With the big climate change talks in Paris starting at the end of the month, you’re starting to see a lot of climate change news stories. And since the media have mostly dropped their best climate and science reporters, you’re starting to see a lot of flawed and confusing stories — and false balance.
False balance is “where the idea of the human effect on climate change is presented along with skeptics’ point of view,” as Marianna Poberezhskaya, author of “Communicating Climate Change in Russia,” explains. Ironically, she’s quoted in a Reuters story picked up by the New York Times, “Russian Media Take Climate Cue From Skeptical Putin,” which itself is guilty of false balance.
The story starts well:
Wildfires crackled across Siberia this summer, turning skies ochre and sending up enough smoke from burning pines to blot out satellite views of the 400-mile-long Lake Baikal.
To many climate scientists, the worsening fires are a consequence of Siberia getting hotter, the carbon unleashed from its burning forests and tundra only adding to man-made fossil fuel emissions. Siberia’s wildfire season has lengthened in recent years and the 2015 blazes were among the biggest yet, caking the lake, the “Pearl of Siberia”, in ash and scorching the surrounding permafrost.
Wildfire seasons are clearly getting longer and stronger and climate science makes clear that rising temperatures, worsening droughts, and reduced snowpack — driven by human caused carbon pollution — are a major reason.
The article is mostly about how “the Russian public heard little mention of climate change, because media coverage across state-controlled television stations and print media all but ignored it.” President Vladimir Putin apparently believes that “there is no global warming, that this is a fraud to restrain the industrial development of several countries including Russia,” according to one Russian political analyst and Putin critic.
Why does Putin believe such anti-scientific nonsense? Here is where the article goes astray, in a section under the header “EXTENSIVE WORK”:
Putin’s scepticism dates from the early 2000s, when his staff “did very, very extensive work trying to understand all sides of the climate debate”, said Andrey Illarionov, Putin’s senior economic adviser at the time and now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington.
“We found that, while climate change does exist, it is cyclical, and the anthropogenic role is very limited,” he said. “It became clear that the climate is a complicated system and that, so far, the evidence presented for the need to ‘fight’ global warming was rather unfounded.”
This is, of course, pure climate science denial. Scientists now have the same degree of certainty that human-caused emissions are the primary cause of climate change as they do that cigarette smoking is harmful. In fact, the world’s leading scientists concluded in their latest 2013 assessment of the literature and observations that humans are responsible for all of the warming we have suffered since 1950 — a conclusion so undisputed that every single major government in the world signed off on it.
But Reuters and the New York Times simply present the anti-scientific claims by Illarionov un-rebutted. The article never actually quotes a single climate scientist. Nor does the article mention that the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank originally founded as the “Charles Koch Foundation” has received millions of dollars from the Koch family and ExxonMobil to promote climate science denial over the years.
Instead, the article merely continues, “That opinion endures. During a trip to the Arctic in 2010, Putin acknowledged that ‘the climate is changing’, but restated his doubt that human activity was the cause.”
This is a classic example of false balance.
Ironically, two paragraphs later, the article quotes Poberezhskaya saying, “Russian mass media repeat the same mistake that Western journalists used to make: the false balance, where the idea of the human effect on climate change is presented along with skeptics’ point of view,” she said.
If only Western journalists had stopped making that mistake.