Last week, a reader, Jeff Huggins, asked me to address why the media have failed to explain climate change in a way the public “gets.” Getting it basically involves two things: an understanding of the basic scientific evidence that humans are causing global warming, which we’ll address in the first installment of this column, and an understanding of the various points upon which scientists agree and disagree, which we’ll delve into tomorrow in the second.
Indeed, polls support Huggins’s claim that most people don’t get it. The most recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of Americans believe the earth is warming (though that number has been dropping since July 2006). Roughly half of Americans (47 percent) think that warming is due to human activity, but almost as many (45 percent) say that the warming is due to natural environmental patterns (18 percent), that no solid evidence of warming exists (21 percent), or that they do not know the cause of warming (6 percent).
This, despite the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, our highest authority on such matters, believes that it is “very likely” (greater than 90 percent chance) that humans are, in fact, responsible for “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century.”
The problem is that most people don’t believe that such a consensus (to use an unnecessarily controversial term) actually exists. In April 2007, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 40 percent of Americans believe that “most” scientists agree that “global warming is happening.” On the other hand, 56 percent believe there is “a lot of disagreement.” Now read closely! Notice that the question isn’t even asking whether scientists agree or disagree about human activity’s role in climate change; the question simply asks whether or not they think warming is happening. According to the IPCC, the fact that the earth is warming is “unequivocal.” Yet people seem to think there is less agreement on that point among scientists than there is among the general public (remember, 71 percent think warming is happening regardless of cause) — a rather odd disjuncture.
So yes, it’s fair to say that at least half the country doesn’t “get” climate science. The tougher question is, how have the media caused or abetted that misunderstanding? As Huggins, who is a regular reader at New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog (a self-described “Dot Earthling”), has suggested over a series of comments there, climate reporting exhibits two overarching problems. First, the media have not communicated the basics of climate science well enough. Second, they have caused confusion about what scientists agree upon and what they don’t by relying on he-said/she-said reporting; when no context or weight is given to the relative merits of each argument, such reporting can create a false sense of balance in the minds of readers and viewers.
When it comes to the basic science, Huggins has noted that he’s “not talking about the detailed details. Not everyone needs to be a professional scientist, of course.” A grasp of the basic concepts and “being able to roughly ‘visualize’ the situation” will clear up many misconceptions about the climate change, he has argued, and he’s likely right. There are, perhaps, two fundamental processes that individuals need to grasp (and visualize) in order to understand global warming: the earth’s carbon cycle and the greenhouse effect.
The carbon cycle shows where human emissions fit within the massive and perennial exchanges of carbon that take places between the planet’s terrestrial, oceanic, and atmospheric reservoirs, and why they are throwing those natural balances out of whack. The greenhouse effect, on the other hand, describes how human emissions are affecting the heat balance of the planet. One might say that the media have done a better job explaining the latter than the former. According to LexisNexis search, the term “carbon cycle” has only come up in a total of eight stories spread across The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal over the last five years. But, as Huggins has pointed out, even New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who has written extensively about the environment, recently botched an explanation of the greenhouse effect on The Late Show with David Letterman.
The trouble is, the press doesn’t do a good job with basic, textbook-style education, whether it be the principles of climate change or any other subject, from economics to heart disease. Historically, there was little way around this. The news was the news and it was hard to find space and time for rehashing fundamentals. That has changed with the Internet, a boundless repository where news outlets can now store information and reference material in the same fashion as an encyclopedia.