Saturday, March 14, 2009

George Will and the lessons we can learn from Greenland

Followers of the climate news online are no doubt aware of the web-plosion caused by an error-filled column by Washington Post op-ed columnist George Will.

Will's Feb 13th op-ed drew online outrage and letters to the Post ombudsman, which begat an article by the NY Times Andrew Revkin contrasting Will's multiple, egregious errors with an erroneous slide used by Al Gore in a climate presentation, which begat heated [and deserved!] criticism of Revkin for drawing false equivalence, which begat spats about the people like Matthew Nesbit quoted in Revkin's article, which together begat another equally dubious Will op-ed, which begat more outrage, and which all eventually begat yet another a set of posts dissecting or defending Roger Pielke, who is like the black hole of the climate blogs, eventually absorbing all the energy of the surrounding community.

There are many important things to take away from this dispute, not the least of which being that even the most reputable newspapers clearly do not properly fact-check opinion pieces (ie. Will). The problem with Will's climate skeptic talking points - make no mistake, these are oft-repeated points - is not just the numbers. It is the lesson you draw from those numbers.

Case in point, Will's recent comments about the Vikings:

Now, it seems to me there is a 100 percent certainty that at any moment the planet is warming or it is cooling. That's what it does. There are cycles well-recorded through history. The climate was once warm enough for Greenland to be called "Greenland" for a reason -- the Vikings farmed there.

No doubt, there are factual and contextual concerns with this statement. First of all, the island is called Greenland for a number of possible reasons, including i) the southern coastal regions where the Norse landed is green; it is now, it was then, and ii) green may be a misrepresentation of 'grunt', the Norse word for ground. Second of all, yes, the Vikings did in fact farm in Greenland, the Greenlandic people think climate change will allow them to expand farming once again. One shouldn't get carried away with the term "farm". The Viking weren't growing corn and soybeans and tomatoes and lettuce -- they grew hay to feed to animals.

The real issue here is what we can learn from history. Will and others skeptical of the human role in climate change repeat this meme about Greenland presumably to advance two related points:
a) that the climate varies naturally over time,
b) that climate change scientists ignore point (a).

Point (a) is a red herring. Of course the climate varies naturally over time. However, just because there is natural climate variability doesn't mean that other forces, like greenhouse gas emissions, have no effect on the climate, or that current trends are due to natural variability. That's why we do research, that's why we build models based on physics and chemistry.

Point (b) is wrong, and very telling.

The Norse in Greenland is one of the most important case studies in climate and history. In my course of the global climate system, I spend a half a lecture talking about the what happened to the Norse settlements in Greenland.

Greenland was settled around 985 AD by the Norse. Other than the Inuit and the modern Danes, this was the only successful human settlement of Greenland. The environment was too harsh for cereal cultivation so the Norse relied on pastoralism, growing hay for sheep and cattle, and trade with other Norse colonies.

The Norse settlements flourish until the mid-1300s AD. Then the population began to decline. They lost contact with Norway. By 1500 AD, there were no Norse left in Norway.

What happened?

The climate changed - cooled by 1-2 deg C. The increase in sea ice made trade difficult. The cooler weather damaged hay yields, possibly already declining due to overgrazing. There were conflict with the Inuit, who were better adapted to the colder climate. In other words, climate change helped trigger the complete collapse, to use Jared Diamond's term, of the Norse society in Greenland (note the word "helped": climate is rarely the sole cause of societal collapse).

The lesson from the "Vikings farmed in Greenland" is not just that the climate has varied in the past. That's obvious, that's something for which we have decent data, and again, it does not prove or disprove the human role in current climate change. Once again, the fact the climate can change naturally does not mean that it is the only way the climate can change.

The real lesson of the "Vikings farmed in Greenland", the one that appears in textbooks, that one that appears in history courses, climate courses, archaeology course, you name it, is that a lack of resilience in the face of a changing climate can lead to the breakdown of a society.

Will and the others who repeat the Greenland was meme are not missing the facts. They are missing the point.


Anonymous said...

I read Jared Diamond's "Collapse" last year - very enlightening.

Your course sounds very interesting - I've just started studying science at Newcastle Uni (Australia) - at first glance, it seems there aren't many courses that deal with climate change. Specifically, I would like to go into an area with some crossover with yours: climate change and its ecological/social impacts, also with some focus on land use/agriculture. I'm wondering if you know anyone in Australia who works in a similar field, and could point me in the direction of a Uni with come decent courses?

naught101 AT gmail

Simon Donner said...

Diamond tells the Greenland story very well. I don't know the options in Australia well enough to make any suggestions; I can say there a lot of fine scientists at James Cook and Queensland working on coral reefs and climate change.

Anonymous said...

The leader of the Republican Party repeats the Will argument about Greenland:

Anonymous said...

When I was a journalism student at the University of King's College, I was one of two students — out of 50 — who had a degree in science, and that was the J-school's best ratio in years.

The school's director told me something then that I've never forgotten... Out of the more than one thousand applications they get for slots in the journalism school every year, the most common reason given for pursuing a career in journalism was that the applicant wasn't very good at science.

I shit you not. Obviously, that was true in George Will's era, too. I gave him my Double Dumb Ass Award a few weeks ago for being so woefully misinformed.

Simon Donner said...

The problem with Will's column(s) is beyond bad science -- the problem is one of process. Op-ed writers (or op-ed writers in many publications) are often given freer reign because they are writing an "opinion" piece rather than reporting the news. That allows well known writers like Will are able to abuse the facts. The Post ombudsman claims otherwise -- but it is quite obvious the Post did not rigorously fact-check either of Will's columns. The same is true for Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail, an interesting writer that occasionally makes completely incorrect assertions about climate change. And it is what enraged the bloggers about Revkin's article on Will and Gore - it was a "news analysis", some nebulous category in between reporting and opinion piece.

Anonymous said...


I don't disagree with your points. In fact, I would go a great deal further and suggest that Will's columns are sacrosanct. I bet that no one at the newspaper would dream of touching a word that he writes — whether he composes a clearly-reasoned essay, or a steaming pile of shit. He's too valuable a commodity in an industry that is dying the death of a thousand cuts. So I doubted everything that the ombudsman said about the process... I think Will wrote his column, the WaPo published it word for word. End of story.

I don't think a lot of fact checking goes on at most newspapers anymore. They simply don't have the staff or the finances. The industry is in a tailspin, corners are being cut, and reporters and editors are overworked. Terrific newspapers around the world — with high standards — are failing. News coverage is failing.

Do we deserve better? Yes. Do we need better? Absolutely... I think a very strong media is one of the few defenses we have against corporate and bureaucratic malfeasance.

But over the last few decades, we've let corporations buy our best media assets (he writes, ounding like a rabid left-winger). It used to be an industry apart, but now it's just about dollars and cents.

I'm not sure what the solution is. The NYT might become an endowment so it can stay in business. I hope that becomes a trend because every community will need a good newspaper if we're to have any hope.