While critics are still discussing the decision by The New York Times to cancel its Green environment blog, a Times columnist is demonstrating what can happen when environmental coverage is left to non-specialists who are not well informed.
In January, the Times announced it was dismantling its environmental reporting team, and last week it said it was canceling the Green blog. Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote in January that the demise of the environmental reporting team would make it difficult for the Times to continue to cover the environment adequately. And yesterday, Sullivan wrote, "Something real has been lost on a topic of huge and growing importance."
Nothing could make that point better than a column that appeared on the same day on the Times's Op-Ed page. Written by columnist Joe Nocera, who primarily covers business, not the environment, it tried to make a confusing point about activism by environmental researchers and it misrepresented some of the science behind climate change.
The column, entitled "A Scientist's Misguided Crusade," criticized NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who in addition to doing much of the fundamental research on climate change has also become an activist on the issue, speaking out frequently on the alarming consequences of global warming. Nocera quoted from an email he said he received from Hansen, in which Hansen wrote, among other things, that the Keystone XL pipeline "would be the first step down the wrong road" and that "the public must demand that the government begin serving the public's interest, not the fossil fuel industry's interest."
Nocera wrote that he "wondered" whether "such apocalyptic pronouncements were the sort of statements a government scientist should be making." Nocera acknowledges that Hansen is a "crucial figure" in climate change science, but what we hear from him now are such things as "his broad, unscientific views on, say, the evils of oil companies." That might be all that Nocera hears; people who follow climate change science understand that Hansen is still engaged in research. And Nocera gives us no examples of unscientific pronouncements from Hansen.
Further, Nocera says, Hansen shouldn't be an activist because "many climate scientists" disagree with certain of his judgments and "he has a department to run." There is, Nocera writes in an unscientific pronouncement of his own, "enormous resentment toward Hansen inside NASA." That might be true, but Nocera quotes no one and gives us nothing to substantiate this claim. He concludes by saying that Hansen is wrong to take a stand on the Keystone pipeline; that other issues, such as a carbon tax, are more important.
I don't think environment reporters "wonder" why Hansen would take his concerns to the public. He's been doing it since 1988, as the Times itself reported. Perhaps Nocera should stick to business reporting, and the Times's environment writers should cover Hansen. Ah, but the Times no longer has an environment desk.
Those who think the concern about the demise of the Green blog might prompt the Times to bring it back should look at some numbers.
As of this morning, Sullivan's post about the end of the Green blog had drawn 55 comments.
Nocera's column had received 421.