Polls from groups as diverse as Greenpeace and Citizens for a Sound Economy show that most climate scientists are skeptical of claims that the climate change of the 20th century has been a result of greenhouse gas emissions. This is news to network reporters. A study from the MRC's Free Market Project demonstrates that over the past five years reporters have presented a highly distorted picture of the global warming debate. Specifically, researchers found:
1) Thirty-nine of the 48 network evening news stories during the study period simply assumed that science supports global warming theories. Only seven stories mentioned that climate scientists are skeptical of claims that humans are changing the earth's temperature.
2) Of the seven stories which did mention that scientists are skeptical of global warming theories, only two brought up the actual arguments of skeptical scientists. (There were two stories during the study period that neither assumed climate change nor brought up arguments against global warming.)
3) Only two of the 48 stories pointed out that some scientists believe global warming, if it did occur, would be a boon to human health and well-being. The other 46 stories assumed global warming would be disastrous.
4) Only 10 of the 85 soundbite sources reporters interviewed opposed policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, while 60 soundbite sources supported such policies. Fifteen sources were neutral.
In order for their stories to be balanced, reporters must present the arguments of the many climate scientists who are skeptical of claims that humans are disastrously warming the planet. So far, such scientists have rarely been heard from on the evening news.
The theory that the earth is catastrophically heating up because of industrial pollution has become one of the leading environmental topics on network television news. Global warming is a highly controversial issue, with most climate scientists unconvinced that human actions are warming the planet, or that such warming would even be harmful. Such views, however, do not make it into newscasts. Instead, as with so many other issues, global warming is usually portrayed in a science-and-activists-versus-industry paradigm.
Media Research Center analysts reviewed all of the stories about global warming on ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN World News (The World Today, after March 1996), and NBC Nightly News from January, 1993 through October, 1997. Researchers found 48 stories, which were not evenly distributed throughout the years. Global warming has become a bigger story lately, with more stories so far in 1997 (26) than in all of the other years combined (22). The heavy coverage so far in 1997 has been a result of White House public relations activities, such as inviting of the nation's local television weathermen for a presidential briefing. In 1993 and 1994, when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House but didn't push for action on global warming, the networks were largely silent.
No Room for Scientific Debate
Out of the 48 stories during the study period, most (39) simply assumed that science supports warming theories. Only seven stories mentioned that many scientists are skeptical of global warming. Of these seven stories, only two brought up the actual arguments of skeptical climate scientists. (The remaining two stories were about scientific efforts to measure the earth's warming; they neither assumed science supports warming theories, nor mentioned arguments against such theories.)
ABC's Peter Jennings has been the most adamant in claiming that the scientific debate is over. On the April 5, 1995 World News Tonight, Jennings argued that "it would only take a small increase in the world's overall temperature to change life as we know it" and that there was "new evidence that man may be turning up the thermostat." On the November 30, 1995 broadcast, Jennings announced, "2,500 scientists from around the world have finally agreed with one another and are convinced that burning oil and coal is causing the world's temperatures to rise, which may bring with it environmental disaster." On January 4, 1996, Jennings stated as fact that "the earth is getting warmer all the time, in part because the United States has not been practicing what it has been preaching." On the October 1, 1997 broadcast, he claimed that pollution "has already changed the world's climate" and that "if man doesn't stop tampering with the environment, the change in climate could well lead to a world in which we have a very unpredictable future." And then on October 22, 1997, Jennings told World News Tonight viewers that "the overwhelming majority of scientists now agree [climate change] is being caused by man." NBC's Brian Williams, on the August 11, 1997 Nightly News, concurred. "Just about everywhere you look these days there is wild weather to be found," Williams reported. "Just tonight a wild storm swept through Denver with heavy flooding rains, high winds and lots of damaging hail. Some experts are wondering whether or not this kind of thing is related to global warming." CNN's Leon Harris, on the July 24, 1997 World Today, chimed in that President Clinton had met with scientists who "supported the President's assertion that global warming is no longer a theory but a fact."
Others were a bit more balanced. "The earth does seem to be heating," reported NBC's Robert Hager on the April 7, 1997 Nightly News, "some think because of pollution, others say it's just cyclical." And although CNN's Cammy McCormick, on the October 6, 1997 World Today, said that "most [scientists] will tell you that the earth is heating up and people are partly to blame," she pointed out that "some climate scientists say they're not convinced about global warming." None of these reports mentioned that nearly 100 climate scientists signed the 1996 Leipzig Declaration, expressing doubts about the validity of computer-driven global warming forecasts. And about those 2,500 scientists Jennings mentioned, S. Fred Singer, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, wrote in the July 25 Wall Street Journal: "If one were to add up all of the contributors and reviewers listed in the three [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports published in 1996, one would count about 2,100. The great majority of these are not conversant with the intricacies of atmospheric physics, although some may know a lot about forestry, fisheries or agriculture. Most are social scientists -- or just policy experts and government functionaries. Every country seems to be represented -- from Albania to Zimbabwe -- though many are not exactly at the forefront of research. The list even includes known skeptics of global warming -- much to their personal and professional chagrin."
According to Dr. Singer, "Even some IPCC scientists, in the report itself or in a May 16 Science article headlined 'Greenhouse Forecasting Still Cloudy,' have expressed doubts about the validity of computer models and about the main IPCC conclusion, that 'the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate' -- whatever that ambiguous phrase may mean." He also pointed out that most of the warming over the past hundred years occurred before 1940, even though there were more carbon dioxide emissions after World War II, and that "weather satellite observations, independently backed by data from balloon-borne source sensors, have shown no global warming whatsoever in the past 20 years." All of which leads Richard Lindzen, professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to conclude: "A decade of focus on global warming and billions of dollars of research funds have still failed to establish that global warming is a significant problem." Dr. Singer and Dr. Lindzen aren't alone. Polls from groups as diverse as Greenpeace and Citizens for a Sound Economy show that most climate scientists remain skeptical of claims that the warming of the 20th century has been a result of greenhouse gas emissions. This skepticism rarely makes it into news reports.
Not only did the networks report unquestioningly that humans were warming the planet, but they were certain that such warming would lead to disaster. Only two of the 48 global warming stories pointed out that some scientists believe warming would be a boon to human health and well-being. The other stories assumed warming would be bad. Scientists "predict that global warming would add to the infectious disease problem worldwide," claimed ABC's George Strait, on the January 16, 1996 World News Tonight. "As temperature areas become more tropical, diseases such as malaria could spread."
On the October 7, 1997 Nightly News, NBC correspondent George Lewis predicted that warming would lead to "wild swings in the weather, from heavy rains to prolonged droughts, ruining crops all over earth." He also ran a computer animation from an environmental group which "shows how a three-foot rise [in sea levels] would flood New York City, cause some of the Florida Keys to disappear, and expand San Francisco Bay all the way into California's Central Valley." At ABC, correspondent Ned Potter told January 4, 1996 viewers of World News Tonight that "scientists say if [temperatures] keep going up as they have, heat waves will spread across North America, a third of the world's glaciers will melt, flooding coastlines in dozens of countries, tropical diseases will spread, exposing large parts of the U.S. to malaria and dengue fever." CBS correspondent Scott Pelley, on the October 22, 1997 CBS Evening News, said, "Scientists are already measuring the destruction, from floods in American valleys to vanishing ice on world peaks...In fact, it is happening all around the world -- the earth's glaciers have been receding at an increasing pace over the last 100 years."
Dr. Singer, again, dispels these claims. "Judging from the climate record of the last 3,000 years of human history, climate consequences of a greenhouse warming should be generally beneficial," he wrote in a recent Science & Environmental Policy Project report. "One would expect severe weather to be less frequent because of (calculated) reduced equator-to-pole temperature gradients. In fact, the frequency and intensity of hurricanes have decreased over the past 50 years, although the reason for this is not known." Dr. Singer also suggests that fears about rising sea levels are overblown, because "new research indicates that increased ocean evaporation [due to warming] would lead to more rain -- and therefore to more ice accumulation in the polar regions. As such, sea levels may actually drop." Patrick Michaels, also a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, points out that most of the warming of the globe would occur during winter in the coldest air masses. "Warming up the planet's coldest air masses clearly creates little harm," argues Michaels in a June 30, 1997 Washington Post column, "because no plant or animal can feel the difference between -40 degrees and -35 degrees." He further writes: "All totaled, the effects of winter warming and little summer change lengthens the growing season, costs less energy and is, in general, hard to label as a big negative."
Expert Soundbite Sources
The skewed nature of the global warming debate in the media is illustrated by whom network reporters interviewed for soundbites. In the 48 stories during the study period, there were 60 soundbites from those who thought global warming was a problem and favored drastic policy solutions. Ten soundbites came from the other side, with only two of those coming from scientists. (Fifteen soundbites came from neutral sources.) Reporters often used soundbites to frame the debate as being between science and environmental activists on one side and industry on the other. On the October 22, 1997 NBC Nightly News, for instance, correspondent David Bloom pitted the Sierra Club's Dan Becker (who said the Clinton plan to curb greenhouse emissions "is like fighting a five-alarm fire with a garden hose") against a representative of the coal industry, who claimed the Clinton plan would cost jobs. Scientists skeptical of global warming were ignored. NBC News, though, did come the closest to balance of all the networks. Twice the Nightly News used its "In Their Own Words" segment to allow critics of global warming policies to speak. On the July 8, 1996 broadcast, Singer made the case against human-induced global warming and then on October 7, 1997 Thomas Moore of the Hoover Institution argued that global warming would extend growing seasons and, since people in warmer climates live longer, aid public health. But these were the exceptions. For the most part, the media debate over global warming has been one-sided, with the legions of skeptical scientists left out.
SCIENTISTS FOR JOURNALISTS TO CONTACT
TO HELP BALANCE REPORTING ON GLOBAL WARMING
|Sallie Baliunas||Harvard-Smithsonian Ctr. for Astrophysics||(202) 296-9655|
|Richard Lindzen||Massachusetts Institute of Technology||(617) 253-0098|
|Patrick Michaels||University of Virginia||(804) 924-7761|
|William Nierenberg||Scripps Institution of Oceanography||(214) 534-6126|
(former President, National Academy of Sciences)
|Rockefeller University||(212) 327-8423|
|S. Fred Singer||University of Virginia
(also, Science & Environmental Policy Project)
|Chauncey Starr||Electric Power Research Institute||(415) 855-2909|