Toronto Star: ‘Why media tell climate story poorly’

ImageThis piece by Tyler Hamilton, energy and technology columnist for the Toronto Star, was first published  here.

I apologize on behalf of my profession.

If it’s true that Canadians and Americans have become less concerned about the potential impact of climate change, and that more consider global warming a hoax, some blame can certainly be directed at the news media.

“The media (are) giving an equal seat at the table to a lot of non-qualified scientists,” Julio Betancourt, a senior scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, told a group of environment and energy reporters during a week-long learning retreat in New Mexico.

I was among them, listening to Betancourt and two of his colleagues describe the measurable impacts climate change is having on the U.S. southwest. Drought. More frequent and damaging forest fires. Northward migration of forest and animal species. Hotter, longer growing seasons. Less snow pack. Earlier snow melt.

“The scientific evidence reported in peer-reviewed journals is growing by the day, and it suggests the pace of climate change has surpassed the worst-case scenarios predicted just a few years ago.

Betancourt is the first to admit the science is constantly evolving and that the work at hand is highly complex. One challenge is separating the part of climate change caused by naturally occurring cyclical systems from the part caused by humans, who since the Industrial Revolution have dumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate.

Clearly there is an interaction between the two. But can scientists explain it with bulletproof precision using predictive models everyone can agree on? No, of course not. That’s not how science works.

More difficult is that scientists such as Betancourt are realizing the climate changes observed are not happening in a gradual, predictable fashion but, instead, in sudden steps. Systems reach a certain threshold of environmental stress and then “pop,” they act quickly to restabilize.

These changes also happen regionally, making it difficult for people in one region of the world to appreciate disruptive changes going on elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, those looking to stall action on climate change – or who altogether deny that humanity is contributing to global warming – are exploiting this complexity and lack of certainty.

A recent Pew Research Center poll of 1,500 Americans found that 57 per cent believed there was solid scientific evidence that the globe is warming, down from 77 per cent in 2007. The changing attitudes coincide with a growing effort to discredit climate science in the lead-up to the Copenhagen talks on Dec. 7 and efforts by U.S. legislators to cobble together climate legislation that would signal America’s commitment to reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions.

It also coincides with an economic downturn, during which people are concerned most about their finances. There’s also a strong likelihood that people want to hear that maybe this climate change stuff is all a bad dream.

It’s much more difficult to have a story in the newspaper or a TV news segment, explaining the latest study in Nature or Science, than it is to have an unqualified scientist or “spokesman” offer a pithy, controversial quote or sound bite not necessarily grounded in fact.

This reality has given the fossil-fuel lobby a major leg up, writes James Hoggan, co-author of a Climate Cover-Up and founder of Hoggan’s must-read book describes in disturbing detail the well-oiled campaign to confuse the public and confound the science, creating enough doubt to thwart meaningful action and protect a world economic order built around the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas.

The Heartland Institute, Friends of Science, and Natural Resources Stewardship Project are among the groups that make their Rolodex of “experts” available to comment on climate issues.

But, as Hoggan points out, most of those experts are anything but. Lift their veil and they typically are funded by the fossil-fuel industry, long-retired climate scientists who have not published peer-reviewed papers for many years, or scientists who are experts but not necessarily in climate science.

“If a doctor recommended that you undergo an innovative new surgical procedure, you might seek a second opinion, but you’d probably ask another surgeon,” writes Hoggan, a public-relations veteran who is also chairman of the David Suzuki Foundation.

“You wouldn’t check with your local carpenter, and you certainly wouldn’t ask a representative of the drug company whose product would be rendered irrelevant if you had the operation.”

Still, many journalists under deadline and without the time to verify credentials, journalists who do not follow climate science and the news around it, continue to give these so-called experts a soapbox to stand on. Even those with time to spare often offer up the soapbox out of some misplaced attempt at balance, giving the impression that the scientific community is deeply divided.

Once their comments are published, the blogs take over and public confusion grows deeper. Mark Twain said it best: “A lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots.” The Internet has only accelerated the speed of travel.

It’s why we’ve been seeing silly stories about “global cooling” appear in recent months, or articles about thickening Arctic ice, or the “Global Warming Conspiracy.” On Friday, the latest conspiracy story began making its rounds. Hackers accessed email messages from some climate scientists on an Internet server at the University of East Anglia in Britain.

The emails, from what I’ve read, do show that not all scientists agree, that some scientists don’t like other scientists, and that some scientists are struggling with the complexity of their work. What these emails do not show is that there’s any conspiracy or that consensus around the reality of human-influenced global warming is beginning to crack.

Still, that won’t stop the skeptics from cherry picking what’s in those emails and claiming this is some kind of smoking gun that will derail Copenhagen. The blogosphere is abuzz, and news media are never ones to turn down a juicy controversy. The timing of the hack makes it all the more suspicious, but no less dramatic.

It’s a shame.

I asked Betancourt during his New Mexico talk why the scientific community has not done a better job of battling the misinformation campaign and speaking as a more united front.

The problem, he said, is working scientists don’t tend to be communications specialists but are up against people who are. So, for honest, accurate describing of the science of climate, “it’s more up to the media, and less up to us.”

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13 Responses to Toronto Star: ‘Why media tell climate story poorly’

  1. Will Koroluk says:

    Thanks for posting this Joe.
    I’ve followed Hamilton’s stuff for several years and have come to respect him. He has also done a lot of well-informed work on energy that I would commend to anyone interested.
    Sadly, Betancourt is right about some scientists’ lack of communications skills. One, a friend, becomes virtually tongue-tied when someone sticks a voice recorder in his face. Others have had their views skewed by reporters–not because of malice but because of lack of understanding–and have become wary.
    It would be nice if reporters assigned to the science beat had some scientific background, but for the editors doing the hiring, a journalism degree is often considered more important than a science degree. And while every reporter and editor would deny there is any pressure from corporate interests, they also know that if they make a group of advertisers, or a group of news sources unhappy enough often enough, their work–no matter how well-informed–might come to an end.

  2. mariana says:

    Hmm, I see you deleted that first comment. I was just about to post some links that refute that erroneous and perhaps fraudulent paper s/he posted (my links would include Arthur P. Smith–9 page pdf, and Rabett Run—layman explanation), plus was going to show how international physic associations also reject this paper that slipped through into their journal. Oh well. Saves me time. Thanks.

  3. MJ says:

    It is odd that they’re missing the global warming story when it seems to have all the best elements of stories they like. Scandal and bad guys, david vs goliath, and the future of the planet in the balance, etc.

    They’re missing the story of the problem for sure. But they’re also missing the story of solutions big time.

    Last year renewable energy was the biggest news source of power in the US and Europe (1). If that is not the start of a revolution, then what is? You’d think that would of made more of a splash too…

    Weird lot those journalists…


  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    It’s nice (sort of) to see one or two journalists pointing out one or two of the problems with coverage.

    But, this piece largely misses a number of factors and a key overarching point.

    You can bet that if people were rewarded based on communicating the problem (climate change) effectively, they would find clear ways to do so.

    To put that in extreme terms: If media owners, senior editors, and reporters all lived at sea level, and knew that they had to stay there, and knew that their own future generations would be living there, they would find ample ways to convey the importance, understanding, and urgency of climate change to the public, and they’d also find ways to convey various solutions wisely and clearly. Period. They would invite the most knowledgeable scientists to be featured in articles, they would write the articles well, they would put them on the front page, they would eagerly “shine light” on efforts to deceive and muddy, and so forth.

    They would be (correctly and justifiably) ripping ExxonMobil to shreds, so to speak.

    But they aren’t.

    The problem is not really some complex hard-to-understand set of specific issues, nor is it a lacking “silver bullet” or “magic word” of some sort. Instead, the problem is staring us in the face, right before our eyes, practically daring us to “name” it and begin to actually address it.

    It seems that not enough people are quite ready to say “boo” back to the ghost — that is, to the media who are supposed to be serving the public good but who have almost completely lost sight of that task, diluted it, and chosen a different task for themselves.

    Until we are ready to say “boo”, we will get what we accept, and nothing more.


  5. pete best says:

    People in the media only read other media stories. Science is not responsible for the medias need to find the contrarians and spout their political bile.

  6. Ben Lieberman says:

    As a case in point Andy Revkin of the New York Times seems increasingly uninterested in writing stories about either the growing evidence of global warming or about the current effects of global warming. (Is he bored by these stories because they are not new?) Instead, he much prefers stories about process and stories about debate, and he also likes to give skeptics and deniers quotes.

    Here is a sampling of his stories on global warming since January of this year (I am not including his blog posts, and since I am not a professional clipping service I cannot vouch that this list is complete but I believe it is representative)

    A story on the threat to walruses form decreasing sea ice stands out as the kind of story that Revkin no longer seems interested in covering.

    November 28 “Hacked E-Mail Data Prompts Calls for Changes in Climate

    November 21,”Hacked E-Mail Is New Fodder for Climate Dispute”

    October 25 “Campaign to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Levels Picks a Number to Make a Point”

    October 20 “Officials Hint At Progress Negotiating Climate Deal”

    October 3, “Walruses Suffer Substantial Losses as Sea Ice Erodes”

    September 23 “Plateau in Temperatures Adds Difficulty to Task Of Reaching a Solution”

    September 4, “Global Warming Is Delaying Ice Age, Study Finds”

    August 4, “Nobel Halo Fades Fast For Panel On Climate”

    May 29 Forum Says Climate Shift Brings Deaths (In this story Revkin quoted Pielke claiming that this assessment was an ‘embarrasment’ and he noted that Sachs endorsed the findings but called them oversimplified.)

    May 15, 2009 Studies Project Seas rising by half of earlier forecasts

    April 24, On climate Issue Industry ignored its own Scientists

    April 17, 2009 Past Mega-Droughts in AFrica

    I know Revkin does not write his own headlines but the story on walruses stands out as virtually the only direct reporting on the real and present dangers posed by global warming. Virtually everything else is process-oriented or focuses on debate or the more distant past. How can he public be presumed to care if the few reporters tasked with covering global warming don’t even think it is news any longer?

  7. “A recent Pew Research Center poll of 1,500 Americans found that 57 per cent believed there was solid scientific evidence that the globe is warming, down from 77 per cent in 2007.”


    I had noticed that interest in climate change and environmental issues in general had fallen since the state of the economy has taken over the media and everyone’s minds, but I had no idea it was THAT bad!

    Enlightening analysis on an important subject.

  8. Too many journalist refuse to embarass their advertisers. Most all news organizations are either advertiser funded or owned by a large parent organization.

    Do a simple content analysis of advertising you see: How many are based on heavy use of carbon fuel? That would be all the automotive industry, gas and oil companies, and you might include airlines too. What percentage of advertisements involve carbon fuel?

    Now, will the editors and publishers of such organizations permit the necessary scrutiny of a carbon economy?

    Will reporters willingly investigate stories that challenge their own structure?

  9. Anna Haynes says:

    Some are just plain incompetent; and there’s no peer review for journalists.

  10. Anna Haynes says:

    One workaround is to get science magazines in front of the reading public. One person I know is credulous as hell about the Wall Street Journal, but also respects Scientific American; if he could pick up the latter, it would do battle in his mind with the former.
    So: one action we can take is to buy SciAm and spread it around.

  11. Anna Haynes says:

    > “…buy SciAm and spread it around”

    Speaking of which – does anyone know how a would-be single-issue-buyer (for this) could find where the magazine is sold locally? I looked on their site but couldn’t find a way (and have visited the 3 most likely stores so far, to no avail.)

  12. collar stays says:

    I want to know the truth, is it global warming, or our world is in the pre-period of another ice age, please let me know, thanks

  13. Seth Masia says:

    Anna, where are you? Scientific American is sold on every grocery store and airport magazine rack in Colorado, and in every book store with a magazine rack. And you can order a single issue online at