Quashing Climate Dissent?

The media's role in covering the (wide) spectrum of skepticism about global warming

Last week, Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum criticized the July/August issue of Columbia Journalism Review for what he perceived as an ironic contradiction between our editorial and a feature about the future of climate-change coverage.

Rosenbaum praised the editorial, “Dissent Deficit,” in which we argued that the media, rather than engaging “speech that strays too far from the dangerously narrow borders of our public discourse,” have effectively ignored or marginalized dissent. Rosenbaum then accused us of betraying our own advice a few pages down the road in a long article by veteran science reporter Cristine Russell. According to his column:

[O]ur CJR author appears to believe that the green consensus, the anthropogenic theory of global warming, has some special need to be protected from doubters and dissenters, and that reporters who don’t do their job to insulate it are not being “helpful.” When faced with dissent from the sacrosanct green consensus, the author, as we’ll see, argues that the “helpful” reporter must always show the dissenters are wrong if they are to be given any attention at all.

That’s not what we were suggesting. In fact, the article doesn’t use the words ‘dissent,’ ‘protect,’ or ‘insulate’ at all. To be clear: Journalism should be founded on a sacrosanct respect for free speech, and it is unethical to dismiss dissenting information or opinion simply because it contradicts an existing idea or thesis. Rosenbaum’s insinuations about CJR’s position seem to result from his misunderstanding of what we mean by “helpful” reporting. Here’ s one of the passages in our article to which he refers:

The era of “equal time” for skeptics who argue that global warming is just a result of natural variation and not human intervention seems to be largely over—except on talk radio, cable, and local television. Last year, a meteorologist at CBS’s Chicago station did a special report entitled “The Truth about Global Warming.” It featured local scientists discussing the hazards of global warming in one segment, well-known national skeptics in another, and ended with a cop-out: “What is the truth about global warming? … It depends on who you talk to.” Not helpful, and not good reporting.

Our problem is with so-called “he-said, she-said” reporting, in which a journalist presents one voice saying, “Humans are warming the globe,” next to another saying, “No, they aren’t,” without any additional context. That is not journalistic “balance.” Real balance values honesty and accuracy. And honestly, journalists have a responsibility to report that the vast majority of the scientific community supports the most fundamental conclusion of climate science — that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are the primary cause of global warming. This should be noted if the question at hand is as simple as that. Many well-trained scientists and science journalists agree that to do otherwise leads to “balance as bias.” There is nothing wrong with a reporter noting that are also many scientists who disagree with the majority, even on this fundamental point. It’s true. But the real question is, is it okay not to mention that minority?

Without having done an official count, it certainly seems that many reporters, at least at print/online publications if not in television, have grown more comfortable with omitting the mention of scientists who think humans are not responsible for global warming. One must realize, however, that climate-science stories have mostly moved beyond that basic question. Governments and industries around the world are operating under the assumption that, even allowing for uncertainty, we ought to at least take small steps to mitigate global warming by shifting to more energy-efficient lives and economies.

Thus, appropriately, many recent climate-related stories concern subjects like carbon capture and storage, battery technology, and cap-and-trade schemes. Where energy isn’t concerned, it’s the potential impacts of global warming that most people want to know about—what’s happening with hurricanes, ocean acidification, floods, droughts, health and species, polar ice and sea level rise? Where such questions are the focus of the new story, it’s absolutely reasonable for the reporter not to belabor the basic question about humans causing global warming.

None of this is to say that there is no room for skepticism about the soundness of various mitigation policies or technologies. Also, assuming greenhouse-gas emissions continue to climb as they have for the last hundred years, there is room for skepticism about how fast the world will warm, whether or not there will be cool periods in the process, and when, how, and where a given amount of warming will affect this planet. It’s a lot, right? Too much to address in every news article? Absolutely.

Another reason that Rosenbaum may have misunderstood the meaning of CJR’s article, is that he still writes about “climate science” as being monolithic rather than an incredibly multi-faceted subject (a double shame, because our piece was precisely about the issue’s polymorphic transformation). No one news item can settle “the debate” on climate change, as if such a singular thing even existed. Rosenbaum wants “equal time” for “different arguments” about climate change, but the amount of attention that should be given this or that argument really depends on the story’s subject matter.

For example: Reporters covering hurricanes’ relationship to warming should note that their intensities could either increase because of higher sea-surface temperatures or decrease because of greater tropospheric windshear. Another example: There is no doubt that the seas will rise and polar ice will melt if warming continues. Reporters must note, however, the disagreement about how quickly the world will warm and how sea-rise and ice-melt proceed, even given certain temperature patterns.

Rosenbaum, quoting the dean of Columbia’s Journalism School, which publishes CJR, advises journalists to “find the arguments.” He is quite right—they should. But his advice is dangerously incomplete. In a blog post that was also critical of the way Rosenbaum cited his work, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin added that science journals “find the agreements.” Put the two together and you have the bottom line. Climate journalists have to accurately describe the most significant scientific arguments and agreements involved in various aspects of global warming. But, again, it all comes down to what the article is about. Not every fact of climate science can or ought to be mentioned in every article. When judging the media’s (or a single outlet’s) treatment of dissent, critics must differentiate between individual stories and the entirety of its coverage.

That said, from time to time, publications have a responsibility to revisit the fundamental question of the anthropogenic basis for global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is ever more certain that humans are culpable, but there is enough dissenting science out there to warrant investigations of warming’s relationship to the sun, the Earth’s orbital patterns, and other alternative hypotheses. But until something changes, journalists must still note, in any such piece, that the majority of scientists dismiss these explanations in favor of human industry.

Journalism is not about quashing dissent, but nor is it about providing “equal time” to every Tom, Dick, and Contrary Theory simply because they exist. Journalistic “balance” is not physical balance, with two equal masses on each side of a fulcrum.

The problem is not that press quashes dissent (the public knows that there are skeptical climate scientists out there—roughly half, if not more, of the public is itself skeptical) or even that, as environmentalists argue, it gives dissent too much attention. The problem is that the press has done a poor job, over all, of delineating the various questions that pertain to climate science and of accurately characterizing the weight of the agreements and arguments that pertain to each.

Under the Dot Earth post about Rosenbaum, one of the regular commenters on Revkin’s blog asked why journalists have such a tough time explaining climate in a way the public “gets” and why CJR has often applauded the Times’ efforts nonetheless. He wants the press to go after ExxonMobil and other nefarious entities and expose how they have manufactured dissent about global warming—then, maybe, all will become clear. While it’s true that such artifice has been a serious problem (Revkin did most of the original digging into the White House’s role, one reason we have held him in esteem), there is plenty of legitimate scientific dissent that journalists must also contend with before the public will “get” climate.

A comprehensive picture depends upon answers to a lot of different questions. Journalists, contrary to the old maxim, must start focusing on the trees if people are to understand the forest.

N.B. There are two other accusations by Rosenbaum that I simply couldn’t let go of. First, he accuses CJR of “misunderstanding or misstating of the way science works,” because Russell’s feature reminds journalists that scientific consensus develops incrementally. To support his argument he reiterates Thomas Kuhn’s tired, old argument that science suddenly moves forward in great leaps when “paradigm shifts” overturn the prevailing conventional wisdom. Well, that can happen, but it’s rare. Technology may often improve dramatically overnight, but physical and life-sciences research is a miserably slow process. Second, Rosenbaum repeatedly accuses CJR of blindly defending “green” journalists and the new, “green religion” of environmentalism. He might note that the only time Russell used the word “green” outside of “greenhouse gas” in her piece was negatively, as in “greenwashing” and “green fatigue.” Go figure.

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