the observatory

Public Opinion and Climate: Part II

Where’s the consensus, and where does it end?
August 27, 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.” Yesterday, I published the first installment of my response, discussing one of the two elements involved in “getting” it: the basics of climate science. Today, I address the second: an understanding of the various points upon which scientists agree and disagree.

Delineating and accurately describing the various points of science—from the relationship between anthropogenic greenhouse gases and warming to the various impacts of that warming—and explaining where “consensus” (a controversial term) lies and where it doesn’t is one of the most important and challenging tasks for climate reporters. Getting it wrong can create widespread confusion. Max Boykoff made this point in 2004 when he released a paper with his brother arguing that the inclusion of a skeptic’s perspective on the fundamental question of anthropogenic (human-made) warming leads to “balance as bias (pdf).”

Indeed, Stanford political scientist Jon Krosnick recently completed research, yet to be published, which found that including a skeptical perspective in a news story about anthropogenic warming reduced the proportion of people who said they perceived scientific consensus from 58 percent to 47 percent.

Krosnick’s team assigned 2,600 volunteers to watch one of two television news stories. Some viewers watched the complete version of the story, which included a skeptical perspective, and others watched a version in which the skeptic had been edited out. One of the stories concerned the fundamental question: Is the rate of warming increasing? The other concerned the question: Will the impacts of warming be catastrophic? There is strong consensus that the answer to the first question is yes, but much less accord about the latter. In both stories, however, the skeptic’s voice felled any notion of scientific consensus — an indication that journalists must be very careful to give context whenever they venture into such matters, and not just stick in an outlying voice out of some distorted sense of objectivity.

“One of the findings from our new work is that ‘getting it,’ so to speak, is strongly correlated with trust in the news media,” Krosnick said in an interview. “The more an American trusts the media to be accurate and unbiased, the more likely they are to endorse mainstream scientific views about climate change.”

And the media are, despite Huggins’s criticisms, slowly but surely eliminating false balance when addressing human activity’s role in global warming. According to Boykoff’s more recent work (pdf), “balanced” coverage of the anthropogenic contribution to climate change tapered off from 2003 to 2006 in the five largest American papers in favor of stories that depicted it as undeniably significant. Furthermore, stories that depict man’s contribution to warming as negligible have all but disappeared from news pages. Regional papers seem to be improving as well. According to Krosnick, though, misunderstanding persists due to the early problems.

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“Our research suggests that there’s actually kind of a carry-over, that people don’t forget that quickly,” he said. “It’s kind of like the dog that didn’t bark in Sherlock Holmes’s stories. Americans heard a lot skeptics in a lot of news stories for a lot years, and the impact of those skeptics doesn’t disappear simply because the skeptics aren’t being mentioned any more.”

All improvements aside, however, Huggins thinks there are still some serious problems with climate coverage; in one of his regular comments on Dot Earth, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin’s blog, Huggins wrote:

If the large majority of scientists are correct on global warming, and if the Times genuinely means what it says in its occasional editorials on the subject, then the coverage of the issue in the news pages is clearly way below the task, and way off-mark. By this, I mean things like placement, clarity, frequency, cohesiveness (bringing the whole matter together in an understandable “aha” way), and related matters.

Put another way, there is a major de-linkage between the Times’ news coverage of the issue (global warming, and ways to address it) and the nature and weight (not to mention urgency) of the issue itself.

On the matter of frequency, Huggins may have trouble making his case. Newspaper coverage of global warming has spiked over the last few years and the Times has probably covered it from a greater variety of angles than anyone else. It is one of the few outlets, for instance, that have realized that the climate story is essentially an energy story and it dedicated an excellent series, The Energy Challenge, to exploring that connection.

Huggins’s other arguments have more merit. Placement is major concern. In April, American University professor Matthew Nisbet analyzed research by the Pew Center, which found that only 2 percent of front-page stories in the Times and The Wall Street Journal have focused on either science or the environment.

“If our highest-quality news outlets are not drawing audience attention to important news about science or the environment,” Nisbet argued, “you can bet other news organizations aren’t either.”

To make matters worse, the global-warming stories that do make it onto the front page tend to concern the most contentious aspects of climate science. Revkin, who has published quite a bit of media criticism on his blog, has long complained that the editorial quest for “hot conclusions” and the “front-page thought” can lead to a glossing over of important context about scientific opinion. It can also lead to the promotion of stories where argument itself is the selling point. Stanford’s Krosnick said that in addition to effects on public opinion his latest research supports the idea that disagreement is more compelling than agreement.

“When we showed people the story with the skeptic, they rated the story as significantly more interesting than the people who saw the story without the skeptic,” he said. “So the idea that a ‘boxing match’ sells newspapers turns out to be true.”

The boxing-match analogy leads back to Huggins’s concerns about “clarity” and “cohesiveness.” The fact is, there are many points of climate science—the rate of warming and sea-level rise, the intensity of hurricanes, drought and flood patterns—on which there is still substantial disagreement among scientists. Given that most climate-science coverage these days is devoted to impacts and solutions, the single greatest impediment to public understanding may be that journalists have done a poor job of specifying what question (or questions) is being covered in any given article.

In a talk at the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference in 2006, Revkin urged listeners to think of each point of science as corresponding to its own bell-curve like graph representing the relevant state of consensus. For the questions of warming and humans’ contribution to that warming, the curves are high and narrow. For many others, however, the curves look less like bells than rolling sand dunes. Based on Revkin’s talk, Boykoff published two similar graphs in the journal Nature that illustrated that media has indeed reflected the mixed opinions about hurricane intensity and success of the Kyoto Protocol.

“One of the things I hope I’ve said consistently is that it’s not that balanced reporting needs to be shunned when addressing climate-change issues,” Boykoff said in an interview. “It just needs to be used much more carefully.”

Because journalists have not clearly explained that each question has its own curve, news consumers typically conflate them. In other words, when the public sees uncertainty about the various impacts of climate, they tend to extrapolate that to mean there is uncertainty about the link between human-caused greenhouse gases and warming. The predicament almost begs for a disclaimer at the top of every climate story: “Warning: this article reflects legitimate scientific uncertainty about impacts of global warming; that uncertainty, however, does not detract from the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the globe.” Journalists’ inability to communicate that more artfully probably does more than anything else to thwart the “a-ha” moment that Huggins is looking for.

There are limits to how much blame can be placed on the press, however, and contrary to Huggins assertions, one might make a strong argument that the Times has, in fact, covered climate in a way the public “gets,” or should “get.” It might even be possible to argue that the media, overall, has as well. In a blog post last December, Revkin asked, “Are words worthless in the climate fight?” After all, he noted, people have a tendency to be apathetic about long-term threats like climate change and even when the threat is apparent (as some impacts of warming already are) people tend “normalize” bad situations.

As Nisbet, the American University professor, has argued, one of the most effective journalistic strategies for breaking through such impasses is choosing the right frame for climate stories. These can include the “environmental stewardship” frame, the “public health” frame, or perhaps most importantly, the “solutions” frame. Climate alarmism can be just problematic as skepticism when it comes to the public “getting” it. Many journalists have recognized that; Nisbet has discussed how Time magazine, in particular, has shifted from a “be worried” to a “we can solve it” attitude.

Time, which recently published a “call to arms” for action on climate change, might be one of the publications that has elevated the level of urgency in its coverage to a point that critics like Huggins and others who think the public needs to be scared straight on climate, might deem acceptable. At the same time, however, those critics must realize that not all publications are comfortable in the role of cheerleader. They might also consider the argument that even if the public has not yet “gotten” climate issues, it is the process of “getting” them more and more. What would be useful, and has not occurred so far, is research that examines individuals’ opinions about global warming relevant to their specific news diets (i.e. whether they get their news from television newspapers, or blogs, and which ones).

Polls and surveys aside, however, it is hard to ignore the fact that broad swathes of global society – from politicians to captains of industry to homemakers – are now operating under the assumption that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is a good idea. People are coming to understand that global warming is inherently an energy challenge and that we are in need of an energy “revolution” comparable to some to of the greatest public mobilizations in history. The transformation in mindset over the last two years has been nothing short of extraordinary and the press, for all its shortcomings, is partly to thank for that. Huggins is right, we still need the media to strive to do better, but even if they do, “getting” it may be just a matter of time.

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