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Terms of Engagement: Debate has shifted to most cost-effective strategy for reducing greenhouse gas

Critics Dismissed: An Inconvenient Truth as a politically driven statement.

There are two sides to every story, and each side deserves equal play. It's a basic principle of news reporting called balance, and it's designed to ensure a more complete story while minimizing complaints about bias.

But when it comes to coverage of global warming, some say balance is the problem. As one critical study puts it, balance means bias.

Scientific reports suggest there hasn't been serious debate in years within the scientific community about whether human activity helps fuel global warming. The clear consensus has long been that it does. The news media has helped perpetuate skepticism about human-made global warming by tracking down — and balancing stories with — comments from a diminishing pool of skeptics.

"What I sense is that while the science-beat journalists 'got it' a long time ago, it is only recently that the news-beat journalists stopped treating the science of global warming as though it was a political story," says Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA.

"That is, they were more willing to report a new result or finding or a report as an event to be covered, rather than a political statement that needed to be balanced by an opposing voice. Some of that still happens, of course — though mainly in areas and with journalists who are new to the story. Most everyone else has noticed that the opposing voices have no credibility but plenty of agenda."

The terms of the debate fueled by — or at least facilitated by — the media have changed significantly over the past two decades. Along the way, the news media lagged behind scientific confidence that human activity gave rise in part to global warming.

In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen forced global warming into the news media's sphere when he told Congress that his own research indicated that humans were heating the planet, particularly through the use of carbon-packed fossil fuels. Hansen testified that he was 99 percent certain that the so-called greenhouse effect, a global warming caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, was not a natural variation but caused by human forces. Greenhouse gases block heat from exiting the atmosphere.

He ignited a storm of public debate, prompting skeptics to say the evidence of human-made global warming was inconclusive at best.

That same year, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a consortium of experts from around the world, to amass and assess scientific research relative to unnatural climate change. Still, the notion that human beings were at least in part to blame for global warming was perceived as radical among many pols and the populace.

Bill McKibben argued in his 1989 book, The End of Nature, that human beings were destroying their own environment by causing the greenhouse effect. He said people needed to fundamentally alter relations with nature to avert disaster. 

But general interest in the topic — not to mention support of his thesis — would not follow for more than a decade.

In 1995, the climate change panel said its "ability to quantify the human influence on global climate" was limited but that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate." The report was the basis for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to combat greenhouse gas emissions through agreement by industrialized nations to reduce output.

The treaty required the United States to reduce its emissions to below 1990 levels by 2012, but the United States never joined. Though President Bill Clinton's administration helped negotiate the treaty, the administration never submitted it to the U.S. Senate for ratification. In a symbolic vote, the Senate voted it down 95-0 anyway.

George W. Bush formally spiked the Kyoto agreement when he became president in 2000. The Bush Administration rejected the treaty because developing countries, including China and India, are exempt and because compliance would adversely affect the American economy.

Much has changed indeed. Over the past two years, several books have not only promoted the human factor in global warming but also warned of dire consequences for failing to reverse the trend. In An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President Al Gore takes an alarmist look at the future of an Earth with continued warming cycles. A documentary film inspired by the book, also called An Inconvenient Truth, won an Academy Award in February. Gore narrated the film, a slide show built on the images of melting polar ice caps and rising seawater overtaking such places as Manhattan and Florida.

While Gore told his story with savvy graphics and dramatic presentation, Elizabeth Kolbert told hers through intimate contact. Kolbert traversed the world to research Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, an up-close account of how climate changes are occurring at different points around the globe. The book builds on a three-part series she wrote for The New Yorker.

Other recent books on the theme include Thin Ice by Mark Bowen and The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery.

Perhaps the most influential report is the latest one issued by the United Nations climate change panel. In Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change strengthened the language of its previous reports and made dire predictions for what is to come. It said in its fourth report, released in February, that global warming is "very likely" caused by humans. It said now that the world has begun to warm, hotter temperatures and higher sea levels "would continue for centuries," regardless of how much people control their pollution.

"Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations," the panel reported, adding, "It is likely that increases in greenhouse gas concentrations alone would have caused more warming than observed because volcanic and anthropogenic aerosols have offset some warming that would otherwise have taken place."

Over the past century, the average global surface temperature rose by about 1 degree Fahrenheit. According to the panel, "The observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing, and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court in April did its part to elevate dialogue about human contributions to global warming. The high court rebuked the Bush Administration for refusing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, siding with environmentalists in its first examination of global warming. The court ruled 5-to-4 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency improperly declined to regulate new-vehicle emissions standards to control greenhouse gases. The court forced the EPA to re-evaluate whether regulation of tailpipe emissions should include carbon dioxide.

The decision could add momentum to efforts by state and federal policymakers to curb carbon emissions, particularly with Democrats in control of Congress. The Bush Administration maintained it didn't have the authority under the federal Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, and that it wouldn't do so even if it did.

Severe weather such as hurricane Katrina also has intensified public dialogue about global warming. The day after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the Boston Globe published an editorial blaming not only Katrina, but also a range of extreme weather incidents, from heavy snow in Los Angeles to high winds in Scandinavia and lethal heat in Arizona to drought in the Midwest, on global warming. Its author, Ross Gelbspan, a former Globe staffer and environmental activist, said many researchers believe the planet has already entered "a period of irreversible runaway climate change."

The examples of extreme weather have not been tied definitively to global warming. But it appeared that Gelbspan intended for his righteous tone to topple widespread and longstanding skepticism about human influence on global warming — and reluctance to accept that potential disaster may follow.

"Against this background, the ignorance of the American public about global warming stands out as an indictment of the U.S. media," he wrote. "When the U.S. press has bothered to cover the subject of global warming, it has focused almost exclusively on its political and diplomatic aspects and not on what the warming is doing to our agriculture, water supplies, plant and animal life, public health, and weather."

He added that, "For years, the fossil fuel industry has lobbied the media to accord the same weight to a handful of global warming skeptics that it accords the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations."

In March, Hansen, the NASA scientist, complained to Congress that the White House has since 1989 — the year after his testimony on the relationship between human activity and global warming prompted a media frenzy — increased censorship of his remarks on the matter. He said White House review and editing now appeared to be an "accepted practice."

"The effect of the filtering of climate change science during the current administration has been to make the reality of climate change less certain than the facts indicate and to reduce concern about the relation of climate change to human-made greenhouse gas emissions," he said, according to a Congressional Quarterly transcript.

But by May, even the nation's most powerful skeptic had come around. On the eve of a major international summit, President Bush proposed that the United States and other nations that produce most of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming set long-term goals for reduced emissions. Under his proposal, each country would establish its own emissions target and plan for reducing emissions over the next one or two decades. Compliance would be voluntary.

Over the past year, nearly 20 years after Hansen's watershed testimony, the Bush Administration acknowledged that global warming is thanks, at least in part, to human beings. The subject is center stage in the race for the White House: Candidates for president, particularly the Democrats, are debating the best way to address this.

Jerry Mahlman, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says "the still-accelerating understanding that human-caused global warming is a very real concern" has compelled "the science writing culture" to hone in on notions of human-made global warming.

"Most of the science-writing press has already taken this mega-reporting challenge very seriously, remarkably so in the past year or so," he says. "This transformation of the understanding of science writers in the press has been energized by their many efforts to get 'the real story about global warming' from the world-wide climate science community."

Last September, the Economist published an exhaustive multipart survey of global warming. After probing scientific data and potential implications for world economies, the magazine concluded "that although the science remains uncertain, the chances of serious consequences are high enough to make it worth spending the (not exorbitant) sums needed to try to mitigate climate change."

Much of the debate has shifted away from whether human-made global warming is real to what is the most cost-effective strategy for reducing greenhouse gases. Doug Scott, director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, believes that bodes well for policy change. Like California and a few other states, Illinois — impatient with a lack of action by the feds — is examining how to get out ahead of global warming. 

"If you've got more attention being paid to it nationally, and you couple that with polls where people are saying they believe it exists and that something needs to be done, then you've got all the ingredients to have some fairly dramatic policy changes," Scott says. "And that's happening in the states and now the federal government, too."

Last October, Gov. Rod Blagojevich convened a panel to study how best to reduce carbon emissions in Illinois. Scott, the commission's chairman, says the panel should report its recommendations back to the governor this summer.

"Here in Illinois, in terms of the recommendations we're going to make to the governor, we're not debating whether global warming exists or whether man-made factors are helping to cause it or make it worse," Scott says. "What we're debating are strategies to meet the targets that the governor set for us. That's a completely different debate."

Scott does not detect a change in media perceptions of global warming. However, he says it's clear the media are paying far more attention to the issue.

In March, a Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans "highly concerned" about global warming had increased five points to 41 percent from 36 percent in March 2006. The heightened interest built on a 10-point increase that occurred between 2004 and 2006. 

Gallup said the percentage of Americans now "worried a great deal about global warming" is roughly tied with the 40 percent recorded in April 2000.

The nation's most high-profile skeptic, other than the president himself, may be science fiction writer Michael Crichton, who authored Jurassic Park and created the hit television drama E.R. In 2004, Crichton's novel State of Fear mocked conventional wisdom that humans are to blame for global warming.

On The Charlie Rose Show in February, Crichton accepted that global warming is occurring and that human beings are contributing to it, but he argued gloom and doom scenarios perpetuated by the likes of Gore are overblown. He insisted nobody knows how fast devastation might occur.

"You can't get agreement on almost anything, as far as I can tell," Crichton said. "I mean, you can bring in five guys to talk about whether Antarctica, the core of Antarctica, is getting colder or not. 

Everybody agrees the peninsula, which is 2 percent of the mass, is getting warmer. And, you know, they'll argue and argue and argue, and you'll come away after an hour saying, 'I don't know what the answer is.' And that's the reality. Nobody really knows that."

Crichton disputed the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saying it was compiled by bureaucrats and driven by "essentially philosophical positions, emotional positions" divorced from data.

"So I understand that these ideas can take hold," he said. "And I understand that, generally speaking, the more extreme elements will push that, and the media is not interested in a balanced perspective."

Crichton includes with his book a detailed description of his own position on the science of global warming. He ends with this: "Everybody has an agenda. Except me."

Still, hardened skeptics seem to have reserved most of their rhetorical grenades for Gore, a Democrat and former presidential contender who is a favorite target of conservatives. This spring, Gore starred in a popular cartoon spoofing his environmental campaign. The two-minute clip, called Al Gore's Penguin Army and posted on YouTube, showed Gore as a villain boring penguins to sleep, then hypnotizing them, while blaming the Middle East conflict, David Spade's brief romance with Heather Locklear and Lindsay Lohan's "skinnyness" on global warming.

News reports linked the video's anonymous producer to a Washington public relations and lobbying firm whose clients include oil company ExxonMobil Corp. Meanwhile, conservative talking heads and right-leaning Web sites such as the Drudge Report clamored to promote news reports casting Gore as an energy hog for occupying an electricity-guzzling mansion in Nashville.

Critics dismissed An Inconvenient Truth as a politically driven statement. In its May edition, Vanity Fair profiled Myron Ebell, a media specialist with a Washington think tank called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and other skeptics of global warming. The story noted that many of these skeptics are bankrolled, at least indirectly, by ExxonMobil.

"The case for global warming has grown all but irrefutable, yet the skeptics have enjoyed enormous influence, for the audience that matters most to them occupies the White House," the story concluded. "Eagerly, their papers have been snatched up by the Bush Administration as rationales for all manner of public policy, from striking down the Kyoto Protocol to blocking any cap on carbon dioxide emissions."

During an interview with the magazine, Ebell scoffed at Hansen, the NASA scientist, for suggesting that global warming is forcing animals like polar bears to migrate from their own habitats.

"James Hansen was not trained as a climate scientist," he said. "He was trained as an astronomer. He's a physicist. His dissertation was on the atmosphere of Venus, and he has applied what he's learned in physics and in astronomy to become a climate scientist, but you know from him talking about species' going north, he knows nothing about biology."

Ebell referred Vanity Fair to a recent study by David Legates, another skeptic, which declared "only two of the world's 20 polar-bear populations are decreasing. Most of the others are stable; two are growing." The magazine noted ExxonMobil in 2005 partially funded global-warming-denial research by Legates' firm.

Skeptics are aided in their rhetoric by political consultant and wordsmith Frank Luntz, who is credited with encouraging Republicans to refer to the federal estate tax as the "death tax" — thereby inflaming opposition. Luntz also is credited with popularizing use of the term "climate change" in place of "global warming."

"People react to global warming in a slightly different way than climate change," Luntz said on the public radio show Fresh Air in January. "Climate change creates less hysteria. Global warming is more intense. It's more emotional. It's quite frankly more impactful. Climate change is more thoughtful, more reasonable. Global warming causes people to divide."

In An Inconvenient Truth, Gore cited a study that found the "reporters and editors at four of the nation's top newspapers adhered to the journalistic norm of balance at the expense of accurately reporting scientific understanding of the human contributions to global warming." The study, from the University of California at Santa Cruz, Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press, covered 636 articles concerning human contributions to warming published from 1988 to 2002 in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. It found that 52.7 percent of the stories gave "roughly equal attention" to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations; 35.3 percent emphasized the role of humans while presenting both sides of the debate; 6.2 percent emphasized the dubious nature of the claim that anthropogenic global warming exists; and 5.8 percent contained exclusive coverage of human contributions to temperature increases.

By contrast, Gore's book reported that of 928 "peer-reviewed articles dealing with 'climate change' published in scientific journals" over the previous decade, not 1 percent expressed "doubt as to the cause of global warming."

Maxwell Boykoff, co-author of the University of California study, concluded that by granting equal weight to the opposing views, "these newspapers significantly downplayed scientific understanding of the role humans play in global warming."

"We respect the need to represent multiple viewpoints, but when generally agreed-upon scientific findings are presented side-by-side with the viewpoints of a handful of skeptics, readers are poorly served," he wrote. "In this case, it contributed to public confusion and opened the door to political maneuvering."

U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who until the Democratic takeover of Congress in January was chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, famously called the threat of catastrophic global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

Hansen, the NASA scientist, wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books last July in which he wondered why the scientists and political forces that controlled the threat to the ozone layer were "now failing miserably to deal with the global warming crisis."

"Scientists present the facts about climate change clinically, failing to stress that business-as-usual will transform the planet," he wrote. "The press and television, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus concerning global warming, give equal time to fringe 'contrarians' supported by the fossil fuel industry. Special interest groups mount effective disinformation campaigns to sow doubt about the reality of global warming. The government appears to be strongly influenced by special interests, or otherwise confused and distracted, and it has failed to provide leadership. The public is understandably confused or uninterested."

Andrew Revkin, the New York Times science correspondent, told the public radio show On the Media last December that the news media has made three mistakes in its coverage. First, the media kept "saying on the one hand/on the other hand, even as the scientific consensus powerfully built around the basic idea — more CO2, warmer world." Second, it viewed developments through the prism of breaking news norms and asked, "Didn't we already write about global warming back in 1988?" Third, it incorrectly believed there is consensus on every aspect of global warming "now that we got over the hurdle of understanding that there really is a consensus on the main idea."

"Unfortunately, the things that matter most to people, like how is this going to affect Chicago, or what's going to happen with Greenland's ice — how fast are sea levels going to rise — there's a lot of uncertainty on those aspects of it," he said. "And there you really do have legitimate kinds of on the one hand/on the other hand arguments."

At the cable Weather Channel, climate expert Heidi Cullen says she has accepted it's not possible to escape the politics of global warming. However, she says she works to stay rooted in the science because the "evidence is overwhelming and good science ultimately informs good policy."

"The bottom line is global warming is political. After all, scientists are saying we need [to] overhaul our entire energy infrastructure to protect the planet. Not a small request," she wrote on her Weather Channel blog in April.

"At the end of the day, there will always be politics," she wrote. "But my hope is that we, as a country, will shift the discussion away from politics and toward proactive policies. Policies based on good science, cutting edge technology, economic strength, national security and energy independence. After all, the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones." 


Aaron Chambers covers the Statehouse for the Rockford Register Star.

Illinois Issues, July/August 2007

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