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Does the Post Fact-Check George Will?

Columnist's climate change denial distorts reality

SOURCE: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
18 February 2009
George Will is entitled to willful ignorance that climate change is a mere "hypothetical" worry. But does the Post really allow him to misstate the facts in order to make his political argument?
Washington Post columnist George Will is among the most widely syndicated in the newspaper business--which means that his recent error-filled column about climate change will misinform the readers of hundreds of papers across the country.

Will made several specious claims in his February 15 column in an attempt to argue that climate change is not a serious concern. (Will has a history of such denial--see Extra!, 5-6/07.)

He started by citing newsmagazine stories from the 1970s that warned of global cooling. The prevailing scientific consensus at that time did not support such claims (Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 9/08), but Will likes to pretend that it did--calling it another example of "predicted planetary calamities that did not happen"--in order to bolster the idea that scientists can be wildly off-base. (Will had actually been sent a copy of the BAMS piece by one of the authors after he made a similar false claim last year--Washington Post, 5/22/08. The author reports he "got a nice note back from him thanking me for sharing it", 2/15/09.)

Will then brought his climate denial up to date by writing:

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

This came as news to the University of Illinois' Polar Research Group (the group's actual name), which posted the following response on its website (Cryosphere Today, 2/15/09):

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

(This inaccurate characterization of the university's work has been peddled elsewhere by right-wing media, including Fox News Channel's Special Report--1/5/09.)

Will closed his column with another inaccuracy:

Real calamities take our minds off hypothetical ones. Besides, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.

This is not the first time Will has misleadingly cited the U.N. body's work; he wrote in a June 1, 2008 column that "global temperatures have not risen in a decade." This is a simple statistical sleight-of-hand: 1998 was hotter than 2008, so by cherry-picking this year as your starting point, Will can claim that global warming isn't happening. Unfortunately for him, the World Meteorological Organization does not agree, explaining (12/13/07): "The decade of 1998-2007 is the warmest on record.... Since the start of the 20th century, the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74°C." (See a striking chart showing the 21st century's string of record-breaking average temperatures at Climate Progress--12/16/08.)

Of course, Will is entitled to believe that climate change is a mere "hypothetical" worry. But does the Post really allow him to misstate the facts in order to make his political argument? If so, should the papers that run Will's column be made aware of this peculiar editorial decision? The website Talking Points Memo has tried to get a response from the Post, but so far has been given the cold shoulder (2/17/09).

Encourage the Washington Post to correct Will's erroneous column--for the benefit of its own readers, as well as those who read his column in other newspapers. And ask whether the paper has a system for checking factual assertions made by its columnists.

Washington Post
Editorial Page Editor
Fred Hiatt

If your local paper runs Will's commentaries, please pass this along to them.

You can post copies of your letters to the Washington Post on FAIR's blog here. Please remember that letters that maintain a civil tone are most effective.

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This story was published on February 12, 2009.