The Questionable Coverage of Global Warming
Why are the media so cool to such a hot story?
By the end of 1997, the trend was clear. It was the planet’s 19th consecutive year of above-normal temperatures and the hottest year on record. Disappearing glaciers, melting sea ice and a sea-level rise of 15 centimetres over the past century indicated that global warming was more than a theory. Environmentalists cited the summertime Red River flood in Manitoba as additional, and frightening, evidence of the warming trend’s dangerous potential.
But late in November that year, a few weeks before nations, including Canada, gathered in Kyoto, Japan, to sign a document committing them to the goal of decreasing greenhouse-gas emissions, The Globe and Mail published an article suggesting global warming was an environmental myth. Under the heading “Science Fiction,” an article entitled “The Day the Earth Warmed Up” appeared on the front page of the Focus and Books section. Written by Guy Crittenden, then editor-in-chief of two Canadian waste-disposal magazines, the article questioned scientists’ evidence and urged readers to shun a Kyoto treaty. “Climate change is hotly debated among scientists, and the list of skeptics is growing,” Crittenden wrote. “A prudent strategy for Canada would be to monitor the situation, but any decision to limit greenhouse-gas emissions would be premature and should be shelved.”
With the energy and transportation industries fuelling public relations campaigns advertising that the Kyoto agreement was economic suicide, and industry-backed skeptics finding ample media space to question global warming’s veracity, the “hotly debated” angle was a dangerous exaggeration. By 1997, most climate scientists believed global warming was happening and that human activity contributed. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations organization comprising 2,500 leading climate scientists, made it official. “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate,” read the panel’s summary. Five years later, records show that the average temperature for the 1990s was seven-tenths of a degree warmer than the average over the past 119 years. It was nothing less, scientists say, than the millennium’s hottest decade. Experts think this warming will increase the incidence of forest fires and droughts, threaten whole ecosystems and strain water supplies. The IPCC will outline such fears in its 2001 report, according to the British magazine New Scientist, and will unequivocally state that humans are causing ominous climate change.
So when Alfred Burdett, publisher of natural SCIENCE, an Internet science magazine based in British Columbia, read Crittenden’s polemic in the Globe, he was concerned enough to send a copy to Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research. Trenberth wrote a rebuttal within 24 hours, and sent it to the newspaper. The Globe immediately turned it down for publication.
When Burdett phoned to ask why, the answer bothered him. “The response was to the effect that global warming was an issue that raised a lot of emotion,” he says. “And they saw no value in pursuing the debate.” But Burdett doesn’t think that was the real reason. “The Globe had recently run at least one full-page ad for the Coal Alliance in which the word ‘Kyoto’ was equated with the word ‘sepuchi,’ which was the wrong spelling but is Japanese for ritual suicide,” he says. “They had also published articles arguing that a three- or four-degree-Celsius rise in temperature would be good for Canada.”
Burdett has allies in criticizing the media’s coverage of global warming – environmentalists, scientists and even some journalists themselves. The main problem is that journalists misinterpret scientists’ findings and make global warming seem uncertain. Media organizations focus on the economic implications of fighting climate change and fail to convey the dangers of inaction. So it’s no surprise that while Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol and committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions six percent below 1990 levels by 2012, the federal government is moving slower than birds on an oil-soaked beach to ratify the treaty or take major steps to meet the target. Meanwhile, our greenhouse-gas emissions have increased so much we must reduce them 25 to 30 percent just to meet the Kyoto target – and our self-proclaimed national newspaper doesn’t think the issue’s worth debating.
Few media outlets have done much about global warming since the Kyoto conference. “Right now, the story’s hibernating,” says Toronto Star environment reporter Brian McAndrew. Sipping coffee in a downtown Toronto cafe after a Greenpeace press conference on the government’s climate change policy, he slides a salt shaker to the table’s edge to demonstrate why. “People don’t really get worried about something unless it’s at the edge of the table and ready to fall off.”
Reporters like McAndrew know that, while we’ve reached the edge, most people avoid looking down. “If you get 2,500 scientists to agree with as strong a statement as the IPCC’s, it’s pretty strong stuff,” says Lelani Arris, the former editor of Global Environmental Change Report, a 10-year-old newsletter now published in New York. “I think the problem is that the public is in denial,” she says. “That’s where the disinformation comes in, because nobody wants to admit it’s happening.”
While it’s true that many people are apathetic or wilfully ignorant and governments are slow to apply remedies – which environmentalists say are achievable – are the media at fault? In part, yes. One problem may be the fundamental difference in the way scientists and journalists approach information. Jim Lebans, a producer with CBC Radio One’s national science show Quirks and Quarks, says the problem is that journalists learn to state things with certainty, and scientists simply won’t do that. “Scientists’ statements are always qualified,” he says. “They’re not even sure if their arms are attached. They may be there when they look, but what about when they look away?” Mainstream journalists mistakenly attribute this kind of inherent scientific hedging as uncertainty about global warming’s existence. Rather than reporting the scientific consensus, conveying the science’s complexity or exploring potential solutions, the media focus on achieving absolute certainty of global warming’s existence, which scientists – ever conservative -won’t provide.
Lydia Dotto, a science journalist for 30 years and the author of Storm Warning: Gambling with the Climate of Our Planet, partially blames business-oriented media for this approach. “The media have been overfocused on this issue of proof, and this was the skeptics’ agenda,” she says. “As long as we’re focused on proof, nobody will take advantage of the opportunities.”
To skeptical news editors, this approach seems justified. Scientists have long known that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide insulate the earth, and have long suspected that increased concentrations, largely due to burning fossil fuels and coal for energy, would cause global warming. But the effects are long-term, the evidence is incremental, and the explanation isn’t a simple cause-and-effect scenario. In contrast, an issue like acid rain was an obvious problem, says McAndrew, because people saw effects in lakes and rivers and could implicate a few polluting industry culprits. With climate change, it’s different.
Last October, for example, Quirks and Quarks did a story in Newfoundland on the relationship between local climate change and the cod fishery’s collapse. The show interviewed fisheries scientists who learned that temperature change altered cod habitat and made the area more hospitable to other creatures. But when asked if such change reflected global warming, the scientists wouldn’t commit. “They said they only had data from the past 30 years and couldn’t be sure,” says Lebans.
It’s the same problem journalists have getting scientists to relate global warming to specific weather events. “If we had a warm period in the winter, or a long period of rain in the summer, editors would always ask, ‘Can we blame this on global warming?'” says McAndrew. “But no one credible would say it was a cause.”
And yet, as early as 1994, says Wayne Grady, author of The Quiet Limit of the World: A Journey to the North Pole to Investigate Global Warming, scientists were sure of the problem. That year, Grady boarded an icebreaker and travelled with scientists to the Arctic to find evidence of climate change. “The scientists I was with were not uncertain,” he says. “We were seeing it: thinner ice, warmer water. Almost all ocean and climate scientists agreed. The caveats were coming from other disciplines, and the assumption was that the core of nay-saying scientists were those whose research was dependent on large grants from the fossil-fuel industry.”
On a clear, windy day in early October 1999, placard-bearing protesters hoping for some media attention stand outside a downtown Toronto hotel to greet oil-industry executives they’re calling “climate villains.” The executives are members of the Alliance for Responsible Environmental Alternatives, an energy-industry organization that favours voluntary rather than government regulations to fight global warming. They’ve come to hear a climate change speech by newly appointed federal Environment Minister David Anderson. It’s the story the Star’s McAndrew is covering when he offers his salt-shaker analogy.
Anderson talks tough about meeting Canada’s Kyoto commitments. He suggests voluntary solutions won’t work, and that the government is considering mandatory action, such as restrictions on high-polluting vehicles and taxes on carbon emissions. It’s obviously a proposal the energy-producing community dreads. “Mr. Anderson should be very careful about talking about green taxes or he’s going to wind up red-faced,” Stockwell Day, treasurer of oil-rich Alberta, told the Globe afterward. “You don’t have to destroy the environment. You don’t have to destroy people’s lifestyles, as he’s talking about, and you don’t have to destroy their futures by taking away their jobs.”
This is the embroiled economic side of the global-warming story. Some claim that meeting the Kyoto commitments will slow the growth of Canada’s gross domestic product, make the country less competitive and lower its standard of living. Canada is challenged as a large exporter of natural resources like oil – and can’t make major cutbacks in large-scale energy production, because it mostly uses cleaner technologies like hydro, rather than coal.
The flip side, environmentalists argue, is that Canada can become a leading developer and exporter of cleaner energy, like solar power, and could actually benefit economically. Either way, meeting the Kyoto commitment involves major changes for the energy industry. One study, commissioned by industry members, suggests that cutting emissions by 2010 could cost Canada’s economy up to $17 billion a year.
Of course, it’s a non-issue if global warming is more hype than heat. So the energy industry puts the science under the microscope, arguing that global warming is unproven or that it will be mostly positive; combined with the routine qualifications of the scientific method and industry-backed experts’ contradictory claims, it makes the science appear uncertain. And since the media cover the “debate,” they often give the agenda-driven energy industry more legitimacy than it merits.
In Western Canada, for example, the media dutifully convey the oil and gas producers’ fears of carbon taxes, and often portray such taxation as groundless. “A Canadian carbon tax or CO2 cap would simply impose needless costs, especially on the resource-producing West,” wrote reporter George Koch in British Columbia Report in 1997. “Delay is on the side of the doubters,” Koch then wrote in Alberta Report two years later, citing Richard Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent global-warming skeptic. Koch goes on to quote Alberta-based Talisman Energy Inc. president James Buckee: “The global-warming movement is trying to make the facts a dead issue, because their case collapses as soon as you illuminate the theory’s dodgy science.”
To myopic, profit-oriented executives leading many of the world’s resource exploiters, a position endorsed by 2,500 expert scientists and increasing anecdotal proof in the form of random weather catastrophes amounts to inconclusive evidence. To right-wing media in the resource-rich West, where oil nourishes the economy like an inky intravenous drip and any federal intervention is viewed with suspicion, global warming is a facade for reviving the National Energy Policy. So, for reporters, there are lots of dissenting opinion and many sympathetic editors to expose them.
Terence Corcoran, editor of the Financial Post section of the National Post, for example, thinks that because implementing solutions to global warming involves such major changes, journalists are right to question the science. “The media are too willing to accept the conclusion that global warming is a problem and what kind of action should be taken,” he says. “These are major, mega-interventions. That in itself justifies a more critical look at the science.” Corcoran admits that journalists – himself included – have problems with science stories. But he thinks that with global warming, most coverage is too uncritical. “There’s no conclusive proof we’re heading for a disaster.”
It’s the same argument industry-funded public relations firms promote, one that business-oriented journalists don’t seem to question as much as the science they often know little about. Before Kyoto, industry-funded PR firms belittled global-warming science while publicizing the potential economic dangers of a Kyoto treaty, write Bob Burton and Sheldon Rampton in PR Watch, a publication of the Center for Media & Democracy based in Madison, Wisconsin. Trade organizations created the Global Climate Information Project and advertised that Kyoto would result in gasoline taxes and higher-priced goods. The Coalition for Vehicle Choice, composed mainly of car manufacturers, began an advertising campaign that claimed the agreement would damage the economy. To influence media coverage, the National Center for Public Policy Research, an industry-supported U.S. think-tank, provided an Earth Summit Fact Sheet and offered friendly “assistance to journalists seeking interviews with leading scientists, economists and public policy experts on global warming.”
In fact, as early as 1991, says Ross Gelbspan, a retired journalist and the author of The Heat is On: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth’s Threatened Climate, the energy industry used the media as its mouthpiece for conveying uncertainty. That year, a group of utility and coal companies created the now-disbanded Information Council on the Environment and consulted a PR firm, which recommended that it “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.” Its goal was to get coverage for skeptical scientists, and such coverage was effective, as Gelbspan first learned in 1995, after co-writing an article with an IPCC physician on how global warming would affect the spread of disease. When their article appeared in The Washington Post, readers contacted Gelbspan to say it was unfounded. They referred him to the skeptics, and after reading their books, Gelbspan also believed there was controversy. But when he spoke with more scientists, he learned that the skeptics distort data and misrepresent findings to reach their conclusions.
The problem, again, says Gelbspan, is that mainstream scientists won’t make hard statements to journalists, which allows vocal skeptics a disproportionately loud voice in the media. “On the record, the scientists I spoke with used conservative scientific language and qualifications. Off the record they said, ‘This is scary as shit.'” Skeptics, on the other hand, make statements with certainty that people interpret as more accurate, even though they’re usually not subject to peer review, a standard of academic credibility. “To the public and to the mainstream journalists, the skeptics sound more authoritative because they speak in absolutes,” says Gelbspan.
A good example of skeptic showcasing occurred last summer on the op-ed pages of the Post. In an August opinion piece, S. Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, a frequently quoted skeptic who is head of an industry-funded environmental research council, stated that global warming would be largely positive. “Agriculture and forests would particularly benefit because of the fertilizing effect of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide,” he wrote. “GDP would increase substantially in a warmer world, as would personal income and standards of living.” Unlike the Globe with Kevin Trenberth, the Post at least published a rebuttal, by Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria professor and a lead author of IPCC reports. “I counter that scientists lack the ability to predict definitively how global warming will affect regional climates and extreme weather events, or what major climate surprises might be in store,” he wrote, and chastised the Post for giving the impression of uncertainty. “Scientists are debating climate change in peer-reviewed, international journals. Yet this debate is not about if human-caused climate change is happening – but rather how quickly, to what magnitude, with what regional implications and with what threats to humanity.”
While occupied with scientific distortions and the economic-disaster scenario, journalists have ignored potential solutions to the global warming threat. In a storage room at Greenpeace’s Toronto headquarters, climate and energy campaigner Tooker Gomberg folds his hands behind his head and leans back in his chair while discussing this media tendency. Boxes of printed material, old placards and a solar panel are scattered around him. He looks up and points to the lights. “You could retrofit old lights to be two-thirds more efficient,” he says. “That’s a better return than you’d get with Canada Savings Bonds.”
Gomberg says the media have been silent on such solutions. Last year, for example, Greenpeace hired New York-based accounting and consulting firm KPMG to determine what’s needed to make solar electricity competitive with conventional sources. KPMG found that it would take just one large-scale solar factory, at a cost of US $660 million – half a percent of what the world’s oil corporations spent on exploration and production from new reserves in 1998. “It was an absolutely earth-shattering report in my view,” says Gomberg. “We spent a fair bit of time trying to get media attention.” Few news organizations responded. “The media just shrugged,” he says. “What do you have to do, go out and smash someone over the head with a solar panel?”
Journalists covering global warming agree that the media have covered solutions poorly. Martin Mittelstaedt, who has covered environmental issues for the Globe since a few months after the Kyoto conference, thinks journalists have failed to report on energy efficiency and alternative energy developments. These changes have diminished the relationship between fossil-fuel use and GDP growth since the 1970s energy crisis. “Journalists should point out that our economy is less energy-intensive,” he says. “We can make gains with fuel consumption being stable.” For future global-warming-related stories, Mittelstaedt plans to look at such efficiency breakthroughs. “There are more grounds for optimism than pessimism,” he says.
Science writer Lydia Dotto agrees that journalists should report more about alternative energy developments. She cites coverage of the fuel cell, a cleaner power source that British Columbia-based Ballard Power is a leader in developing. “It starts getting people thinking about these things, so they can make informed choices,” she says. “What you see a lot is that if there’s a carbon tax, there will be an economic slow-down.” But Dotto says complexities generally aren’t covered, like the fact we can bring down other taxes like the GST to compensate for carbon taxes.
Now is arguably a good time to focus on these developments rather than on the negative economic implications of fighting climate change. Polls show there’s a resurgence of interest in environmental issues, since the economy is booming and people are concerned with their quality of life – and that of their children. “There is more pressure to perform on the environment than there is to perform on the national debt,” Liberal pollster Michael Marzolini told the Star last October. Mittelstaedt notices the increased interest too, in the some 100 ideas for environment-related stories people send him each week.
Media coverage may finally be improving. On January 5, 2000, in an editorial titled “Thoughtful Strategies for a Warmer World,” the Globe at last accepted the overwhelming scientific consensus. “Global warming is a reality,” the editorial stated. But while this is a significant step in the right direction, it’s far from the required coverage. The piece promoted business as usual, claiming that reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions would barely affect the pace or extremity of climate change. It argued that Canada should instead invest in adaptation and protection, and exploit warming to increase our GDP, rather than shut or upgrade industries, which could slow economic growth and hinder our ability to adapt. “If the world is going to be plunged, Kyoto or no Kyoto, into a battle with unprecedented flooding and massive upheavals in the climate, should our priority not be to prepare robustly for that threat?” it asked rhetorically.
If the answer is yes, people should still have accurate information for making that decision. But it’s not even the right question. What we ought to ask is this: Could we live with the world we’d have created, and could we live with ourselves for putting economic growth ahead of health, the environment and sustainability? If not, we’ll look back and ask whether journalists adequately informed the public of the problem, the required solutions and the implications of inaction. Based on much of their reporting – or lack of it – to date, the answer would have to be no.
by Simon Smith
Simon Smith was the Senior Editor and Online Editor for the Summer 2000 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.