Freudenburg: “Reporters need to learn that, if they wish to discuss ‘both sides’ of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate “other side” is that, if anything, global climate disruption is likely to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.”
Mass media have been a key vehicle by which climate change contrarianism has traveled, according to Maxwell Boykoff, a University of Colorado at Boulder professor and fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES.
Boykoff, an assistant professor of environmental studies, presented his research today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego. He spoke during a panel discussion titled “Understanding Climate Change Skepticism: Its Sources and Strategies.”
UPDATE: Robert Brulle comments that I missed the summary of Prof. William Freudenburg’s presentation. I add it at the bottom. Michael Tobis (and Stephen Ban) gave us the figure above — click on it for a clean image.
Max and Jules Boykoff wrote a well-known 2004 media analysis, Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press. The paper, which did “content analysis of US prestige press” [the NYT, Washpost, LA Times, and WSJ],” found
In the end, adherence to the norm of balanced reporting leads to informationally biased coverage of global warming. This bias, hidden behind a veil of journalistic balance, creates . . . real political space for the U.S. government to shirk responsibility and delay action regarding global warming.
Things aren’t much better now:
- Must-read (again) study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics “” “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”
- And the 2009 “Citizen Kane” award for non-excellence in climate journalism goes to “¦
Boykoff’s talk was titled “Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change.” It discussed “prominent pitfalls”:
“One problem occurs when outlier viewpoints are not individually evaluated in context,” said Boykoff. “A variety of influences and perspectives typically have been collapsed by mass media into one general category of skepticism. This has been detrimental both in terms of dismissing legitimate critiques of climate science or policy, as well as amplifying extreme and tenuous claims.”
Such claims are amplified when traditional news media position noncredible contrarian sources against those with scientific data, in a failed effort to represent opposing sides, said Boykoff.
Another issue in mass media is the tendency to flatly report on both the claims of contrarians, as well as the accusations made about their claims and motives, he said. The ensuing finger-pointing plays into the conflict, drama and personalized stories that drive news. It also distracts attention from critical institutional and societal challenges regarding carbon consumption that calls citizen behaviors, actions and decisions to account.
And that also sounds familiar, too: Newsweek staff who play fast and loose with the facts are imperiling not just their profession but the planet.
“Reducing climate science and policy considerations to a tit-for-tat between dueling personalities comes at the expense of appraising fundamental challenges regarding the necessary de-carbonization of industry and society,” said Boykoff.
Among various and ongoing research strategies, Boykoff — in partnership with Maria Mansfield from Exeter University and the University of Oxford — has tracked climate change coverage in 50 newspapers in 20 countries and six continents since 2004. Boykoff also has looked at how climate science and policy find meaning and traction in people’s everyday lives through work in the United States, United Kingdom and India….
For more information on Boykoff’s research visit sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/about_us/meet_us/max_boykoff/.
For much more, check out Climate Progress’s entire media category.
UPDATE: Here is a summary of the AAAS presentation by William R. Freudenburg, UC Santa Barbara:
Mass media continue to suggest that the science of global climate disruption may be in dispute, with actual conditions not being as bad as portrayed in scientific consensus estimates such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). By contrast, work on “the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge” (ASC) suggests that such consensus statements are likely to understate the significance of the problems that need to be faced. This paper tests the difference in expectations, making use of the fact news media usually report findings from new studies in more focused and less politicized ways than they report on the overall debates — and that results from new studies are often reported as indicating that a problem is either less severe or more severe than previously expected. In the interest of conservatism, data are drawn from four newspapers that have already been shown to overstate the degree of “disagreement,” underrepresenting the scientific consensus, in their reports on overall global climate disruption. The paper also considers two time periods “” one during with the time when the papers were found to be overstating the supposed “disagreement,” and the other being 2008, after the IPCC and former Vice-President Gore shared the Nobel Prize for their work on climate disruption
The results show comparably strong support for the ASC perspective during both time periods. New scientific findings are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is “worse than previously expected,” rather than “not as bad as previously expected,” strongly supporting the ASC perspective rather than the usual framing of the issue in the U.S. mass media.
The findings add further support to the growing realization that media coverage of supposed debates has been strongly skewed by a tactic so widespread that it has its own name – “Scientific Certainty” Argumentation Methods, or SCAMS. Partly because most citizens expect science to produce black-and-white certainty, rather than cumulative or “normal” improvements in understanding, well-funded special interest groups can exploit mass-media desire for controversy in stories, creating a false impression that “scientists” are still debating consensus findings. Similar SCAMs were used in fights against the regulation of cigarette smoking, asbestos, agricultural chemicals, and even the use of lead in gasoline.
There are lessons both for scientists and for the mass media. Scientists need to be more openly skeptical toward supposed “good news” on global warming. Reporters need to learn that, if they wish to discuss “both sides” of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate “other side” is that, if anything, global climate disruption is likely to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.
How much worse could it be?
Try this (see An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water):
Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land “” some 10°F over much of the United States Sea level rise of 5 feet, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter Dust Bowls over the U.S. SW and many other heavily populated regions around the globe Massive species loss on land and sea “” 50% or more of all life Unexpected impacts “” the fearsome “unknown unknowns”
In fact, that’s what I’d call the planning case for for 2100 if we stay near our current emissions path.
Here’s the plausible worse case — maybe a 10% chance if we stay on our current high emissions path: UK Met Office: Catastrophic climate change, 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years, but “we do have time to stop it if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon.”