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MediaWatch: October 1995

Vol. Nine No. 10

Janet Cooke Award: Potter's Press Release Presentation

The hyperbole bandwagon behind the theory of global warming has lost a lot of steam since its panicky debut in the summer drought of 1988. Gloomy scenarios of a fiery, dying planet have almost disappeared from the nightly news. But true believers in liberal environmentalism remain, and foremost among them is ABC reporter Ned Potter. For the second time this year Potter issued a one-sided warning of a greenhouse catastrophe, which has again earned him the Janet Cooke Award.

Back on the April 5 World News Tonight, Potter took to the sea: "The ocean is giving a signal of global warming -- the much-debated prediction that industrial air pollution will trap the sun's heat and warm the earth in coming decades...There is evidence, tentative but increasing, that the climate has already begun to change, affecting people's lives in a range of ways." ABC ignored a report two days earlier from NASA's George C. Marshall Institute which said "a growing body of scientific evidence shows global warming is not a serious threat."

So when the United Nations issued another report on global warming, ABC returned to the subject, but kept ignoring the skeptics -- and the real positive message buried in the report. Peter Jennings began the September 18 World News Tonight story: "And here is a weather problem that has an effect on the entire globe, which is why they call it global warming. After years of debate a consensus is forming. A United Nations report presents persuasive evidence that the earth is already growing warmer because of man."

Potter began: "Larger and more frequent hurricanes, longer and more intense droughts, coastal cities slowly flooded by rising oceans. This is the worst case scenario of global warming. The United Nations convened thousands of scientists to argue over the problem. Instead, in a new report, they agree that the earth is warming partly in response to human activities."

The story turned to Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the most prominent advocates of an approaching catastrophe: "For the first time, the scientific community has stated clearly that human beings are a probable cause of much of the warming that's occurred over the last century." Potter added NASA's Cynthia Rosenzweig to echo Oppenheimer.

Skeptics reject the notion of scientific consensus. Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, testified to Congress on September 20: "I want to state clearly that there is no scientific consensus on ozone depletion or its consequences. `Consensus' is a political concept, not a scientific one. It is used mainly to gain reassurance for an ideological position and to avoid having to examine scientific arguments in detail. Consensus has also been claimed on the global warming issue."

The one time Potter allowed an opposite point of view -- on June 9, 1992 -- he identified Fred Singer as "a scientist who often defends industries like coal and oil, which are less concerned about the climate than about drastic economic measures being proposed to protect it."

Potter continued his September story with exposition: "When coal and oil are burned in cars and factories, they release gases like carbon dioxide that can trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere and warm the earth. Scientists say the earth's average temperature has increased about one degree in the last hundred years and could increase in the next hundred by another one to six degrees. That may not sound like much but scientists say it could mean dramatic changes, with food shortages in some places and oceans drowning low lying areas as they rise a foot and a half."

Potter ended by underlining the need for onerous government action: "Industry is worried that it may be forced to make drastic changes, closing down coal-fired power plants or switching cars from gasoline to much more expensive batteries. But with scientists so clearly labeling industry as part of the problem, politicians may not give companies a choice."

Potter would have gotten the opposite message if he'd interviewed Patrick Michaels, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, who told MediaWatch: "This is another example of a reporter ostensibly reporting on science who has not critically read or investigated the subject of his report. It is astounding to me that a person who has followed this issue as closely as Potter did not read between the lines in this report." Michaels explained: "The real story is not that it implicates humans in climate change. It is that the United Nations now says the climate model that best tracks the past, and is therefore most reliable in the future, is one that predicts very little future warming."

The U.N report cited an August 10 paper in the journal Nature by a British team of scientists led by J.F.B. Mitchell, which begins: "Climate models suggest that increases in greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere should have produced a larger global mean warming than has been observed in recent decades, unless the climate is less sensitive than is predicted by the present generation of coupled general circulation models."

Michaels told MediaWatch: "That's a polite way of saying the so-called cynics were right." He explained that the British team's model projects that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause an increase in global temperatures of 2.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, lower than most models. But the model also includes the offsetting cooling effect of sulfate aerosols, which reduces warming by a third, leaving a net warming of only 1.7 degrees from 1900 to 2100.

Michaels added: "Mitchell's model accurately projects a 0.4 degree warming `since the 1930s and 1940s,' which should have been more specific. But if you subtract that four-tenths from the 1.7 degrees the model predicts, we would only see 1.3 degrees warming by the year 2100."

How does this make scientific "cynics" right? In his 1991 book Sound and Fury: The Science and Politics of Global Warming, Michaels predicted: "The warming that will have occurred between 1900 and the time CO2 effectively doubles in the next century will be on the order of 1.0 to 1.5 degrees Celsius." Michaels told MediaWatch: "The media's attempt to create policy and subsidies in the latest spasm of global warming apocalyptism is so transparent. But if this U.N. report doesn't kill the issue before this Congress, I don't know what will."

As usual, Potter failed to return repeated MediaWatch phone calls. In a 1993 Nightline, Ted Koppel concluded the show with what would be good advice for Potter: "The measure of good science is neither the politics of the scientist nor the people with whom the scientist associates. It is the immersion of hypotheses into the acid of truth. That's the hard way to do it, but it's the only way that works."