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Think Again: Blame The News For The Public’s Ignorance About The Climate

By Eric Alterman, Guest Blogger on June 4, 2013 at 4:05 pm

"Think Again: Blame The News For The Public’s Ignorance About The Climate"

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In a blog post titled, “Scientists agree on climate change. So why doesn’t everyone else?,” The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer covers a new survey by John Cook and Dana Nuccitelli of Skeptical Science. According to the survey, “Among abstracts [of published scientific papers] expressing a position on AGW [anthropogenic global warming], 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.” Cook and Nuccitelli, who read 11,944 climate-related abstracts, confirmed the findings of earlier studies such as a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which came up with similar numbers that supported the expert consensus on man-made global warming.

In the blog post, Plumer confesses his confusion as to why the world needed another such study. The survey’s authors explain that the general public remains misinformed on the issue of climate change, with about half of respondents believing that scientists are evenly divided on the question, as a recent Pew poll clearly demonstrates. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, meanwhile, has argued at length that people tend to arrive at these types of debates with their own pre-existing cultural values. Plumer believes that this explains the generally misinformed public view.

The view that Americans hold, however, looks more rational when one considers the misinformation they regularly receive about the issue from conservative pundits and politicos and via the frequently lazy repetition of their arguments by members of the mainstream media.

This happens in a trivial way almost every day. As this Grist report notes, for instance, it happens when Sarah Palin says it’s snowing in Alaska, ergo “Global warming, my gluteus maximus,” without much pushback from the mainstream media. This is a pretty common—and ridiculous—refrain, which unfortunately is not limited to American news outlets and politicians. A recent London Review of Books article on the subject quoted a Channel 4 News anchor asking, “Should scientists admit that the drastic temperature rises they predicted have failed to materialise?” The article also notes that, “a few days later, Nature Geoscience published a paper showing summer melting on the Antarctic Peninsula at a level ‘unprecedented over the past thousand years.’”

I’ve written in the past on the myriad components of purposeful climate illiteracy in the media. Many U.S. meteorologists, for instance, who have no particular expertise in climatology, play the role of climate deniers to the general public in part because, according to meteorologist and writer Bob Henson, “There is a little bit of elitist-versus-populist tensions.” He explains, “There are meteorologists who feel, ‘Just because I have a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on.’”

Alas, researchers at George Mason University found that more than a quarter of television weathercasters agree with the statement “Global warming is a scam,” and nearly two-thirds believe that if warming is occurring, it is caused “mostly by natural changes.” But even the American Meteorological Society has stated that warming is occurring, and that human activities are very likely the cause. Unfortunately, according to The New York Times, researchers at Yale and George Mason found that 56 percent of Americans trusted weathercasters to tell them about global warming far more than they trusted other news media.

Moreover, as I discussed in an earlier column, the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS, decided to take a hard look in September 2012 at the coverage of climate science on Fox News and in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, both owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. In the case of Fox, UCS found that 93 percent of segments dealing with climate science were “misleading” and designed to downgrade the danger of man-made global warming with foolish and discredited arguments. A study published in The International Journal of Press/Politics concluded, “Fox broadcasts were more likely to include statements that challenged the scientific agreement on climate change, undermined the reality of climate change, and questioned its human causes.” This may not surprise many on an instinctual level, but it is important to have this impression confirmed by careful scientific analysis. As for The Wall Street Journal, UCS found that 81 percent of the articles focusing on climate science “attempted to broadly undermine the major conclusions of climate science.”

Even PBS is in the misinformation business and has been criticized by its ombudsman, Michael Getler, who observed that the network “stumbled badly” when it broadcast a segment on “PBS NewsHour” that sought to create “an artificial or false equivalence” between global warming “skeptics” and “believers.”

While there is some excellent climate reporting in the mainstream media, many—if not most—members of the mainstream media have been AWOL on the issue. The statistics of the 2012 presidential campaign, for example, are telling. As Reed Richardson observed on The Nation’s website with regard to the presidential debates:

103: Number of times the national “debt” or federal budget “deficit” was directly mentioned by the moderator or candidates

0: Number of times the term “climate change” was spoken or even indirectly referenced

One has to go back all the way to 1984 — the height of former President Ronald Reagan’s reheated Cold War — to find a debate season where global environmental threats received so little attention. What’s more, this refusal to bring up the man-made climate threat was occurring, as Richardson noted, as millions of Americans found themselves threatened by “rising sea levels and more wildfire outbreaks, starving our agricultural base with increasingly severe droughts, and killing our citizens in an epidemic of extreme heat waves.” When asked about the absence of the topic from the town-hall debate, CNN’s Candy Crowley explained it in this way: “Climate change, I had that question. … All you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing.”

Yet another indication of how low a priority mainstream reporters consider the climate-change crisis was the decision by America’s most prominent newspaper, The New York Times, to abolish its environmental desk earlier this year. The decision came within a week of the publication of a study demonstrating that worldwide coverage of climate change was in the midst of a three-year decline.

So, contrary to the arguments above, it’s not necessary to only blame the public’s ignorance about the climate on individuals’ values or deep-seated beliefs. Blame it on what they see and hear in the news as well. Until we fix that, we won’t be able to fix the climate either.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, released in paperback this week. This article is republished from the Center for American Progress.

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38 Responses to Think Again: Blame The News For The Public’s Ignorance About The Climate

  1. BillD says:

    I still don’t understand why the President and the Democratic National Committee don’t make Climate change a political issue. I recently received a survey and request for money from the DNC. I was given the opportunity to prioritize a list of the problems facing our country. However, my No. 1 concern, climate change, was not on the list. How could climate change rank lower than, for example, dealing with North Korea in the realm of issues that historians will consider important 10 or 100 years hence? Climate change has been cited as a major threat by the President and by high ranking officers in the Pentagon. At least, I was able to state—I won’t provide a contribution unless I have the opportunity to rank Climate change on the list.

    • David F Collins says:

      The Democratic Party is no help, nor is the President. A few weeks back I emailed the White House, urging rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Yesterday I received a response, which bragged about mileage standards, etc, all the while insisting that the White House is fully in favor of protecting the Climate; it made no mention of the XL or anything real regarding CO₂.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      I would venture to propose Bill, if you forgive my impertinence, that you are trapped in the false consciousness that says that there is any meaningful difference between the Reptilicans and the Democrazies. Both serve business first, last and always, and the public are regarded as foolish serfs to be manipulated with lies, bribes and fear and hatemongering diversions.

      • BillD says:

        Mulga:

        Yes, I do disagree with you. On the GOP side we have deniers who claim that climate change is a scam or an unproven hypothesis. They want to reduce alternative energy and think that warming, if any, is just natural variation. On the Democratic side, we have support for clean energy and acknowledgement that climate change is a serious challenge. It’s true that most Democrats are not providing much leadership. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that leaders would get too far ahead of the general public. Personally, I am really scared of what will happen if the GOP takes control of the Senate and the likes of James Imhofe (Senate, Oklahome) could chair important Senate Committees. There’s a huge difference between Democrats and Republications on climate, energy and environmental policy.

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          I have been somewhat lax in not explaining my beliefs properly. You are quite correct, I believe, to say that there are good, sane, rational people in the Democrats, far more so than the rump of such types in the Republican Party, which has been taken over by the Reptilicans. However, the way I see US politics operating is that it only matters what the elite of the parties think. They are the ones who follow the orders of the real rulers, the rich. How else, with such fervour amongst the rank and file and the better type of Democratic politician, has so little occurred under Obama? I recommend, if you’ll pardon the presumption, ‘Indispensable Enemies’ by Walter Karp, on the history of collusion between the two parties to the end of serving the rich. I agree that the Democrats are better than the Republicans, but only impotently superior. If there was a real insurgency in the Democrats, it would be dealt with. Non-action on climate destabilisation is dictated by the money and power interests of the wealthy, and politics is a sham. Would that it were not so.

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    Eric, Blame it Also on What Our Democratic and (Presumably) Progressive Leaders Do and Don’t Do, AND on What We (and CAP) Do and Don’t Do

    In addition to the factors that you mention, and equally important (if not more important in some ways), people get confused about how real and how serious climate change is when our own leaders — even those who periodically pay lip service to it — don’t do anything serious to address it. For example, yes, President Obama sometimes talks about it in soaring (but weak) rhetoric, but then he harps on about “all of the above” as an energy strategy, he does very little to advance the global climate change discussions, and he implies that he will approve Keystone XL, and etc. These confusions do a very great deal to undermine whatever valid scientific information does manage to seep through into the media. In fact, what President Obama is doing — in other words, very little, and including his “all of the above” energy strategy — is actually playing into, and reinforcing the notion that Republicans would have us believe, i.e., that global warming either isn’t real or at least isn’t worth doing much about.

    CAP too. In recent comments, I’ve been asking/hoping that Ryan, Joe, and CAP would agree that it would be very wise to begin asking Hillary Clinton ASAP very concrete questions about climate change, her views on it, and (in concrete terms) what she would do about it. The question I’ve suggested — a concrete and timely one that (as questions rarely do) lends itself to a simple yes/no answer — is this: “How would you rule regarding Keystone XL if you were president today? Would you approve it or deny approval? Please be clear and decisive. Thank you.”

    Yet as far as I can tell (you can ask him directly), Joe seems to dismiss this idea, that is, of pressing Hillary with this question starting asap. I’m not sure why? I offer this up as an example of some of the types of things that we (the movement, 350.org, the environmental organizations, CAP, etc.) choose — for some reason — NOT to do, making the point that our INactions often lend support to the belief that climate change must not really be real or, at least, must not be that urgent or important. AFTER ALL, IF climate change were both real and urgent, then President Obama (who the environmentalists helped elect) would be doing something serious about it, and IF climate change were real and serious, then folks like CAP would be demanding to know precisely what Hillary Clinton would do about it, BEFORE she becomes the de facto nominee and thus before CAP (and other “loyal” Democrats) feel trapped to vote for her no matter what she would or wouldn’t do regarding climate change.

    Do you see what I mean? Any thoughts?

    Be Well,

    Jeff

    • Superman1 says:

      Jeff, I’m sure every reader could come up with their own reasons of why the politicians and media either distort of neglect climate change. I believe both groups recognize the bulk of the public could care less about climate change, and have no inclination to make the myriad sacrifices REQUIRED to head it off at this late date. Little reason for entering the market when there’s no demand!

      • Raul M. says:

        Care for the climate is a cultivated emotion. Certainly a class in physics that cultivated disregard for mathematics should not catch on in higher education.
        Many people find it easy to emote personal care for the weather.

      • Raul M. says:

        One little reason for entering the market when there is no demand is the realization that personal demand is not the same as overall rational demand.

  3. BobbyL says:

    I think Brad Plumer is closer to the truth on this one, that the main reason for ignorance is pre-existing cultural values. In our society people are literally bombarded with information and tend to filter out those messages that conflict with their core values such a belief that God controls everything, that large government is a bad thing, that privatization per se is a good thing, etc if they lean toward the right. The same thing occurred with the ozone hole.

  4. Leif says:

    I Like the idea of Van Jones to rename the Keystone XL if approved the “Obama Keystone XL”

    Perhaps “Obama’s Creosote Conduit.” The dilbit is more a kin to coal tar and thinners than oil. To be cleaned up on the publics dime thanks to early fossil lobbying.

    Stop profits from the pollution of the commons.

  5. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I agree that the media are a problem but so too are poor education and scientific illiteracy. Some of media reports are so ridiculous that anybody with a basic understanding of science would know they are unbelievable, ME

    • Raul M. says:

      Hi, maybe superman1 will have a chance to read up on media and climate.

      • Merrelyn Emery says:

        Yes Raul but do you really think it would change his comments? ME

        • Raul M. says:

          He has no comment yet on the article. Maybe more articles authored by someone with a degree or two in writing showing why the media is to blame and he might stumble upon something to say.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Those selected by the MSM for employment, on the grounds of ideological suitability, are generally from the shallow end of the gene pool. The ones on TV have to be pleasing to the eye, and intelligence is a secondary (or lower) consideration. Ideological vetting continues throughout careers, and a single instance of Thought Crime is punishable by dismissal or career forestalling. Children of the elite or the ambitious middle are preferred, but the really greedy choose advertising (another branch of brainwashing for mass compliance) or the organised kleptomania of the ‘professions’.

      • “…the shallow end of the gene pool.” Marvelous again, Mulga. Please write a book of polemics. I’ll buy it, and make sure all my friends do as well.

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          Thanks, Phil, but it’s an oldie. I first heard it years ago. Still, it’s always good to recycle.

      • Superman1 says:

        if you want evidence confirming the shallow end of the gene pool, look at the comments immediately preceding yours.

        • Superman1 says:

          In fact, in that case, I think they drained the pool!

        • Raul M. says:

          Please try to stay on topic. The topic is think again; the media is to blame… The topic of using the power of the media to trivialize. Do you use the power of Joe’s blog to trivialize the need for the media to tell the truth, the whole truth…?

          • Superman1 says:

            I would love the media to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I don’t believe it would make very much difference in the actions of their readership if they did, but let’s run the experiment. Usually, when there’s demand for a product in the marketplace, someone will come along to satisfy it. I think there’s little demand among the electorate for the real information on climate change, irrespective of the fiction published in the polls, and that is why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.

          • Raul M. says:

            Are you speaking of the response saying ok you do it.
            When the responder is only saying the one individual or nuclear family do it when undertaking vast reductions in life style.not allowing renewables to provide connivence. Such being the omnipotent attempt to personify nature.

  6. David Goldstein says:

    When all is said and done, perhaps the children of the world will have to rise up! Maybe it will happen like this! : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/davidgoldstein/occupy-texas_b_3375469.html?utm_hp_ref=climate-change

    • Raul M. says:

      Emmissions, human and the natural ones too? Lots of back tracking needed.

    • Superman1 says:

      David, all this talk about ‘uprisings’ and ‘wars’ on climate change is Stage 5 wishful thinking. Our ‘war’ on climate change is equivalent to 7 December 1951, where, a decade later, we are still debating whether the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor or the damage resulted from spontaneous combustion. Meanwhile, they have taken over Asia, and are looking seriously at our West Coast.

      • Raul M. says:

        (Roll of the eyes), the topic is the need for parents to recognize the collective need to view things rationally when thinking of the need for a livable climate for the adult years of their children.

  7. This is a superficial analysis. And one that’s been well documented many times before, here and many other places. How about someone probing ‘why’ ? Why are media owners and their editors ignoring or distorting climate? That’s what needs some investigation.

    • Because in the age of ephemera, getting and holding attention is all. News is dull. Conflict is exciting.

      Having one’s emotions roused bestows an illusory authenticity. At least we feel something when we see people argue. We engage vicariously.

      Facts, well, facts are inert, at least until they’re thought through. That’s work, though. By the time you’ve figured out the implications, the media world has moved on and left you behind. That’s lonely.

      Media has to sell ongoing, unresolveable emotional involvement. It substitutes for community. It doesn’t want us to break away and take action that might result in its own reform. That is suicide, from a corporate point of view. Facts would make us question the whole corporate-capitalist system. That is why there’s no true left wing in the US–no one really questions the basic corporate premise of the economic system.

      The deepest irony is that the media first fragments us, then knits us back together with the weak thread of vicariousness.

      It’s hard to agree to take fact-based action all alone in your living room. But it is easy to buy things and be entertained, especially if that entertainment is a simulacra for community.

      • Merrelyn Emery says:

        Yes, they would have far less power if our cultures were not suffering high levels of dissociation and superficiality. That is the real problem behind the media problem. The only time we see any community action is when there is a disaster when people spontaneously gather to cooperate. However, it can be recreated by local planning around community improvement, ME

    • Superman1 says:

      The last thing the target audience for the articles posted here (the Amen Corner) wants to have shown is the true status of the climate problem (no room left for more CO2 emissions without extremely serious consequences) and the true roadblocks to ameliorating climate change (electorate’s addiction to the high energy intensity lifestyle enabled by the availability of ‘cheap’ fossil fuels). This article is exactly what they want to hear.

      • Raul M. says:

        Such a high fossil fuel energy lifestyle should include the methane plumes in Alaska not just to whiff it when near.

      • kermit says:

        Whereas, superman1, this article is exactly the sort of data you need to deny. It’s hard to blame your fellow revolutionaries of ideological impurities if the media itself is at least partly to blame.

        The general population cannot demand the news they need to hear if they don’t know it exists.

  8. fj says:

    We are in a major emergency and the media must be made to stop dangerous misinformation.

  9. Philip Pease says:

    The main stream media is owned by big corporations; the two main political parties are controlled by big corporate interests; those organizations that make up the deniers of human caused global warming are financed by the fossil fuel industries. The underlying theme is big money corporate interests have taken over our government and the media and have purposely waged a propaganda campaign to keep citizens from demanding change. The big money interests have a singular purpose and that is to keep the global capitalists in power and wealth. Human well being does is not even a topic they think or talk about much less act on.

    Main stream media makes money from advertisers like Exxon and those ads tell us how good and caring the company is and how it provides so many jobs. Would main stream media then choose to tell us we need to end our use of fossil fuels because of global climate change?

    Lets face the truth – the main stream media no longer serves humanity but serves the owners and advertisers as part of global capitalism domination of world affairs. Money buys influence and that influence is used to make more money.

  10. SecularAnimist says:

    Superman1 wrote: “… the target audience for the articles posted here (the Amen Corner) …”

    You know, over at RealClimate, when Superman1′s posts degenerated into rote repetition of a few thoroughly debunked bumper sticker slogans, alternating with puerile insults directed at other commenters, the moderators consigned him to “the Bore Hole” — the same off-blog thread where similarly boorish trolling from deniers goes.

    Then he came over here.