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23Aug 2013

NPR - A few storms over profile of the non-denialist but very indecisive climate scientist Judith Curry

Photo by Richard Harris/NPR

  A perfectly well-established and honorable journalistic practice is the profile. One sits down with and gets to know somebody in the news. Sometimes profiles include substantial background and outside quotes to get differing opinions of the target's pluses and minuses. Sometimes not. The foremost idea is to let the audience in on some intimate, people-side facets to people already in the news. If they let loose with something outside themselves and that the public has not heard before in news reports, so much the better.

   To wit:

   So Richard Harris of NPR, or Rick as I've called him since we were both green reporters in San Francisco, sat down with Georgia Tech climate and meteorological researcher Curry. The result fits well within the borders of good profile writing - a focus on the person as well as a few details and nuances - and the voice behind them - of the opinions and activities that put that person in the news. If all you read of science is medical news, the short version of Curry's place in the climate wars is in the middle of an extraordinarily polarized discussion. She refuses to endorse strong actions to stop climate change, yet also refuses to support the canard that global warming is a fraud. She expends, far as I can tell, all her energy in a decidedly polar way: looking for overreaching or holes in research findings and researchers who declare with any actionable certainty that climate change is an urgent problem needing expeditious fixing. She is a gadfly who says gadzooks only about the likes of the IPCC. But, again, she is no science ignoramus. She fully acknowledges that basic physics says more airborne CO2 = a longer residence time for heat at the Earth's surface.

   One excellent rundown on Harris's story and general reaction, complete with scathing opinion from some on the scientific side (including from Michael Mann) is here:

  • Discover blogs - Collide-a-Scape - Keith Kloor: Climate Puffery ; Kloor's best line is to say of this fray that has Curry in the middle, wringing her hands in uncertainty, that "climate change has become a sport where the most passionate followers belong to one of two opposing teams that really, really hate each other."

  The text of the NPR broadcast is not long. Do read it.

  [Following graph AMENDED in response to comment from Daniel Griscom] I have a complaint, but not one essential to this being a responsible profile. Harris could have pushed Curry a little harder after she said she "just does not know" and neither does anybody else whether climate is headed for minor or awful or hideous change. She expanded on it after Harris asked her about assertions by others (AGU, IPCC) that humans are, to very high probability, responsible for the observed global temperature trend. She said our contribution "might be around 50 percent or even a little less." OK, let's assume there is only a 50-50 chance at most we're doing it. Why not ask something like, look, if your family planned an adventure vacation with a 50 percent chance your grandchildren would get badly hurt, and a 5 percent chance they'd die, you were taking them into a perilous situation that many exsperts say threatens injury or even death, would you go? I thought not. But that's where we are these days. If one says there is 90 percent chance we done it, and a good chance it will keep going till it makes a good portion of the world unlivable or flooded, denialists will say that's not enough. They want proof. Otherwise, drill and mine away and don't go messing with my freedoms either. Maybe Harris could have asked her whether she's really content to sit by while, with a mere 50-50 risk of mass peril, the world rolls willingly on to this new planet we may be making? Curry seems to be playing hide and seek with the we-really-don't-know line. So? Jeez, who really knows much of anything? At issue is not  certainty. It concerns probability and the search for the most likely path to a better, more secure, and freer world for our descendants. (The line-outs are to acknowledge that Dr. Curry's statement referred only to causation of climate change, not to chances that the changes will be severe threats to human and biosphere health. I apologize to readers and to her for for conflating two kinds of odds in the climate issue. See comment from Griscom below/ cp. )

  Anybody following this issue must read Curry's own blog post on what Harris told her before the interview, and what he broadcast and wrote. She does not think it has errors.She is irritated that Rick told her he wanted to talk about the details of the slowed rate of atmospheric warming observed for the past ten or 15 years. And that is the sort of thing they talked about, mostly. Her personal asides, grandchildren, her dogs, and her thoughts on the chances that humanity is the main driver of climate change, occupied just a few minutes of interviews that extended across two days near Lake Tahoe. After seeing the article, she writes, "I see this as a missed opportunity to discuss the science and the changing dynamics of the climate debate after climategate....I have to wonder why Harris spent two days talking to me. I guess it took that long to get me to say something about my nieces and nephews."

   This sort of reaction will not surprise any seasoned reporters. But in much or reporting there is more than hint of a practice that in retailing is considered sleazy: bait and switch. It is difficult to say if there is any fundamental ethical dimension to that.







This is more revealing than I thought it might be. Consider this list of Earth's climate variations over the past 150,000+ years. This is well accepted consensus of geologists and climate scientists supported by real hard physical evidence from several diverse independent sources.


I am completing my PhD in atmospheric sciences and we are doing a research paper on global warming. I will be sure to mention Judith Curry's views in my paper, should be interesting.

Also see Dana Nuccittelli's Guradian blog post, "Is climate change humanity's greatest-ever risk management failure?" It was triggered in part by the Harris interview of Curry. 

Daniel - Excellent point. I sensed the conflation but foolishly plowed ahead. The underlying point - concerning the caution one should take upon seeing a 50-50 chance one is doing something very risky - is valid. But I now see I did indeed jump from her quote's specific meaning on causation to another odds-related aspect of climate change, its severity. Will amend and apologize to readers and to Dr. Curry for mischaracterizing her point.

While I share your general views about climate change, you need to be careful not to offer easy targets for the denialists to shoot at. Here, for instance, you hear Curry's statement that she believes the human contribution to global warming "might be around 50 percent or even a little less", but then interpret it as a statement that there is a 50 percent chance of serious consequences. These are completely different concepts: the former is a statement of the fraction of the current temperature rise caused by us, the latter is a statement of the probability of grave long-term harm caused by the temperature rise. In the jargon of the SAT: "true/true unrelated".

Equating unrelated statements confuses the average reader and gives denialists the opportunity for a heart-warming "Hah! I told you the media was biased!".

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