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Media Figures Out American Climate Beliefs Are Outliers — But Do They Share The Blame?

By Joe Romm

"Media Figures Out American Climate Beliefs Are Outliers — But Do They Share The Blame?"

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You go to the doctor for your regular check up. For the umpteenth time she tells you, “as long as you keep smoking two packs a day, you are at grave risk of serious and irreversible impacts to your health. You need to quit.”

In your previous checkups, your reply was “But, doc, I feel fine! You’re just an alarmist.”

This time, however, before you can say anything you start coughing, and the doctor says, “And by the way that hacking cough and shortness of breath you’ve got is just what I’ve warned you for decades would happen. It’s the result of your smoking, and if you don’t start getting off cigarettes, you will eventually lose most of your lung function, among other problems.”

Climate change is right here, right now. That’s the message of the latest Congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment (NCA).

Scientists have been warning for decades that continued burning of fossil fuels would cause a variety of dangerous symptoms — including worsening heat waves, droughts, deluges, and storm surges. Scientists, unsurprisingly, have turned out to be right. If we don’t start restricting carbon pollution from coal, oil, and natural gas, they now warn we are threatening to ruin the stable, livable climate that Americans and indeed all of humanity have come to rely on for their food security, their decisions about where to live, and so on.

Will we (finally) listen to our climate doctors? My analogy breaks down in one key place — climate scientists, unlike doctors, generally don’t communicate directly to the public. Their concerns are intermediated by the media. Imagine if your doctor’s findings were communicated to you through the media — who sometimes didn’t report their findings, or who felt obliged to find some doctor somewhere who disagreed with the diagnosis (even if 97 out of 100 agreed with it) or who misreported the findings or who buried the findings deep within a report filled with extraneous information or who ran paid ads in their reports from tobacco companies filled with disinformation.

Then you might have some idea why, say, Americans are not as concerned about climate change as climate scientists and most other countries are (see top chart from the NY Times).

Which brings us to perhaps the most absurd — and definitely the most hypocritical — article written on the NCA in a respected newspaper, “One climate report. 30 different headlines,” published by the Washington Post. Apparently the Post thinks that the public is so well informed on climate change that there’s need for an article criticizing different media outlets for running with different headlines.

The WashPost says that an acceptable or “relatively straightforward headline” for the NCA looks like this

  • “U.S. climate report says global warming impact already severe”
  • “Climate change assessment paints stark picture of potential damage”

You’ll be shocked, shocked to learn the first headline is from the Post itself. Seriously. I guess that’s the media’s version of a humblebrag.

Before listing some of the Post’s ideas of “unacceptable” headlines, it’s worth noting how wildly hypocritical it is for the Post to be criticizing anyone’s headlines on climate. Last year, they replaced their top climate reporter with a sports reporter, their coverage of climate change dropped by one third from an already pitifully low level, and they feature more disinformation from widely debunked deniers and confusionists on their op-ed page than any non-Murdoch-owned news outlet. Oh, and on the Solyndra non-story they ran 43 stories in a 3-month period in 2011. Forty-three!!

Memo to Washington Post: Mote and Beam!

So while the Post is in no position to judge anybody, here’s three of what they consider unacceptable “terror-inducing headlines”:

  • Landmark Report Warns Time Is Running Out To Save U.S. From Climate Catastrophe
  • White House: Climate Change Is Real And It’s Making Your Life Worse Right Now
  • Clear and Present Danger

The second headline, from BuzzFeed, seems hardly different in content than the Post’s own headline. It’s just a little more personal, which seems to capture the intent of the NCA. BuzzFeed quotes Obama’s science adviser John Holdren: “Climate change is not a distant threat. It is affecting the American people already.” The story notes Holdren “said that the report found real impacts on Americans from climate change, from disruptions to the water supply to more severe allergy attacks.” So the headline is fine.

“Clear and Present Danger” was the Huffington Post front-page banner headline on the report. You may recall that the previously reticent climatologist Lonnie Thompson wrote a long article in 2010 explaining why climatologists were starting to speak out more: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”

If the MSM isn’t as alarmed as the experts in the field, that hardly makes it a fault of the new-media when they actually get the story right. And Thompson was writing 3 1/2 years ago — hings have clearly gotten more worrisome since then.

As for the first unacceptable headline, I’m proud to say that was mine. Again, how is that so different from the “acceptable” headline: “Climate change assessment paints stark picture of potential damage.” Or this Post headline from Monday, “Final fed climate report will present dire picture“?

Indeed what those stark and dire headlines fail to tell the reader is that we still have time to act (but the window is closing) — and that certainly seems like necessary information for the public to know. Unless of course you are fine with the notion that Americans are less worried about climate change than the majority of the people who get their science presented more accurately. As Dr. Thompson said in 2010, the science makes clear that “rapid and potentially catastrophic changes in the near future are very possible.” And as the world’s leading scientists and governments said earlier this year, we can still avoid the worst of climate change very cheaply, but only if we act asap.

Before the Washington Post devotes any more effort to criticizing others’ coverage of the story of the century, perhaps they should do something about this:

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