It’s hard to tell what Senator James Inhofe loathes more: the scientific consensus that climate change poses serious threats, or the journalists who write climate-related stories. In a scathing speech delivered on the Senate floor on Monday, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee denounced the scientific press for its “alarmist” reporting on the subject of global warming. Despite Inhofe’s pointed attack, however, the media has hardly given so much as a nod to the senator’s criticism.
Both houses of Congress held a spate of hearings on climate change last week, which got some media attention, but Monday’s tirade by the Oklahoma Republican has gone largely unnoticed. Only the Tulsa World, from Inhofe’s home state, and a smattering of blogs have picked up the story. What is so challenging for journalists who might respond to Inhofe, or in some other way cover his antics, is that Monday’s speech mashed two separate arguments into one vehement diatribe.
On the one hand, Inhofe calls current research on global warming a hoax, which few would agree with, and on the other, he accuses science writers of being alarmist, a position that has far more supporters. As a case in point, during an enumeration of alarmist writings on Monday, the senator included a recent book, The North Pole Was Here, by New York Times climate reporter Andrew Revkin. Inhofe criticized a passage from the book’s first chapter, which warns there might come a day “when the new North Pole will be a place that is easier to sail to than stand on.” According to Inhofe, such “alarmist” postulations will scare American children.
In one of the only direct responses to the senator’s speech, Revkin writes on his Amazon.com author’s blog, “There he goes again, lumping me with climate alarmists.” Revkin is in an awkward position, sharing some of Inhofe’s impressions about the scientific press, while disagreeing with his distortion of the science itself. Last April, the headline of an article Revkin wrote for the New York Times warned against “Yelling ‘Fire’ On a Hot Planet”:
Without a connection to current disasters, global warming is the kind of problem people, and democratic institutions, have proved singularly terrible at solving: a long-term threat that can only be limited by acting promptly, before the harm is clear.
By democratic institutions, Revkin meant both the media and government, he explained during an interview on Wednesday. Climate change is a “bad fit” for both, he argues. Because of its amorphous nature, journalists have tried to peg stories about global warming to “in your face” events like hurricane intensity, drought, wildfires, crop failure and a litany of other terrifying hazards. Revkin calls this unfortunate trend in journalism “focusing on the front-page thought.”
The science linking climate change to conspicuous disasters is much less certain than that which labels greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants spurring global warming. But many journalists covering research on extreme events have not included the skeptics’ view in their writing. Partly, this is a supply and demand issue. During the last two years, public opinion has, to some extent, turned against climate reporters whose stories were “balanced” to a fault. “Now some places think they have an open door to do away with it almost completely,” Revkin said.
He is not alone in his assessment.
“The media is really on thin ice on this issue,” said Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. The scientific press has “cried wolf” in its stories so often that its credibility has been damaged, he said. But Easterbrook, unlike Inhofe, also believes the evidence is strong on greenhouse gases. In a New York Times op-ed from May he writes: “As an environmental commentator, I have a long record of opposing alarmism. But based on the data I’m now switching sides regarding global warming, from skeptic to convert.”