Since the work struck me as important, we collaborated on a piece for the Outlook section of The Washington Post. While I was writing the piece, I became very alarmed about the larger issue of climate change and began to consider writing a book on the subject.
So I read books and articles by Pat Michaels, Robert Balling, Fred Singer and Richard Lindzen – all prominent climate skeptics.
(Coincidentally, I learned later that the letters I’d received after that Washington Post piece were part of a coordinated campaign – and not responses from ordinary readers.)
With a bit of digging, I soon learned that Singer, Michaels and Balling had received about a million dollars from the coal industry in a three-year period which had never publicly been disclosed.
So after learning about the secret coal-industry payoffs, I said to myself, “If there’s this cover-up going on, what are they covering up?” And that's when I began to learn the science, the politics and many other aspects of the climate issue.
There are a number of reasons for this – none of them, given the magnitude of the story, justifiable.
On a somewhat superficial level, the career path to the top at news outlets normally lies in following the track of political reporting. Top editors tend to see all issues through a political lens.
The issue again received prominent coverage in 1997 when the Senate voted overwhelmingly not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol – not because of the substance but because it signaled a political setback for the Clinton White House at the hands of a recalcitrant Congress.
Prior to his withdrawal from Kyoto, President Bush declared he would not accept the findings of the IPCC – because they represented “foreign science” (even though about half of the 2,000 scientists, who contribute work to the IPCC reports are American.) Instead, Bush called for a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences which would provide “American science.”
Most recently, of course, the coverage of the collapse of the Copenhagen Conference has focused on the divide between the industrial and developing countries – rather than on the urgency of the climate crisis. And the fight in Congress over the climate bills has been primarily treated by the press as a political story – for example, whether Lindsay Graham is in or out, depending on whether the immigration bill takes precedence over climate legislation -- rather than as a critical issue involving a potentially catastrophic future.
by economists. Yet the press continues to parrot opponents’ concerns that addressing global warming will bankrupt us.
Similarly, the Pentagon has issued at least four reports in the last four years about major threats to our national security from an increasingly unstable climate. But no reporter I’ve read has asked Congressional opponents of climate legislation to address the Pentagon’s concerns.
Today, according to the BBC survey, only 26% of those surveyed think "climate change is happening and is largely man-made" -- only 1% more than those who think there is no global warming at all.
The disinformation campaign has also had a profound effect on journalists.
For another, it has allowed the right-wing media to have a field day with the “climategate” e-mail exchange between two IPCC scientists. What’s amazing is that, even attributing the most sinister motives to those researchers, every credible scientific journal agrees that the scandal (if there really is one) in no way discredits the huge body of peer-reviewed climate science that has accumulated over the past 15 years.
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial, for example, proclaimed that Climategate “raises doubts about how much our current warming is man-made as opposed to merely another of the natural climate shifts that have taken place over the centuries.”
For the longest time, the press accorded the same weight to the " skeptics" as it did to mainstream scientists. This was done in the name of journalistic balance. In fact it was journalistic laziness.
The ethic of journalistic balance comes into play when there is a story involving opinion: should abortion be legal? Should we withdraw our troops from Iraq? Should we bail out the nation’s banks? At that point, a journalist is obligated to give each competing view its most articulate presentation– and at roughly equal length.
In the case of the climate issue, the founding head of the IPCC, Dr. Bert Bolin, stated as early as 1997 that there is no debate among any statured scientists working on this issue about the larger trends of what is happening to the climate. That is something you would never know from the press coverage.
In that case, if balance is required, I would think that would suggest that a reporter spend a little time reviewing the literature, talking to some scientists on background, learning where the weight of scientific opinion lies -- and reflecting that balance in his or her reporting. Were that to have happened, the mainstream scientists would get 95 percent of the story -- and the skeptics a couple of paragraphs at the end.
The second graf of the story tells us: “Dr. Pachauri and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are now under intense scrutiny, facing accusations of scientific sloppiness and potential financial conflicts of interest from climate skeptics, right-leaning politicians and even some mainstream scientists. Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, called for Dr. Pachauri’s resignation last week.”
But when you read through the whole story, there’s absolutely nothing to impeach Pachauri’s credibility or reputation. While Pachauri, himself, receives $65,000 a year in personal income, he makes substantial money consulting for various companies. But it turns out, he gives all his consulting money to non-profit organizations in India. Finally, the Times quotes, among others, an obscure skeptic named Christopher Monckton whose website claims he has proved climate change does not exist – and that solar and wind energy create as much warming as burning coal and oil. To people in the climate community, Monckton has long been regarded as a clown – a grade C skeptic. But, for some reason, the Times saw fit to quite him as an authority.
That is reflected in the fact that extreme weather events constitute a much larger portion of news budgets than they did 20 years ago.
Given the dramatic increase of extreme weather events – you would think that journalists, in covering these stories, would include the line: "Scientists associate this pattern of violent weather with global warming." They don’t.
Finally, there is one more phenomenon that has severely undermined press coverage of the climate crisis – and that’s the conglomeratization of the news media. Until about 15 years ago, most newspapers were owned by companies that were truly committed to the mission of providing news – and were content to reap a seven or eight percent profit margin. But as huge media corporations began gobbling up many of the country’s newspapers, investors became major drivers of press policy. In short, Wall Street became the tail that wagged the dog. To increase circulation, many papers have substituted more celebrity coverage, more self-help articles and more trivial medical news for investigative reporting of complex topics.
But I think there's a deeper betrayal of trust here by the media. By now most reporters and editors have heard enough from environmentalists to know that global warming could, at least, have potentially catastrophic consequences. Given that reality, I think it is profoundly irresponsible for an editor or reporter to pass along the story with some counterposing quotes without doing enough digging to satisfy herself or himself as to the bottom line gravity of the situation. Their assessment needn't be the same as mine. But simply to treat the story like any other -- without taking the time to reach an informed judgment about its potential gravity -- is a fundamental violation of the trust of readers and viewers who assume a modicum of informed interpretation from their news providers.
Finally, over and above the campaign of manufactured denial by the fossil fuel public relations specialists, there is a natural human tendency toward denial of this issue. When one is confronted by a truly overwhelming problem – and one does not see an apparent solution – the most natural human reaction is not to want to know about it. And that applies to editors and reporters just as much as readers.
There is a strategic reason for that focus. It’s only when a person sees am intellectually credible solution that he will let the bad news in on himself. Absent that realization, I think you will continue to see either a complete denial of the reality, or a more sophisticated form of denial which acknowledges warming as a distant problem and minimizes its urgency and magnitude.
So if there is a message in all this, I think it should be: this problem is real. It threatens the survival of our civilization. Moreover, by many very credible scientific accounts, we are already well past a point of no return in staving off major climate disruptions.
Personally, given my own professional background, I don’t really see the captains of big coal and big oil as the primary villains. They’re doing what they’re paid to do – bring us abundant and affordable energy while protecting their industries – albeit with deplorable and dishonest means. To me, the primary villains are our news outlets whose negligence and indifference are bringing us to the brink of catastrophe.
Given its diplomatic, technological, economic, scientific and political aspects, it offers one of the richest and most multi-faceted areas of reporting one can imagine.
Most sadly, all those journalists who are ducking this challenge are depriving themselves of the professional gratification that can only come from aggressively covering what is undoubtedly the biggest story of this millennium.
Whether it is due to a lack of interest – or more damningly to a failure of courage -- the press has blown this story in a very major way.
(c) Ross Gelbspan