had done so and was very certain about it. So we called him up and asked him if he would testify.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) hadn’t even been established. It hadn’t yet written any of its reports describing an alleged climate consensus. Yet Wirth already believed there was a crisis.

That belief rested on a single scientist. Who was making claims no one else had yet made. Who was “very certain” his ideas were correct.

Wirth neglected to mention that the wider scientific community hadn’t yet examined Hansen’s ideas. At the beginning of his testimony, Hansen said his assertions were “based largely on recent studies” carried out with a team of seven others (my italics).

The paper describing those studies was submitted to the Journal of Geophysical Research in January 1988, and was accepted in May. But it wasn’t published until the 20th of August – two months after Hansen delivered his testimony.

TOP TAKEAWAY: Journalists considered Hansen’s 1988 remarks credible. Even though he was an outlier. Even though the broader scientific community had had no opportunity to evaluate his work.

LINKS:

The Age of Global Warming: A History
Rupert Darwall
  • the 2007 PBS transcript is here
  • Hansen’s 23 June 1988 testimony is here
  • Hansen’s research, published 20 August 1988, is here
  • Rupert Darwall points out, in The Age of Global Warming, that the first IPCC report (1990) “carried an implicit rebuke to James Hansen and his claim two years earlier to have detected the greenhouse effect.” He quotes the IPCC: “Because of the many significant uncertainties and inadequacies in the observational climate record, in our knowledge of the causes of natural climate variability and in current computer models, scientists working in this field cannot at this point in time make the definitive statement: ‘Yes, we have now seen an enhanced greenhouse effect.'” (my italics)
  • See my related blog post: Were aerosol spray cans really a threat? Journalists, politicians, and others often hop on bandwagons well before scientific claims have been carefully examined and thoroughly debated.

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