Climate “Scandals” and the False Debate over Global Warming
Global warming has graduated to the status of one of the great enduring political issues of our time. Unfortunately, public discourse has taken a dramatic step backward in light of corporate media’s attacks against the scientific community. Scientific studies have greatly furthered our understanding of climate change, but establishment journalism has largely erased the gains in public knowledge over the last three years.
There has been little progress on working toward significant cuts in U.S. and global CO2 emissions. Obama’s participation in the 193 nation U.S. global warming summit in December 2009 resulted in a non-binding commitment to cutting global CO2 emissions. Progress appears non-existent on making this agreement legally binding, as indicated by the resignation in February of a high level U.S. climate change official – Yvo de Boer – who the New York Times reported is “deeply disappointed with the outcome of the last summit in Copenhagen, which drew 120 world leaders but failed to reach more than a vague promise by several countries to limit carbon emissions.”
To make matters more difficult, a business-led, right-wing backlash has further threatened to destroy what little public support remains for major CO2 reductions. The right’s most prominent attack on climate science focuses on the East Anglia University (U.K.) “hacked emails controversy” dating back to November 2009. Dubbed “climate gate,” the incident involved the theft of hundreds of private emails from scientists of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit allegedly demonstrating scientific misconduct in the organization’s study of global warming. Specific charges against EAU scientists discuss scientific disagreements about how to measure climate change, anger at global warming skeptics who try to disseminate and publish their material, a desire to make it more difficult to climate skeptics to pass through the peer review process, and disdain for those participating in public dialogue that disputes global warming (for more on the email excerpts, see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/globalwarming/6636563/University-of-East-Anglia-emails-the-most-contentious-quotes.html). The attacks on climate science continue today, with the United Nations appointing a board in late February to review its own 2007 report after critics attacked its prediction that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear in the next 25 years.
David Cromwell discusses the attempts of the right to create a scandal of every scientific prediction that is disputed by global warming deniers (http://www.zcommunications.org/gates-of-delusion-by-david-cromwell). These attacks often proceed on the shakiest of grounds, as the East Anglia University (EAU) controversy demonstrates. Even if some scientists in the case of the EAU hacked emails were guilty of academic misconduct (a claim that has not yet been demonstrated through official inquiry), right-wing pundits with no scientific training have seized upon this event in order to further their own paranoid claims about a secret global conspiracy, allegedly designed to trick the world regarding climate change. Rush Limbaugh, for example, responded to “climate gate” by arguing: “There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that's where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap. A great illustration is what's happening here [the East Anglia controversy] with what is now incontrovertibly known as a hoax.” Sean Hannity asked of the writers of the stolen EAU emails: “Could it be any more clear that these so-called climate scientists are hoodwinking the entire world community?,” while Glenn Beck claimed that “in real science, the debate is never over. The climate cultists keep saying that anybody who wants to debate, oh, they’re just flat earthers!...but will the media ever notice?”
While right-wing pundits were happy to portray the East Anglia controversy in black-and-white, even a cursory reading of some of the emails demonstrates that there is much ambiguity in them, at least for those without an extensive scientific background. The emails were reported on by the mass media without providing much context for the specific details of the conversations that took place between the scientists involved, making it difficult to properly evaluate them. Much of the correspondences were filled with esoteric debate about complex research methods and measurements, and there was certainly no smoking gun in them demonstrating that scientists the world around, reporters, and other intellectuals are involved in a sinister conspiracy to silence global warming skeptics or manipulate world opinion.
Creating a Debate Where None Exists
The mass media’s construction of a grand “debate” over global warming is most reprehensible because no such debate exists among experts on climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – charged with reviewing the available data on global warming – concludes that human activities are responsible for a significant portion of recent temperature changes, and that most of the warming over the last five decades is probably due to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This conclusion is also supported by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Geophysical Union, in addition to the vast majority of scientists who have published their findings on climate change in scientific peer reviewed journals. A review in the journal Science of more than 900 articles covering climate change published in academic journals from 1993 to 2003 finds that not a single piece disagreed with the conclusion that the Earth is warming and humans share responsibility. If there is a conspiracy that exists regarding the study of climate change, it would have to include virtually every major scientific journal and most or all of the reviewers at those journals. To argue that a conspiracy exists without presenting evidence, as conservatives do, is outlandish and intellectually dishonest.
One can see that the “debate” over global warming is being led, not by experts on climate change, but by right-wing pundits, corporate funded think thanks, conservative politicians, and scientists whose work is deemed unworthy of publication by their peers. Regardless of the scientific consensus on climate change, the mass public is becoming more ignorant about this consensus. Figure 1 demonstrates that public acceptance of human responsibility for global warming, agreement that global warming is a serious problem, and acceptance that global temperatures are increasing, have all fallen significantly in the last four years.
Explanations for Public Ignorance
There are a number of proposed explanations for why the public is becoming more ignorant on climate change, many of which have been promulgated by establishment figures seeking to obscure media responsibility. Self-described “post-environmentalists” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger argue in the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies that Americans suffer from “apocalypse fatigue” and are increasingly tuning out on climate change and informing their leaders that “they don’t think about it very much at all.” They cite the “psychological concept of ‘system justification’” whereby “many people have a psychological need to maintain a positive view of the existing social order, whatever it may be…calls for economic sacrifice, major changes to our lifestyles, and the immorality of continuing ‘business as usual’ – such as going on about the business of our daily lives in the face of ecological catastrophe – are almost tailor-made to trigger system justification among a substantial number of Americans.” Nordhaus and Shellenberger (N&S) also maintain that the economic crisis has led “many Americans to prioritize economic over environmental concerns, and that this in turn has probably translated into greater skepticism about the scientific basis for environmental action.”
N&S’s claims are largely half-baked, failing to fit available evidence much of the time. For one, media attention to global warming actually increased significantly in the last few years (as Figure 4 below suggests), contrary to N&S’s claims that the public is burnt out on stories covering this issue. Media attention has also helped sustain public attention, as a 2009 Gallup poll finds that 60 percent of Americans say they worry either a “great deal or fair amount” about global warming. Secondly, it makes little sense to argue that mass layoffs during a recession will suddenly cause the unemployed to become more skeptical of the science behind global warming. These two issues are not directly connected, not to mention the fact that the decline in public acceptance of global warming began well before the 2008 economic collapse, rather than following it. Thirdly, “system justification” theory fails to explain why the vast majority of Americans were supportive of climate change science three years ago, and became more skeptical in the last two. The theory fails to account for why 59 percent of Americans supported cap and trade in 2008, while that percent dropped to 52 percent in 2009. Cultural values are supposed to endure over long periods of time, rather than being subject to rapid swings in the short-term.
Finally, the recession argument remains limited as a comprehensive explanation for public opinion change. If the “fear of job loss” argument was really that powerful, one would expect that those with the least job security (the unemployed and part-time employed) would most strongly oppose cap and trade – an initiative that conservatives promise will cost Americans their jobs. Figure 2 below demonstrates that there is little difference between the unemployed, part time employed, and fully employed in their opinions on cap and trade – with a difference in opinion between all three categories that is not much larger than six percent. In fact, a majority of the unemployed and fully employed, and nearly half of the part-time employed support cap and trade.
Figure 3 also demonstrates that the link between opposition to cap and trade and individuals’ level of income is not incredibly strong. While it is true that large differences in opinion on cap and trade exist between the most wealthy (making over $150,000 a year) and the poorest (making under $10,000 a year), a majority of the poor and working class (making between $10,000 and $40,000 a year) support cap and trade, while those who make between $40,000 and $75,000 are somewhat less supportive. In short, it is not the case that the poor and working class uniformly oppose cap and trade due to some fear of having to sacrifice their jobs.
It may be the case that the onset of economic crisis caused the very poorest Americans (making less than $10,000 a year) to push seemingly less immediate concerns about global warming behind immediate concerns with job loss, eviction, and loss of employer provided health insurance. These explanations, however, are rather unconvincing if one refuses to consider the power of media in fostering public apprehension. The media’s influence must be addressed, if for no other reason than because people learn about claims that cap and trade will cost American jobs from the mass media itself.
Scientists Fault the Media for Public Ignorance
Scientists strongly fault the corporate media for its failure to educate the public about scientific advances. As of July 2009, the Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of scientists surveyed explained that media “fail to distinguish between findings that are well-founded and those that are not.” 83 percent of scientists feel that television media do a “fair or poor” job in educating the public, while 63 percent rate newspapers as “fair or poor.”
One can summarize the nature of media coverage on global warming briefly: while coverage of this issue has grown dramatically in the last few years, the public has become increasingly close minded and ignorant about scientific findings. How can this be? As I mentioned previously, right wing pundits have undertaken a personal quest to convince the public that global warming doesn’t exist. Additionally, a standard practice among journalists is to report the issue of global warming as if there is a strong debate among scientific experts on whether the phenomenon exists (see A Culture of Denial, http://www.zhelp.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/23189).
Media Coverage of Climate Change
As Figure 4 demonstrates, coverage of global warming has grown dramatically in cable news in the last four years – specifically at Fox News and CNN (although less so at MSNBC).
Such coverage, unfortunately, is often lacking in substance or toxic. Fox News pundits follow the standard pattern of denial of climate change, and even support the false notion that the planet is cooling (see A Culture of Denial, Z Net). Celebrity journalists at CNN such as Campbell Brown pride themselves in presenting “both sides” of the climate change debate, parading global warming deniers such as Patrick J. Michaels of the Cato Institute and author of “Climate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know,” alongside science-celebrities like Bill Nye, who accepts the reality of manmade global warming. In her recent special, “Global Warming: Trick or Truth?” Brown argued that scientific claims about global warming are “something we might have taken at face value before the hacked email scandal (East Anglia) called the very science behind global warming into question.” She attacked scientists for allegedly being unwilling “to have an open debate on global warming, while failing to challenge Michaels after he claimed that global warming skeptics are “being intimidated” by science journal editors. False balancing is a regular part of Brown’s reporting, as she also hosted another program including global warming deniers Stephen McIntyre (of Climate Audit blog) and Chris Horner (author of “Red Hot Lies: How Global Warming Alarmists Use Threats, Fraud, and Deception to Keep You Misinformed”) alongside Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, who accepts the existence of climate change.
Brown’s specials represent a classic example of false debate. Neither Bill Nye nor Patrick Michaels are recognized experts in climate change, and inviting them to discuss the alleged “controversy” creates the false impression that scientific “experts” are divided on this issue. While Nye is clearly no expert in climate change, he did successfully force Brown to admit that “the scientific community is not evenly divided on this [issue].” This didn’t stop Brown from continuing to push for reconciliation between global warming supporters and skeptics, as she concluded the program by claiming: “I would love it if I could get a little common ground [between Nye and Michaels] to end on.”
Climate change reporting on CNN not only promotes false debate, but vacuous coverage as well. Analysis of all CNN programs from July of 2009 that mention global warming demonstrates that superficial coverage prevails. Last July was perhaps one of the most important months in recent years for the issue of climate change, considering that Senate Democrats postponed a voting deadline for legislation on CO2 cuts in anticipation of Obama’s announcement (the same month) – following the U.N. Forum on Energy and Climate – of a global partnership committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050. While the initiative was non-binding and only represented a goal for the future, it was the largest global agreement on CO2 emissions made in some time. One would expect that this event would have received serious attention on CNN. In fact the opposite was the case, as there was remarkably little substance in reporting. While dozens of CNN stories mentioned global warming and Obama’s actions in July, just four of those programs featured any extended debate on CO2 limits. Of those four programs, the only one that featured an in depth discussion on climate change was comprised of a “debate” between viewers who emailed their reasons for why they believe global warming is or is not real. Not a single guest appeared in any July stories to discuss the consensus among scientists that man made climate change real. The vast majority of July coverage consisted of short summaries that simply explained that Obama was travelling abroad to meet with foreign leaders to gain support for CO2 cuts.
Contrary to CNN and Fox, the center-left hosts of MSNBC primetime programs represent one of the few examples where journalists actually agree with the scientific consensus on global warming. Hosts such as Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Ed Schulz, and Chris Matthews all denigrate Fox News pundits, Republican officials, and business leaders who deny that global warming exists. These hosts attack those who oppose legal initiatives and global talks aimed at cutting CO2 emissions. MSNBC’s efforts to support modest emissions cuts – also supported by the editors of center left papers like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe – set the parameters for the “left’s” discussion of global warming in the corporate press. Center left papers openly support CO2 reductions in line with the Obama agenda, but do not regularly challenge U.S. officials for refusing to take more than modest steps to limit climate change. These media also fail to address the inconsistencies inherent in capitalist philosophies assuming that limitless development, constantly increasing profits, and never-ending economic growth are both possible and desirable. This is not surprising considering they rely on corporate capitalism for their livelihoods.
It’s difficult to judge the effects of media coverage on public opinion considering the modest differences between center left media that acknowledge global warming, and centrist-to-conservative outlets that deny climate change or entertain false debates about whether climate change even exists. Fortunately, opinion surveys take us a long way in terms of assessing the overall effects of media on this issue. Figure 5 demonstrates that the general effects of the media have been to increase public ignorance. To repeat the common dictum: the more you watch, the less you know. Those who pay a lot of attention to cap and trade reporting across all types of media outlets are more likely to oppose limits on CO2 emissions and to reject the conclusion that there is solid evidence of global warming. Conversely, those who pay only a little or no attention to national reporting on cap and trade are more likely to agree with the consensus position of the scientific community, which concludes that global warming is real and that reductions in greenhouse gases are essential.
Figure 6 shows that increased ignorance is also a product of regular consumption of Fox News programs, as those who follow Fox are consistently more likely to oppose measures such as cap and trade. Similar effects are not found for CNN and MSNBC, however. This is not all that surprising in the case of MSNBC considering the station’s comparatively meager attention to global warming (see Figure 4). Similarly, the lack of an effect of CNN viewing on opinions of cap and trade is no revelation in light of the station’s “middle of the road” reliance on false balancing, and its vacuous reporting of climate change. Most importantly, these results indicate that the allegedly liberal television media are doing nothing to increase public awareness of the dangers of global warming. These outlets have failed in educating the public on this vital issue.
Implications for the Future
The corporate media is not serving as an educating force for those seeking accurate information on global warming. Educational campaigns on climate change will have to be spearheaded by scientists and a grassroots progressive movement if there is to be any progress on educating the public regarding this issue. Conservatives are extraordinarily organized in their consistent efforts foster public distrust of climate change, and progressives will have to be just as organized if they expect to roll back the public misinformation campaign that has gripped the minds of the American people.
Anthony DiMaggio is the author of the newly released: When Media Goes to War (Monthly Review Press, February 2020). He is also the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008), and teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University. He be reached at: email@example.com