Bickering and defensive, Newsweek reporters have lost the public’s trust.
Another week, another staggering journalistic lapse in climate science reporting at a once-great media outlet.
How bad is “Uncertain Science,” by Stefan Theil, European economics editor for the near-dead newsweekly? I asked Dr. Robert J. Brulle for a comment, and the Drexel University “expert on environmental communications,” wrote me back:
This article is basically a condensed version of the climate denier viewpoint. Mr. Theil significantly distorts the situation, and grossly fails to ground his story in the actual facts, all to support his biased position. Obviously, Newsweek doesn’t have any fact-checking capability. How this counts as journalism is beyond me.
The error-riddled, un-fact-checked article raises far more questions about Newsweek than it does about climate scientists, not the least of which is why the flat-lining magazine would let an economics editor write a major piece on climate science when they have a science editor who follows the issue closely and actually understands the science — an editor who wrote a piece last year that says the exact opposite of what this piece does (Newsweek‘s Science Editor explains why climate change is “even worse than we feared”).
Newsweek‘s credibility on the entire energy and climate issue is hanging by a rapidly melting icicle “” see Media stunner: Newsweek partners with oil lobby to raise ad cash, host energy and climate events with lawmakers “” while publishing the uber-greenwashing story, “Big Oil Goes Green for Real.” Indeed, their dubious partnership with Big Oil makes this latest climate story doubly problematic.
I hate to spend time debunking yet another nonsensical piece, but so many scientists and others have emailed me to express their shock, that I feel a need to hit the lowlights, starting with the unintentionally self-revealing lede:
Blame economic worries, another freezing winter, or the cascade of scandals emerging from the world’s leading climate-research body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But concern over global warming has cooled down dramatically. In ¼ber-green Germany, only 42 percent of citizens worry about global warming now, down from 62 percent in 2006. In Britain, just 26 percent believe climate change is man-made, down from 41 percent as recently as November 2009. And Americans rank global warming dead last in a list of 21 problems that concern them, according to a January Pew poll.
As Brulle says, Theil and Newsweek clearly have a biased frame they want to push in a piece subtitled, “Bickering and defensive, climate researchers have lost the public’s trust” (see, in contrast, Large majority of Americans continue to believe global warming is real and trust scientists).
But since the piece is devoid of any discussion of the actual science, Theil fails to see the irony. Indeed, as Brulle wrote me earlier about a bad NYT story that “scooped” Theil, “The NY Times doesn’t need to go to European conferences to find out why public opinion on climate change has shifted”¦. Just look in the mirror.” As Brulle points out, “It is well known in both sociology and communications that public opinion is largely shaped by media coverage. So the shift in public opinion about climate change is linked to the nature of mainstream media coverage of the so-called ‘climategate’ scandal.”
And yes, bias is the right word here. Look at the phrase “another freezing winter.” We’ve only warmed about a degree Fahrenheit in recent decades, not enough to turn January into July. Winters will continue to freeze for a while.
The news is that this winter was the hottest on record globally, but in parts of Europe and the United States it was coolish, though not record-setting, and that does indeed temporarily affect public opinion. Stanford communications expert Jon Krosnick notes that “One factor that can influence opinion is the perception of local changes in the weather” (see “One more reason that recent U.S. polling on global warming is down slightly“).
Yet as Krosnick has noted of the “Americans rank global warming dead last” claim, “Opinion polls underestimate Americans’ concern about the environment and global warming.” Krosnick explains
But when asked, “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” 25 percent said the environment or global warming, and only 10 percent picked the economy. In fact, environmental issues were cited more often than any other category, including terrorism, which was only mentioned by 10 percent of respondents.
I would also note that a brand-new study by “global market research firm Synovate and international media company Deutsche Welle examined people’s attitudes towards climate change.” The study was “conducted with over 13,000 people in 18 countries.” In a news release headlined, “Climate change concern remains high across the globe,” they report the key result (emphasis in original):
The study reveals that the world’s population remains as concerned as ever about the effects of climate change. Across all countries surveyed in the three rounds of research conducted by Synovate, 30% of people in 2010 and 2008 said they were ‘very concerned’ about climate change, versus 29% in 2007.
Reuters reports on the study:
“More than two-thirds (68 percent) of the world is concerned about climate change with the South Africans (82 percent) and Brazilians (87 percent) most concerned,” a statement of main findings said.
At the low end of anxiety were Americans on 57 percent and Indians with 59 percent.
Yes, the number of respondents who said they were concerned because they think global warming is part of a natural cycle rose from 4% up to 9%, which led to this amazing headline in some coverage: “Global warming ‘natural’ for one in 10.” Again, many in the media are simply desperate to show that climate scientists are on the ropes, that the glass is half one-tenth empty. But I digress.
Back to Newsweeek. Dreadful climate reporting, a more aggressive disinformation campaign, poorly worded polling questions, and a coolish winter have combined to affect poll numbers in countries like the UK, Britain, and the U.S. But we don’t want facts to get in the way of Theil’s thesis, which is laid out in his next paragraph:
The shift has left many once celebrated climate researchers feeling like the used-car salesmen of the science world. In Britain, one leading scientist told an interviewer he is taking anti-anxiety pills and considered suicide following the leak of thousands of IPCC-related e-mails and documents suggesting that researchers cherry-picked data and suppressed rival studies to play up global warming. In the U.S., another researcher is under investigation for allegedly using exaggerated climate data to obtain public funds. In an open letter published in the May issue of Science magazine, 255 American climate researchers decry “political assaults” on their work by “deniers” and followers of “dogma” and “special interests.”
Yes, once again the status quo media blames the victim of the disinformation campaign and dreadful media coverage.
And aren’t you SO glad that Newsweek didn’t Michael Mann by name? That would have required them to explain that the “investigation” they are talking about is the witchhunt by Virginia Atty. Gen. and Tea Party favorite Cuccinelli — an act so extreme that the flagship newspaper of Newsweek‘s own parent company, the Washington Post (no friend of climate science), lambasted the VA AG (see WashPost: University of Virginia should fight AG Cuccinelli’s faulty investigation of Michael Mann). And if they mentioned Mann by name, then even the minimal standards of journalism would have required them to mention that Mann and his work have been repeatedly vindicated by independent scientific and academic inquiries — and that even Newsweek itself was forced to make multiple corrections in a libelous piece on Mann.
But then, other than Begley, Newsweek has little interest whatsoever in actual science. The story asserts:
This is no dispute between objective scientists and crazed flat-earthers. The lines cut through the profession itself. Very few scientists dispute a link between man-made CO2 and global warming. Where it gets fuzzy is the extent and time frame of the effect. One crucial point of contention is climate “sensitivity”"”the mathematical formula that translates changes in CO2 production to changes in temperature.
First off, the dispute does not cut through the profession of climate scientists — a group Theil appears to have very little interaction with.
Second, there is a crucial point of contention on the climate sensitivity. Is it close 3°C — or is it much higher?
As I’ve noted many times, the possibility we are greatly overestimating the sensitivity is very, very low, whereas the possibility we are greatly underestimating it “” and hence greatly underestimating the chances of catastrophic impacts “” is quite high.
Equally important, we are on a path to such a high emissions level that even in the unlikely event we have a low sensitivity, we are still going to face serious consequences if we keep doing nothing (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F and U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm “¦ the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” “” 1000 ppm).
For those who missed the Video and PPTs of “The Science of Climate Change” with Dr. Christopher Field and Dr. Michael MacCracken, here is the chart from Dr. Field, who is an expert on the carbon cycle:
Indeed, the climate sensitivity that is most often discussed by the IPCC and others is the so-called fast feedbacks sensitivity, which basically ignores the slower feedbacks like the defrosting of the tundra, which would release massive amounts of methane and carbon dioxide. For several article in the scientific literature on that read:
- Another “Must Read” from Hansen: ‘Long-term’ climate sensitivity of 6°C for doubled CO2
- Are Scientists Overestimating “” or Underestimating “” Climate Change, Part II
The overwhelming majority of the recent scientific literature has raised concerns that the extent and time frame of human-caused global warming is graver and faster than what the IPCC — let alone most of the media — reported (see “An illustrated guide to the latest climate science“).
Precisely one person at Newsweek seems to understand that — their science editor, as I noted above, who actually talks to real climate scientists and reads the scientific literature, and wrote last year:
Among the phrases you really, really do not want to hear from climate scientists are: “that really shocked us,” “we had no idea how bad it was,” and “reality is well ahead of the climate models.” Yet in speaking to researchers who focus on the Arctic, you hear comments like these so regularly they begin to sound like the thumping refrain from Jaws: annoying harbingers of something that you really, really wish would go away….
“The models just aren’t keeping up” with the reality of CO2 emissions, says the IPY’s [International Polar Year's] David Carlson. Although policymakers hoped climate models would prove to be alarmist, the opposite is true, particularly in the Arctic.
The IPCC may also have been too cautious on Greenland, assuming that the melting of its glaciers would contribute little to sea-level rise….
But estimates of how much carbon is locked into Arctic permafrost were, it turns out, woefully off. “It’s about three times as much as was thought, about 1.6 trillion metric tons, which has surprised a lot of people,” says Edward Schuur of the University of Florida. “It means the potential for positive feedbacks is greatly increased.”
In an insightful observation in The Guardian this month, Jim Watson of the University of Sussex wrote that “a new breed of climate sceptic is becoming more common”: someone who doubts not the science but the policy response.
But why let accurate scientific reporting by your science editor get in the way of a nifty anti-scientific, error-riddled tract by an economics editor? Theil — and the senior editors who approved this piece — turn the science on its head to spin this amazing conclusion:
None of this means we should burn fossil fuels with abandon. There are excellent reasons to limit emissions and switch to cleaner fuels””including an estimated 750,000 annual pollution deaths in China, the potential to create jobs at home instead of enriching nasty regimes sitting on oil wells, the need to provide cheap sources of power to the world’s poorest regions, and the still-probable threat that global warming is underway. At the moment, however, certainty about how fast””and how much””global warming changes the earth’s climate does not appear to be one of those reasons.
Ahh, the reductio ad absurdum, the last refuge of bad journalism. The letter from NAS scientists that Theil must have read since he used it in the article (as evidence that scientists were bickering and defensive!) points out:
All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.
Ironically, if we actually did “burn fossil fuels with abandon” for the rest of this century, that would give us the closest thing you could get in science to certainty of inevitable catastrophe, so even Newsweek‘s reductio ad absurdum was written absurdly.
Of course, Newsweek decided to mention only the letter (but omit the crucial parts) and not the far more important NAS report that was just issued, or else they might have been forced to acknowledge what, say, the Los Angeles Times did in its reporting: “In a sharp change from its cautious approach in the past, the National Academy of Sciences on Wednesday called for taxes on carbon emissions, a cap-and-trade program for such emissions or some other strong action to curb runaway global warming.”
So what explains the catastrophically bad Newsweek piece? Let me off for several explanations.
1) As noted, they have cozied up to Big Oil to find alternative funding sources: “Newsweek since 2007 has sold advertising packages to the oil industry’s biggest influence group that included the right to co-host forums on energy issues.” See also TPM Muckraker on this, “Newsweek And Oil Lobby Team Up To Host Climate Change Event With Lawmakers.” I do think that influences the perspective of reporters – see Newsweek gets duped by Big Oil. How else to explain the piece by Rana Foroohar titled “Big Oil Goes Green for Real” with greenwashing lines like “So how should we take the spate of new green announcements from the world’s major oil firms?” Sounds doubly naive these days, no?
2) Newsweek‘s top competitor is, of course, Time magazine. And Time has made a name for itself as one of the few major popular media outlets that consistently gets the climate science story right. So little sister has to differentiate herself from big sister. I had made this point in my book Hell and High Water. One magazine published a 2006 cover article with a science-based warning emblazoned in huge letters, “BE WORRIED. BE VERY WORRIED. Climate change isn’t some vague future problem-it’s already damaging the planet at an alarming pace.” Even back then, Time noted, “Most people aren’t aware of the broad scientific consensus on warming.” That same week Newsweek published an article that extensively quoted the anti-scientist disinformers, claiming “to be fair, neither side has a monopoly on hot air in this debate,” falsely equating one or two mild overstatements by advocates of action on global warming with major campaigns to deny the science entirely and delay action indefinitely.
3) Relatedly, a collapsing news magazine needs a new spin. Slate noted a few weeks ago in a piece titled, “Newsweek Has Fallen Down and Can’t Get Up”:
The 30-year debate in the journalism reviews, among industry analysts, and over beers between reporters about the fate of the newsweekly category was settled today by Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham, who announced that he wants to sell Newsweek. If the infinitely patient and hideously rich Graham can’t see a profitable future for the money-losing magazine, that future doesn’t exist. The category has finally gone to mold and will, in another 30 months or 30 years, advance to putrefaction.
In a CP article from 2 years ago, that you can find in my book, Straight Up, “Media enable disinformer spin 2: What if the MSM simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction?“ I quoted Newsweek editor Jon Meacham:
“I absolutely believe that the media is not ideologically driven, but conflict driven. If we have a bias it’s not that people are socially liberal, fiscally conservative or vice versa. It is that we are engaged in the storytelling business. And if you tell the same story again and again and again – it’s kind of boring.”
The real story doesn’t have much conflict: It is the growing scientific (and technological) understanding that if we don’t sharply restrict greenhouse gas emissions soon, we face catastrophe. How boring! We gotta jazz it up with some anti-scientific he-said/she-said controversy
This all may help explain why Newsweek‘s has published this and other dreadful stories energy and climate stories. But nothing can excuse such consistent journalistic lapses. Thought it pains me to say so because I grew up reading Newsweek, I don’t think anyone who cares about science or energy or the world’s children and grandchildren should mourn the now-seemingly inevitable demise of this once great publication.
This post has been updated.