New York Times environmental reporter Justin Gillis’s interview with the Columbia Journalism Review put his unapologetic “climate change” activism on display, and compared climate-change skeptics to people who don’t believe in evolution.
(Environmental scientist Roger Pielke Jr., who nominated Gillis’s December 2011 piece accusing Republicans of blocking measures to document “climate change” as perhaps “the worst piece of reporting I’ve ever seen in the Times on climate change,” says the interview unmasks Gillis (pictured) as more advocate than journalist.)
Asked by CJR’s Curtis Brainard how he got interested in climate change, Gillis credited science classes at MIT and Harvard: “But when I got there, no one could talk about anything but climate and energy. So I started taking classes and the more I learned, the more I thought to myself, ‘This is the biggest problem we have – bigger than global poverty. Why am I not working on it?’ From there, the question was, how do I get myself into a position to work on the problem? That ultimately led me to leave the Post and go to the Times because the Times is just better positioned cover the issue.”
Gillis confessed his series on climate “was more or less a direct response to Climategate, which led to a lot of questions about the science.” He saw no “scientific misconduct” in the trove of emails: “Points of contention exist within the science, as they should, but not about the basics of whether we have a problem.”
Gillis even compared climate-change skeptics to opponents of evolution:
If one is covering evolution these days, one can afford to ignore the anti-evolutionists most of the time because they are completely scientifically discredited and, more importantly, sort of spent as a social force. Unfortunately, we just are not at that point with climate science.
However discredited the scientific case questioning climate science may be, it is influencing half the Congress and a substantial fraction of the population. So this is almost like if you’d been in Tennessee in 1925 getting ready to cover the Scopes Monkey Trial. The anti-evolutionists were already scientifically discredited by then, but as a journalist, you could not have avoided quoting them in order to put the whole thing in its political context. I’m sad to say that in 2012, that’s still where we are with climate science.
To me, it seems pretty clear which way the current is flowing, with the caveat that it’s important to bear in mind that the hour is late here. To head off the worst consequences of global warming, we needed to get started 20 years ago and we did not. So this will now be a pretty heavy lift to get to very low emissions by 2050. If we started today it would be hard, and we’re not starting today.
Gillis said it was a “scandal” that the media was failing to connect the dots between “weird weather” events and permanent climate change:
One thing I’m seeing – and I see it in our own paper as well as many other news outlets – is that people are covering the crazy weather we’re having and, more often than not, dodging the subject of whether there’s any relationship to climate change. TV weathermen are dodging that subject. Print reporters are dodging the subject….Reporters are not going to be able to be definitive, in real time, about whether this particular event was or wasn’t connected to climate change, but it’s a bit of a scandal that there’s not enough connecting the dots for people.
Pielke also read the CJR interview: “Rather than informing his readers Gillis is in the business of making an argument….Both advocacy and journalism are fundamental to a healthy democracy, but when they are mixed together, especially on the news pages of the NYT, neither is served particularly well. Please count me among those who prefers to get news from plain vanilla journalism, not the yellow kind.”
Clay Waters is the director of Times Watch a project of the Media Research Center that keeps tabs on the liberal bias of the New York Times. He worked in the news division at MRC HQ from 1993-1998. After a stint as opinion editor at a financial news wire in Manhattan, he returned to the fold in 2003 to head up the new Times Watch project.