Along those lines, the recent installment on rising sea levels posing a threat to the coastal US caused a bit of consternation. One of the paragraphs begins by mentioning that “The handful of climate researchers who question the scientific consensus about global warming do not deny that the ocean is rising.” The next paragraph introduces Myron Ebell, “a climate change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute,” saying the country “could waste a fair amount of money on preparing for sea level rise if we put our faith in models that have no forecasting ability.” It made Ebell seem like a scientific expert, rather than a policy expert, creating the type of confusion that bedevils public debate about this issue. What’s your response, and how important do you think it is for reporters to distinguish between science and policy experts when covering climate?
I suppose that in retrospect, given how much complaint there was, I wish I had made clear that Ebell is not a scientist, but an economist. I had quoted him many times before and know who he is, what he does, and what perspective he represents. So, to me, those were two stand-alone paragraphs containing different information. I didn’t describe Ebell as a scientist, and it’s a subtle point, but I suppose it would have been better to have a transition saying he’s an economist.
I do think this complaint is slightly disingenuous, though, and that it’s actually a proxy complaint for the larger claim that people make about false balance. We’re fairly often accused of employing it in our coverage of climate change. Even when, in the context of a 4,000-word story, I quote skeptics for three or four paragraphs and then drop them and move on, I can reliably count on some sort of attack from somebody saying I shouldn’t have done that. I think these people are just being a little—what’s the right word—ditzy.
If one is covering evolution these days, one can afford to ignore the anti-evolutionists most of the time because they are completely scientifically discredited and, more importantly, sort of spent as a social force. Unfortunately, we just are not at that point with climate science.
However discredited the scientific case questioning climate science may be, it is influencing half the Congress and a substantial fraction of the population. So this is almost like if you’d been in Tennessee in 1925 getting ready to cover the Scopes Monkey Trial. The anti-evolutionists were already scientifically discredited by then, but as a journalist, you could not have avoided quoting them in order to put the whole thing in its political context. I’m sad to say that in 2012, that’s still where we are with climate science.
There’s been a lot of debate about the extent to which media coverage does or does not influence public opinion about climate change and society’s willingness to address the problem. Do journalists matter in this regard?
Well, if I didn’t think it mattered, I wouldn’t be doing it, but how that social dialectic works over the long run, I don’t really know. I could point you to recent polls where it seems like, after bottoming out, the proportion of the public that understands that we have a problem is rising again. I have no idea whether that has anything to do with our coverage or anybody else’s, or if it’s a function of the recovering economy. I suspect the economy has a whole lot to do with how important people think this issue is at a given moment. Or does it have to do with all the crazy weather of recent years? Is it getting harder to look out the back door and deny that climate change is happening? That may be the case for some people at least.
All but one of the 12 stories on the Temperature Rising webpage made it onto A1. Is that a coincidence or do you conceive of these articles as front-page stories?