Misleading Ocean Climate Stories From City News Service (via KPBS) And Union-Tribune

Bradley J. Fikes Bradley J. Fikes 13 Comments


(UPDATE: With new graphic illustrating press release journalism.)

In honor of Al Gore’s global warming scareathon beginning Thursday Wednesday, here’s a phony climate scare story, carelessly reported by City News Service and carried uncritically by our local public media outlet KBPS radio, and independently by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

First, please examine this chart. I’ll explain why it’s important later in this post.

La Jolla sea level rise, from NOAA - 2.07 millimeters per year

La Jolla sea level rise, from NOAA - 2.07 millimeters per year

The story lead (my emphasis) says:

“Torrey Pines state and city beaches, and other coastal areas in the state, could be submerged by the year 2100 if ocean levels continue rising at current rates, according to a state-commissioned study released today by San Francisco State University.

 “Torrey Pines would be completely swamped if coastal-water levels rise by 4.6 feet by the end of the century — a projection specific to the California coast based on recent studies, according to the report, which pegged the economic loss due to a reduced tourism at $99 million between now and 2100.”


Copied from a press release

The story on KPBS’ Web site doesn’t give any links to the actual study, or even the press release for it. The City News Service article includes verbatim quotes from the press release, a fact it fails to mention.

Press release journalism

Now there’s nothing wrong per se with quoting from press releases. I do it frequently in my own science reporting when I can’t contact an author in time. However, I disclose that I’m using a press release, so as not to mislead the reader. Whenever possible, I also include a link to the actual peer-reviewed study — and I do read the study.

The press release is supposed to accurately reflect the study, but to be sure, you need to see the actual statements in the study. A statement that isn’t in the study doesn’t have the same authority as a statement that reflects what’s in the study. The only way to know for sure is to read the study.

Now please look up to the chart I embedded at the beginning of this post, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It states that the annual rise in sea level in La Jolla averages 2.07 millimeters per year, or 0.68 feet in 100 years. In other words, the projected rate of increase in the study is nearly 7 times greater than the measured increase. The story fails to explain this wide gap between prediction and measurement, or even to mention it.

Special bonus note: The press release claims the study was “peer-reviewed,” which supposedly means it was examined by independent scientists. In fact, the study was funded by one state agency, the California Department of Boating and Waterways, and “peer reviewed” by another agency chosen by the state, the nonprofit California Ocean Science Trust, given mandatory oversight power by state law.

Far from providing independent review, the study looks like it was funded by one state agency and in effect reviewed by another state agency. And peculiarly, the press release doesn’t include a link to the study, titled, “The Economic Costs of Sea-Level Rise to California Beach Communities,” and I can’t find it on the Web. You apparently have to email the researchers to get it.


Digression: KPBS has a science reporting problem

KPBS styles itself as providing quality reporting for an educated public. Can’t it do better on such an important scientific topic than to run a third-rate story, from another outlet, that’s just a rewrite of a press release?

I’ve recently criticized KPBS for another recently botched science story, this one about the opening of a center for studying RNA interference. Amazingly, the error-filled story was done by a KPBS staffer hired to specialize in science.

Worse, KPBS hasn’t corrected the errors in the story, such as calling RNA interference “RNA interface”.

Financial contributors to KPBS should mention these examples when they’re asked to pony up. It might light a fire under KPBS to improve its science reporting. If you care about science, don’t be satisfied with poorly rewritten press releases.

The U-T, by the way, deserves praise for its very well-reported story on the RNA interference center. We need more stories like this, that put the science in context and explain its significance in terms the average educated person can understand. My own blog post was workmanlike, but nothing special.


U-T fails to mention pertinent facts

Getting back to the ocean/climate story, The Union-Tribune similarly published another inadequate version. The U-T story also failed to mention the widespread gap between observed and predicted sea level rise. The U-T reporter also copied from the press release without telling his readers. (Here’s a good way of checking if a story was taken from a press release: Google some quotes, and see if you come up with a press release or lots of identical quotes. Click here to find some copycat quoting.)

One of the few bright spots in the misleading U-T story is that the reporter mentioned from the start that the feared sea level rise is a projection, not the current rate of increase. The comments show that some of the readers are raising uncomfortable points. Here’s one:

This article failed to report that the sea level at Scripps Pier in La Jolla has, on average, actually declined over the first decade of the 21st Century, compared to the last decade of the 20th Century. This is an observable decline, not a fuzzy forecast from a computer model 90 years in the future. There is no sign in the tide station data at Scripps that this decline is going away soon. Funny how the researchers mentioned in this article didn’t discover this basic fact, or address it.

It isn’t clear why, in these tough financial times, public moneys should be spent worrying about a problem that hasn’t manifested itself  for over ten years, and which may not appear during the next ten years. Perhaps we should fund programs to deal with the possible landing of flying saucers from Mars, as some predict that they will arrive by the year 2100.

And here’s another comment on the U-T story raising  other important points not addressed in the article:

This is either very lazy reporting or very intentionally deceptive reporting. The article talks about the effects “if the sea level rises 4.6 feet.” Why not “if the sea level rises 46 feet”? Even the IPCC 2007 report estimates sea level rising only 7 to 23 inches. Don’t you do any fact checking on what you are reporting? Centuries ago, the Dutch figured out how to live in a country that had a large portion under sea level. As technology improves, methods will be found to deal with this. However, how critical is it to even deal with a sea level rise of 7 inches – The difference between hgh tide and low tide today was 49 inches.

The sea level has risen 8 inches in the last century. Yet, it is somehow plausible to you that the sea level will rise 55 inches in the next 89 years?

And yes, I’ve been the recipient of such criticism myself. I strive to improve my reporting in response.

I hope the Union-Tribune’s editors and ownership are paying attention to these comments and not ignoring them, as newspapers too often do. And when their reporters quote from press releases, make them say so in the story.


Breakdown of journalism on climate issues

But outside of San Diego County, the journalism gets even worse. Another story about the alleged threat from sea level rise, this one for the Central Coast on the Web site for KCOY, hilariously claimed to give the full study, when all it did was append the press release.

This is what passes for serious climate journalism in our mainstream media. Press releases leap from the publicists’ email to by retyped by reporters’ fingers, untouched by human thought. The problem isn’t likely to cross the minds of a fuzz-brained reporter who doesn’t even know the difference between a study and a press release.

It’s easy to grab headlines by making sensational predictions. Journalists are supposed to be aware of this and exercise skepticism about extreme claims not supported by real-world observation. But skepticism has become a dirty word in climate science, and critical coverage of climate science has become an endangered species.

At some point, journalists are going to have to talk about the growing gap between the fearsome predictions of sea level rise and the much smaller rise in the observed data.

I’d say the time is now. Even at risk of being ostracized as a “denier”, it’s time for journalists to ask climate scientists some tough questions about the gap between the observed data and projections, and how many years it will take before their ideas are confirmed or falsified.


(DISCLAIMER: This is my opinion, not necessarily that of my employer, the North County Times.)


Comments 13

  1. Damnit, Bradley, stop showing up the struggling KPBS and U-T science news teams. Is it THEIR fault that no reporter or editor on staff possesses even rudimentary curiosity, grade school arithmetic skills, or the slightest skepticism of the printed word?

    Such irrelevant topics aren’t covered in journalism school — if they ARE covered, they are quickly forgotten.

  2. Scripps Institute of Oceanography has said our sea levels at La Jolla have risen 9 inches in the past century. Th ey have created detailed computer modeling based on 6 different scientific sources to project future sea level rises in San Diego based on varying degrees of likelihood.

    Even with minimal sea level rises the damage would be substantial. Who should we trust more, some of the world’s top oceanographers at UCSD and Scripps whose offices would be submerged if their forecasts are true? Or “skeptics” who are primarily laypersons or scientists funded by oil and energy industries? 98% of scientists in the American Academy of Sciences believes global warming is true and man-made. NASA, even under Bush, believed it. Virtually all credible scientists do, too.

    Here are two studies every San Diegan should read.
    The first , a study by Scripps, links climate change to our wildfires. The second, a San Diego Foundation study, brings in various top local scientific experts. It includes Scripps research and others, and includes computer generated maps showing what areas would be underwater under varying degrees of sea level rises. Even a smaller-than-forecast rise would cause major damage. They do lay out in considerable detail their basis for the projections.

    Scripps Institute on link between climate change and our wildfires:

    San Diego Foundation Regional Focus 2050 study: Climate change related impacts in the San Diego region by 2050

    As a student back at UCSB in the ’70s, I studied under some of the world’s top climatologists. So I do know a bit more about this than the average person. I’m not defending the KPBS or UT stories per se, but the science supporting drastic climate change far more extreme than ever before is only growing stronger, not weaker, as more and more data comes in. We can’t afford to be wrong on this one, if we want to protect our children’s future.

    Even Jon Huntsman, the Republican Congressional candidate and former Utah Governor, tweeted last week that he believes in global warming, bucking the trend of climate change deniers in the GOP. That’s a courageous stance, and I’m sure he wouldn’t take it lightly given the beliefs of many in the GOP. I strongly suggest that everyone read original sources on this important topic, not just news reports that are often incomplete, inaccurate, or quoting unscientific sources.

  3. The Ocean is rising 8 inches a Century? Run for your lives !

    For the math-minded, 2 milimeters is about .08 inches.
    So if the sea is rising that much per year, then multiply
    by 100 years to get the startling figure of 8 inches.

  4. Post

    I’ve read that San Diego Foundation study, and found it to be misleading and not evidence-based. The projections are based on computers models that cannot be tested, since there is no time machine to take us to 2050. And there are no global climate models that have demonstrated an accuracy that far out. Something that can’t be confirmed or falsified is not science. It is conjecture.

    However, to the extent that we have evidence, it doesn’t match the report. There is no evidence in the observed data that sea levels are rising at an increasing rate. That’s why I posted the NOAA graph near the top of my post. Similar graphs are available for other parts of the California coast. They show no hint of any acceleration in sea level rise.
    Turn to Page 27 of the report:

    “Over the past several decades, sea level measured at La Jolla has risen at a rate of almost 7 inches per century, which closely mirrors sea level rise averaged over the global ocean (estimated from an array of tide gages). In order to estimate future sea level rise, a method has been employed that relates the change in sea level to the increase in global air temperature.14 The resulting scenarios (Figure 3-4) indicate that, over the next five decades, sea level rise will increase substantially–by more than three fold to almost six fold–over its historical rate. By 2050, sea level increases, relative to the 2000 level, by 12-18 inches.”

    In fact, since 2000 there has been zero increase in the historical rate of sea level rise in La Jolla, as measured by NOAA. The sea level is actually lower than in 1998.

    So more than a decade into the 50-year projection of sea level rise in San Diego, there is no observational data to support it. How many more years at this rate are required before we can say the study is falsified?

    I’d appreciate a science-based answer, Miriam, not irrelevant political statements.

  5. Bradley J Fikes:

    “I’d appreciate a science-based answer, Miriam, not irrelevant political statements.”

    A very reasonable statement on your part. It has been my experience that she and others of like training cannot discern the difference. Political correctness produces an abject fear of even looking at a different path, no matter how right that path is and no matter how wrong the “flat earth” path is so long as it is dominant in her politically correct world. A will to fiction can cripple the quest for truth.

  6. Post

    Over the next few years, it will become apparent even to environmental reporters that the dire scenarios of accelerating sea level rise in San Diego by 2050 just aren’t happening. Then the Union-Tribune and KPBS and other outlets will write stories wondering how the scientists could have got the forecast for San Diego’s coastline so wrong. You can tell them you read it first at SD Rostra.

    If the media was doing its job properly in reporting climate science, reporters would be writing now about the widening gap between San Diego’s sea level projection and observation. But being skeptical of the party line would expose the outlets and reporters to criticism as oil industry-funded “deniers”. So they’ll play it safe until sticking with the catastrophic scenario is more risky than doubting it.

    I wonder how long San Diego Foundation is going to stand behind that projection of a 12 to 18 inch sea level rise off of La Jolla from 2000 to 2050. At the present rate, the rise will be less than 5 inches.

    Some great deals on beachfront property might be in the offing.

  7. New Rostra readers might like to know that Bradley USED to be a strong supporter of the global warming movement. But, unlike the true believers, he has the rare ability to reevaluate his position when new evidence indicates that the previous data/hypothesis/(dare I say “conjecture”?) was found to be inaccurate (not to mention dishonest).

    Now THAT fact should further irritate Mariam and the rest of her congregation.

    Of course, for them, Brad’s shift can only mean that he’s now secretly on the oil industry’s payroll. No other explanation is possible.

    Apparently MY oil industry check somehow got lost in the mail. But every day I eagerly greet the mailman. Hope springs eternal.

  8. Post

    Same here, Richard. I’m sending the Koch Bros. my address again — please pay me this time! Being an evil environment-hating fossil fuel shill is tough work!

  9. I hope to call the Scripps Institute folks who made the claims about sea levels rising significantly Monday to inquire why their levels differ from the NOAA chart. Do you have a link to the original source that the NOAA data appeared?

    There are of course numerous other studies around the world on climate change and virtually all of the major respected scientific organizations worldwide have concluded climate change is real. A discrepancy in any one study alone would not offset the enormous weight of evidence.

  10. Post

    Hi Miriam,
    Click the NOAA chart in my blog post and you’ll get the source. Or just click here. I’ll be extremely interested in whether SIO stands by its projection, or whether it’s going to revise it.

    Also, keep in mind that the most recent research by global warming believers attempts to explain away the lack of observed warming in recent years. I’ll have more on this Sunday, when the embargo expires on a new scientific paper.

    Something else to consider: A recent paper that admits there’s been no sea level rise along the entire West Coast for the past three decades.

    The paper says that changes in wind patterns may soon end the hiatus. That, of course, is yet another projection that hasn’t been observed in the data.

    Global sea level rose during the 20th Century at a rate of about two millimeters (0.08 inches) per year. That rate increased by 50 percent during the 1990s to a global rate of three millimeters (0.12 inches) per year, an uptick frequently linked to global warming. Rising sea level has consequences for coastal development, beach erosion and wetlands inundation. Higher sea levels could cause increased damage to coastal communities and beaches, especially during coincident high tides, storm surges and extreme wave conditions.

    So supposedly, sea level rise has been accelerating everywhere else except the West Coast, where it’s remained steady. A more logical explanation is that the putative acceleration is a consequence of shifting to satellite measurements in the 1990s. Apples to apples.

    The satellite measurements alone show no sign of accelerating sea level rise.

  11. Miriam, follow the money. It’s humorous to me that liberals so eagerly claim that money corrupts politics, business, etc. — but then turn a blind eye to obvious conflicts in the funding of controversial science.

    The researcher who concludes that climate change is a big, man-made problem will receive more research grants. The more catastrophic the projection, the higher the funding.

    Conversely, a researcher who concludes that climate change is either not a big problem or not man-made can likely say good-bye to further funding.

    The evil-oil industry spends only a TINY amount on such research, compared to the government and statist foundations — organizations have decided on the result desired and seek only validation research. Clearly the global warming research has been driven by this non-scientific (hell, ANTI-scientific) funding process. I believe that Brad can direct you to a couple illuminating works on this aspect.

  12. Post


    Spot on!

    Climate science is dominated by people who have committed their careers to an extreme view on global warming. It’s all too human for scientists to put their own self-interest above the good of the profession. They are no better or worse than the rest of humanity.

    And when politics enters into a profession, you can expect the worst to happen. Politicians don’t like to admit they’re wrong, but science progresses when mistakes are discovered. So honesty and willingness to admit error are disadvantages to scientists in a politicized environment. The establishment in a politicized field such as global warming gets rewarded for defending a dogma. Dissenters are chastised as “deniers” and punished.

    That said, there are some welcome signs of glasnost in climate science. The recent study on cosmic rays and cloud formation — published in Nature, no less, gives the lie to the politicized claim that the science is settled on global warming.

    Defenders of the dogma that Earth is warming at an increasing rate due to human-emitted greenhouse gases, causing all sorts of climatic disasters, have to invent increasingly contrived explanations about why the predicted increase in warming hasn’t materialized since 2000.

    Such a defensive paper by one of those politicized uber-warmists is going to be published tomorrow in a major scientific journal. I’ll have a few words to say on how it attempts to explain away the observed data.

  13. Why do you assume sea level will rise linearly? Your whole post assumes this is true. However, ice sheets lose chunks of ice the size of small U.S. States all at once (1, 2). As this is decidedly non-linear, your assumption appears inappropriate. It appears even more inappropriate when you consider the observation that ice rushes quite quickly to fill the gap left by the now missing Connecticut or Delaware (3, 4).

    The current science (more recent than even the latest IPCC report (5)) of course takes all these considerations into account, and suggests global sea level will rise by 1-2 m (3.3-6.6 feet) by 2100 (5, 6, 7). 3.3-6.6 feet is not bad considering there is enough ice to raise sea level 80 m (8). 4.6 feet, the assumption used by the economists producing the report, is smack dab in the middle of that 1-2 m estimate. They probably deferred to the scientists’ expertize in this area, took their mid-point, and used it as a founding assumption to perform a thought experiment about costs. Rarely is scientific analysis so simple as drawing a straight line through a bunch of points. I think you go too far in disparaging the U-T and KPBS for citing this press release. They, nor you for that matter, could hope to gain the background necessary to credibly recalculate this without a doctorate in the subject.

    1. Associated Press. “Ice Shelf Bridge on Antarctica Collapses”. MSNBC, 2009. URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30036283/#.TngRXtTeyuI.
    2. Reuters. “Massive Iceberg Breaks Off In Antarctica”. United Nations Environmental Program. 1998. URL: http://www.grida.no/news/press/1853.aspx
    3. Kerr, RA. “A Worrying Trend of Less Ice, Higher Seas”. Science. March, 2006. Vol. 311 no. 5768 pp. 1698-1701. URL: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/311/5768/1698.full?
    4. Alley, RB et al. “A Simple Law for Ice-Shelf Calving”. Science. November, 2008. Vol. 322 no. 5906 p. 1344. URL: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/322/5906/1344.full?sid=5eaa9a53-57c9-4199-9f54-6dae390e9c33
    5. Kerr, RA. “Seas to Rise Faster This Century”. ScienceNOW. September, 2008. URL: http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2008/09/04-01.html
    6. Nuccitelli, Dana. “New Studies Conclude the IPCC Sea Level Rise Projections are too Conservative”. Planetsave. September, 2008. URL: http://planetsave.com/2008/09/10/new-studies-conclude-the-ipcc-sea-level-rise-projections-are-too-conservative/
    7. Rohling, EJ. “High Rates of Sea-Level Rise During the Last Interglacial Period”. Nature Geoscience 1, 38 – 42. 2008. URL: http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v1/n1/full/ngeo.2007.28.html
    8. “Sea Level and Climate”. United States Geological Survey. 2000. URL: http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs2-00/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.