Above, Queen Mathilde and King Philippe of Belgium sample maple syrup in Ottawa last year -- a bad year, but not because of warming.
By Eric Felten, RealClearInvestigations
May 7, 2019
Climate change is at it again, ruining everything good. This time around it’s maple syrup that is at risk, according to the New York Times, which on Saturday had the alarming headline, “Warming Climate May Slow the Flow of Maple.” Or at least it would be alarming if it weren’t for the tell-tale word “may.” If a warming climate were actually slowing the flow of the sap that makes for syrup, you can be sure the Times would declare it clearly. To say it “may” slow the flow suggests that it isn’t actually happening, at least not yet.
But one would hate to be unfair to Kendra Pierre-Louis, the reporter who typed up the doom and gloom for the Times. Perhaps she has evidence supporting her warning of dire syrup consequences—statistics, even. Let’s see how she marshals her facts and makes her case.
“In fact, climate change is already making things more volatile for syrup producers,” Pierre-Louis laments in her front-page article. “[M]aple production fell by 54 percent in Ontario and by 12.5 percent in Canada over all.” The cause was “an unusually warm spring.” Well that’s some pretty compelling data, or would be if it were from 2018, or perhaps 2017 or even 2016. But no, that’s not even close. To find a year in which there was unseasonably warm weather that affected the maple crop, Pierre-Louis had to go all the way back to 2012, which is the year the Times cites as the “fact” for climate change’s impact on syrup producers. The Times finds room to return to that year again later in the article.
Isn’t it a bit odd that the New York Times cites 2012 for its evidence of climate change? After all, were the paper looking for a bad production year, the most recent one would be a perfect example: 2018 was an off year for maple syrup production in Quebec, the province that produces the vast majority of Canadian syrup. In 2016 Canada produced a record 12.16 million gallons of maple products; 2017 was another banner year, with Canada delivering a new record of 12.51 million gallons. But last year was a relatively bad one, with maple production falling in Canada to 9.8 million gallons, a significant drop — indeed, a drop more substantial than that in 2012. And yet for some perplexing reason, the Times fails to mention the drop in 2018, let alone the statistics showing record production in the previous years.
If we’re worried about maple syrup production, wouldn’t you think that the recent decline would be more newsworthy, or at the very least worth including in the article, if not making it the lede?
It doesn’t take much digging to find what’s wrong with 2018 as an example of climate change hobbling the syrup trade. Yes, weather was to blame for 2018’s bad results. It just wasn’t the right sort of weather. Here’s how Halifax Today reported on last year’s maple results: “Quebec — which produces about 72 per cent of the world's maple syrup — produced 40.4 million litres, down 22.4 percent from 2017 due to unusually late snow and cold.”
Unusual cold? That’s right. As the official government Statistics Canada explains in its report on “Maple products, 2018,” in “Quebec, production was hurt by unusually late snow and cold, while the decrease in New Brunswick was the result of a long and severe winter followed by a short spring.” This year could prove to be another disappointment for Canadian maple farmers. In late February Canada’s CBC reported, “Local syrup farms say the recent cold temperatures are leaving taps dry.” Could it be that the New York Times neglected to mention the maple syrup decline of 2018 and the slow start to 2019 because the reductions were caused by abnormal cold rather than warming?
One should find that hard to believe. Because for that to be true, one would have to believe that the Times is willing to cherry-pick data in an effort to mislead its readers. Surely the newspaper of record has more respect for itself than to play such a cheap trick on its customers. RealClearInvestigations reached out to the Times’s reporter via her website for comment but received no response.
The evidence piles up that the Times is playing fast and loose with the facts. Take the suggestion by the Times that climate change is limiting the number of days when maple trees can be successfully tapped. “More Narrow Window for Syrup Production,” reads the newspaper’s sub-headline. The weather determines the sap flow, after all, and University of Vermont “sugar maple expert” Mark Isselhardt told the Times that “[e]very day that you don’t get sap flow has the potential to really impact the total yield for that operation.”
But is the production window actually narrowing?
Surely the sugar maple expert at the University of Vermont, in telling the Times about the window when sap is ripe for collecting, had at his fingertips the latest data, which are readily available. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service keeps figures — helpfully broken down by state — on maple syrup production in the United States. Among the information collected are data on the “Maple Syrup Season,” that elusive window. The figures for the last four years are readily available. In 2015, the season for the U.S. as a whole was 26 days. In 2016 it was 33 days. In 2017 it was 37 days and in 2018 the window expanded again, this time to 42 days. The figures for Vermont — which we can assume our University of Vermont maple expert is particularly familiar with — show the state’s maple syrup season widening: 26 days in 2015; 44 days in 2016; 46 days in 2017; and 52 days in 2018.
What about the suggestion in the New York Times that the production window is not only shrinking, but moving, as climate change causes “season creep”? The newspaper quotes the executive director of the New York Maple Producers Association, who says that when she was a kid, 50 years ago, the start of the tapping season was mid-March. “This year,” according to the Times, “they were tapping in late January.”
Were they really? In upstate New York, the last week in January this year was marked by brutally cold temperatures. A normal high temperature for late January in Buffalo is 31 degrees. Though there were days in that ballpark during the month — and one mid-month day actually made it to 47 degrees — late January was for the most part frigid. The high temperature in Buffalo Jan. 30 was 11 degrees. On the 31st the thermometer peaked at 7 degrees.
This last winter’s extreme cold persisted well into February in Canada, where the deep freeze kept the maple sap from flowing. It wasn’t until the middle of March that sap started to trickle from the trees north of the border.
How did the New York Times get things so wrong? Is it carelessness? Or is there an ideological agenda at play, one that requires the reporting and writing to lead to a preestablished conclusion? On Twitter, the NYT reporter calls herself Kendra "Gloom is My Beat" Pierre-Louis. That is no doubt a gesture at self-aware humor. But it also suggests that her reporting is skewed: If you see gloom as your beat, by definition you ignore information that doesn’t advance the narrative of impending doom. And then there is the larger institutional bias. Pierre-Louis is officially a "climate reporter" for the Times; she leads NYT-branded "student journeys" to places such as Iceland (cost: $8,190 per high-schooler for 15 days) to teach the risks of a warming planet. In other words, the Times has a business built in part around Pierre-Louis that depends on her being a warning voice on warming.
Those sounding the alarm about climate change do a lot of fretting over what may happen 50 to 100 years from now. Fair enough — or at least it would be if those delivering the warnings were in more of a habit of playing it straight. It would be much easier to credit their predictions of future catastrophes if they were more honest about what is actually, observably, happening right now.