Climate Strikes False Balance On Climate Change

Jill Fitzsimmons & Jocelyn Fong in a Media Matters cross-post

In a report for the New York Times‘ website about Al Gore’s “24 Hours of Reality” event about climate change, ClimateWire lent a megaphone to Canadian climate contrarian Tom Harris. The reporter summarized Gore’s event and then, ostensibly to provide balance, turned the rest of the article over to Harris, who thinks Gore’s event spent “time and energy on something that’s not true.”

ClimateWire quoted Harris’ claims that the “amount of climate change impact that humans have is very small,” and “This extreme weather thing is not a function of temperature,” as well as his allegation that “90 percent of the important facts [in Gore’s presentations] are wrong or misrepresented.” The article offered no details to support this claim. Nor did mention that the vast majority of scientists agree that humans are changing the climate. And at no point did the article explain who Tom Harris is or why he was quoted evaluating statements about science instead of, say, a climate scientist.

Elsewhere on the Times’ website, Andrew Revkin has explained what’s wrong with this type of reporting:

The norm of journalistic balance has been exploited by opponents of emissions curbs. Starting in the late 1990s, big companies whose profits were tied to fossil fuels recognized they could use this journalistic practice to amplify the inherent uncertainties in climate projections and thus potentially delay cuts in emissions from burning those fuels. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this strategy was a long memo written by Joe Walker, who worked in public relations at the American Petroleum Industry, that surfaced in 1998. According to this ”Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan,” first revealed by my colleague John Cushman at the New York Times, ”Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom” for ”average citizens” and ”the media” (Cushman 1998). The action plan called for scientists to be recruited, be given media training, highlight the questions about climate, and downplay evidence pointing to dangers. Since then, industry-funded groups have used the media’s tradition of quoting people with competing views to convey a state of confusion even as consensus on warming has built.

So who is Tom Harris? The article identified him as the “executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition” and said Harris “described his group as offering a ‘climate-realist perspective.'”

Harris is a mechanical engineer, not a climate researcher.  According to a 2007 Toronto Star article, he previously worked for a lobbying group which represented the Canadian Electricity Association and the Canadian Gas Association. The article stated:

Harris argues that there’s nothing wrong with industry funding. For the most part, it doesn’t support research,” he adds, paying only for communications instead.

“All the companies want is to see information coming out about research that supports their side. They wouldn’t have to if all sides were covered (by the media).”

His International Climate Science Coalition asserts that “Global climate is always changing in accordance with natural causes and recent changes are not unusual”  and seeks to undermine “implementation of costly and ineffectual ‘climate control’ measures” and expose the “dangerous impacts of attempts to replace conventional energy sources” with renewable energy.

Harris spoke this year at the Heartland Institute’s climate skeptics conference. It’s worth noting that the New York Times posted an uncritical Greenwire article about the event, which Heartland president Joseph Bast praised as “really nice” and “balanced.” Greenwire and ClimateWire are both part of Environment & Energy Publishing.

— Jill Fitzsimmons & Jocelyn Fong, of a Media Matters

JR:  Michael Tobis (and Stephen Ban) gave us the figure above — click on it for a clean image.

Related Post:

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.”

25 Responses to Strikes False Balance On Climate Change

  1. RH factor says:

    Here a list of scientific institutional bodies with official statements in support of affirming human caused global climate change:

    Academy of sciences of Malaysia, Academy of science South Africa, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Astronomical Society, American chemical society, American Geophysical Union, American Institute of Physics, American Meteorology Society, American Physical Society, American Quaternary Association, Australian Academy of Science, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Brazilian Academy of Science, Canadian federation of Earth Sciences, Canadian Foundation for climate and Atmospheric Sciences, Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic society. The Caribbean Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Science, The European Academy of Sciences and Arts, European Geosciences Union, European Science Foundation, French Academy of Science, German Academy of natural Science, Scientist leapoldina, Geological Society of America, Geological Society of London stratigrophy commission, Indian National Science Academy. Indonesian Academy of Sciences, Inter-academy Council, International academies of engineering and technological Sciences, International Union of Geodessy and physics, International Union for Quaternary research, Mexican Academy of Sciences. Network of African Science Academies, Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts, Royale Irish Academy, Royal Society of Canada, Royal Society of New Zealand, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Russian Academy of Sciences, Science Council of Japan.

    Here is the list of international bodies that dispute global climate change. Are you Ready? Zero none nada zippo.

    The only debate about anthropogenic climate change in the media period. Perspective it’s a wonderful thing.

  2. cervantes says:

    Andrew Revkin, of all people? He’s got plenty of phony “balance” to answer for himself. Let’s hope he’s finally reformed.

  3. Dredd says:

    The history of both global warming induced climate change, as well as the denial of it has a very discernible paper trail.

    University Historical presentation LINK HERE

    The video of the professor’s presentation has some surprises!

  4. As the old joke goes: Climate Deniers: Can’t Live w/ Them

    [short, bitter, rueful laugh]

  5. DRT says:

    The merchants of doubt continue to ply their wares and the NYTimes keeps buying.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    You’re right, Cervantes- Andy has long been a denier enabler himself. I don’t see his recent informed statement as an epiphany, since he’s teased us before.

    I hope I’m wrong. If you’re reading this, Andy, please prove to us that you have changed.

  7. dp says:

    here are rememberable shortlinks i made for ‘the good parts’ of the 24 hours of reality. <- gore's presentation <- bill nye climate primer <- industry pushback primer

    i actually watched the whole thing, including the two i slept through. if you didn't see it, i'd like to give special recommendation to watching the istanbul discussion.

    discussion starts a little before 35 mins in.

  8. Paul Magnus says:

    media nightmare…

  9. Joe Romm says:

    Just another right-wing anti-science journalist spreading disinformation.

  10. Edith Wiethorn says:

    Thank you. This is the first time I have seen global science groups listed, anywhere. That they all agree AGW is happening is credible & convincing critical mass. I recommend that this list be tuned up – if needed – and be available as a standing-post on Climate Progress.

    This list is a very helpful tool for correcting the false-balance drift [FBD] via real clarification. FBD is common for many issues, not just climate science. And FBD happens not only in journalism but is frequently seen at any kind of decision-point in our culture. “Thank you for your two cents & with my two cents that makes four.”

    In many contexts, false-balance-drift can be seen as an instinctive make-nice survival response from people who already feel very threatened.

    Thank you for this clarification-tool.

  11. CW says:

    Imagine briefing the CEO of your company about an engineering problem that is so severe it is almost guaranteed to take down the company if not addressed. With the exception of a couple of outliers who are almost pathologically cautious in committing to an opinion, your entire engineering staff of 100 says the problem is of primary importance. You also talk to a manager or two whose roles might have to be changed if the problem is addressed properly. The managers insist that their opinion be put in your brief or they’ll make your life really hard. How horrible is this brief in appropriately sounding the alarm: “One prominent engineer is saying one thing but another guy — won’t give you his background — says the opposite”?

    Obviously the difference between this contrived example and the climate reality is that once the problem flourishes in the company, the people giving the atrociously misleading brief might well get fired for not having properly warned management. In our climate reality, we’re stuck with a media who for years has misrepresented the truth by falsely giving the impression of debate and they have felt, and will likely continue to feel little to no consequence for this. Indeed, they’d of course most likely feel more *negative* consequences if they started to accurately report on this issue. Big industrial backers would threaten or actually reduce advertising funding. So incredible as this is to believe, the incentives are such that they have little motivation to report accurately on the biggest story of the century, or even to report on it much at all.

    It’s a lethal situation to be in when the only truths that can be told unburdened by accompanying lies are those that don’t negatively affect big profit. We need much more publicly funded media, independent from big profit (but with some check and balances of its own). Won’t happen anytime soon, if ever, but one can at least speak to one’s ideal, right?

  12. Stan Stricker says:

    Tom Harris speaks the truth. Too bad he will be crucified for it.

  13. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    The main stream media work in the interests of the owners of this country. The owners are old and want to take the rest of humanity with them when they go.

    Already the cost of climate change is substantial, inevitably is will be severe. If we act now, we may just be able save save a fraction of humanity.

  14. Peter Mizla says:

    The NYT- A 21st century delusion of falsehoods and Yellow Journalism.

  15. Steve Bloom says:

    So lies are “truth” and well-compensated is “crucified.” Sad.

  16. SecularAnimist says:

    It’s time to recognize that the corporate mass media in the USA is on the side of the fossil fuel oligarchs and is proactively engaged in deliberately deceiving the public in order to protect the profits of the fossil fuel corporations for as long as they can get away with it.

    The unending denialism exemplified by this article, and the blatantly dishonest attacks on alternative energy and the emerging “green economy”, are not the result of journalistic laziness, or incompetence, or inappropriate efforts to maintain “balance”.

    They are a deliberate, systematic, bought-and-paid-for propaganda campaign.

  17. DSL says:

    Hey, Stan, help me out here, will ya? Which part is the “truth”? Or is this a general statement about Harris’ ability to speak only truth? Crucified? Really? If Harris predicted whether or not you’d be back to evidence your very brief claim, what would he say? I need to know the truth.

  18. Ben Lieberman says:

    If the Times ran a story about slavery would they feel compelled to get a quote from the slave-owner side?

  19. john atcheson says:

    Basically this is criminal. It is journalistic malpractice. The NYT should be prosecuted.

    When Revkin is your voice of reason, you are in deep do-do.

  20. dp says:

    yeah, he’s like galileo, socrates, and jesus of nazareth all rolled into one, at the alamo, and reading from cue cards that are ON FIRE!!!!

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Secular, you have it exactly. The NYT is a leading rag in a Rightwing MSM propaganda system whose prime duty is defence of the capitalist system that makes the owners of the NYT wealthy. The fossil fuel business is the richest in history, and the interconnection of ownership of the fossil fuel interests and that of the MSM, their families, friends, school-mates and fellow ruling class paragons is multiform. The NYT in defending the fossil fuel trillions is defending the money, power and dominance of society of the ruling elite. Any stenographer to power, masquerading as a ‘journalist’ anywhere in the MSM knows this, internalises it and remembers it every time they write a word. Otherwise their career will be nasty, brutish and short.

  22. Pete Helseth says:

    Great piece, and great comments.

    One thing I would point out about the chart, which I otherwise really appreciate, too: the “professional opinions” are of two different types. The bell curve on the right shows the opinion of professional climatologists; the one on the left is of professional lobbyists.

  23. Arne Perschel says:

    I think the graph on top is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. Every time I’ve had the chance to speak to influential people, I’ve tried to make this key point. I call it ‘the opinion spectrum’. It can be summed up with this quote from Schopenhauer: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
    As long as there are no really loud voices trumpeting the worst case scenario (which we all know is nowhere to be found in the IPCC’s AR4), people will consider average scientific opinion unreasonable, alarmist, crazy. Not because people consider the arguments with reason but because they’ve never heard them before.
    Even when I talk to ‘very informed’ people – like Greenpeace activists – and I say there’s a chance of 5-meter SLR by 2100 and an ice-free planet by 2400, they think I’m a loon.
    It’s a very, very grave and despairing situation.
    I want to ask everyone to their best to spread this idea:
    Most people think the truth about global warming lies anywhere between ‘hoax’ and ‘big problem’. That’s where scientific opinion begins, between ‘big problem’ and ‘the end of the world’.

  24. J Bowers says:

    “Tom Harris speaks the truth.”

    Tom Harris argues from a geological perspective. Uncannily, the primary geological societies of the USA and the UK, the largest and most prestigious national geological societies in the world, state that there is no geological cause to be attributed for global warming.

    * Geological Society, Climate change: evidence from the geological record.

    While these past climatic changes can be related to geological events, it is not possible to relate the Earth’s warming since 1970 to anything recognisable as having a geological cause (such as volcanic activity, continental displacement, or changes in the energy received from the sun)

    * The Geological Society of America, Position Statement: Climate Change.

    Given the knowledge gained from paleoclimatic studies, several long-term causes of the current warming trend can be eliminated. Changes in Earth’s tectonism and its orbit are far too slow to have played a significant role in a rapidly changing 150-year trend. At the other extreme, large volcanic eruptions have cooled global climate for a year or two, and El Niño episodes have warmed it for about a year, but neither factor dominates longer-term trends.

    There’s ‘truth’, and there’s ‘troof’.

  25. Anna Haynes says:

    I did just now submit a entry for this, but with some hesitation since MediaBugs was created to document more concrete errors, & so to extend into false-balance territory might be to become quagmired, or quagmire-able.