Coal Tattoo

Big day today for coal and climate news


Half a world away from West Virginia’s coalfields, delegates from around the world are starting talks in Copenhagen aimed at finally doing something about global warming.

Meanwhile, folks here in Charleston and surrounding communities will get a great chance tonight to hear diverse views on the issue.

pmichaels.jpgdavid-hawkins.jpgThe Gazette is co-sponsoring a big debate tonight between David Hawkins, climate change director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (right), and Patrick Michaels, a Cato Institute senior fellow and leading climate change skeptic (far right). This event,  at 6 p.m. Monday at University of Charleston’s Geary Auditorium, is billed as a discussion of cap-and-trade legislation’s potential impacts on the West Virginia economy. But it seems likely that Copenhagen will come up, as will the stolen e-mails that have climate skeptics in such a tizy. If you want a preview of the general views held by Hawkins, check out his testimony in October to the U.S. Senate on its version of the climate change bill. Or, read up on Michaels by following the links from his Cato Institute bio page.

Earlier today, starting at about 2 p.m., mountaintop removal opponents are planning what they say will be a huge rally outside the state Department of Environmental Protection’s headquarters in Kanawha City. The featured speakers is scheduled to be Robert Kennedy Jr., an outspoken critic of mountaintop removal and coal in general. Massey Energy President Don Blankenship’s buddies over at the West Virginia Red blog are encouraging coal industry supporters to mount a counter-protest:

We cannot sit by an let this out-of-state liberal environmental extremists insult the coal miners and mining families who sacrifice everyday so America can have cheap affordable energy. Let Mr. Kennedy know he can’t come to West Virginia and talk about our people!

Interestingly, Vicki Smith had an Associated Press story this morning  that opined:

Environmental activists gained more momentum this year than in the past decade against the destructive, uniquely Appalachian form of strip mining known as mountaintop removal, though they have yet to mobilize the millions of supporters they want.

The activists have harnessed the power of the Web, social networking and satellite phones. They’ve chained themselves to heavy equipment, blocked haul roads and climbed trees to stop blasting. They’ve marched for miles, hung banners and been arrested.

They’ve even enlisted support from celebrities like actress Daryl Hannah, country singer Kathy Mattea and attorney Robert Kennedy Jr., who is expected to attend a rally Monday at the state Department of Environmental Protection in Charleston.

And yet they struggle to overcome the collective indifference of average Americans, plugged in to affordable electricity produced largely by coal-fired power plants.

Consumers, it seems, aren’t debating mountaintop-removal mining at the dinner table.

If that weren’t enough … the Obama administration has finalized its determination that greenhouse gases pose a danger to human health and the environment, paving the way for regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, power plants, factories refineries and other major sources. According to a New York Times account:

The move gives President Obama a significant tool to combat the gases blamed for the heating of the planet even while Congress remains stalled on economy-wide global warming legislation.

The E.P.A. finding also will allow Mr. Obama to tell delegates at the United Nations climate change conference that began today in Copenhagen that the United States is moving aggressively to address the problem.

It’s worth noting that some coal industry backers in the Appalachian region — notably the United Mine Workers union, American Electric Power, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller — have cited the likely EPA regulation of carbon dioxide as a reason for Congress to act, a path that would give political leaders and lobbyists more ability to carve out language that helps the coal industry deal with greenhouse limits.

And what about the skeptics? What about ClimateGate?

Well, the Times’ climate change reporter, Andy Revkin, co-authored a story today headlined “As climate meeting starts, a revival of skepticism” … at least an early version had that headline. Now, the story is headlined, “In face of skeptics, experts affirm climate peril.” Among other things, the story reports “the uproar [over the e-mails] has threatened to complicate a multiyear diplomatic effort already ensnared in difficult political, technical and financial disputes that have caused leaders to abandon hopes of hammering out a binding international climate treaty this year.”

In recent days, an array of scientists and policy makers have said that nothing so far disclosed — the correspondence and documents include references by prominent climate scientists to deleting potentially embarrassing e-mail messages, keeping papers by competing scientists from publication and making adjustments in research data — undercuts decades of peer-reviewed science.

Revkin’s own coverage was the subject of a Sunday column by the Times public editor, Clark Hoyt this weekend.  And Joe Romm at Climate Progress wasn’t impressed by what Hoyt had to say — well, except for the very last part, in which Hoyt concluded ClimateGate is a story, but not a three-alarm one.

The Washington Post published a long story this weekend concluding that the e-mails:

… Don’t provide proof that human-caused climate change is a lie or a swindle.

But the best thing I’ve read so far came from Curtis Brainard at the Columbia Journalism Review, in a piece headlined “Hacked e-mails and journalistic tribalism.”  Brainard offers some sound criticism of the media coverage so far, including noting that many regional papers no longer have full-time science writers — let alone scienc-writing staffs — a development that hurts their ability to add to this story. He also offers this summary of the four major issues that have been explored so far from these e-mail messages:

1) A comment by Phil Jones, the director of East Anglia’s Climate Reach Unit (whose decision to step down temporarily has drawn fairly wide coverage), that he had used a “trick” to hide a decline in temperatures. This has probably been the most cited and best-explained point of criticism in the media. Basically, in a reconstruction of twentieth-century temperatures Jones grafted instrumental temperature records onto proxy temperature records based on tree rings, because at a certain point in time, those records became unreliable. Why the later tree-ring data are faulty isn’t understood, but a key point here for journalists is that there are many other lines of evidence that support a rise in temperatures during the latter half of the twentieth century. [Update: Please see the comments section for a more thorough explanation of Jones’s “trick” and the data behind it.]

This “trick”—perhaps better described as a “solution”—was explained in the scientific literature at the time, and there seems to be nothing nefarious about it. Many reporters explained the story in more detail than I have here. Those that didn’t misled their readers. The New York Times’s John Tierney explained the “trick” well enough, but still argued that when the final temperature graph was presented, policymakers and journalists “wouldn’t have realized” how it had been constructed. That may have been the case, but hopefully it wasn’t. Few reporters if any seem to have covered the “trick” (or “divergence problem,” as it is known to scientists) at the time, but one can hardly have expected them to if they understood and accepted the scientists’ rationale. But Tierney is right—journalists should always learn exactly how such graphs were constructed before reporting.

2) A comment in which Kevin Trenberth, the head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, called scientists’ inability to account for a lack of recent warming as a “travesty.” This is perhaps the second most cited criticism in the science category, though it has not been as well or as consistently explained as the “trick.” Basically, Trenberth was expressing frustration with researchers’ poor ability (pdf) to track short-term natural variability within the climate system. As we explained in a recent column, natural variability (e.g., cool weather) drowns out the signal from human-caused climate change, which becomes clear on longer timescales. The fact that scientists don’t have a handle on the former doesn’t mean they don’t on the latter. Journalists haven’t done a great job explaining this in the wake of the hacked e-mails, but a few have done better in recent years while addressing ongoing claims that “global warming stopped in 1998.”

3) A comment by Michael Mann, a professor at Penn State’s Department of Meteorology, that “it would be nice to contain” the Medieval Warm Period in a millennial temperature reconstruction. George Will latched onto this on ABC News’s This Week, where he had the scientist saying it would be nice to “hide” the warm period (which some scientists think had higher temperatures than we are experiencing now, but without the presence of human-generated greenhouse gases). The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania was one of the very few outlets to ask the scientist who the made the comment what he meant. Mann said that the word “contain” reflected his desire to identify exactly when the warm period began, rather than to deny its existence. This seems to be a reasonable explanation, but it would be nice to see more reporters fleshing it out and seeking other input about the statement’s significance.

4) The log of Ian (Harry) Harris, a computer expert at East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, expressing frustrations with attempts to reconcile disparate climate data from around the globe. This one has come up only briefly in the mainstream press. NASA climate modeler Gavin Schmidt—who has been a key source for the media over the last two week and posted a couple methodical explanations such as this one at—explained the log this way: “Anyone who has ever worked on constructing a database from dozens of individual, sometimes contradictory and inconsistently formatted datasets will share his evident frustration with how tedious that can be.” But it appears no reporter has yet contacted Harris himself.

Those are the four major scientific points … Brainard also offers this about three major political points:

1) Charges that University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit has attempted to shield raw data from critics. The university has responded by saying that it is difficult to store that data over the course of decades, especially for older records, and that it is not allowed to release much of the raw data from meteorological agencies from around the world without their permission. The press has done a fair job explaining this, though it hasn’t been a major focus of the coverage. It is not a new problem, either, and the university seems to be taking adequate steps to improve transparency by recovering and releasing the raw data.

2) Discussion among a group of scientists about deleting e-mails and files in order to deny critics access through freedom of information laws. This has been a major point in the press coverage. There has been almost universal condemnation of the statements, although it isn’t clear that any e-mails or files were actually deleted. The mere suggestion is unethical, however, and the act, if carried out, could prove illegal. We should definitely hear more from the press on this point, but it is likely that reporters will have to wait for conclusions of pending investigations at East Anglia and Penn State, as well as a Congressional investigation in the U.S.

3) Charges that a group of scientists conspired to block the publication of dissenting research in peer-reviewed journals and boycott those journals that do publish dissenting research. In the e-mails, East Anglia’s Phil Jones suggests that the group “redefine what peer-review is” and speaks of a “troublesome editor” at the journal Climate Research. This has also been a major focus in the media, but the press has done an incomplete job of explaining or investigating it.

The e-mails date back to an episode in 2003 in which a controversial paper arguing the twentieth century wasn’t the warmest in the last thousand years was published in the journal Climate Research. Five editors—including editor-in-chief Hans von Storch—resigned soon thereafter, citing a breakdown in the review process that failed to catch severe methodological flaws in the paper and inadequate steps to address those flaws after publication. The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin was one of only a few reporters to cover the resignations at the time. and others have offered the story as evidence that the scientists in the e-mails were talking about restoring the integrity of the peer-review process rather than undermining it. Few articles have explained this side of the story, and fewer still have reported it further.

Only The Wall Street Journal seems to have interviewed von Storch, who told its reporters that while peer-review had indeed broken down in 2003, the “gatekeeping” discussed in the e-mails “violated a fundamental principle of science.” Journalists must be careful, however. The Journal article quoting von Storch reported that the e-mails showed the authors “sought” to block the publications of dissenting research. The past tense of that verb, which a few other outlets have employed, implies that they actually tried to carry out the plan. If that is the case, more detail is needed, but at this point, it seems they merely discussed it. Again, it is the job of journalists to find out and report exactly what did, and did not, happen.

So what do you all think?

Finally, a note concerning coverage of today’s protest at WVDEP and of tonight’s cap-and-trade forum … I’ve handling both events for the Gazette, so I’m not sure if I’ll have time to blog them both and get stories done for the print edition. Watch the Gazette Web site for coverage. But I will be Tweeting from both events, so check that out here.