"Toronto Star: ‘Why media tell climate story poorly’"
This 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 DeSmogBlog.com. 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.”