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The Media, Climate Science, and Deniers: Time to Tell a New Story

Peter Lehner

Posted September 7, 2010 in Solving Global Warming

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In recent days, I have read several interesting articles—some about science journalism, some about former climate skeptics—that made me think about the ongoing struggle to portray climate change in American society.

Andy Revkin, who was a science writer for the New York Times for years and now blogs for its editorial page, describes the challenge that journalists face: how to they fit the centuries-long saga of global warming into the cycle of breaking news.

Revkin writes, “No one can ever expect to see a headline in The New York Times reading: “Global Warming Strikes. Seas Rise. Coasts Flood. Crops Fail. People Flee.” Those events will occur—and indeed have already begun—but they will happen over time in a dispersed fashion.

It is hard to communicate a sense of urgency when you are writing about ice melting. I get the sense that some journalists handle this dilemma by reporting on climate change as if it were a sports event.

Some of the recent coverage of the Senate’s failure to take up clean energy and climate legislation in July, for instance, sounded like stories about the Yankees versus the Red Sox. It was as if they were saying “The polluters won this round; will the enviros recover before the World Series?”

I understand why that approach is compelling: everyone loves a contest. But this isn’t a match-up between two equally strong teams. There are facts backing up one side and nothing more than denial backing up the other.

Another science journalist, Mike Lemonick, recently wrote a piece about covering climate science for NRDC’s OnEarth Magazine. Lemonick wrote the first major media article about climate change in 1987. He has been reporting on the issue ever since, and he has noticed an interesting convergence of trends.

Just as the science of climate change became more conclusive, the media became more fragmented. In order to compete against blogs and cable news, papers turned to more sensational, polarized coverage. “Thanks to pressure from climate skeptics,” Lemonick writes, “Some journalists started adding dissenting voices in an attempt to add "balance" to their stories.

But then something interesting happened. It became harder and harder to find quotable skeptics, because, “scientific skepticism about climate change has largely vanished among true experts. It now lies with nonexperts like Freeman Dyson -- scientists from unrelated fields who don't know much about climate science but weigh in anyway.”

Lemonick’s view about the shrinking number of skeptics was confirmed a few days ago when an article in The Week listed six influential climate skeptics who recently changed their minds, including Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish academic who wrote the 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. The book he published in 2010 is called Smart Solutions to Climate Change.

If the science is so unassailable that the last few hold outs are giving up their skeptical stands, isn’t it time for the media to stop trying to “balance” climate articles? The press doesn’t cover evolution or the physics of a hurricane’s path as if it were up for debate. Why should it persist in treating climate change like an open question.

Perhaps more important, why give the impression that the flat Earth crowd is representing a point of view backed by facts?  To deny that fossil fuels emit vast amounts of carbon dioxide, that carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, that the excess carbon dioxide acts just like a greenhouse glass, and that temperatures are rising as a result is simply the equivalent of asserting the Earth is flat.  Climate deniers should be viewed in the same light.

The dispute over climate science is over. It’s no longer news. Instead, we need coverage on two far more pressing stories: how is climate change already changing our world and how are we going to cut global warming pollution enough to avoid the most catastrophic impacts?

These are the questions I hope to see journalists investigate more in the months ahead.

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Comments

philESep 8 2010 02:10 AM

"There are facts backing up one side and nothing more than denial backing up the other."

Maybe you need to do a WHOLE lot more reading and research with an open mind before you claim the above. Skeptics have dis-proven a lot of the horse-shit science of global warming. But then again, if you've bought into the religion of global warming, no amount of proof will convince you otherwise.

Skeptics in general agree that there is, has and will always be global warming and global cooling. It's cyclical.

Global warming is just a theory and nothing has been proven.

Bob AshworthSep 8 2010 04:04 AM

@philE "Global warming is just a theory and nothing has been proven"

Maybe you could provide us with a peer reviewed scientific paper which disproves this theory.

I for one don't want to wait for absolute proof... 95% certainty is fine for decision making...... proof is too late.

Tamsin EdwardsSep 8 2010 07:07 AM

@philE

I'm a climate scientist, and have worked in the areas of both past climates and future climate prediction.

"Skeptics in general agree that there is, has and will always be global warming and global cooling. It's cyclical."

This statement is true of climate scientists too! There is plenty of evidence of past warming and cooling, of which a large part is cyclical.

But this doesn't mean that today's warming must therefore be natural. Both factors can occur at once. For example, in the start of the 20th century some of the warming was due to changes in the sun's output. But by the end of the 20th century, the sun's output was constant and the temperatures were mostly increasing due to human impacts. There are also occasional cooling periods after large volcanic eruptions (natural) and some long-term cooling due to industrial sulphate pollution (manmade). Volcanoes do not stop pollution, and pollution does not stop volcanoes. Natural changes do not mean that humans changes cannot occur.

There has been a vast, vast amount of work that spans several decades into the *reasons* why climate changes - both natural and human. So we have lots of ways to separate how much of each is going on.

Hope that helps,

Tamsin

Craig GoodrichSep 8 2010 11:34 AM

No, Tamsin, we have no way whatever to separate how much of each is going on, but the best estimates are that feedback is so heavily negative that any contribution of CO2 to warming would be somewhere between unmeasurable and half a degree C for a doubling.

Bob Ashworth, the "95% certainty" is that the CO2 theory is false. It was such a long shot 22 years ago as to border on the ludicrous, and now, more than two decades and a hundred billion dollars later, there is still absolutely no evidence to support it. If you doubt that, simply read AR4, WG1, Ch. 9, "Attribution" -- the only relevant chapter -- and try to find any reference to actual supporting scientific evidence -- there is none. And the evidence against the theory, from satellites and deep-diving buoys -- is overwhelming.

Bob AshworthSep 8 2010 12:53 PM

@Craig Goodrich "And the evidence against the theory, from satellites and deep-diving buoys -- is overwhelming."

Really! Are scientists throughout the world conspiring to keep this from us, or can it only be found in presentations by people like the discredited Lord Monckton and his fellow dis-informers!

PhilESep 8 2010 11:45 PM

The basic forcing from doubling CO2 is about 1.1 degrees C. CO2 levels go up 2 ppm each year and the current CO2 level is about 390 ppm. At current rates, it will take about 2 centuries to raise the temperature about 1.1 degrees C! That is an average of 1/200 of a degree per year!

The warming effect might be leveraged or dampened by feedbacks. Nobody understands how those feedbacks work.

Based on the last several hundred million years of climate, there is reason to believe the feedbacks will be negative (runaway global warming is very unlikely).

An example of a feedback is when it gets warm, you tend to get afternoon thunderstorms which cool things off a bit.

Sounds simple but clouds are mostly a great mystery to climate scientists (who admit it will take many years before they thoroughly understand the formation and effect of clouds).

Bob AshworthSep 9 2010 03:36 AM

@PhilE

Nice cut and paste job Phil.

I think you will find that this WUWT argument has been shown to be based on false data. But don't let science get in the way of what ever you are trying to prove. ;)

klemSep 9 2010 02:00 PM

"“scientific skepticism about climate change has largely vanished among true experts. It now lies with nonexperts like Freeman Dyson -- scientists from unrelated fields who don't know much about climate science but weigh in anyway.”

He glaringly left out the number one climate sceintist in the world today Richard Lindzen, who is a skeptic. So much for the nonexpert from unrelated fields claim.

The climate change scare is over, go home, you lost.

BobSep 9 2010 04:27 PM

I just clipped the following, but I think it fits Klem's elevation of Richard Lindzen to "the number one climate sceintist in the world today"

September 9, 2010

US citizens face economic problems that are all too real, and the country’s future crucially depends on education, science and technology as it faces increasing competition from China and other emerging science powers…. Yet the public often buys into anti-science, anti-regulation agendas that are orchestrated by business interests and their sponsored think tanks and front groups.

That’s from a powerful editorial published today by the journal Nature titled, “Science scorned”

MattSep 10 2010 06:01 AM

Bob, calling Nature's editorial "powerful" is a grave disservice to both sides of the argument, but mostly to the enviro's. Using the term "denialism" instead of skepticism is always a targetted choice intended to inflame the dialogue instead of work towards agreement in any vein. Nature's slow decline into becoming a mouthpiece for entrenched climate elites has decimated it's readership as well as it's credibility.

Resorting to childish name-calling follows right along with Ghandi's quote "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you- then you win".

Unfortunately for the green movement, CAGW has derailed everything else in the demonization of CO2. Quite literally, they put all their eggs in one basket, and now they're finding out that the basket has huge holes in it, and is being carried by the same Corporate-Capitalist Military-Industrial Complex that many of the movement so vehemently loathe.

The easiest way to figure it out is to follow the money. Look at the potential solutions offered. Legislation like Cap and Trade, which won't significantly reduce emissions, but with redistribute wealth from the poorest to the richest... Who do you think will run the exchanges? Banks... the same one's that just screwed us on housing. Subsidising of "green energy" which so far in Europe has produced mafia run rackets in Italy, and widespread government corruption in Spain. The biggest producer of wind energy in Europe sells most of their green energy because it's too unreliable to actually power a country.

One time, long ago, people had a good idea and came up with enough evidence to scare a few people into agreement. From that has grown the biggest scientific scam since the scientific method was defined.

Tom HarrisSep 14 2010 09:13 PM

Please see the Climate Scientists' Register that the International Climate Science Coalition have created & has been endorsed by 137 climate experts since June 2010:

www.tinyurl.com/2es3rqx

The Register states:

“We, the undersigned, having assessed the relevant scientific evidence, do not find convincing support for the hypothesis that human emissions of carbon dioxide are causing, or will in the foreseeable future cause, dangerous global warming."

Sincerely,

Tom Harris
Executive Director
International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC)
P.O. Box 23013
Ottawa, Ontario
K2A 4E2
Canada

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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