Earlier this year, when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released reports showing that the rate of surface temperature increase had slowed, some publications interpreted the information as a global warming “pause”—evidence that scientists had been alarmist about the impact of human emissions on the environment. Others argued that if the coverage of the “pause” demonstrated anything, it was the poor understanding of climate change by journalists who swallowed and repeated a misleading story. The earth’s temperature continues to increase—if you look at the rate over many years and examine ocean temperature, which is consistently getting hotter.
As coverage of the global warming pause continues, so does the debate over who is qualified to write about climate change. One outspoken critic of current environmental coverage is Chris Mooney, a correspondent for Climate Desk and a bestselling author. Mooney also is the the host of Climate Desk Live, co-host of the Climate Desk podcast Inquiring Minds, and a contributor to Mother Jones. He spoke to CJR about the media’s track record on climate change.
You write for the website Climate Desk, a collaboration between media outlets to produce better coverage of climate change. Can you tell me a bit about the role Climate Desk plays in environmental coverage?
Hopefully an increasingly important one. We’re trying to expand the scope of what we do. We now have a radio show [and] podcast that I’m really proud of. The reach of this is pretty considerable, if you consider the reach of all the partners. We’re trying different things, and it might be that there’s not one “the way.” It might be that there’s a lot of different ways for a lot of different audiences.
That said, what do you think are the main problems with the way the media covers climate today?
I think there are still some phony battles lending credence to claims that are not really scientifically credible, and basically propping up climate skeptics at a time when really there’s not any substantial disagreement in the scientific world about the main findings of climate science.
Many of the times it needs to be covered and it isn’t, because there isn’t anything screaming at you as a news story. You know, climate change is mostly slow, so there’s never one moment where, ‘Oh, that’s climate change!’ So there’s something inherent about the issue. It doesn’t play well to media behavior that’s driven by whatever’s happening now.
Is there any particular news outlet that is doing a good job covering the environment and climate change?
Well, I think the Climate Desk does a good job. I think that the LA Times gets a gold star. You know, we’ve found in terms of bad, we found CBS doing a really, really pretty troublesome segment [on the “global warming pause”]. And it’s almost insipid at this point to say that Fox covers it badly, because that’s like the biggest cliché, of course. I think that The Wall Street Journal is publishing certain kinds of op-eds by people like Matt Ridley [British scientist and journalist] that tend to minimize how much we should be worried about global warming.
The one factor that leads people to be wrong about climate change is ideology. It’s libertarian, free-market ideology, so if you’ve got a media outlet that is ideologically bent in that way, then that’s a huge risk factor for covering the issue in a misleading way.
Do you think it’s a problem that many of the people who cover climate change don’t have a scientific background?
It’s not a scientific background—in fact, I strongly reject the idea that the people who write about this stuff need to have degrees, or need to have scientific expertise. But I want them to have scientific journalism expertise. And I think that kind of expertise is rare. It’s not privileged enough. And I think this is why a lot of people in this last round of climate coverage were so susceptible to the controversializing that was going on with relation to the alleged global-warming pause, because they didn’t know how to not bite at that story. They didn’t know how to sit back and talk to the scientists and get some perspective, and realize that this is a really misleading thing.
How do you think that became such a big story?
It looks like the Economist started it. For at least five years, probably more, the skeptics have been trying to say that there’s no global warming anymore, because 1998 was so hot. Many of the years after ‘98 did not equal ‘98 in their temperatures. If you pick the hot year, and the reason it was hot was because of El Nino, it’s basically cherry-picking. And if you just go by decades, you see that the 2000s are hotter than the ’90s. That kind of thing. It’s a little statistical game that’s being played, and this is not a complete analysis of the data set.
And the media picks it up and repeats it.
Yeah, but they have a different incentive. If they’re centrist type media, somewhat contrarian, which is more like what I’d call the Economist, the incentive is, “Wow, this is what’ll surprise people. Look at how contrary this is to what people think!”
You mentioned that something like the global-warming pause got a lot of undeserved coverage, but what are some important stories right now that aren’t being covered enough?
My opinion is that the real story we don’t hear enough is all this attention to the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. I’m increasingly convinced that the way that it does things is really flawed. Not scientifically flawed, really, so much as just a bad communications tool. It’s so technocratic and technical. What you ultimately get is journalists trying to figure out what percents scientists are actually using, but what’s missing when you do that is the really big-picture perspective.
And the IPCC won’t say this because it’s so kind of clinical in how it handles things—what does it mean to destabilize a planet through its temperature? That’s the biggest roll of the dice that you could ever imagine. These are the things that terrify scientists but that most people have never even thought of, because they don’t have a big picture sense.
And it’s more theoretical, as opposed to an event that gets immediate coverage?
Right. Yeah. But I don’t think anybody, except for those few of us who are following scientists closely, or are the scientists—I don’t think anybody really gets what it means to change the energy balance of the planet. I don’t think anyone really gets that except the scientists, and they’re just stunned. But then they put on their science hats and they’re scientists and they can’t say it either.