Last Tuesday, September 11, while watching Democracy Now!, I listened to the lucid, conversational way in which Penn State climatologist Michael E. Mann explained the looming amplifying impacts of human-induced global warming on Hurricane Florence and its grim triple-header threat to the Carolinas: severe storm surge and coastal flooding, powerful/damaging winds, and “perhaps most significant of all, [the hurricane] is predicted to stall when it makes landfall, and so that will lead to very large amounts of flooding rainfall, perhaps rivaling what we saw with Hurricane Harvey last year, which was the worst flooding event on record.”
Mann’s easily articulated assessments of the influence of global warming on Hurricane Florence reminded me of what I had mentioned to some friends a year or so ago—that the New York Times should hire a climate scientist, in particular, Michael Mann, to write a full-time column on climate change. Mann, a superb scientist, is also a recipient of the 2017 Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication, which is given “to a natural or social scientist who has made extraordinary scientific contributions and communicated that knowledge to a broad public in a clear and compelling fashion.”
A good precedent for hiring Mann as a full-time climate-change columnist is the successful decision by the Times to employ Paul Krugman as an op-ed page columnist on economics. There is also an urgent need for mainstream news organizations to upgrade their reporting on climate science and its implications without the now-tattered and torn baggage of journalistic balance.
Mann’s most recent published research in leading journals also speaks authoritatively to major current climate concerns: “Climate change and California drought in the 21st century” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015); “Increased threat of tropical cyclones and coastal flooding to New York City during the anthropogenic era” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015); “The Likelihood of Recent Record Warmth” (Scientific Reports, 2016); “Influence of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Planetary Wave Resonance and Extreme Weather Events” (Scientific Reports, 2017); “Impact of climate change on New York City’s coast flood hazard” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017); “Assessing climate change impacts on extreme weather events” (Climatic Change, 2017); and “Record temperature streak bears anthropogenic fingerprint” (Geophysical Research Letters, 2017).
His scientific expertise and communication skills make him almost uniquely well-suited to elevate the Times’ coverage of climate change in response to the existential threat of global warming and its now-emerging extreme impacts.
Assuming that Mann or another such climate scientist would be willing to change occupations as suggested here, in effect as a public service, another question involves whether the publisher and top editors at the Times would be willing to depart from their longstanding uninspired coverage of climate change.
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In fall 2007, I began reading published material on climate science for a book that I was preparing to write about the New York Times coverage of climate change. At that time, I read the just-published book by the climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming (Knopf, 2007). Lomborg’s book so thoroughly embodied what the late Stephen Schneider once referred to as the “chronic mistake-making” of another climate denier, that I switched my focus from the Times’ coverage of climate change to writing a book about Lomborg’s Cool It.
I often regret, however, not returning to the Times coverage of climate change. This occurs, for example, when I recall the favorable review in November 2007 by Andrew Revkin, editor of the Dot Earth blog on climate change at the Times, of Lomborg’s Cool It. In that review, Revkin placed Lomborg at “the pragmatic center” among commentators on global warming. Revkin’s review was called “Challenges to Both Left and Right in U.S. on Global Warming,” with Lomborg situated in the middle.
Oddly, this followed the favorable review of Cool It in the Wall Street Journal by Kimberly Strassel, titled “A Calm Voice in a Heated Debate,” in which she likewise positioned Lomborg in “the practical middle” among climate commentators.
Revkin also followed Lomborg’s own review of Cool It in the Washington Post, called “Chill Out,” in which Lomborg wrote that his book staked out “the middle ground, where we can have a sensible discussion” about whether climate change was a looming global catastrophe; Lomborg argued that it was not.
Although he worked hard and included a multitude of expert opinion on climate change, Revkin’s excessively “balanced” and “middle-ground” editorial overlay was the dominant theme of his long tenure as the Times’ principal interlocutor on climate change, which departed from the climate-related worst-case scenarios that were bubbling up to the surface of the published scientific literature in the early 2000s. Add to this the long-standing disinterest in climate change at the science desk at the Times, the thin reporting in its news pages, the occasional editorial, and the absence of a climate-change expert among its full-time columnists.
Engaging the likes of a Michael Mann as a regular columnist to report, translate, and comment on the extreme dangers of human-induced climate change would help the Times make amends to its readers and everyone else for its short coverage of global warming over the years, given the extent of the threat that it obviously now presents.