On January 9th, Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, took to the House floor to denounce a New York Times column, blaming climate change for the food crisis in Africa, as “fake news.” Smith was quoted as saying “A good example of fake news appeared in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s a column headlined, ‘As Trump Denies Climate Change, These Kids Die’… This may be a new high, or maybe a new low, for climate alarmists and their exaggerations.”
It’s no surprise hearing Rep. Smith dismiss climate change claims (he is a climate change skeptic after all), but do his claims hold any truth?
Is the New York Times column “fake news”?
The short answer to both is no. In his New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof cited new research published in the bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, confirming his claims that human-caused climate change exacerbated Africa’s drought and, therefore, its food crisis.
But if the New York Times column used factual and reliable sources, where did Congressman Smith get his? The Hill article that covered Smith’s claim of fake news, reports Smith as citing “numerous studies.” But those “numerous studies” are unknown. In the search for his sources, our researcher Jimena Galindo came across an opinion piece he wrote for The Wall Street Journal in April of 2015. In it, Smith labeled climate change allegations as scare tactics based on political ideology instead of “good science.” Smith cites a 2012 Special Report on Extreme Events by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that, according to him, states “long-term trends in weather disasters are not attributed to human-caused climate change.”
The IPCC, established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program, is a credible and factual source, one in which you wouldn’t regularly question. So is the IPCC questioning climate change?
An article by Dave Levitan on FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania (NOT a fake news site), corrected several claims, including his interpretation of the IPCC statement, made in Smith’s Wall Street Journal piece. Levitan accuses Smith of “mischaracterizing” the report cited in his opinion piece. The claim in the report that Smith was referring to, it turns out, was actually not about “weather disasters themselves” but about how economic losses due to weather disasters have increased but that, due to limited data availability, it cannot be definitive on the cause of those increases. The exact phrase used by the IPCC report was that “long-term trends in normalized losses have not been attributed to natural or anthropogenic [manmade] climate change.” But as the report explains, it is hard to know whether these increases in losses are due to more extreme weather events or whether more people are living in high-risk areas (i.e. coastal areas that are hit by hurricanes or floods).
It appears as though Smith misinterpreted the findings on the IPCC report to boost his credibility. But had he read the report carefully, the report, on two occasions and in bold letters, clearly stated that “there is evidence that some extremes have changed as a result of anthropogenic [manmade] influences.”
In the end, the New York Times column, having credible sources that align with the column’s argument, is not fake news. But Lamar Smith’s Wall Street Journal piece is using an honest argument in the report about the unknowns of the economic costs of extreme weather to make a broader false claim about climate change.
Citing a report to misconstrue a claim does not make that misconstrued claim true, it makes it dishonest and false.