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.