The Counterbalance of Climate News

In a Washington Post op-ed, David Ignatius observed:
Scientists believe that new habitats for butterflies are early effects of global climate change—but that isn’t news, by most people’s measure. Neither is declining rainfall in the Amazon, or thinner ice in the Arctic. We can’t see these changes in our personal lives, and in that sense, they are abstractions. So they don’t grab us the way a plane crash would—even though they may be harbingers of a catastrophe that could, quite literally, alter the fundamentals of life on the planet.… The failure of the United States to get serious about climate change is unforgivable, a human folly beyond imagining.

Occasionally the U.S. mainstream media emphasizes the broad international agreement that most of the global warming of recent decades is caused by human or anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Receiving far less prominence is the consensus that we must begin immediately to reduce these emissions; our lack of knowledge on some aspects of climate change notwithstanding.

Certainly, there are journalists who understand the gravity of this predicament and frame their work appropriately. Still, too many reporters—in a misguided effort to “balance” global warming coverage—regularly interject their stories with commentary from climate skeptics that downplays the urgency, scale and causation of climate change.

Most contrarians who exploit this opportunity to distort the news are affiliated with industry and/or anti-regulatory lobbies and the think tanks and groups they finance. Rather than constructively participate in scientific debate via the forum of legitimate scientific literature, for the most part, these well-funded skeptics—some with limited scientific background—prefer to engage with journalists and politicians. George Monbiot of the Guardian Unlimited (2/25/05) refers to these individuals as “PR people” or “loyalists of ExxonMobil” who are “commissioned to begin with a conclusion and then devise arguments to justify it.”

Adherence to the standard of balance while reporting on the climate crisis results in a never-ending run of story frames that invoke a false controversy—not only about the study or governmental affair covered in the piece, but even as to whether we should have any real concern about global warming.

Climate skeptics have long circulated a false idea that the Medieval Warm Period is evidence that the current level of increased global temperatures is not unusual. Scientifically, this myth has just suffered a lethal blow; however, as we shall see below, it is likely to live on within mainstream media.

Earlier this year a press release from the University of East Anglia in Great Britain (2/9/06) explained the findings of a new paper published in the journal Science (2/10/06):
[This] study found evidence for periods of significant warmth (890–1170) in the Northern Hemisphere during medieval times and for clearly colder periods (1580–1850) during the so-called “Little Ice Age.” [The key conclusion of researchers Osborn and Briffa] was that the 20th century stands out as having unusually widespread warmth, compared to all of the natural warming and cooling episodes during the past 1200 years [since the year 800].

In illustration of how the fable associated with the Medieval Warm Period has been spread, Republican Senator James Inhofe (Oklahoma)—who has received substantial financial support from the energy sector—told the Washington Times (7/30/03): “If the Earth was warmer during the Middle Ages than the age of coal-fired power plants and SUVs, what role do man-made emissions play in influencing climate? I think any person with a modicum of common sense would say, ‘Not Much.’ ” More recently, the Wall Street Journal (6/21/05) editorialized that since the Earth has “undergone large temperature variations within recorded human history” including a Medieval Warm Period, “the slight warming believed to have occurred in the past century could well be no more than a natural rebound.”

This Science study was not the first to contradict the delusion surrounding the Medieval Warm Period but these scientists were the first to analyze a variety of temperature records from across the entire Northern Hemisphere. The significance of this work was highlighted by Michael Mann of Penn State University, a well-respected climate scientist, who told the National Geographic News (2/9/06): this “might be the nail in the coffin for the small minority of very vocal climate change denialists who continue to challenge the conclusion that the recent warming … is out of the ordinary.” Blogging at RealClimate.org, Mann (2/09/06) reminded the contrarians (and reporters who cite them?) that “paleoclimate evidence comprises only one of many independent lines of evidence indicating a primary role of human activity in modern climate change.”

Although it is an important addition to our understanding of global warming, within the U.S. this study attracted relatively scant coverage. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mike Toner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was one of the few to report on this research but regrettably his article, “Global Warming Biggest Since Viking Era” (2/10/06), exemplifies the influence of the climate counter-movement upon our news.

In Toner’s second paragraph he reported: “The analysis of data … shows that the current warming trend is the most extensive change—warm or cold—since the time of the Vikings.” Mention of the Vikings in this manner brings to mind the Medieval Warm Period during which time reduced ice pack allowed the Norse explorers to colonize new areas such as Iceland and Greenland. Although the Journal-Constitution article opened with “The warming of the world during the last century is greater—and more widespread—than any other shift in the global climate in the last 1,200 years,” due to the well-known myth, the Viking references in the headline[i] and second paragraph lead to unnecessary confusion.

Aware of the denialist talking point, Toner noted that “The Medieval warming which encouraged the Vikings to settle previously inhospitable regions … is sometimes cited by critics of modern global warming theories as evidence that the Earth can experience widespread warming independent of human activity.” Confounding readers further, the Journal-Constitution story included a rebuttal from S. Fred Singer—perhaps the “dean of contrarians” according to climate expert Stephen Schneider (stephenschneider.stanford.edu). Singer told the Journal-Constitution: “It’s good that they acknowledge that the last thousand years contained two warm periods with a cold one in between.… But it still doesn’t prove that the 20th century was unique.”

Singer’s background is rich in industry and anti-regulatory connections. He has been vociferous on various scientific issues as well as “regulatory excess” for many years. Singer is also the president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project (SEPP). One of Singer’s papers appearing on the SEPP website contains the outrageous assertion that “observational evidence … suggests that any warming from the growth of greenhouse gases is likely to be minor, difficult to detect above the natural fluctuations … and … inconsequential.… [T]he impacts of warming and of higher CO2 [carbon dioxide] levels are likely to be beneficial for human activities.”

Toner has been covering the climate beat for years and seems to be proficient on ecological concerns. Therefore, the frame constructed in his piece—especially the insertion of Singer’s scientifically untenable position—is all the more perplexing. When asked what factors led to the inclusion of Singer’s comments, Toner told this author that this was done “in an effort to provide some balance to what would otherwise have been a single source story.”

A small number of newspapers picked up the Journal-Constitution article. Remarkably, while reprinting the Journal-Constitution piece, the Albany Times Union (2/10/06) and the Kansas City Star (2/11/06) both excluded the erroneous remarks of Singer and changed their headlines to “Warm-Up Greatest Shift in 1200 Years” and “Warming Trend Dwarfs Others,” respectively. By improving upon the headline and dropping Singer’s fabrication, the frame was significantly reconstructed by these two papers. Nevertheless, Singer’s disinformation was spread exponentially and internationally when the Waco Tribune Herald (2/10/06), the Philadelphia Inquirer (2/13/06) and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald (2/11/06) ran the Journal-Constitution story.

The perversion of science by media-savvy skeptics is not news itself—and has even been previously recognized by the Journal-Constitution. Ironically, the Journal-Constitution ran a story within the last few years (6/1/03) covering a climate study, related to the Medieval Warm Period, underwritten by “energy interests” that helped “finance the groups … promoting it.” This Journal-Constitution article carefully outlined the financial ties between certain scientists and industry lobbies. In this piece, journalist Jeff Nesmith quoted a representative of the Climate Institute: “By relying on the news media’s inclination to include both sides of a story, the industries were able to create the impression that scientists were deeply divided over climate change.… It was all very shrewdly done.”

In spite of (limited) recognition by the mainstream press of this Gordian knot, but in service to powerful forces intent on maintaining confusion and federal inaction, the entrenched balancing act continues. When journalists disseminate manufactured climate myths they betray our trust in their informed review of the science. This is both unforgivable and folly, as our opportunities to reduce the destructive effects of climate change—like glaciers and the polar ice caps—are rapidly melting away.

[i] Toner advised this author that he does not write headlines.

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MA: King's College London; BA: University of Washington; Association of American Geographers; International Environmental Communication Association; PUBLISHED WORK Antilla, L. (2010) “Self-censorship and science: a geographical review of media coverage of climate tipping points,” Public Understanding of Science 19(2): 240-256; Antilla, L. (2005) “Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change,” Global Environmental Change 15(4): 338-52