the observatory

Public Opinion and Climate: Part I

Have the media failed to help people “get” it?
August 26, 2008

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.

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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.

Nonetheless, in early March, Huggins asked, “Where can I go, today, within the NY Times’s online materials or in the printed paper, to find a cohesive, easy-to-understand, visual communication of the essential dynamics of global warming? It might exist, but I haven’t seen it, and I read the paper and post online nearly every day.”

He’s right, sort of. The Times’s topic page for global warming does not have a simple, text-based or graphical explanation of the carbon cycle or the greenhouse effect. Indeed, despite the fact that numerous newspapers and some broadcasters have created similar pages dedicated to climate, very few give any space to the basics in the way that BBC does, for example. On the other hand, most of them provide myriad links to other resources where all that and much, much more is available.

It might seem like a good idea for big papers to produce their own copies of such material, but let’s not forget, there is still the news to worry about, and the original material that the Times does have—including excellent graphics and slideshows—has mostly moved on to documenting the impacts of global warming, as well as human attempts to mitigate and adapt to it. That editorial direction reflects the scientific, not to mention political- and business-world, consensus that there is enough evidence of man-made warming to warrant some kind of effort to cut greenhouse emissions.

None of this is to say that journalists shouldn’t try to recap, in individual stories or in special online packages, some of the basics whenever there is time and space. Ultimately, though, news outlets will never be as good at basic education as textbooks, encyclopedias, or explanatory Web sites such those produced by NASA or the EPA.

Perhaps that is an indication that they should focus on improving the second major problem in climate coverage: accurately describing the points upon which scientists agree and disagree. Think of smoking. Most people wouldn’t be able to describe, even basically, the chemical and physical processes by which it creates tumors. Nevertheless, despite a disinformation campaign that has parallels in the saga of climate science, prolonged attention has convinced the public that there is universal agreement that cigarettes are dangerous. Whether or not the same can be done for global warming will discussed tomorrow in Part II.

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