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November 13, 2006

Tom Yulsman: Beyond Balance?


Posted to Author: Yulsman, T. | Climate Change

[This entry is by Tom Yulsman, professor of journalism, University of Colorado. -Ed.]

Last Tuesday, the New York Times published a fascinating story by William Broad about paleoclimate reconstructions stretching back as far as half a billion years. (See: Broad stroy) The article noted that some evidence from the very deep past cast doubt on carbon dioxide’s role in global warming.

That day, one environmental reporter I know commented that the story could lead some readers to think that scientists were significantly split on the overall question of whether humans are causing global warming, and whether this should be of concern.

This gets at an issue that has been a topic of intense discussion among journalists as well as scientists — something that has come to be called "false balance." Research shows that at least until a year or so ago, journalists have been biased in their coverage of global warming by giving equal emphasis to scientists who believe humans are significantly altering the climate and those who do not. In their drive to be fair and balanced, journalists have actually misled the public into believing that opinion on this issue is evenly split, which of course it is not. (See article in PDF and this link)

But in the last year, this form of false balance seems to have faded. I don’t have data to back this up, so it is only an anecdotal observation Suffice it to say that I see far fewer articles on global warming that reflexively give equal footing to skeptics. To borrow from Roger’s terminology, journalism has moved on from simplistic "global warming: yes or no?" coverage. Most journalists now accept that on the very broad question of whether human beings are causing global warming, and whether we should be concerned about the future, the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that the answer is "yes." Every story on global warming does not now have to rehash the "yes or no?" debate with dueling scientists. And I think that’s a good thing.

But now coverage may be going too far in the other direction. In Time magazine last March, for example, Jeffrey Kluger (a very good friend, and a fabulous reporter, I might add) wrote this: "No one can say exactly what it looks like when a planet takes ill, but it probably looks a lot like Earth." Fair enough. But then he referred to Cyclone Larry (a Category 4 storm), and the "sodden wreckage of New Orleans." Natural disasters have long been with us, he acknowledged. "But when they hit this hard and come this fast — when the emergency becomes commonplace — something has gone grievously wrong. That something is global warming." (See: link)

The story is bolstered by good reporting of solid science. And I happen to believe that even if the story had included all the necessary caveats and uncertainties, the cover headline, "Global Warming: Be Worried. Be Very Worried," would have been justified. We should be worried. But unfortunately, the caveats and uncertainties were given short shrift. For example, the story notes research that finds a link between global warming and a rise in strong hurricanes and average hurricane intensity. But it does not explain that the scientific verdict is still very much out on this question, let alone quote an expert to that effect. The possible link is simply described as a fact.

Now Bill Broad’s N.Y. Times article on deep paleoclimate research has prompted some journalists to wonder whether we should go back to "global warming: yes or no?" coverage, giving more weight to skeptics than we have as of late. To the extent that the science makes us examine how we cover complex stories such as this, it’s probably a good thing. But the science presented in Bill Broad’s article should not prompt us to go back to "yes or no?" coverage.

The story describes research that is said to cast doubt on the link between carbon dioxide and global warming. In particularly, it describes research showing that when CO2 was very high in the deep past, ice ages still managed somehow to take hold.

So if there is doubt about the role of carbon dioxide in causing warming back then, shouldn’t journalists such as myself doubt its role right now, and therefore give global warming skeptics bigger play in our stories?

Of course not. First, this area of research is at the limit of scientists’ ability to discern meaningful information. The scientists employ climate proxy data stretching back half a billion years. If there's some uncertainty about paleoclimate information stretching back just 800,000 years, how much uncertainty is there in proxy data going back half a billion years? Can we really trust that data?

Another question journalists need to ask: What insights, if any, can we draw about our current climate from information about the climate system of hundreds of millions of years ago? Could the climate system then have operated in different ways than it does today? After all, in many ways it was a radically different world. There weren't even any land plants present half a billion years ago. The continents were in different positions. and the output of solar radiation may have been quite a bit different. The position of the planet relative to the Sun may have been different as well. So here’s my biggest question about this research: Is it fair to draw conclusions about current climate processes from those that may have operated then?

A posting on RealClimate (see: link) suggests we need to be very careful about drawing such conclusions:

Most importantly, one must recognize that while CO2. and other greenhouse gases are a major determinant of climate, they are far from the only determinant, and the farther back in time one goes, the more one must contend with confounding influences which muddy the picture of causality. For example, over time scales of hundreds of millions of years, continental drift radically affects climate by altering the amount of polar land on which ice sheets can form, and by altering the configuration of ocean basins and the corresponding ocean circulation patterns. This affects the deep-time climate and can obscure the CO2-climate connection (see Donnadieu, Pierrehumbert, Jacob and Fluteau, EPSL 2006), but continental drift plays no role whatsoever in determining climate changes over the next few centuries.

The RealClimate post also points out that there are huge uncertainties in estimates of carbon dioxide concentrations dating back hundreds of millions of years. Quite accurate CO2 concentrations going back almost a million years can be obtained from ice cores — the concentrations are determined from samples of the atmosphere trapped in bubbles in the ice. Beyond that, researchers must rely on far fainter, subtler and more uncertain evidence. A plot from the RealClimate post of atmospheric CO2 concentrations shows huge error bars from all but the most recent times. (See plot)

In his article, Broad mentions the uncertainties, quoting Michael Oppenheimer as saying that they "are too great to draw any conclusions right now." But earlier in the piece Broad said that "the experts who peer back millions of years . . . agree that the eon known as the Phanerozoic, a lengthy span from the present to 550 million years ago . . . typically bore concentrations of carbon dioxide that were up to 18 times the levels present in the short reign of Homo sapiens." Whenever I see "experts agree" in a story, a big, flapping red flag goes up in my mind’s eye. Which researchers? Did they all agree with that exact statement? How sure are they? Do they disagree on important details? And in this case, how can it possibly be that researchers in this field agree that CO2 was up to 18 times greater than it is today when the error bars for deep paleo CO2 concentrations are so very large? The story should have emphasized these and other uncertainties much more than it did.

When journalists cover science like this, we like to say that we are only going where the science leads us. I would imagine that this is what Bill Broad would say in defense of his fascinating piece. But with issues like climate change, the science inevitably leads to politics. When journalists stopped giving equal time to global warming skeptics — going where the science led them — the result was a political backlash, including Sen. James Inhofe’s speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate lambasting journalists for biased coverage. I can’t help but suspect that Bill Broad saw his story as a way to restore some lost balance and journalistic credibility, by simply following the science. Once again, fair enough. But for me, the story was an unsatisfying throwback to "global warming: yes or no?" Even more important, by failing to answer key questions and fully describe the caveats and uncertainties, the story lacked appropriate balance. At the same time, it strangely took us back to false balance on the bigger issue of global warming.

Posted on November 13, 2006 05:49 AM

Comments

Professor Yulsman

With respect to your statement that,

"Research shows that at least until a year or so ago, journalists have been biased in their coverage of global warming by giving equal emphasis to scientists who believe humans are significantly altering the climate and those who do not. In their drive to be fair and balanced, journalists have actually misled the public into believing that opinion on this issue is evenly split, which of course it is not"

is not a binary issue. There is a wide diversity of views on this subject which the media has mostly ignored. Below are just four examples that have been almost totally ignored by the media.

1. What fraction of the observed warming is due to the radiative effect of the human addition of carbon dioxide?

2. What is the cause of the recent significant ocean cooling which was not predicted by any of the multi-decadal climate models?

3. How important is the global average surface temperature trend as an assessment of the human and natural forcing of climate, as contrasted with regional signatures?

4. With respect to the global average surface temperature trend, are there unreported warm biases that inflate the observed (and reported) trends?

Each of these questions has peer-reviewed scientific support. Where is the media with respect to presenting these issues? Even a very relevant 2005 National Research Council Report was ignored by the media.

National Research Council, 2005: Radiative forcing of climate change: Expanding the concept and addressing uncertainties. Committee on Radiative Forcing Effects on Climate Change, Climate Research Committee, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Division on Earth and Life Studies, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 208 pp.

The issue, therefore, is not with respect to a "false balance" on the subject of global warming, but that the media has generally failed to accurately present the spectrum of scientific conclusions that have been published.

Posted by: Roger Pielke Sr. at November 13, 2006 06:46 AM


Pielke Sr. (aka Grandad)-

Thanks for commenting!

Your comments echo my critique of the "balance as bias" argument. The notions of "skeptics" and "alarmists" are political terms, created by mapping a distribution of scientific perspectives onto a black-and-white political debate.

When Sarewitz and I critiqued the "global warming: yes or no?" framing of the issue, we did so explicitly as a political frmaing made in the guise of science. The logic is to turn a political debate into one that is putatively about science, and then discredit your scientific opponents, and hence in the process implicitly disenfranchise their political views.

This strategy fails if the policy options being debated are a subset of those worth considering, or worse, contain no effective options.

A question for Tom Y.:

Should journalistic "balance" be judged at the level of the story? the individual paper over time, the media at large?

Thanks!

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 07:44 AM


Professor Yulsman,

I did not realize that it was a journalist's task to enforce orthodoxy by downplaying controversies. Sorry, no Pulitzer for you!

Moreover, regarding your statement:

"Whenever I see 'experts agree' in a story, a big, flapping red flag goes up in my mind’s eye. Which researchers? Did they all agree with that exact statement? How sure are they? Do they disagree on important details?"

which I think is dead on, it's a shame this admirably skeptical attitude does not extend to asking precisely these questions regarding the consensus on climate change. As Professor Pielke Sr notes, that notwithstanding the consensus, there are numerous details on which there is no consensus. And there are many more issues that are disputed than the short list put forth by him.

As a journalist you'd be doing everyone -- including yourself, a favor by investigating what precisely the so-called consensus about climate change is about. Is it restricted only to the fact that the globe has warmed in the past few decades, or does it also run to the causes, the attribution of responsibility among potential causes, rate of climatic change, the accuracy of temperature trends over the past few decades and centuries and millennia, estimates of impacts, the reliability and accuracy of models, and so forth.

As a journalist, when a scientist says he "believes" in global warming, which in my opinion is a shameful thing for a scientist to say because a true scientist should be skepticism personified, what exactly is (s)he signing on to?

In any case, science is not about -- nor should it be about -- consensus. That's what politics is about, at least in a diverse democracy. And journalism shouldn't be about biasing pieces so that they reflect and/or enforce current orthodoxies.

Perhaps journalism could use a change in climate.

Posted by: Indur Goklany at November 13, 2006 08:21 AM


Nice to see the RC article quoted. A shame that there was no space for the main point: "The worst fault of the article, though, is that it leaves the reader with the impression that there is something in the deep time Phanerozoic climate record that fundamentally challenges the physics linking planetary temperature to CO2. This is utterly false, and deeply misleading."

Posted by: William Connolley at November 13, 2006 09:44 AM


There is, of course, a corollary to uncritical and one-sided reporting on global warming: that new media outlets who provide an open forum for fair and well-informed debate will continue to grow in popularity while green and mainstream media outlets that restrict their coverage to the promotion of the dominant paradigm of the day will continue to lose readers, influence and money.

Posted by: Benny Peiser [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 09:45 AM


The media has done a great disserves to the world by characterizing the climate change debate as “global warming: yes or no”! This falsely divided the scientific community into two camps, and placed the both sides in camps that never really existed.

The public was given the impression that the so-called skeptics believed that humans have no impact on climate and that increasing CO2 would not cause any warming. Thus, when a re-analysis of the satellite and balloon data showed some recent warming after all, it was considered a slam dunk for the AGW crisis folks and a total refutation of the skeptics. Anyone not previously identified as a skeptic was considered to be in the climate change crisis camp!

Afterwards, the media declared that almost all scientists now agree that humans are impacting the climate and that CO2 is causing warming (true); and made this viewpoint equivalent to ‘we face an imminent global warming crisis due to increasing CO2’(false).

The consensus view on those first two points was never in question! Even the most vocal skeptics have always recognized that humans are impacting climate and that increasing CO2, all else being the same, will have a warming effect on global temperatures. Consensus on these two issues does not a crisis make! The debate has always been about the extent of the human impact; whether or not we are facing a global warming crisis due to human emissions of CO2 and whether it is possible to effectively mitigate damaging climate change by reducing CO2 emissions.

When politicians, advocates and journalists proclaim that the debate is over, they are referring to a debate that never really existed!

The real debate has been briefly outlined above by RP Sr. and Indur Goklany. If journalists would look critically at those issues, they would not find a consensus, but some extremely sound arguments that call into question the IPCC conclusions.

By simplifying and mischaracterizing the entire debate, journalists created many false impressions; the most important of which is that scientists generally agree that a climate change crisis is imminent because of human emissions of CO2!

If unchecked, this impression will lead to very bad policy decisions!

Posted by: Jim Clarke [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 11:03 AM


William,

I don't agree that the article "...leaves the reader with the impression that there is something in the deep time Phanerozoic climate record that fundamentally challenges the physics linking planetary temperature to CO2."

The article doesn't challenge that there is a link, just the notion that CO2 is the PRIMARY driver of global climate change. For more evidence of that, one need not concentrate on the Phanerozoic. The entire history of climate change right up to the present offers sufficient evidence to doubt the alleged influence of CO2 by the AGW crisis community!

Posted by: Jim Clarke [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 11:12 AM


Some quick reactions, and then maybe I'll come back later for more in depth reflection (after grading student papers!):

Regarding "Grandad's" and Junior's (sorry Roger!) comments: I agree! We journalists are guilty as charged. We tend to view the world in binary terms — "both sides of the story," as if there are always only two sides. In the case of climate change, there are multiple complex issues with multiple and ever-shifting perspectives, and it is our job as science and environmental reporters to try to convey that.

Regarding another comment about my alleged view that a journalist's job is to enforce "orthodoxy," I absolutely do not believe this. But it is our job to report the truth. So does anyone reading these posts seriously deny that there is a robust consensus among the vast majority of climate scientists that humans have caused a significant portion of the observed warming and that we should be concerned about the future?

If I did not report that, I would be derelict in my duty. But that's not to say that we should ignore scientific evidence to the contrary. Of course we shouldn't. If it is serious, peer-reviewed science, it is our responsibility to report it. We absolutely must go where the science leads. So if there is under-reported science, such as that presented in the 2005 NRC report, we need to get on it.

Lastly, concerning the comment that science "is not about consensus," are you seriously suggesting that there isn't a consensus among biologists that new species arise as a result of evolution? Or that nearly all cosmologists agree that a "big bang" occurred at the dawn of space and time, explaining myriad mysteries, such as why there is structure in the universe? Or that cosmologists also generally agree that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity explains gravity?

Just because a consensus exists on a broad subject of scientific inquiry doesn't mean that all questions have been answered, or that the consensus won't be toppled when enough anomalous evidence surfaces. Talk to any cosmologist and she will tell you that while general relativity handily explains gravity at the macro-scale, it breaks down at the quantum scale, and that we may therefore need a more all-encomapsing theory to resolve the conflict.

Substitute the word "paradigm" for "consensus," and you should know what I'm talking about. (If you don't, I suggest you read Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions."

As a journalist, it is my job to report whether a consensus, or paradigm, exists in a given field. It is also my job to keep my eyes open for significant, credible anomalous evidence and report that too. That's what William Broad did in his story, and he should be applauded for it. My only criticism of the story is that he did not adequately describe the caveats and uncertainties.

-- Tom

Posted by: Tom Yulsman at November 13, 2006 11:26 AM


Dr. Pielke Sr.,

Why would one expect "multi-decadal climate models" to predict a two-year trend, which is what the recent ovean heat content data represent?

I think that in general the other points you raise are simply too technical for regular journlism, and thus the relative paucity of the coverage you are wanting to see is not evidence of anything except the low intellectial standards pervasive in our mainstream media.

Posted by: coby [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 11:54 AM


Jim Clarke,

"The consensus view on those first two points was never in question! [globe warming, CO2 primary cause]"

This is patently false. Are we now to be subjected to a rewriting of history "it was never 'stay the course'"?

Look no farther than the article being discussed, it suggests that CO2 levels do not cause temperature changes, the clear implication that it is not doing so today. Bob Carter and Richard Lindzen are saying that warming stopped 8 years ago. Lindzen said the same thing (verbatim, ie cutnpaste in one recent article) in 1988. Singer says the warming is not CO2 driven, it is part of a 1500yr cycle. Some people say the sun has caused 20th century warming, some claim cosmic rays, some say the CO2 rise is an effect not a cause of temperature change this century.

"The consensus view on those first two points was never in question!"

Do even you believe you?

Posted by: coby [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 12:16 PM


Are we seeing a debate over "global warming: yes or no?" will break out here?

Look no further to see how this happens!

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 12:42 PM


"Are we seeing a debate over "global warming: yes or no?" will break out here?"

it's not "yes or no", the question should be "why"

Posted by: Vasco at November 13, 2006 01:16 PM


Professor Yulsman,

1. When you say:

“So does anyone reading these posts seriously deny that there is a robust consensus among the vast majority of climate scientists that humans have caused a significant portion of the observed warming and that we should be concerned about the future?”

you are then playing the kind of word games that people play – and have played -- to get to consensus on this -- as well as many other -- issues.

What do you mean by “robust” (in “robust consensus”), or “significant” (in “significant portion”)? In fact, what do you mean by “warming”? Do you mean “anthropogenic greenhouse gas induced warming”, or do you include in it warming cause by other anthropogenic factors, such as changes in land use and land cover, or do you mean both?

And then you load the question by tossing in at the very beginning the word “seriously” (as in “seriously deny”) as if to suggest that one who denies the premise stated in the sentence and that is replete with undefined and vague terms is not serious. I would suggest that any one who doesn’t pause and ask you to define your terms before answering this sentence is “not serious.”

To further compound matters, you throw in at the very end, the phrase “and that we should be concerned about the future” implying that if one were to say “no,” then one does not care about the future.

So if you don’t get too many denials, I would not conclude from that “that there is a robust consensus among the vast majority of climate scientists that humans have caused a significant portion of the observed warming and that we should be concerned about the future”.


2. Regarding: “[c]oncerning the comment that science 'is not about consensus,' are you seriously suggesting that there isn't a consensus among biologists that new species arise as a result of evolution? Or that nearly all cosmologists agree that a "big bang" occurred at the dawn of space and time, explaining myriad mysteries, such as why there is structure in the universe? Or that cosmologists also generally agree that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity explains gravity?”

Perhaps I should have said, “getting the science right is not about consensus” – rather than “science is not about consensus.” My apologies. I think of science as a process – a journey, if you will – whereas consensus is about checking what coordinates we might be at in any particular moment. [Note that I deliberately use “might be” rather than “are” because, as your own examples suggest, consensus can sometimes be in error.] In any case, I believe your examples confirm that consensus and science are separable. Before Einstein we had Newton, and there was indeed a consensus about Newton’s view of gravity was correct.

So, therefore, I would not dispute that there is a consensus on the matters you specify – evolution, big bang or GTR -- but what does that have to do with science, in general, or climate change, in particular?

Posted by: Indur Goklany at November 13, 2006 01:24 PM


Tom:
>So does anyone reading these posts seriously deny that there is a robust consensus among the vast majority of climate scientists that humans have caused a significant portion of the observed warming and that we should be concerned about the future?

I think there is reasonable agreement with that except exactly what 'be concerned about the future' means here.

Some would say it means we should carefully study the issues (both of climate and economic cost/benefit impact) and make long term plans for reduction of fossil fuel use, if necessary. Others would say we should immediately devote 1% or more of world production to ending fossil fuel use.

At least one of the RealClimate scientists says in a response to comment 15 of the thread we as discussing: 'A certain amount of hysteria is justified, indeed encouraged. --raypierre'

Posted by: Steve Reynolds at November 13, 2006 01:25 PM


Can't we at least have a consensus that there is no consensus on the existence of a consensus?

Posted by: coby [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 01:26 PM


Coby,

Seems you have consensus on "no consensus".

BTW, there's "consensus" and "con-science-us". Two different breeds altogether.

Posted by: Indur Goklany at November 13, 2006 01:35 PM


Vasco,

Why not?

Posted by: Indur Goklany at November 13, 2006 01:39 PM


Tom: Regarding your question,

"So does anyone reading these posts seriously deny that there is a robust consensus among the vast majority of climate scientists that humans have caused a significant portion of the observed warming and that we should be concerned about the future?",

please see my presentation

Pielke, R.A. Sr., 2006: Regional and Global Climate Forcings. Presented at the Conference on the Earth’s Radiative Energy Budget Related to SORCE, San Juan Islands, Washington, September 20-22, 2006. http://blue.atmos.colostate.edu/presentations/PPT-69.pdf

where I address the more complete version of the question that you ask above,

"What Fraction of Global Warming is Due to the Radiative Forcing of Increased Atmospheric Concentrations of CO2?"

Shouldn't readers be presented with the diversity of views on how much is due to CO2, since that is where much of the focus on control is being discussed?

Even a back of the envelope estimate shows that the IPCC has overstated its role (e.g. see slide 12 in my presentation).

Even Jim Hansen recognizes the need to investigate non-CO2 climate forcings as they affect global warming (he is planning a Workshop January 8-9 2007 titled "Non-CO2 and Arctic Climate Impacts-Examine what is understood about the role of non-CO2 pollutants in the Arctic". Its goal is to identify what additional research is needed to better describe and quantify impacts, and begin a dialogue with policy makers about strategies to abate the influence of non-CO2 pollutants.

As to whether we should be concerned, I reproduce below the conclusion on my weblog that

"Humans are significantly altering the global climate, but in a variety of diverse ways beyond the radiative effect of carbon dioxide. The IPCC assessments have been too conservative in recognizing the importance of these human climate forcings as they alter regional and global climate. These assessments have also not communicated the inability of the models to accurately forecast the spread of possibilities of future climate. The forecasts, therefore, do not provide any skill in quantifying the impact of different mitigation strategies on the actual climate response that would occur."

Shouldn't such conclusions, which are shared by many climate scientists, be presented in the media?

Posted by: Roger Pielke Sr. at November 13, 2006 02:23 PM


Coby - the question of a loss of about 20% of the heat gained since the mid-1950s in the oceans over just two years raises major questions with respect to the models. None of them have produced such a large deviation from their simulated more-or-less monotonic increase of heat in the ocean during any simulated two year time period of the 21st century. This observation should result in the raising of a red flag with respect to the robustness of the models as predictive tools, which, at the very least should be debated by the scientific community and the issue communicated by the media to the public. Why has this not occurred?

Posted by: Roger Pielke Sr. at November 13, 2006 02:30 PM


Tom Yulsman writes, "So does anyone reading these posts seriously deny that there is a robust consensus among the vast majority of climate scientists that humans have caused a significant portion of the observed warming..."

"...robust consensus...? Define "robust." More than 70 percent?

Further, why do you limit your category to "climate scientists"? What about solar physicists? Do you think there is a "robust consensus" among solar physicists that humans have caused a significant portion of the observed warming? If not, why exclude them (by focusing only on "climate scientists")?

"...a significant portion of observed warming?"

Define "signficant." More than 50 percent of the warming from 1880 to 2006? More than 70 percent of the warming?

If you got a group of people including 20 climate scientists, and 20 solar physicists, I don't think you'd get 70+ percent of them agreeing that 70+ percent of the warming from 1880 to 2006 was caused by "humans." And I doubt even more strongly that 70+ percent of them would say that 70+ percent of the warming was caused by greenhouse *gas* emissions.

"...and that we should be concerned about the future?"

I'm concerned about the future. I think it's highly probable that at least one major city in the world will be totally destroyed by a terrorist's nuclear bomb in this century. I think that AIDS deaths in sub-Saharan Africa will continue to decimate those societies for at least a few more decades. I think that particulate emissions from poorly controlled coal and wood/waste stoves in China, India, and Africa will kill over 5 million people in the next decade.

I think that bacteria and viruses in water will cause the deaths of more than 50 million people by the year 2020. (Note that Wikipedia does not even LIST bacteria and viruses in water as a "principal source" of water pollution!)

http://www.oasisfoundation.org/oasis/documents/water_related_deaths_report%202002.doc

I think that a hurricane hitting a U.S. city will probably cause more than $200 billion damage before 2030 (unless we do something significant about reducing damage from hurricanes...e.g. developing a storm surge protection system, or even a hurricane reduction system).

What amount of money worldwide is being spent on those problems, versus what is being spent on CO2 emissions? Don't you think that when you're asking climate scientists whether we should be "concerned" about CO2 emissions causing global warming, that you should also be asking other people about where priorities should lie about "concern" over CO2 emissions versus "concern" about other future problems?

Posted by: Mark Bahner [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 03:43 PM


Oops. I forgot to also include the Wikipedia link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_pollution

Question: Why do y'all suppose Wikipedia doesn't even mention bacteria and viruses as a "principal source" of water pollution?

And why do y'all suppose there is far more in Wikipedia on the "problem" of global warming than the problem of pathogens contaminating drinking water...even though the number of deaths caused by pathogens in drinking water absolutely dwarfs the deaths caused by global warming?

I think the answer is that Wikipedia is written by rich white people, and so expresses the "problems" of the world as seen by rich white people.

P.S. Here is the Wikipedia entry for "Indoor Air Pollution":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_pollution#Indoor_air_pollution

Nothing in there about unvented stoves or poorly vented coal or agricultural waste (e.g. dung-burning) stoves in developing countries. Again, the description of "indoor air pollution" "problem" is as viewed by rich white people.

Posted by: Mark Bahner [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 03:58 PM


"No one can say exactly what it looks like when a planet takes ill, but it probably looks a lot like Earth."

Interesting. Let's ask the Martians or the Venusians "what it looks like when a planet takes ill."

Oops...there aren't any Martians or Venusians to ask, are there?

It's curious that the author would chose the ONE planet in the entire universe that we know is teeming with life as an example of "what it looks like when a planet takes ill."

Posted by: Mark Bahner [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 04:02 PM


I think that the problem with science reporting is more general than global warming issue. I think it is a result of communications breakdown between the peer-reviewed papers and the science reporters. Specifically, I have a hunch that "overextrapolated" interpretations and conclusions that are removed from manustripts by peer review get recycled through press-releases, intervews, popular science books, and other paths with less quality control. The result is that what is reported is not the good science that has been published, but the associated rubbish that, being unfit for publication, was instead fed to the general public, who do not have the background necessary to see it for what it is.

For any scientists here, this hypothesis should be testable with Natire's new open review system. To test, one need only to compare the first draft, published darft, and press release for a selection of papers. Unfortunately, I work in a sub-field that rarely, if ever, has Nature publications. But any biologists or climate dudes are welcome to try this experiment.

Posted by: Lab Lemming at November 13, 2006 04:11 PM


Mark, if you get symptoms suggesting that you have cancer, will you see an oncologist? Of course he might have to consult with other specialists to diagnose your particular problem. But wouldn't you want an oncologist to make the main determination? And if, say, the consulting radiologist says, 'no, that big, bleeding, growing mass in your colon -- the thing that started as a polyp and now is the size of a softball -- is not cancer, so don't worry about it,' whose opinion are you going to give more weight to?

As for hurricanes and infectious disease causing all manner of destruction and human suffering, of course these are serious issues that probably demand more attention than they are getting. Are you saying that if we acknowledge the potential threat from climate change that we can't do anything about these issues? And are you saying that it's legitimate for some people to focus on, say, AIDS activism, but it's not legitimate for others to take a particularly keen interest in climate change and focus their activism on that issue?

Why does the issue of climate change in particular, and the fact that some people are more concerned about it than they are about other issues, bug you so very much?

-- Tom

Posted by: Tom Yulsman at November 13, 2006 05:57 PM


"Black vs. white" dichotomies are endemic in journalism. Conflict IS the story. So I don't find anything unusual about the previous practice of characterizing climate change as a yes/no debate. That's how reporters cover economic issues: "Does raising the minimum wage cause unemployment: yes ot no?" "Do budget deficits cause inflation: yes or no?" "Do tax cuts stimulate revenue: yes ot no?" The list goes on and on.

What's interesting is that environment reporting is different. For some reason, environment reporters seek consensus instead of conflict. It's almost as if they have an agenda.

The comparison with the minimum wage is instructive. Congress is about to debate (and probably will enact) a rise in the minimum wage to maybe $7.75 per hour. Advocates will say that it won't cause unemployment, but it's hard to find an impartial economist who will agree with that. The Law of Demand doesn't have exceptions -- that's why we call it a "law." Nevertheless, reporters will be sure to quote the 1 or 2 "minimum wage skeptics." If these reporters behaved like environment reporters, they'd say things like: "No one can say exactly what it looks like when the minimum wage causes unemployment, but it probably looks a lot like Jersey City."

Posted by: Richard Belzer [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 06:04 PM


In 1922, Walter Lippmann explained why the media presents issues as "yes or no" (Chapter 22 of Public Opinion, p. 147)

"The limit of direct action is for all practical purposes the power to say Yes or No on an issue presented to the mass."

The problem is not the "yes/no" framing -- this cannot be avoided. It is the question to which "yes/no" is being asked. If you ask the qrong question, then any answer is of little use.

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 10:10 PM


To RP,sr: I think it should be high-level bodies like the IPCC and the world's academies of sciences to be "blamed" if it were true that the media were not reporting on every paper to be published in a busy field such as climatology. You don't wish for the mainstream daily media to be reporting every single paper in medical research or string theory as though it were a necessary counterbalance to the consensus (where consensus exists) do you? That would drown out the "mainstream" character of the mainstream reportage.

On your bones of contention above:
"1. What fraction of the observed warming is due to the radiative effect of the human addition of carbon dioxide?" - I seem to see media mention of just this question very regularly, so our mileage differs.

"2. What is the cause of the recent significant ocean cooling which was not predicted by any of the multi-decadal climate models?" - if oceans are still cooling in three years time (not just remaining cooler than some trendline despite the suggestion of a return to a year on year warming trend again - ie half a decade of cooling trend by then) that one'll have become a most embarrassing question for a bunch of climatologists. Want to bet on the premise?

"3. How important is the global average surface temperature trend as an assessment of the human and natural forcing of climate, as contrasted with regional signatures?" - relatively much more important, in most discussions of "global climate change".

"4. With respect to the global average surface temperature trend, are there unreported warm biases that inflate the observed (and reported) trends?" - what do the world's Academies of Science et al say, do they think there's a significant unresolved issue that ought to be under discussion in the mainstream media? We wouldn't be at any risk of bumping up against science's unreasonable bias in favor of reality on this one would we? I thought the satellites were agreed by now the answer is "no", anyway.

My tuppence worth, cheers.

Posted by: winston at November 14, 2006 03:22 AM


Tom, I think you are absolutely right that the Broad article did a poor job of fully describing the caveats and uncertainties and lacked appropriate balance. The headline itself, "In Ancient Fossils, Seeds of a New Debate on Warming", overplays the relevance of unreliable about periods hundreds of millions of years ago. Interesting stuff, but Broad should have done a better job of putting it in context.

In general, my view is that the objective of science reporting should be to convey interesting and relevant information, placed in context with other science. A more difficult aspect of the science is to put it in the context of policy discussions, and on this, I suspect that the reporter will be damned no matter what he does.

Posted by: TokyoTom [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 14, 2006 03:42 AM


Benny, are you seriously trying to suggest that your own newsletter service is one of the "new media outlets who provide an open forum for fair and well-informed debate", as opposed to "uncritical and one-sided reporting on global warming"?

Posted by: TokyoTom [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 14, 2006 03:47 AM


Sure Indur, there's never been anything uttered in words that couldn't be defined and discussed into meaninglessness, but in the end you need to cook your dinner and eat it or you starve don't you? You walk when it says "Walk" and at least consider not walking when it doesn't, or you get run over by the bus advertising the "gotta have!" new SUV don't you? Reality intrudes sometimes, dang it.

Mark: congratulations you've channeled Bjorn Lomborg almost perfectly I'd say. Compared to breaking us out of our fossil fuel habit those problems you mention are comparatively easy to solve, so I agree there's a question as to why they're not right now being tackled to your satisfaction. Is there a conspiracy to avoid them do you think?

Roger it's one of my favorite adages that it's the question that tells you more and matters the most, not the answer du jour.

Posted by: winston at November 14, 2006 03:54 AM


Indur Goklany says that "science is not about -- nor should it be about -- consensus. That's what politics is about, at least in a diverse democracy. And journalism shouldn't be about biasing pieces so that they reflect and/or enforce current orthodoxies."

I agree with the first two statements, but do not think that the third is a corollary. Journalism is an attempt to explain science to non-scientists, and it unrealistic to expect that journalists will take on the impossible task of fully explaining the heterogeneity of science within each article. Journalists must inescapably place science reporting within a context of what they perceive to pervailing views, while paying attention to persuasive outlying views.

Note that Indur does this himself when referring to "current orthodoxies". If there are current orthodoxies, they can hardly be ignored.

Posted by: TokyoTom [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 14, 2006 03:58 AM


Richard, you ponder "What's interesting is that environment reporting is different. For some reason, environment reporters seek consensus instead of conflict. It's almost as if they have an agenda."

Has it occurred to you that environment reporting is different from reporting on other topics in that environmental problems are all disputes over uses of open-access resources where there are no clear or enforceable property rights and thus insufficient market mechanisms for allocating those resources? The result is that the policy debate is always the question of when does the level of impact of a particular problem become sufficiently serious to merit some type of collective response (whether or not by governments).

By virtue of making the decision to cover an environmental issue and then investing the time to understand an issue sufficiently to report on it, it is not surprising that environment reporters may then be perceived to manifest a bias for policy action (even as reporters may not be well positioned to suggest or evaluate policy approached).

Posted by: TokyoTom at November 14, 2006 04:31 AM


>Why does the issue of climate change in particular, and the fact that some people are more concerned about it than they are about other issues, bug you[Mark] so very much?

I'm not Mark, but my concern is the idea of forcing 1% of world production to be spent on reducing GHG emissions without seriously considering cost/benefit comparisons with other issues.

Posted by: Steve Gaalema at November 14, 2006 08:08 AM


I was actually thinking of popular science weblogs such Prometheus, Climate Audit, etc. But with more than 3,000 subscribers, I cannot complain about a lack of interest for CCNet either - although, admittedly, the newsletter is much more about science and climate-related news aggregation than intensive debate.

Posted by: Benny Peiser [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 14, 2006 08:09 AM


TokyoTom,

Re: "If there are current orthodoxies, they can hardly be ignored."

True, one probably shouldn't ignore current orthodoxies, but that's not the same as reflexively genuflecting to them.

Posted by: Indur Goklany at November 14, 2006 08:28 AM


Coby,

I was away for just 24 hours and now there are 25 posts between your question and my answer. This must be one very hot topic!

I originally claimed that framing the debate into a 'global warming: yes or no' context, put skeptics into a group that never existed. I stated that: "Even the most vocal skeptics have always recognized that humans are impacting climate and that increasing CO2, all else being the same, will have a warming effect on global temperatures."

You seem to think that I was rewriting history and asked if even I believed what I was writing. Well, of course I believe what I wrote, because it is so obviously true. The skeptics have made it abundantly clear that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that temperatures have warmed since the Little Ice Age. Here are just a few snippets:

On July 10th 1997, Richard Lindzen testified before the Senate. In his introduction he stated:

"Under the circumstances, it is surprising that there is any agreement among scientists, but, in fact, most scientists working on climate dynamics would agree that increasing levels of carbon dioxide should have some impact on climate. The real argument is over whether the impact will be significant."

Dr. Lindzen has calculated a warming impact for the doubling of CO2 of .62 degrees C.

In an interview with PBS copyrighted 2000, Dr. Fred Singer said:

"For example, as carbon dioxide increases, you would expect a warming. But at the same time that you get this warming or this slight warming, you get more evaporation from the ocean. That's inevitable. Everyone agrees with that."

He went on to talk about the uncertainty of the feedbacks, where a significant part of the debate has always been.

On Bob Carter's own website under 10 Myths Refuted he rights:

"Myth 6: Human addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is causing dangerous warming, and is generally harmful.

Facts 6: No human-caused warming can yet be detected that is distinct from natural system variation and noise. Any ADDITIONAL HUMAN-CAUSED WARMING (my emphasis) which occurs will probably amount to less than 1 deg. C. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is a beneficial fertilizer for plants, including cereal crops, and also aids efficient evapo-transpiration.

I believe that is all three of the skeptics you mentioned by name. All three have clearly stated that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that increasing CO2, all else being the same, would tend to warm temperatures. Likewise, none of them question that the world has warmed since the end of the Little Ice Age. I do not know any skeptics who have claimed that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas or that the Earth has not warmed since the 1800's! Some have argued (correctly) that global temperatures have cooled and/or remained unchanged for certain periods during the last 120 years, but that is not the same thing as denying a net global warming over the entire period.

The question is and always has been the magnitude of the CO2 forcing, the magnitude of natural climate variability, the validity of the positive feedbacks and the rationality behind carbon mitigation policies.

If we must frame the debate in a simple ‘yes or no’ question, then perhaps the first question to ask is: “Is increasing CO2 the main driver of global climate change?” Judging from all that I have read from the ‘skeptics’, they would unanimously say “No”. Judging from all the peer-reviewed scientific literature I have read, the real-world data seems to agree with the skeptics.

Of course, you may interpret the data differently; and that is where the debate truly lies, and why the refutation of the ‘Hockey Stick’ was such a big win for the skeptics.

Posted by: Jim Clarke [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 14, 2006 02:10 PM


Dr. Pielke Sr., Roger, Mark, Jim etc.:

Our environmental/developmental problems and their scientific and institutional aspects are indeed complex, and AGW is merely one thread composed of strands in addition to GHG emissions. All of these problems are bedevilled by the failed/open-access property rights and free-riding/coordination problems that the Stern Report identifies in the case of AGW.

We should of course be aware of the many facets in this big picture, but for purposes of action of policy, may it not be most efficiacious to focus first on addressing the aspects of these problems that are most prominent, greatest interest to the West and most tractable, and using that infrastructure to move to the more difficult problems?

GHG emissions are the biggest and most tractable aspect of AGW, and for that reason deserves greater journalistic coverage. On the international front, we are more likely to see cooperation to regulate GHGs if coupled with development mechanisms than we are to agree on other mitigation measures or on Western funding of adaptation in the developing world.

Posted by: TokyoTom at November 14, 2006 08:07 PM


I don't have time to address this in detail, but...

Tom Yulsman asks me, "Why does the issue of climate change in particular, and the fact that some people are more concerned about it than they are about other issues, bug you so very much?"

Steve Gaalema responds, "I'm not Mark, but my concern is the idea of forcing 1% of world production to be spent on reducing GHG emissions without seriously considering cost/benefit comparisons with other issues."

My concern is even more fundamental and strong than Steve's.

To start with, I'm an environmental engineer. Environmental analyses are what I do for a living. So when I see environmental analyses, I want them to be right. But even if they aren't right, I absolutely demand that they be *honest.*

The IPCC's analyses of climate change have been not merely incompetent (which would be bad enough); they've been fundamentally dishonest. No more blatant example of the IPCC's dishonesty can be found in their "projection" of warming of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius from 1990 to 2100.

To start with, they explicitly deny that their "projections" are "predictions or forecasts"...so their projections are absolutely not falsifiable. Falsifiability is absolutely necessary (but not sufficient) for something to be science.

Then, they added the most extreme scenarios (producing the highest temperature projections) AFTER peer review.

The net effect of their blatant dishonesty is that most people think the projected warming of "1.4 to 5.8 deg C" means that the warming will be somewhere towards the middle of that range (i.e. 3.6 deg C). The reality is that there is approximately a 50 percent chance that the warming from 1990 to 2100 will be BELOW the 1.4 deg C MINIMUM given by the IPCC. (How do I know that? Well, the short answer is because I've analyzed it myself, and that's what I do for a living. I know it because it's my business to know it.)

The Stern Review's blatant dishonesty is merely flies on the pile of...um, let's say garbage...already produced by the IPCC.

THAT'S what bugs me so very much. People (i.e., the general public, politicians, and even scientists who do don't know much about the subject) think global warming will be worse than it will be because the IPCC (and the "climate change community" in general) are lying.

Another thing that bugs me, Tom, is that journalists have by an large not even reported on this blatant fraud, that's right before their eyes.

What bugs me even more is that "scientific" journals like Nature and Science have ALSO not reported the fraud. That makes me sick (even literally). It is an absolute disgrace that the scientific community has failed to police its own.

I could go on (and on)...but that's all I have time for right now.

Mark

P.S. Tom, if you have any interest at all in reporting on the IPCC's fraud, I'd be happy to help you do so. It is literally the environmental science story of the century (so far).

Posted by: Mark Bahner [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 15, 2006 10:30 AM


Tokyo Tom

With respect to your comment,

"GHG emissions are the biggest and most tractable aspect of AGW, and for that reason deserves greater journalistic coverage",

the media focus has mostly been on carbon dioxide. However, even a back of the envelope calculation shows that carbon dioxide does not cause the majority of the global warming forcing; e.g. see http://blue.atmos.colostate.edu/presentations/PPT-69.pdf

Shouldn't the media be presenting this perspective?

In terms of what can be done with respect to the human forcing of the climate system, I have written on this topic; e.g. see
http://climatesci.atmos.colostate.edu/2006/04/20/a-win-win-solution-to-environmental-problems/.

Indeed, these actions should be taken regardless if global warming or cooling occurs, as I discuss at
http://climatesci.atmos.colostate.edu/2006/07/27/what-if-global-cooling-ocurrs/

It is clear to many of us in the climate community that the media has been very myopic in its reporting of the human forcing of the climate system.

Posted by: Roger A. Pielke Sr. at November 15, 2006 12:11 PM


Dr. Pielke Sr.:

Thanks for your response. I had previously seen your slides, and was aware that there are many aspects to AGW other than CO2 emissions. I understand that your perspective is that the media is doing a poor job of explaining the overall picture - perhaps that is so, but my question as to international policy focus remains.

Isn't it much easier for the international community, and especially the West, to focus on GHG emission reductions and sequestration than it is to reach international agreements that more intrusively address issues such as land use, albedo, tropospheric ozone, black carbon and aerosols, much less the more complex issues of eliminating vulnerability of third world poor to climate change/weather through assisting with development and resolving the institutional failure problems that fuels environmentally destructive practices and hinder development?

Which aspects of AGW and climate vulnerability are most significant and which are most easily addressed through international action, and suffer least from free rider issues?

Posted by: TokyoTom [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 15, 2006 08:13 PM


Roger Pielke Sr. has already addressed this on one level, but I'll address it on some others. TokyoTom wrote:

"GHG emissions are the biggest and most tractable aspect of AGW,..."

Roger Pielke Jr. questioned whether CO2 represented more than 50% of the global warming forcing. I second his questioning in that regard.

But I also question whether CO2 is the most "tractable" aspect of AGW. I think the proper word for CO2 is the most INtractable.

Take black carbon emissions: black carbon may be more significant in global warming than the IPCC TAR has represented, as RP Sr. pointed out. But reducing black carbon emissions are a far more tractable measure than reducing CO2 emissions. Major sources of black carbon include: diesel engines, very poorly controlled coke ovens in China, and poorly controlled cooking/heating ovens in China, India, and the rest of the developing world.

These emissions represent direct and unquestionable human health problems. The State of California has estimated that fully 70 percent of the air pollution cancer risk in that state comes from particulate from diesel engines:

http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_vehicles/big_rig_cleanup/california-diesel-risk-reduction-plan.html

Likewise, poorly controlled coke ovens in China are a human health nightmare. A poorly controlled coke oven is essentially like smoking tens or even hundreds of millions of “coke cigarettes” continuously.

Because black carbon emissions are a direct and unquestionable threat to human health, they are a much more tractable target for reductions. This can be seen by the essentially worldwide movement to reduce emissions from diesel vehicles.

In one estimate (which I think is "conservative," in that it likely underestimates the black carbon emission reductions that will actually occur), emissions of black carbon are projected to decrease from 8.0 Tg in 1996 to 5.3–7.3 Tg by 2030 and to 4.3–6.1 Tg by 2050.

http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2004/2004JD004902.shtml

So black carbon emissions are projected to decrease significantly from 1996 to 2030 and 2050. In contrast, virtually everyone agrees that carbon dioxide emissions will increase from 1996 to 2030 and 2050.

And that is *without* any special effort to reduce black carbon emissions in order to reduce AGW.

Similarly, look at methane emissions: methane is the second-most important GHG, next to CO2. But capturing and burning methane has a potentially HUGE economic benefit, whereas capturing and sequestering CO2 has only a cost.

Not only will methane emissions likely decrease from 1996 to 2030 and 2050, it is quite possible (I'd put the probability at about 50 percent) that even *atmospheric concentrations* of methane will go down from 1996 to 2030 and 2050.

So dealing with black carbon and methane are far more “tractable” than CO2.

Posted by: Mark Bahner [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 15, 2006 09:21 PM


Dr. Yulsman -

Thanks for a provocative post that has triggered quite a useful discussion.

There are a number of points worth making. First, I'd be very skeptical of the Boykoff and Boykoff analysis if I were you. I've written about this in more detail elsewhere (http://www.inkstain.net/fleck/?p=1201), but in brief the Boykoffs seem to have conflated the science with the policy response. As such, they appear to have scored stories as exhibiting "false balance" when they quote both sides of the political/policy debate. That doesn't mean there wasn't/isn't a false balance problem in journalists' description of the science, but it does suggest their methodology is almost certain to overstate its prevalance.

Second, and more importantly, there's an unexamined premise that I'd love to hear you and the other academics in this discussion address: what is the actual effect of journalism of the type we're discussing here on the public's understanding and on the political/policy discussions and outcomes? If the Boykoff hypothesis is correct, and if media coverage matters, then you ought to be able to detect the results in polling data. But this seems not to be the case. The public, as Roger Jr. has ably argued here in the past, is quite comfortable with the scientific consensus on climate change. So whatever "false balance" there is in news media coverage doesn't seem to be fooling the readers. They're obviously wise to our tricks. :-)

The problem is that everyone involved in this discussion - Raypierre over at RealClimate, Roger Sr. above, you - all have some idea of what it is journalists *ought* to be doing (and what the gifted and intelligent Bill Broad ought to have done), but the discussion isn't premised on any actual evidence about what happens in the minds of the actual readers consuming this. In the absence of any such evidence, all the discussants are mapping their own views of the debate onto Broad's piece, which becomes something of a Rorschach test.

I had a particularly interesting experience recently in this regard involving a story of my own. (http://www.abqjournal.com/news/state/478196nm07-23-06.htm)

It was based on a climate science meeting that featured Roger Sr. and an unusually large proportion of those out on the fringes of the scientific mainstream on these issues. It quoted these scientists at some length, while also repeatedly explaining where the mainstream consensus lies and showing how they fit into the normal sort of scientific discourse that goes on in pretty much any field between the mainstream and outliers. I was criticized by both sides of those tangled up in the "yes/no" debate: by supporters of climate change action for sowing doubt by quoting skeptics, and by political skeptics for my repeated invocation of the consensus as a framinng device.

The experience suggested to me that we journalists (well, me, anyway, though the way this discussion comes up over and over again suggests the viewpoint is far more widespread) have some pretty naive ideas about what readers get out of what we write. And before we go much further in the discussion of what journalists ought to be doing, we need a much clearer idea of what readers are actually getting out of what we write.

Posted by: jfleck [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 15, 2006 09:50 PM


Mark, I agree with you that there are other important global problems and other aspects to AGW policy than simple GHG reductions/sequestration.

As for black carbon and methane, do you have a suggested policy approach, other than simply to allow reductions to happen naturally, as driven by existing incentives? Doesn't Kyoto already address methane, by allowing offsets for investment in methane capture through the CDM? Are you suggesting that black carbon get similar treatment?

And what about albedo and adaptation/development/vulnerability reduction issues - wouldn't measures specifically related to these be even more difficult to negotiate, as they are even more intrusive on domestic policy prerogatives and more susceptible to problems of implementation/corruption, and to the general unwillingness of Western countries to poor development money into the third world? (Rather, it seems clear that we prefer to pour money down holes that benefit particular special interests groups in our own countries, such as expensive wars abroad.)

Kyoto and the UNFCCC are useful infrastructure and should not be abandoned. Rather, we should be considering how to maximize the efficacy of this infrastructure.

Posted by: TokyoTom at November 15, 2006 11:44 PM


John, let me thank you for a thoughtful and insightful post. I read it with great interest.

I think you are right about the Boykoff study, and in fact I made a similar point to my science writing class this week. While there may be a consensus within the mainstream climate science community about global warming, there is much less agreement within the political community. So covering the politics of this issue must frequently entail speaking with people who oppose vigourous action on, say, reducing GHG emissions.

Still, I think it's fair to say that up until a year or so ago, many science stories on climate change were pretty much binary affairs, with one scientists saying "global warming?: YES!" and another scientist (or sometimes a person from the political realm — I saw that a lot) saying "NO!!" That binary approach seems to have faded considerably.

Whether it is being replaced by more sophisticated coverage, in which journalists really dig into the most meaningful questions — the ones about particular climate impacts, what we should do about them, making ourselves less vulnerable to all manner of natural hazards, etc. — is another story. In fact, as I mentioned in my earlier post, we seem to have gone from "global warming: yes or no?" to "global warming and hurricanes?: YES!!," despite the fact that this is an area of significant scientific debate. And I have yet to see a story point out that even if the answer is "yes," mitigating global warming may not be our best strategy for reducing damage and suffering. Let alone stories about adapting to climate change, whether human-caused or natural.

Concerning your argument that we journalists "have naive ideas about what readers get out of what we write," I know that most reporters would say, "So what? It's not our job to think too much about how our readers receive the news. It is simply our job to report the news and let the chips fall where they may. I would say that's a cop out. (But of course I would, because I'm a magazine person, and magazine editors are always thinking about how readers are receiving stories.)

The logic of your argument goes like this: If news media are guilty of false balance, and if our stories have an impact on readers, they should think that the jury on global warming is still out. But polls have consistently shown otherwise. So either our stories are having no impact, or there hasn't been false balance.

I'm actually not a media studies scholar, so I tread on thin ice when I try to address issues like this. But I think news media have a major impact by helping to put climate change on the agenda for public consideration. No matter how the issue is covered, if it is being covered a lot, readers and viewers get the message that this is an important issue they might want to pay attention to. Moreover, I don't think it's coincidence that in a Pew poll last August, nearly 70 percent of respondents said the government should take "immediate action" on climate change. Before this summer, people might say they were concerned about global warming, and that it was a real problem, but the concern was a mile wide and an inch deep. This poll suggests that concern has deepend considerably.

As one person pointed out on Realclimate the other day, Al Gore's movie certainly played a role. But did more than two thirds of adult Americans see Al Gore's movie? I don't think so. But many did see the media coverage sparked by the movie (not to mention Katrina last year). How readers responded to individual stories, I don't know. But with such a large upsurge in coverage, people got the message that it was an issue they really should be concerned about.

Of course the coverage lately has tended to focus on some of the more dire predictions. And there's nothing like the prospect a climate catastrophe, whether one is in the offing or not, to get readers' attention.

Posted by: Tom Yulsman at November 15, 2006 11:57 PM


Dear jfleck,
Thanks for bringing up journalism again.

As far as science journalism is concerned, I recently wrote a mini-rant here:
http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/2006/11/eye-of-newt-and-blur-of-science.html

In my bombastic opinion, science journalism should show how a scientific approach can and does produce results that are difficult to achieve by other means. As such, an illustration of the how and the why is more important than the what, where, or when.

As far as false balance and misreporting go, by concentrating on the process of science instead of the result, you can show how some ideas survive scrutiny, how some get refuted, and on how approaching a problem from different angles can yield to different working hypotheses that may be easy or hard to reconcile.

One of the best ways to demonstrate the quality of a scientific argument is to observe how frequently and thoroughly its proponents test each step, before proceeding on to the next. Demonstrating the difference between this self critical approach and a laweristic self-promoting cherry pick will allow your readers to discern between good science and bad science in whatever field they find themselves in.

BTW, your second link is to a members only site.

Posted by: Lab Lemming at November 16, 2006 03:11 AM


Tom -

I would agree that it's a copout for reporters to simply say (as I myself have said many times) that "It is simply our job to report the news and let the chips fall where they may." It reflects a mistake that is implicit in a lot of the discussion above, as well - treating the story itself as the unit of measure and analysis, rather than the reader's resulting knowledge. It's interesting that we journalists make that mistake, because it contradicts our basic drive to write stories that are not confusing or incomprehensible.

Lab Lemming - I agree that the sort of story you're describing is one way of approaching the issue. In fact, Broad and his colleagues at the New York Times do a lot of that kind of reporting. (There was a delightful story Tuesday, for example, about packrat middens as a paleoclimate tool.) But it's only one tool in the kit, and is totally inadequate for addressing the kind of story Broad is writing about here. It's useful for drilling down to a explain how a single researcher got to where they are, but has the potential to, as a result, be terribly misleading in explaining a broad field where many different researchers are piecing together many different bits of the puzzle. It has, to borrow your phrase, "a high chance of causing confusion or misunderstanding."

The underlying problem here is that every single reader already has a framework for understanding the subject, and absorbs the information into that framework. My purely anecdotal experience (though it seems to be supported by some actual media studies research, I just don't know the literature well enough to argue this very empirically) is that the frameworks through which the Raypierre's and Roger Pielke Sr.'s and Benny Peiser's Lab Lemmings view the story are so far removed from the framework through which the general reader views that the discussion above, while not completely useless, falls far short of the help journalists need to figure out how to do this right. The discussants above want the story to map to their framework. That's the wrong goal.

P.S. to LL - the site isn't members only. Non-subscribers can watch an ad and then read the story for free. It's less than optimal for the free flow of information, I realize, but it's my employer's way of ginning up the revenue to pay me. I like getting paid.

Posted by: jfleck [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2006 10:04 AM


John: An interesting point — "every reader already has a framework for understanding the subject, and absorbs information into that framework." And as you say, that is no less true of the folks who participate in this weblog than it is of non-expert readers of your paper.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the frameworks of the folks who participate in this are far less pliable than those of your readers — that in fact, it is easier to influence the way those readers think than it is to influence many readers of this blog.

I think the polling data shows that Americans are taking global warming more seriously than they have in the past. But I keep hearing the same arguments repeated endlessly by certain writers on this blog. One prominent science writing colleague who read it all yesterday said it gave him a headache, because some participants clearly will not be influenced by anything I or anyone else writes that does not fit into their framework.

Uh oh, here's another fine mess I've gotten myself into...

So, filtered through my own framework, here's where I think we're at: We've got a significant majority of scientists working in the field saying the evidence clearly shows humans are causing significant warming, and we should be concerned about the future. And a small minority is saying that while warming may indeed be occurring, we cannot reliably attribute it to human activity, and that while the future may bring additional warming, there is no reason now to be terribly concerned.

Also, the work of some of the scientists in the minority is tarnished by politicization. Whereas other scientists are doing strong, credible science that absolutely deserves to be reported (and may at this point be under-reported). Meanwhile, the same can be said of the scientists in the majority — some have become politicized, but most are doing credible work.

But some of the readers of this weblog argue that reporting the credible science, whatever it may show, is not good enough. We have to fit our reporting to their framework by writing that there is no general agreement among the majority about the broad global warming question. Some would even have us say that consensus is never a part of science. Well, If that's true, I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why the many dozens of cosmologists and astronomers I've interviewed over the years just SEEM to agree that the big bang really happened.

Such a person lives in an air-tight, hurricane-proof structure. You can forget about reaching them with your stories. But I honestly do believe that over time, well-reported and skillfully written stories can have a cummulative impact on many of your readers, because most are probably not true believers of one cause or another.

Posted by: Tom Yulsman at November 16, 2006 04:10 PM




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