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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

So... Benjamin Santer was asking for it?

John Rennie

Pity, if you will, Andy Revkin. As a reporter who worked the environment beat for The New York Times for many years, and who now continues as the author of the Dot Earth blog for that paper, Andy has the mixed blessing of being one of the most prominent journalists covering climate change, which means that he is a prominent target for arrows from all sides. Those who doubt, deny or otherwise resist efforts to stop anthropogenic global warming—whom Andy calls stasists and whom I'm usually comfortable calling deniers or denialists—attack him for pushing "climate alarmism." Meanwhile, proponents of climate policy reform paint Andy as frustratingly, deliberately centrist: too willing to echo the talking points of seemingly respectable opponents; too willing to discount the efforts of the disinformation campaign that maintains the energy/climate status quo. Of course, anyone who knows Andy and is familiar with his body of work can have no doubt that he recognizes the reality of climate change and the importance of trying to prevent it. I know his heart is in the right place. I know he isn't namby-pamby on the subject.

But it's easy to see why so many climate scientists throw up their hands at Andy's work when, in a post about the wild goose chase that was Climategate, he writes things like this (emphasis added):

The press, including me, was excoriated for devoting too much ink (and electrons) to the disclosed files in the first place. Some coverage was indeed far too focused on the sense of conflict, which is not surprising given that — as my screenwriter friends always say — conflict is story.

But what such critics forget is that many of the e-mail messages enabled the allegations that were then propounded by folks like Anthony Watts and amplified by professional anti-climate-policy campaigners like Marc Morano.

I would have had no need, in my initial print story on the affair last December, to seek a comment from Patrick J. Michaels — a climatologist who speaks and writes on energy and climate policy for the Cato Institute, which fights most regulatory solutions to environmental problems — if Benjamin Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, using his government e-mail account, had not vented to colleagues on October 9, 2009, in this way:

I’m really sorry that you have to go through all this stuff, Phil. Next 
time I see Pat Michaels at a scientific meeting, I’ll be tempted to beat 
the [expletive]  out of him. Very tempted.

I want to give Andy the benefit of the doubt on this, but how is writing that the stolen (or whatever) personal messages "enabled the allegations" not tantamount to blaming the victims of the theft? What exactly is the implicit standard here? That no one should say anything intemperate even in a presumably private conversation because, if it somehow becomes public knowledge, reporters will have no choice but to investigate every rhetorical flourish?

If that is the idea, then Andy really fell down on the job. Because although he sought out Patrick J. Michaels for comment, I don't see any evidence that he tried to contact the organizers of the scientific meeting to find out whether they would have beefed up security to head off Santer's berserker assault.

Please, Andy. We get it. The e-mails contained some juicy, gossipy slurs, and asking the subject of them what he thought was irresistible. Anybody in journalism might have done as much—TMZ and Perez Hilton surely would. It was certainly helpful to your efforts that Santer said something so colorful, because let's face it, for your purposes it would have been enough for him to say, "Patrick Michaels sure makes me mad! I sure wish someone would make him shut up!" Even that would have shown evidence of some emotional bias against the man and you would then have had to seek comment about it, no? Michaels would certainly have thought so, true? And you wouldn't want to make him unhappy.

It was a completely justified way to go with the story. Noted. I can swallow that. But please, don't be low enough to imply that the climate researchers brought it on themselves by failing to anticipate someone would make them publicly answerable for expressing personal opinions that fall short of an unstated, never-to-be-reached standard of decorum.

My apologies if anyone thinks I'm out of line for upbraiding Andy like this. But what such critics forget is that Andy's ill-considered comments enabled my allegations, much as Santer's did. The difference is that Andy intentionally put his words on a blog of The New York Times, whereas Santer just found his there.