Ask the Washington Post to stop lying about climate change

I really wanted to get a post into last week’s newsletter regarding the George Will flap, but deadlines being what they are, it didn’t happen. Happily, the controversy continues to sputter along, so it’s not to late for me to get my word in. Or rather, it’s not too late for you to get your word in.

In a nutshell: recently George Will wrote a column packed full of stale lies about climate change. In the ensuing kerfuffle, the Washington Post ran a series of mealymouthed investigatory pieces in which they mainly talked about how great it was that Will had given us all the opportunity to have this interesting, exciting conversation.

Normally the way I deal with stuff like this is to beat my head against my desk for five minutes. But there is a more constructive outlet: write a letter.

How does letter-writing help? A few ways. Within a large organization, there exist interest groups — individuals, departments, whatever — who are already sympathetic to your point of view. And more likely than not the main obstacle these groups face is utter indifference. A well-written letter gives them some leverage to press their case.

Another way a good letter can help is to keep people on their toes the next time a similar situation arises. George Will is actually recycling a lot of similar lies that he’s passed along in previous columns. Presumably this will become more difficult for him and other Post columnists to do if enough people point out that newspapers generally shouldn’t be in the business of publishing things that aren’t true.

The main trick to crafting an effective letter is to keep in mind that an actual human being is reading what you write. Express cogent points in a respectful way. Angry rants or insults will provoke defensiveness, or just get you ignored. Imagine that you’re trying to convince your poorly informed, opinionated, but well-meaning uncle of what you’re saying. Make a real case.

Here’s my go at it, in real time:

> In response to the controversy over George Will’s repetition of long-debunked falsehoods about global warming, the Washington Post ombudsman writes: “Thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent in the current dispute. But that’s where The Post could have helped, and can in the future.”

> Sadly, I am forced to conclude otherwise. The Post can’t foster thoughtful discourse when it reprints known falsehoods about basic scientific research. By now, you are no doubt well aware of the substantial errors of fact and inference contained in Will’s column. That these falsehoods made it through the Post’s “multi-layer editing process” raises fundamental concerns about that process, not about the state of climate change discourse.

> More broadly, the Post fails in its most basic mission when it prints these misstatements. Will is, of course, entitled to his opinion about the proper response to climate change. He is not entitled to use the pages of your newspaper to mislead the public.

> Washington Post editor Fred Hiatt has dismissed the controversy: “If you’re concerned that readers of The Washington Post don’t get a sense that most of the world thinks climate change is real, I think that’s a misplaced concern.” Unfortunately, it is Hiatt’s confidence in his readers that is misplaced. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that “forty-four percent (44%) of U.S. voters now say long-term planetary trends are the cause of global warming, compared to 41% who blame it on human activity.”

> Hiatt challenges us to debate George Will if we disagree with his conclusions. More likely, people will choose simply to ignore media outlets that have lost sight of their obligations to the truth. The Post could make some small headway toward repairing the damage done by printing a full correction of Will’s column and using more care in the future.

I’m not totally in love with this — it could be shorter and less shrill. But it gets the point across. I sent it here. Go write your own. It will take less time than it took to read this post.

Seriously. Go do it. Steal from mine, or write your own and then post it below for others to draw from.


**Update:** if you want more background info on the factual errors in Will’s column, the interwebs is your friend. See, for example:

* Center for American Progress (pdf)
* George Monbiot
* The Sierra Club
* Discover Magazine

Author Bio

adam

Comments Disabled

  1. Jamie Beckett - March 3, 2009

    While I applaud your motives, it would have been helpful if you had outlined what exactly was inaccurate about George Will’s opinion piece and supplied what you perceive to be accurate information. The weakness of the global warming argument is not that there is no evidence of the possibility, but that the evidence is not presented in pieces like yours.
    You can’t expect people to jump on board your bandwagon with any long-lasting fervor if the only information you have to offer is the assumption that your reader already knows what you’re thinking and agrees with you.
    That is a process of indoctrination. It is not an educational process that will benefit the reader in any substantive way.

  2. Grace - March 3, 2009

    I concur wholeheartedly.

  3. Paul S. - March 3, 2009

    Here’s my letter:
    “It is a shame the Washington Post continues to devote any space in their newspaper to a “conversation” that has already ended.
    It is time to face the true facts, present the data in understandable terms, and stop wasting time trying to have “balanced” reporting on a subject that is far too important to allow a small minority to have the same volume as the vast majority.
    Climate change is already happening. It is already affecting the entire planet in adverse ways. There is no longer any doubt of that.
    Please stop wasting newsprint space on out-of-date conversations and start printing the hard-hitting stories that will inspire people -everyone- to take steps to reduce our impact on the climate.
    Your newspaper is in a powerful position to affect the real change in attitude that is necessary to help save our planet.”

  4. Janet - March 4, 2009

    Your letter expressed your frustrations but didn’t list the errors-in-fact. You also should have pointed out the article was imbalanced. The Post is known to have well balanced articles that give both sides of an argument. I’m afraid your letter will be taken as an opinion rather than a correction.

  5. John J - March 4, 2009

    Agree as well. Please tell what he said.

  6. Roger - March 4, 2009

    In terms of science, the problem with the climate change controversy is very similar to that surrounding evolution, with a large percentage of Americans not accepting evolution as fact. This is because evolution, like climate change, is

  7. Adam Stein - March 4, 2009

    I’m going to push back on this a little. There are links embedded in the post if you want more information. I read probably over a dozen articles in preparation for this post and selected the ones that I thought would be most useful to interested readers.
    George Will’s column was published 17 days ago now, and an absolute torrent of commentary exists online — too much to fully recap. I try to make these posts as informative as possible, and I understand that people generally don’t click links. But if you want to be more educated on this issue, I encourage you to read some of the background material.
    Some more links on the scientific basis of the controversy:
    Center for American Progress
    George Monbiot
    The Sierra Club
    Discover Magazine

  8. richard schumacher - March 4, 2009

    For a list of Will’s errors see Will’s original column. Adam provided a link to a site debunking several of those errors. Here it is again in the clear:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/feb/18/climate-denial-george-will
    Here’s a site debunking the “in the 1970s all scientists thought it was cooling” error in some detail:
    http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/02/george-f-will-takes-on-science-loses.html
    And of course here is the old standby:
    http://realclimate.org/
    All of the he-said/she-said rhetorical obfuscation aside, global warming is fundamentally as simple as putting a lid on a pot of ice water on the stove: the temperature may not rise until all the ice is gone, but in the end it’s going to boil faster.

  9. richard schumacher - March 4, 2009

    Carbon dioxide was discovered to be what we now call a greenhouse gas in 1859. The greenhouse concept as it applies to an entire planet was discovered in 1896. Do try to keep up.

  10. Paul S. - March 4, 2009

    My letter is not perfect, but at least I sent it.
    A democracy relies on people speaking their minds to everyone who will listen, even if what they say is not perfectly worded.
    Don’t be shy, send your thoughts to the Post, or even better send them to your representative. They do listen. Don’t be verbose, come right to the point.
    This issue is being masked by the temporary economic troubles, but remains the most important challenge we all face and we must take action now. An important action you can take is writing letters or emails to policy makers, politicians, and newspaper editors.

  11. Anonymous - March 4, 2009

    YES!

  12. David - March 4, 2009

    A couple of things. George Will is an opinion columnist not a scientist, his work is printed on the op-ed page. That being said, it would be better for the Post to print an op-ed piece from someone with a scientific research credential in the field who can relate any relevant “facts” more accurately than Mr. Will has done lately.
    Though not a subscriber, I support the idea of writing the WaPo for the reasons put forth in the original post– it will enable more rational editors to have a better chance of prevailing in the future. I do agree the editors have an obligation to truth-check any purported “facts” they print. They wouldn’t print an op-ed by a holocaust denier, equal time with “the other side” opinion, would they?
    In the court of public opinion it’s time to move on, the scientists and IPCC, NOAA and many other esteemed bodies have let us know the time to act is growing short. A disservice to humankind and survivability of the planet as we know it, is being done by those who would waste time, ink and energy delaying further by obfuscating the reality that the planet is warming by human causes.
    Terrapass has my support as a proactive way to let our investments in renewables (packaged for sale as “offsets”) do the talking. It points the way forward for cost-effective strategies to combat the cause of global warming. That being said, I also invest in my own personal energy efficiency first. Would that our nation might join earnestly in that effort– for “green jobs” and sustainability is yet obtainable.
    In my opinion, Terrapass is as far from short-sighted as can be!

  13. Roger - March 4, 2009

    Behind the climate change debate there is of course a deeper, more philosophical issue, as we are seeing with this exchange here on Terrapass (and just as with the creationist/evolution debate): do we use the conclusions of science to influence human policy (and hence our behavior)? We’re quickly approaching 7 billion people on this planet, and it’s pretty obvious that homo sapiens has had a profound influence on the earth’s environment, but there are a *lot* of people who, busy with their own lives, simply do not want to be confronted with this issue.
    Countless thousands of species have been wiped out, and whole regions have been inalterably transformed. California can be seen as a microcosm for the future of this planet. Without regard to planning (or science), most all of Southern California has been transformed from semi-arid savannah to an endless swath of track homes and millions of miles of asphalt. And what are Californians being forced to face: the earth’s natural resources are indeed limited (no water! no oil!), and that such wanton destruction of the environment can suffocate all life (air pollution! water pollution! toxic chemicals!).
    But you know what, millions of Southern Californians would read George Will’s article and nod their heads…

  14. Janet LaCava - March 4, 2009

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I wrote my own letter and mailed it, also, but I will be passing on this information. Thanks.

  15. Geoff - March 4, 2009

    Adam,
    It’s rare for me to disagree with you, but on this one I do. I’ve been working actively to inform people about climate change for over a decade, both in my blog and in my previous corporate career. I am no flavor of “denier” on this issue. At the same time, this remains a free country with a free press–even on this subject–and I find what you are suggesting tantamount to censorship.
    If the Post had endorsed Mr. Will’s comments by incorporating them into an article on climate change, I would concur with your assessment. Instead, the piece appeared on the op-ed page, labeled as opinion, not fact. If you want to write an op-ed refuting Mr. Will’s statements line by line and can get the Post to publish it, more power to you.

  16. Roger - March 4, 2009

    And I would have to side with Adam on this one. Open, intelligent debate does not mean license, and there have to be parameters under which the participants operate. If I continually disrupted the discussion by ranting or putting others down in a forum on creationism or anti-climate change (as tempting as it would be), then one would expect the moderator to exclude me to allow fruitful discussion. And if I were really immature, my noticing that I’m disrupting the discussion would only motivate me to be more obnoxious. If I know there are no rules, that there’s no moderation, then I know I have the power to ruin a forum for discussion. And guess what, there are quite a few such folks out there in Internet-land!
    Healthy democracy means accepting responsibility, being courteous and respectful of others views, and working with generally accepted rules, it doesn’t mean

  17. T.J. Trimble - March 4, 2009

    I read the article: it’s terribly written. Citing other newspapers, from the seventies, as references for global climate conditions, he completely dismisses any sort of current scientific research. In fact, he completely bypasses the entire problem: most scientists (the good ones anyway) argue that global warming is not the problem: it is the symptom. The problem is carbon dioxide levels, and I don’t think anyone is arguing about those. With this in mind, I sent him my own letter, which is slightly different than above. Again, reuse, recycle, cite, whatever. Just pleeease… remember that 1) I am arguing that climate change is about CO2, NOT temperatures; and 2) my problem with this article is not what he says, it is How he says it (without any concrete references or any resemblance of academic rigor). In the end, it isn’t bad to have that opinion, it’s irresponsible to express it in the manner he did (and I suppose, does).
    Hi,
    I recently read George Will’s article on Climate Change: “Dark Green Doomsayers,” and some of the controversy surrounding it. I was encouraged initially by a particular environmentalist blog to e-mail you in complaint: I decided not to do so. Instead, I read the article and agreed with a completely different piece of criticism wrapped up in the complaint. The article cites many newspaper articles, many of which cite other newspaper article, and none of which (in ten minutes of searching) can be linked to any actual scholarly or academic research. In essence, George Will has written an opinion piece ON Opinion pieces. While this isn’t a problem practically, it is a problem that Mr. Will has passed off his op-ed story as a report on academia, which is not true.
    For instance, Mr. Will discusses a supposed bet made between two scientists about the price of minerals worldwide, and in citing that the pessimist (who might be characterized as the environmentalist) lost, says there is nothing to worry about. However, this is simply not true. The five minerals he discusses have nothing (or little) to do with climate changing and global temperature patterns. In fact, he doesn’t even mention carbon dioxide, which, as Mr. Gore and countless scientists have shown over and over, is the cause of our current concerns — not temperatures.
    Why does this have anything to do with you? I have been studying newspapers and the media recently, and disturbing trends about misrepresentation of facts and incestuous (for lack of a better word) reporting have come up time and time again. With the popularity and reader base of the Post, I think it is time to recognize that blatant misrepresentations of the truth and misleading claims about states of affairs are completely unacceptable. Therefore, I implore you to rethink your practices in the editorial process in order to phase out not just inaccurate reporting upon climate change, but inaccurate reporting in general. The Washington Post has the might to do something about the way people receive the media. I think it is time you exercise that might for the common good.
    Thanks for your time,

  18. Adam Stein - March 4, 2009

    Geoff,
    How is writing a letter expressing disapproval tantamount to censorship? I’m certainly not suggesting that the Washington Post shouldn’t be allowed to print such things. My threatened sanction is that we’ll start ignoring the Washington Post. That’s hardly muzzling the free press. Likewise, my proposed remedy is a published correction of the factual untruths in Will’s column, which strikes me as a pretty dismally low bar.
    More broadly, there’s something a bit naive about this notion that we should all just publish dueling op-eds and let the truth sort itself out. The rhetorical playing field tends to tilt heavily in the favor of liars, and it seems perfectly appropriate to appeal to the refs.
    Please understand: George Will is welcome to advance opinions that I find wrong or shortsided or even objectionable. He can argue that the proper response to climate change is to do nothing at all. But when George Will writes:
    “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”
    And the Arctic Climate Research Center then responds:
    “I don’t know where they are getting that. As of today, there are 1.43m km sq less Arctic sea ice than this same date in 1979. (Roughly the size of two Texas-sized states).”
    I think it’s fair to raise an objection.

  19. Geoff - March 4, 2009

    Adam,
    The underlying issue isn’t even about censorship, but the effectiveness of our message. As you note, there is a huge segment of the public that doesnn’t accept the message that you and I and many others have been delivering with regard to climate change. Criticizing the Post for publishing Will’s op-ed won’t change the minds of those folks; if anything it is likely to reinforce their view of us as intolerant and unwilling to argue the facts, preferring instead to shut down dissent. Why not take up Mr. Hiatt’s offer to debate Mr. Will on the facts?

  20. Adam Stein - March 4, 2009

    Geoff,
    I suppose I don’t really see this as either/or. I’m happy to write op-eds for the WaPo. I’m also obligated to complain to them about their editorial standards when they print falsehoods.
    But I really do have to emphasize that debating sounds much better in principle than in practice when basic standards of truth aren’t enforced. NASA scientists proved no match for Michael Crichton, and the same pattern has been repeated in other fora. I wish there were a simple solution to this, but when the goal is to sow confusion, deniers have a much stronger hand.

  21. Steve Fortuna - March 4, 2009

    Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Where are the Woodwards & Bernsteins of the scientific and environmental movement? Don Graham, you are no Ben Bradlee, who must be spinning in his grave over your ‘journalistic integrity’.
    As for George Will, a quick analysis of his income statement shows his main source of income as word huckster for convicted Canadian Criminal (how I love alliteration!) Conrad Black and his Hollinger Group, a huge mining and gas exploration conglomerate.
    George is likable enough and his books on baseball are well researched and imminently readable, but I’m afraid everyone has their price.

  22. Ray-ray - March 4, 2009

    We all live in this little fishbowl we call earth. If nobody changes the water it will get harder and harder to see the fish. Does anybody rememby how clean the sky looked the days after Sept. 11th? All planes grounded. Made a difference. Do you live near the water? Many boats didnt make it in during the downturn. I can see the bottom at 12 feet now. Havent seen that in 40 years.
    CO2 levels are ideal around 270 ppm (parts per million) but we have now reached 390ppm

  23. Ed - March 4, 2009

    Roger,
    I agree. In addition, it’s helpful to ask why a person holds a particular point of view. Why would environmentalists argue that climate change is real? Why would denialists say it’s not?
    The most negative things I can think to say about environmentalists are that (1) if you’re a scientist who has staked your career on a particular conclusion, and later evidence proves that conclusion wrong, you have to admit that your career was based on a lie. Hard for the ego to handle. (2) It sounds like many anti-environmentalists say that enviros (a) love plants more than people, (b) probably hate people, and (c) want to tell everyone how to live.
    Why would someone say that climate change is not real? It seems like it comes down to feeling that I’ll have to give up a cushy way of life. Of accepting that there are limits. That everything I’ve worked for and believed in is a lie. Hard for the ego to handle.
    We want to believe that people will listen to science, but it’s obvious that’s not the case. On this issue it appears that many – maybe the majority – of people will change their behavior (a) reluctantly, (b) kicking and screaming, or (c) not at all.
    Ego and comfort. An earth-killing combination.

  24. Maryam - March 4, 2009

    I Just wanted to say thank you for the original post. I was having a kind of blah day, feeling tired and bummed out about the State of the World and your exhortation to Do Something, with the nice easy link to the Washington Post e-mail form inspired me and I just submitted a letter to Mr. Alexander on this topic.
    I now feel a lot better, for the moment, and I hope my letter will join the chorus of others encouraging our influential news outlets remember that even op-ed pieces should not be allowed to mislead the public about pressing issues.

  25. Maria - March 4, 2009

    “After reading George Will’s article on climate change, I’d like to know where the true journalists are. Then I remembered the past eight years, and how blatant piracy never made the front page. Where is the stellar journalism and factual integrity that your publication is known for? We can all do better than that.”

  26. Paul S. - March 5, 2009

    Michael,
    Since I can’t read your posts, I can only assume by this post that you are not convinced that climate change is happening and it is human caused.
    It is and it is.
    The time for debate and “two way dialogue” about whether it’s happening or not is long gone.
    We must now focus on how to convince people of that fact so that real substantive actions are taken by everyone from the single mom installing CFLs to the government helping in whatever way works best.
    In fact, those may be the debates to have:
    What are the best solutions?
    How do we get everyone to do their part?

  27. san jose, CA - March 5, 2009

    my letter:
    I can’t believe the Washington Post is so willing to throw away the basis of its good reputation by defending George Will’s obvious lies about climate change.
    Newspapers across the country are folding, and the few that remain are the ones with a truly unique and established identity. People like myself, who unlike George Will will likely have to live through over half of the 21st century with all the climate change it brings, are not likely to be loyal readers of any backwards-thinking rag that ignores commonly understood science.

  28. imatwkrp - March 7, 2009

    Holy cats, that’s a good letter.

  29. Ed - March 7, 2009

    Hi Adam.
    To save yourself some aggravation, and potential contributors to this site some indignation, perhaps you could print a general disclaimer:
    “At Terrapass we accept the premise that (1) global climate change is a scientific fact, (2) that change is mostly because of human action, and (3) humans have an obligation to mitigate their contribution to climate change (4) until the science proves us wrong.”
    Not that the people who just want to argue with you will read it, but when they get on their “It hasn’t been proven” horse you can just say, “Read the disclaimer.”

  30. Cynthia - March 9, 2009

    It is my experience, if everyones mailed is delivered, garbage picked up and when the fire dept. is called, comes – no one cares!
    Everyone is too busy to get involved.
    I try to encourage people to wake up, start small, in their own back yard. But the original article should have been posted for other’s to read, for the simplicity of it.