Committed environmentalists likely remember the time, more than a decade ago, when they first became aware of John Tierney, now one of two influential bloggers at The New York Times‘ “Science Times” who opine on global warming and other environmental issues, and a provocative columnist for the section.

News Analysis

Writing in the June 30, 1996, issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Tierney made this startling statement: “Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money and natural resources.” In that article, “Recycling is Garbage“, Tierney established himself as the libertarian scourge of environmental correctness. Today, he carries on the tradition in his opinion column, called “Findings” in the news pages, and in his “Tierney Lab” blog.

Tierney frequently uses his column and blog as a one-two punch to combat conventional wisdom on responding to global warming, the blog playing off the column and vice versa. If the goal is to avoid human misery, mitigating carbon is not the best option, he argues, as it would take too long and have too small of an impact. Better to unleash the innovative power of the free market, and help poorer countries get rich so they can do the same.

Tierney voices such opinions not just in his blog but in his Findings column on the front page of “Science Times.” Time-honored journalism tradition holds that to be a violation of news/opinion separation of church and state: Opinion belongs on the op ed page, or these days in a blog. It has no place being mixed in with news.

Tierney’s September 11, 2007, column, under the headline “‘Feel Good’ vs. ‘Do Good’ on Climate,” and a subsequent blog posting, show how the one-two punch works. In the column, he discusses the views of Bjørn Lomborg, the Danish political scientist and author of “Cool It – the Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming.” Tierney built the column around a trip he took with Lomborg to the Bridge Cafe in Manhattan. “There’s been drinking in the building since the late 18th century, when it was erected on Water Street along the shore of Lower Manhattan,” Tierney writes. But today, despite rising sea level, it’s more than two blocks from shore, thanks to a century or more of landfilling. The lesson, he says, is that fears of inundation from rising sea level are overblown.

In a similar argument, Tierney notes that nighttime temperatures in the city have risen 7 degrees Fahrenheit – not because of global warming but rather the urban heat island effect. Yet despite these warmer temperatures, heat-related deaths in the city have decreased, thanks to air conditioning. Citing Lomborg, Tierney says these examples show that the best strategy “is to make the rest of the world as rich as New York, so that people elsewhere can afford to do things like shore up their coastlines and buy air conditioners.”

It’s a thought-provoking argument of the kind he might have made when he was an op ed columnist for the Times. The difference is that these opinions are attributed to a source, Lomborg. So there is a semblance of reporting here. But it’s no secret that Tierney agrees with every word, and he makes no effort to provide an opposing perspective.

In other columns he has gone even further, advancing his own opinion with selective evidence supporting a predictable conclusion. A good example came on February 13, 2007, just two days after the Lomborg column. Taking on climate change again, Tierney writes that “most of the horror-movie scenarios are looking less and less plausible” in light of new findings and the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. He cites a study in Science showing that two large Greenland glaciers have abruptly decelerated in their march to the sea. This is evidence, he says, that “climate change will probably occur not with a bang but with a long, slow whimper.” This outcome is crucial to Tierney’s policy approach, because adaptation is much easier when change comes slowly.

The trouble is that Tierney ignored the real point of the paper, and also the researchers’ reluctance to draw reassuring conclusions. Ian Howat of the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, and two colleagues, did indeed find that ice discharge into the sea from Greenland glaciers had slowed. But Tierney did not report that beginning in the late 1990s, many glaciers accelerated by up to 100 percent, contributing .25 millimeters of sea level rise per year. Howat and his colleagues said their findings suggest that a long-term shedding of ice from the Greenland ice sheet could be characterized by abrupt pulses of glacial acceleration, interspersed with calmer periods. In other words, as a result of global warming, Greenland may shed ice not with “a long, slow whimper,” but in a much more chaotic manner.

Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, author of the Dotearth blog, is supportive of “TierneyLab,” but questions enshrining opinion within the news pages of “Science Times.”

“The blogosphere revolves around opinion,” Revkin said in a phone interview. “And John’s is clearly framed around his worldview. That doesn’t bother me because the Web is infinite real estate.” Not so the printed newspaper. “The New York Times is a special institution in that we’ve actually reserved a place in the paper for science for 25 years,” Revkin continues. “Science coverage has shrunk to almost nothingness just about everywhere else in the journalistic world. And to see some of it taken away at the Times to make room for something other than a straight reportorial approach to scientific questions is of concern to me.”

James Gorman, editor of “Science Times,” says opinion actually is not a new addition to the weekly science section.

“We’ve long had columnists like Jane Brody, and essays as well,” he said in a phone interview. What’s different now is that personal voices (including Natalie Angier’s) now appear on the cover of “Science Times.”

“I think it has been a great addition, both the blog and column,” Gorman says. “It has gotten us a lot of attention and readers.”

Tierney’s blog often picks up the thread on issues he has raised in his column. A few days after the Lomborg column, for example, he blogged on some of the feedback he had received, “including the suggestion that Dr. Lomborg and I be fed to polar bears.” In a more serious response, one reader of the blog said Lomborg’s arguments tend to reflect the views of economists, who wrongly assume that climate change will occur gradually enough for humans to adapt. Tierney counters by saying that “when it comes to getting the big picture right, when it comes to preparing for environmental catastrophes, economists have a better track record than the scientists who specialize in analyzing environmental trends.”

Some environmental scientists of course disagree. “I would offer that growing Africa’s economies will not happen fast enough to avoid even more starvation and suffering,” argues James White, acting director of the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “The speed of environmental change is a daunting problem, and one that many economists can’t easily handle with their ‘growth will cure all’ mantra.”

White takes issue with Tierney’s arguments, but he rejects any notion that the columnist should be silenced. That might make some environmentalists happy but it would stifle opinions that should be heard. “The policy debate on climate change is just now maturing to the point where options are being considered,” White said in a phone interview. “So why shut off Tierney? If his ideas can’t be soundly refuted, then we are not thinking, and if we’re not thinking, we’re screwed.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: John Tierney declined to take telephone questions concerning this article, saying by e-mail that he did not have time to “bloviate about my blog.”


Tom Yulsman is co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. He also is a science and environmental journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Audubon, Earth, and other publications.

Filed under: , , , , ,