National Public Radio's Fresh Air hosted the New York Times' most apocalyptic environmental reporter Justin Gillis Thursday to discuss his "Temperature Rising" series in the Times. Gillis again compared global warming skeptics to creationists. (From the Fresh Air transcript.)
Dave Davies: You also wrote about extreme weather episodes. Do you want to mention some of those and kind of tell us what we might know about their potential relationship to climate change?
Gillis: Well, we've certainly had some remarkable weather in the last few years, weather extremes. People will remember the really intense drought from last year, for example, that did so much harm to the corn crop in the Midwest. We've had spectacular examples of cases of tornadoes, you know, such as the one that destroyed Joplin, Missouri. We seem to be living through this period of intensified and heightened weather extremes.
Now the truth is that scientists are -- the common question that people ask on the street is: So is this climate change? And scientists have a bit of a hard time with that. For many of these kinds of weather extremes, we don't have particularly good statistics going back that many decades, for example. And so it's hard to say, in the case of tornadoes for example, we just don't have a very clear picture of what's developed over a long time.
With some types of extremes, though, climate science is fairly clear that there's a relationship between those extremes and the ongoing climate change. For example particularly with heat waves, you know, theory and evidence predicts that there will be a change in the distribution of heat extremes as the climate warms up, and that seems to be happening.
Davies: You know, one of the things that climate skeptics say is that if you look back over the long view of the Earth's history, you see variations in temperature, and there are ice ages, and there are periods of warming. And I know you've looked at how scientists have looked at past temperatures and rates of change of temperature. How does what we're seeing now compare to the historic record?
Gillis: The way the skeptics, the climate skeptics or climate deniers, whatever you want to call them, tend to pose this is, well, there have been big changes in the climate of the Earth in the past; therefore, we humans can't possibly be causing any change in the climate. And that, of course, does not logically follow. It's true that there have been big changes in the climate in the past, that were purely natural and had nothing to do with human activity. You can't leap from that to, well, what we're doing now is going to have no effect. That's just a sort of irrational leap of logic to make, really.
The host briefly noted that Gillis is considered an alarmist by some global warming skeptics, without actually challenging him.
Davies: There's a website that calls you a warmist, and, you know, there are climate skeptics out there that treat climate change as a scientific hoax. Now I've heard from a lot of credible journalists that among serious climatologists that there is consensus that the climate is changing and that human activity is, you know, contributing to or causing it. But as a journalist, how do you deal with this? I mean, how often do you feel like you should quote climate change skeptics in your stories, even if you feel like, you know, they're really outside the credible mainstream?
Gillis: Well, it's important to understand, first of all, Dave, that I mean this is a robust, healthy science. And within the scientific mainstream, there is a considerable range of views about just exactly how much risk we're running. There's probably -- there's certainly a range of views about what the likely ultimate consequences are going to be in terms of temperature. When I look at the scientific majority, the scientific mainstream, I would say that, as a group, they fear this is going to be pretty bad. They don't know exactly how bad it's going to get, and they don't know how fast it's going to get that way -- which might be the ultimate question. Now to answer your question, my approach to this is I quote the climate skeptics or deniers, whatever term you prefer, when they're relevant. So when I'm doing a piece about the science itself and what the latest kind of scientific findings are, especially if that's kind of a short piece, I don't necessarily feel obliged to quote the climate skeptics in the same way that if you were doing a story about evolution, a New York Times reporter wouldn't feel obliged to call up, you know, creationists and ask them what they think.
On the other hand, the climate skeptics are politically relevant in a way that, at this point in American history, the creationists are not, for example. So we have a fair chunk of the Congress, for example, that sees political traction right now in questioning climate science or purporting not to believe it. And so in a political story or in a longer story, I usually do give some amount of space to the climate skeptics.
Now I try not to overdo that. As journalists, we don't want to fall into this trap of what's called false balance, where you take two positions that have completely different weight of evidence and treat them as equal. So sort of in no story am I treating the climate denier position as equal to the mainstream scientific consensus, because I don't think it is. I mean, I think you look at the weight of evidence, and there's sort of just a huge pile of it in favor of the mainstream science and not very much published scientific evidence at all that really stands up to say this is not a problem.
Davies: So you'll quote the climate skeptic, but you make clear where the mainstream scientific community is.
Gillis: That is exactly what I try to do, yes.