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US Press Coverage: A Damning Betrayal of Public Trust


U.S. Press Coverage of the Climate Crisis:

A Damning Betrayal of Public Trust

                                    By Ross Gelbspan    
            I'm a reporter -- not an environmentalist -- so I came to this subject from a very peculiar angle. After I retired from The Boston Globe and was working on my second consecutive unpublished novel, there came to me Dr. Paul Epstein, of Harvard Medical School, with a series of articles he had published in The Lancet on climate change and the spread of infectious disease.

            Since the work struck me as important, we collaborated on a piece for the Outlook section of The Washington Post. While writing the piece, I became very alarmed about the larger issue of climate change and began to consider writing a book on the subject. 

            But after the piece ran in the Post, I received several letters from readers who said that, the disease information notwithstanding, they didn't believe the climate was changing and they referred me to the work of a few scientists. 
So I read Bob Balling's book, The Heated Debate, several issues of Pat Michaels' journal and papers by Fred Singer and Richard Lindzen. And I was persuaded that global warming was a non-issue. I told my wife there's no book here. And emotionally, I was very relieved not to have to deal with such a heavy issue. But I had scheduled interviews with four other scientists, and, just as a courtesy, I decided to keep those interviews. 

            Those scientists completely turned my head around. They showed me how Singer, Michaels and the others were manipulating data and misrepresenting the situation. That made me quite angry. Not because I love trees – I tolerate trees -- but because I had spent 31 years in a career predicated on the belief that in a democracy we need honest information on which to base our decisions. What these few scientists were doing was stealing our reality. 

            It was also strange that none of the mainstream scientists I interviewed knew where the skeptics’ money was coming from. 

            By a very lucky coincidence, I sooned learned that Singer, Michaels and Balling had received about a million dollars in undisclosed money from the coal industry in a three-year period.

            (Parenthetically, the issue of disclosure is very important. Industry-funded research is neutral – it can be good or bad. But disclosure is critical so that the work in question can be reviewed with an eye to commercial bias. If, for instance, a medical researcher' work is funded by a pharmaceutical company, that funding must be declared in the tagline as a condition of publication. Unfortunately, those same guidelines do not apply to climate science.)

            At that point, I thought if there's so much money going into a cover-up, let's see what it is they're covering up. And that's when I began to learn the science and many other aspects of the climate issue.

            Thinking about the issue, it quickly became clear that the very survival of the coal and oil industries – which together constitute the biggest commercial enterprise in history – are threatened by climate change. The science is unambiguous on one point: climate stabilization requires that humanity cut its consumption of carbon fuels by about 70 percent. The motivation behind the disinformation campaign was very clear – as was the reporting imperative. In this case, it was also the path into an amazing drama – a once-in-a-lifetime story -- that, unfortunately, continues to unfold just outside the spotlit arena of public awareness. 

            There are a number of reasons for this – none of them, given the magnitude of the story, justifiable.  

            Let me run through a few.

            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.

            For instance, while climate change has been the focus of a number of feature stories (and small, buried reports of scientific findings), the only times it has gained real news prominence is when it has played a role in the country’s politics. I think of the 1992 elections when the first President Bush slapped the label of “ozone man” on Al Gore because of his book, “Earth in the Balance.” (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Gore totally ran away from the climate issue during the 2000 campaign.)

            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 Administration at the hands of inside the Beltway Republicans. 

            Most recently, the issue surfaced when President Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto process. And that coverage focused not on climate change but on resulting diplomatic tensions between the US and EU.

            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, whose work contributes 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.”

            What I found astounding was this. Even as the Washington press corps reported this story, not one reporter bothered to check the position of the NAS. Had they done so, they would have found that as early as 1992, three years before the IPCC determined that that humans are changing the climate by our burning of oil and coal, the NAS recommended strong measures to minimize climate impacts.

            So that’s just a quick nod to the culture of journalism – which is, basically, a political culture which is not particularly hospitable – in fact, institutionally arrogant -- toward non-political areas of coverage.

            The next reason has to do with this campaign of disinformation launched by the coal industry and most recently carried forward by ExxonMobil, which is now the major funder of the greenhouse skeptics. As I mentioned, the fossil fuel lobby paid a tiny handful of scientists – many of whom had no standing in the mainstream scientific community – to dismiss the reality of climate change.

            (Parenthetically, we had some fun last year with Fred Singer, who is probably the most visible of the greenhouse skeptics. Singer declared in a letter to the Washington Post, that he had not received any money from the oil industry for at least 20 years – when he had done some consulting for an oil company. Shortly thereafter, we published the fact that Singer had received thousands of dollars in 1998 from ExxonMobil. It was on their website.)

            In my book I go into some length about the public disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel lobby. One proof of the success of that campaign is reflected by two polls done by Newsweek Magazine. Back in 1991, 35 percent of people surveyed by Newsweek said they thought global warming was a very serious problem. By 1996, even though the science had become far more robust and the IPCC declared it had found the human influence on the climate, that 35 percent had shrunk to 22 percent – because of the effectiveness of this public relations campaign of deception by the fossil fuel lobby.

            It also had a profound effect on journalists.

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 invade Iraq? Should we have bi-lingual education or English immersion? At that point, a journalist is obligated to give each competing view its most articulate presentation– and at equivalent length.

            But when it’s a question of fact, it’s up to a reporter to get off her or his ass and find out what the facts are. The issue of balance is not relevant when the focus of a story is factual.

            In the case of the climate issue, the former head of the IPCC, Dr. Bert Bolin made a striking statement. In, I think 1997, Dr. Bolin – a very conservatively-spoken scientist -- declared definitively 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.

            Granted there have been a few credentialed scientists – although only Dick Lindzen comes to mind -- who are have published in the peer-reviewed literature – who minimize climate change as relatively inconsequential. 
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 lay -- and reflecting that balance in his or her reporting. Were that to have happened, the mainstream scientists would get 90 percent of the story -- and the skeptics a couple of paragraphs at the end. 

            Today, that is finally beginning to happen. 

            One of the first impacts of climatic instability is an increase in weather extremes – longer droughts, more heat waves, more severe storms and the fact that we get much more of our rain and snow in intense, severe downpours. 
That is reflected in the fact that weather extremes today 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. 
A few years ago I asked a top editor at CNN why, given the increasing proportion of news budgets dedicated to extreme weather, they did not make this connection. He told me, "We did. Once."   It triggered a barrage of complaints from the Global Climate Coalition at the top executives at CNN. (The GCC was the main lobby group opposing action on global warming.) They argued that you can't attribute any one extreme event to climate change -- just as you can not attribute any one case of lung cancer to smoking. But even though the connection has been accepted as a given by mainstream science, nevertheless the industry intimidated CNN into dropping this connection from its coverage.

            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 just as much as readers. 
So for that reason, I am trying very hard to promote a set of policies that a group of us believe very strongly would achieve the 70 percent cuts required by nature, even as they would create huge numbers of jobs and economic growth – especially in developing countries.
            I think that only when a person sees that an intellectually honest solution is really possible that he will then 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 expresses itself as a minimization of the magnitude and urgency of the problem.
            The U.S. press today is in what I call “stage-two” denial of the climate crisis. They acknowledge its existence – and they minimize its scope and urgency. You can see this from the pattern of coverage that provides occasional feature stories about the decimation of the forests in Alaska – but which continues to ignore the central diplomatic, political and economic conflicts around the issue.
           So if there is a message in all this, I think, should be: this problem is real. It threatens the survival of our civilization. There are solutions – which could hold the key to lots of other problems facing this profoundly fractured world. And, most important, this is by far the most dramatic and exciting story you could ever want to work on.