Lingering Denial

The unfortunate case of a few pundits with too much influence

Last week at the Huffington Post, John Delicath, the director of the Media Matters Action Network, quoted an article of mine from last month, titled “The Price is Right, Energy Edition”:

“[T]he press has accepted the basic threat of [global] warming and is now prepared to address the cost and feasibility of various solutions,” writes Curtis Brainard in a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Apparently, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and various anchors on Fox News missed that memo; either that, or they actually believe the fact that it snowed in Las Vegas during December or that there was snow and ice on the ground in Washington, D.C., in January contradict the fact that the Earth’s climate is getting warmer. If so, they don’t know the difference between weather and climate…

I was writing about a PBS Nova documentary about California’s “Big Energy Gamble,” and the paragraph, for context, read: “Nova spends relatively little time discussing the impacts of global warming, which are presented only as contextual background. Though there remain many points of climate science that the media can and should explore, this seems a positive development because it implies that the press has accepted the basic threat of warming and is now prepared to address the cost and feasibility of various solutions.”

I don’t have any hard numbers to back it up, but I feel reasonably comfortable saying that the majority of American journalists covering climate change, energy, and environment understand that human industry is primarily responsible for global warming. Delicath (whose group describes itself as “dedicated to analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media”) makes an extremely important point, however, and I should have qualified the sentence in my column. There is a small minority of pundits—most of whom are talking heads and columnists, rather than hard news reporters—still trying to deny the well-established basics of climate science. The terrible irony is, that minority might reach more eyes and ears than all of the serious beat reporters combined. America loves its Fox News.

Attempts to argue that global warming doesn’t exist, or that humans aren’t driving it, are not the sole province of Fox News, of course. Delicath points to several culprits: Wolf Blitzer and Chris Matthews (not to mention countless news network anchors) have perpetuated confusion about the difference between weather and climate by questioning global warming as soon as the snow starts falling. These are misleading, but usually offhand remarks. Lou Dobbs has recently done far worse, however, consistently mistaking weather for climate and quoting unqualified sources over a series of at least three reports that he actually had the temerity to call hard news.

It’s the same the same thing in print—every few months, some columnists decide to jump into the climate conversation, peddling some recycled argument for why global warming is bunk. Take the almost unbelievable divide between The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and its news staff. Or take The Washington Post Charles Krauthammer and George Will, who continue to contradict the news and editorial departments’ otherwise solid understanding of climate science.

Will dug up some old bones on Sunday, in a column titled “Dark Green Doomsayers.” In it, he rightly criticized Energy Secretary Steven Chu for telling the Los Angeles Times that if 90 percent of the snowpack were to melt, a worst case development, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California … I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.” That is certainly an overstatement. California’s $30 billion agriculture industry is incredibly vulnerable to increased drought and decreased water supply, and severe, nearly complete melting of the Sierra snowpack is a real possibility. But even in that extreme case, there doesn’t seem to be any scientific basis for Chu’s prediction of complete agricultural and urban collapse.

Unfortunately, after making the point about Chu’s forecast, Will doesn’t meaningfully discuss the more likely impacts of global warming on California agriculture. Instead, he uses Chu as a means to dredge up the old argument that, because a few scientists and journalists predicted global cooling, we should not trust anything that they say now. The logic is utter rubbish, and what makes Will’s feeble attack all the more pathetic is that he has used it before, and was soundly rebutted then by NASA scientists.

There are three main points to be made: scientists’ understanding of climate science was admittedly lacking at the time; though the world indeed cooled off from 1940 to 1970, there was no scientific consensus (pdf) about future temperature trends (such as exists today); and, finally, the observed cooling, now attributed to aerosols that have since declined in use, actually jibes with climate models. Will’s column quotes a number of media publications and scientific journals in an attempt to seem thorough, but, in the latter case especially, he misleads readers with cherry-picked sentences taken out of context.

Should that be so surprising, though? The truth is that guys like Will, Krauthammer, and Dobbs (not to mention Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck) don’t even cover global warming all that much. The far larger volume of quality climate-news reporting, which reflects an accurate understanding of the basic science, should far and away drown out the claptrap spewed by misinformed talking heads and columnists. But it doesn’t, and polls continue to show the majority of the pubic still does not understand the fundamental scientific evidence for global warming.

TPM’s Zachary Roth (a former CJR contributor) attempted to contact Will by phone and e-mail to ask him about the distortions in his column, but Will never responded. At a certain point, as Grist’s David Roberts noted on Sunday, it seems “futile” to keep refuting the same arguments. So what do we do? For starters, it would be nice to see opinion pages be more discerning about what they publish (and that goes for environmentalist screeds as well as those from deniers). But we might also consider the possibility that journalists are doing a fairly good job covering this story. As American University professor Matthew Nisbet suggested in a recent article for the Skeptical Inquirer:

The continued perceptual gridlock on climate change has little to do with science literacy, a lack of respect for science, poor reporting on the part of journalists, or a decline in the science beat at major news organizations such as CNN. Indeed, it is time to stop blaming the public, journalists, and media conglomerates. The communication burden instead rests with political leaders, scientists, advocates, and policy experts.

I still believe that journalists must continue to shoulder some of that burden, however, and one cannot ignore the undue influence of the “mainstream” media’s few remaining global-warming deniers.

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