The Skeptics Ball

Heartland Institute conference tests news judgment

To cover, perhaps, but how? That has been at least one journalist’s dilemma this week while dealing with a recent, but diverse, mobilization of climate skeptics, some of whom have used a bout of cold weather to cast aspersions on global warming, and some of whom gathered in New York City to trumpet other research disproving or downplaying the phenomenon.

Conservative media voices, like the National Post in Canada and CNN’s Glenn Beck, were positively giddy about the Manhattan conference. On air last week, Beck kept saying that he would cover it like “like it was the second coming of Jesus himself.” The event was organized by The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank funded by conservative foundations and donors that opposes global-warming regulations such as a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Beck and the National Post were particularly curious about how their “liberal” colleagues would cover it, like the meeting was a big bear trap hidden in the bushes. Except that it wasn’t, and most of the press snuck up quietly behind them, as if whispering to one another, “Are they kidding?”

Only a few reporters wandered out of the brush to poke at the trap with a stick and test its strength. One was The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin, who arrived early, before the conference even began, and found other snares. On Sunday, he wrote a short article inside the paper headlined, “Skeptics on Human Climate Impact Seize on Cold Spell.” The report sought to explain recent, dubious attempts by “some scientists, opinion writers and political operatives” to use the cool weather as proof that global warming is a farce:

According to a host of climate experts, including some who question the extent and risks of global warming, it is mostly good old-fashioned weather…

Many scientists also say that the cool spell in no way undermines the enormous body of evidence pointing to a warming world with disrupted weather patterns…

As he now commonly does, Revkin posted a follow-up discussion of his print article on his blog, Dot Earth, in which he went into more depth about the buzz around the cold snap-the runaway skepticism was happening mostly in the blogosphere, but the popular Drudge Report picked it up, as did a number of more mainstream outlets in Canada and the U.K. It was a fair article, but despite the obvious intent to correct a large and potentially spreading misperception about climate science, Revkin drew fire from Joseph Romm, a MIT-trained physicist and popular blogger who runs the site In the comments section of Dot Earth and on Climate Progress, Romm accused Revkin of “enabling denier spin”:

I can’t understand why the media keep treating such disinformers as if they were a genuine part of the scientific process who deserve free publicity, rather than as dangerous serial misleaders who don’t believe in either science and real-world observations (but who repeatedly misuse one or the other to confuse to the general public).

Revkin defended himself in the comments section after Romm’s post, arguing that it is precisely because the public is so easily confused by weather and climate that he is obliged to at least attempt clarification. “Maybe it’s just the bane of climate reporters, and not energy-climate bloggers, to have heaps of people asking them all the time about such things whenever extreme weather events make the news,” he wrote. But with Dot Earth, Revkin has also opened himself up to new level of criticism. “That’s the interesting thing about blogging,” he told me later. “I don’t hide behind the gray wall of print anymore.”

And that pointed, bloggy tone was perhaps evident in Revkin’s Tuesday article in the Times about the Heartland Institute conference. In waggish opposition to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which has set the standard for climate science), a group of twenty-four attendees called themselves the “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change,” but according to Revkin’s article:

One challenge they faced was that even within their own ranks, the group - among them government and university scientists, antiregulatory campaigners and Congressional staff members - displayed a dizzying range of ideas on what was, or was not, influencing climate…

The meeting was largely framed around science, but after the luncheon, when an organizer made an announcement asking all of the scientists in the large hall to move to the front for a group picture, 19 men did so.

Again, Revkin followed up with a post on Dot Earth, but unlike the confidence of his print article, the post exhibited a certain weariness with the thankless nature of journalism (and indeed, Revkin said later, he received many vitriolic reactions to his article):

The article probably won’t make anyone immersed in this tussle happy. It describes the meeting for what it is: a gathering of scientists, economists and individuals, some with industry ties but many driven mainly by libertarian passions or a nonconformist streak, who have hugely varied views on what’s up with climate …

But I’ll surely also get angry e-mail from some of the hundreds of scientists who’ve devoted careers to identifying links between greenhouse gases and warming. Many top scientists in this arena feel none of the skeptics (or merchants of doubt, depending on whom you talk to) deserves an inch of newsprint …

I’m trying to do several things in my articles, where space allows: convey what’s confidently understood about the human influence on the climate and then honestly describe the range of responses (from the individual to the intergovernmental) that might meaningfully limit related risks …

… The hurdles to effective journalism on issues like this are many (and pressures on the media are making things worse, not better).

In technical terms, Revkin’s dilemma is known as the Hostile Media Effect, according to an interesting post by communications expert Matthew Nisbet at his blog, Framing Science. And that effect is probably the reason that most of the press didn’t touch the Heartland Institute conference: many unsure reporters do, in fact, consider it a bear trap. The few other seasoned journalists who took a shot at explaining the event, like The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, who called the conference a “global warming doppelganger” of the IPCC process, found just as much controversy as Revkin. Even CNN’s Miles O’Brien is taking heat from Newsbusters’ Noel Sheppard for likening conference-goers to “flat earthers.” Only Reuters deserves a kick in the pants for its ridiculous cop-out and utterly pointless report about the ad hominem “roasting” of Al Gore.

Journalists should not shy away from reporting and analyzing events like a group of skeptics’ opportunistic use of a cold spell, no matter whom they rankle. If such things are as riddled with pseudo science and misdirection as environmentalists claim, then explaining that will surely do no harm. The public remains easily confused by climate and weather, and skeptical arguments resonate. As the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported Monday, a local judge attended the Heartland Institute conference in order to learn something that he might use to argue against a proposed moratorium on coal-fired power plants. So a head-in-the-sand approach is simply not an option.

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