Education or Indulgence?

Monitor series reaches out to global-warming skeptics

Not many diplomats shared Czech President Vaclav Klaus’s opinion about global warming at a special meeting of the United Nations two weeks ago:

Contrary to many self-assured and self-serving proclamations, there is no scientific consensus about the causes of recent climate changes.

Not even George W. Bush or Condoleeza Rice, who represented Bush at the U.N. meeting, would be caught uttering such an extreme statement these days, and they are not alone. The prime ministers of Canada and Australia, Steven Harper and John Howard, have also softened their once-ardent doubt that man-made greenhouse gases are the biggest culprits in global warming.

The press, too, has cut a lot of the skeptical points of view that it once used to “balance” climate articles. Journalists are now more confident about sticking to quotes from mainstream scientists who support the central conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): that human beings are the primary force behind global warming. Taking it a step farther, Newsweek and Rolling Stone have even run long features chronicling the manipulations of what the former labeled “the denial machine.”

This trend notwithstanding, the press still makes occasional room for doubt. In particular, a recent series from The Christian Science Monitor stands out for its conspicuous overture to skeptics. Articles in the ongoing series, which began September 20, explore arguments that global warming is part of natural climate cycles, and whether such dissenting opinions are suppressed at the IPCC.

“This series really came about because we got a lot of letters from readers asking about sunspots as the cause of global warming, or this, or that, or the other,” said Greg Lamb, a science and technology writer for the Monitor who has coordinated the paper’s coverage of climate change. “And we’d also been getting criticism because our articles tended to support the idea that humans are behind global warming.”

In response, Lamb and the paper’s editor, Richard Bergenheim, decided to extend an olive branch, so to speak, to skeptics. “We decided on a series that would look at alternative theories and give them fair hearing,” Lamb said, “while at the same time pointing out that they’re not the majority views in the scientific community.”

Indeed, the Monitor clearly believes that man-made climate change is a problem that should be confronted quickly and directly. Last spring, Lamb helped create article headlined, “Might warming be normal?” The piece, by staff writer Brad Knickerbocker, is reminiscent of the climate stories written last year, before the IPCC’s influential fourth assessment report was released in February. The first half of the article quotes two skeptics (one a scientist, one not) and the second quotes two believers (again, one a scientist, one not). They each comment on the viability of alternate warming theories, such as changing solar and ocean cycles, but the reader is unsure what to make of it all.

Many climate journalists have come to accept that, given the scientific debate about climate, mere transmission of information is of little value without an accompanying interpretation. It is the lack of this analysis that makes Knickerbocker’s article deficient. While it is completely valid to explore dissenting opinions, journalists must do more than stand competing quotes next to one another; they must explain which one holds more currency and why. The second and third articles in the Monitor’s skeptics series do a better job of this.

The second article, which ran a week later under the headline, “Are sunspots prime suspects in global warming?” examines one alternative hypothesis in detail. The sun’s natural cycles, including its spots, which are associated with greater radiation and thus warming, are a cause célèbre among skeptics. While this is a theory that most scientists reject, in the Monitor article, reporter Peter N. Spotts (yes, that’s right) points out that, “some pesky correlations - such as the one between sunspot cycles and cloud cover - linger.” Spotts, who has written about skeptics before, is careful with the science, however, and delivers the interpretation that was missing in the series’ first installment: “No one doubts that the sun drives the Earth’s climate,” he writes up high in the piece. “The vast bulk of research, however, points to greenhouse gases.”

The third and most recent entry, published last Thursday under the headline, “Is the research too political?” explores the most pertinent question of the series thus far: in drafting its reports, does the IPCC suppress dissent? Few people, journalists included, understand even the basic structure of the IPCC, leading to confusion about whether it is a scientific or political organization, let alone finer mechanical points about how it reconciles rival opinions. In the Monitor, reporter Moises Velasquez-Manoff, chooses good sources - John Christy and S. Fred Singer on the skeptics’ side, and Gavin Schmidt and Kevin Trenberth on the believers’ side - to flesh out possible bias at the IPCC. Their comments are insightful and well-balanced, even if the article is not entirely conclusive about the degree to which politically-driven muffling in a problem. At the very least, the Monitor deserves credit for broaching this subject: the internal mechanics of the IPCC are woefully under-reported by the press.

At the end of each of the articles, the Monitor’s editors solicit reader feedback with the question: “Do you think climate change skeptics are raising persuasive points or ignoring strong scientific evidence?” The paper has received close to 150 letters since the series began, and has printed two batches so far. The responses can be broken down into three basic types, according to Lamb.

“The majority is saying, ‘Thank you for representing my views,’” he told me. “Then there are people who aren’t necessarily skeptics saying, ‘We appreciate your sense of balance. We want to know when our friends ask us about things like sunspots.’ And then there have been several letters from people who are upset with us, saying that the debate is long over and that the Monitor is wasting its resources when it needs to be moving on to solutions.”

The paper will publish a fourth installment of the skeptics series this Thursday, and a fifth one next week. At that point, Lamb said, “We’ll stop and reassess.” I asked him if such a project could mislead readers by indulging their misconceptions about science rather than educating them? And when it comes to asking readers if they think certain theories are persuasive, is it not the journalist’s responsibility provide such answers?

“That’s certainly a concern,” Lamb replied. “But in the end, this series is a relatively small piece in the large mosaic of our total coverage. So in that light hopefully we’re not distorting the debate.” He pointed to some of the Monitor’s other climate work, such as its coverage of the IPCC reports and a large multimedia series on adaptation and mitigation called “Surviving in a Warmer World”, which show that the paper’s reporting is firmly in line with scientific consensus.

Indeed, the Monitor will soon redesign its online global warming page to put more emphasis on what readers can to do mitigate climate change. “Even people who are very skeptical of global warming like to think of themselves as environmentalists and green,” said Lamb, who spends a couple of hours a week poring over readers’ e-mails and trying to assess their viewpoints. “I think they feel a general sense of stewardship of the environment that still applies to them despite their disagreement on the one issue.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.