Inhofe, Climate Change and Those Alarmist Reporters

On Monday, Sen. James Inhofe railed against climate research and the scientific press. But untangling his arguments about bad science and bad reporting is a difficult task.

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 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.”

Evaluating Inhofe’s speech, Easterbrook said, “For Inhofe, this is a triumph of thoughtfulness.” He added, however, that the senator’s speech fell short of a clear distinction between bad reporting and bad science. Inhofe criticized recent reports by Time, CBS’s 60 Minutes, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, and other “eco-doomsayers.” But if he had any valid points to make, they were lost in a maelstrom of mixed arguments. Most of his tirade was based on the MSM’s coverage of alternating scientific predictions of global warming and cooling over the last 100 years. This, he said, indicates a penchant for the “sensational” promotion of extreme climate scenarios, though he totally ignores the fact that even ten years ago, technology was extremely limited by today’s standards. The problem, Revkin suggested, is that the senator’s speech was “more about politics, but artfully designed to look like a argument about science.”

Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor of journalism at American University, attempted to deconstruct Inhofe’s behavior on his blog, Framing Science: “When news reports don’t favor preferred policy positions, whether it is election politics or scientific topics like global warming, conservatives attack the messenger.”

Indeed, some would argue that Inhofe’s speech was just the most recent manifestation of a larger, more calculated plan to slam the media in public. In July, Greenwire published the story of two other attacks. The senator denounced a lack of balance in an article by Seth Borenstein at the Associated Press about scientific reaction to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s much-hyped movie on environmental degradation, and in a documentary by Tom Brokaw on the Discovery Channel about climate change. The Greenwire article suggested that, “in setting his sights on the press, Inhofe appears to be incorporating a strategy hatched by the [Committee on Environment and Public Works’] new communications director, Marc Morano.”

Morano’s dealings with the media are certainly suspect. He was the lead source on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign against John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. But Greenwire also rushed to conclusions when it raised the specter of outright press intimidation. Inhofe’s critique of the media and science, however muddled, is nothing new. “He’s a politician not a scientist, and he has a very entrenched position on climate, and he is selecting facts to build a highly polemical speech around that,” Revkin said. “And that’s his right as an elected official. They do that all the time; it’s the way it works.”

That leaves the most important question hanging in the balance: to what degree is the American public capable of discerning bad reporting from bad science? That ability might improve if the media were more insistent on finding new ways to front their stories without resorting to overblown predictions of doom. Greater attention must be focused on the appropriate level of “balance” in each article, and on the arguments of men like James Inhofe. According to the senator, “The American people know when their intelligence is being insulted. They know when they are being used and when they are being duped by the hysterical left.”

Let us hope that is true, and that Americans are equally wary of the hysterical right.

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