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Framing of climate science

Filed under: — eric @ 17 November 2005

There is an interesting article in this month’s Global Environmental Change journal. The paper, Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change (subscription only at the moment) by L. Antilla, documents the way in which the mainstream media (at least in the U.S.) tends to present climate science as more controversial than it actually is. A major focus of the paper is an analysis of the way in which climate science is “framed” (in the journalistics sense of “highlighting certain aspects of a story so as promote a particular interpretation”). In a recent Scientific American article (here), a similar argument is made with respect to the health industry; in this case the writer, David Michaels, is quite blunt that the “framing” is the purposeful fomenting of doubt by powerful industry lobbyists, rather than innocent errors by naive journalists. Antilla doesn’t go so far, but she does give some striking examples, such as an Associated Press piece about the impact of soot on the albedo of snow, which AP titled “Scientists blame soot for global warming”. As if the title weren’t misleading enough, the article goes on to say that “Many scientists believe the burning of fossil fuels is causing an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, triggering … the greenhouse effect.” Whether purposeful, or merely due to careless writing, this kind of statement casts the science (and the opinion of scientists) as far more uncertain that it is in reality — in this case implying that there is doubt that CO2 levels are increasing, something which actually has zero uncertainty.

Antilla finds that this kind of error is pervasive in the reporting of climate science. We found particularly interesting the comment (following earlier work by Wilson, 2000) that:

“newspapers [are] the ascendant source of knowledge on climate change for reporters themselves; interviews with scientists and the use of science journals were distant second and third sources, respectively.”

Evidently, the source of information journalists are getting is by its nature unreliable. Providing a more direct source of information from practicing scientists is, of course, the major reason for RealClimate‘s existence.

Antilla, L. 2005. Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change. Global Environmental Change, vol. 15, 338-352.
Wilson, K., 2000. Drought, debate, and uncertainty: measuring reporters’ knowledge and ignorance about climate change. Public Understanding of Science, vol. 9, 1-13.
Michaels, D. 2005 Doubt is their product. Scientific American, Jun. 15.

49 Responses to “Framing of climate science”

  1. 1
    Brooks Hurd says:

    There certainly is controversy, however guaging it by press coverage is building a straw man. The average reporter’s knowledge of math and science is lower than it should be to address technical issues. I am afraid that the average reporter would have great difficulty calculating simple percentages. Why then should we expect press coverage to adequately cover the esoteric arguments which are at the heart of climate science controversy?

  2. 2
    Tom says:

    Good post. Many of us in the U.S. are either aware or becoming aware that the media is too heavily influenced by industrial and political interests. It now leans much closer to propaganda than actual reporting.

    I personally think the media has been following the FOX news model of “balanced” reporting by showing “both” sides of the story, when in fact it gives equal time and weight to those minor voices far outside of the major concensus.

    Because of this, people are now beginnning to mistrust science because of slanted reporting. It doesn’t bode well for this country.

  3. 3
    Roger Pielke Jr. says:


    Thanks for highlighting the importance of framing. It makes a big difference. But the article that you cite contains a huge flaw. It states in its conclusion, “This study builds upon a growing literature that substantiates the media-created obstructions that prevent a more extensive understanding of climate change by the public and policy-makers.” This assertion is simply not backed up by any evidence. As I have written (and see the link for actual data):

    “I have heard the argument too many times to count. It goes something like this: Because of the nefarious efforts of ‘climate contrarians’ the public doesn’t believe in global warming and because of the public’s lack of belief, the U.S. government has not taken action on climate change. If you buy this public opinion argument, then the corresponding remedy is both to better educate the public about the existence of global warming and to defeat the contrarians before the public – the battle over public opinion about the existence of global warming has been won. Efforts made trying to convince the public that global warming is “real” are pretty much wasted on the convinced. The public overwhelmingly believes global warming to be real and consequential. In fact, I’d even hypothesize that when compared to what the public actually believes about climate change and the future, the IPCC reports would seem pretty tame.”

    And let’s be fair, just as there is an effort to frame climate change as uncertain, there is also a struggle to frame it as certain, as you suggest is one role for RealClimate. What both of these framings have in common is agreement that scientific certainty is THE way to frame debate on climate change. Hence we see battle over battle over certainty or uncertainty about hockey sticks, tropospheric temperature trends, economic scenarios, hurricanes and global warming, etc. etc. But if you think (as I do) that the evidence shows that effective action on climate change (both mitigation and adaptation) is largely independent of whatever level of scientific certainty exists, then we have an alternative to the uncertainty/certainty framing. Those who argue for scientific certainty are just as wrapped up in the framing described by Antilla as are the ‘skeptics’.

    Perhaps we should be looking for other framings? This paper is about reframing the climate debate in a manner other than uncertainty:

    Sarewitz, D., R. A. Pielke, Jr., 2000: Breaking the Global-Warming Gridlock. The Atlantic Monthly, 286(1), 55-64.

    [Response: Just a quick point. Neither we nor the IPCC have never claimed that science is ‘certain’! What would be the point of continuing as scientists in such a circumstance? This is simply another (incorrect) framing of the debate – the sceptics claim things are too uncertain to constrain policy, and so everyone who disagrees with them obviously thinks there is no uncertainty. This is a fallacy that I am surprised that you appear to fall for. -gavin]

    [Response: “But if you think (as I do) that the evidence shows that effective action on climate change (both mitigation and adaptation) is largely independent of whatever level of scientific certainty exists”. No. I don’t think that. Very few people would sign up to it. It seems a weird thing to argue. If there was no certainty at all (if we knew nothing whatsoever about likely trends in future climate) there would be no arguments for action on climate change – William]

  4. 4
    Stephen Leahy says:

    If climate change, or any issue for that matter, is perceived as controversial, then reporters, and especially their editors, put stories into the he said-she said framework so that there is ‘balance’. That opens the door to skeptics who emphasize the uncertainty around the science or cherry pick data which many reporters/editors do not have the understanding of the subject to dismiss.

    Media in nearly every other country don’t bother to quote skeptics because they don’t have any, or see them as unqualified and have nothing of value to offer on the subject.

    I think US coverage is starting to change as public consensus grows that climate change is real and that we are responsible. That change is slow because it is true that we journalists prefer to drink from our own bathwater rather than from the springs of science… :}

  5. 5
    Stephen Berg says:

    Even some large corporation heads are saying we need to combat climate change:

    Now, these are the people who those ExxonMobil-funded skeptics say will “lose money” due to measures which are put in place to fight climate change. These are the people the Bush Administration believes will suffer at the hands of measures such as the Kyoto Protocol, which the Bushies say will “damage the economy.”

    It’s wake-up time!

  6. 6
    Roger Pielke Jr. says:

    Gavin- With due respect, your response turns my comment into a strawman. The point is whether or not we should be debating various levels of uncertainty as a basis for action. The IPCC has clearly identified the quantification of uncertainty as one of its key contributions to policy making. This is a contestable framing of the issue. Some framings are more amenable to action and others to gridlock. There are serious scholars who consider how to design policies in the face of open disputes about how much certainty actually exists about the future. The climate issue could be framed as a challenge of decision making under uncertainty, under which political debates over levels certainty might be less relevant (even in the face of a scientific consensus).

    [Response: Roger – you seem to be muddying the distinction between science and policy. From the science viewpoint, quantifying the uncertainty is an important issue. From the policitcal point of view, one could well argue that sufficient certainty exists for action now – but that has little to do with the IPCC – William]

  7. 7
    Mark A. York says:

    The exchange between Roger and Gavin illustrates this perfectly and Gavin wins in this reporter’s book. It’s fallacial and more specifically the “either or fallacy” conservative groups and publications rely on as a baseline for all of their writings. The faux balance in journalism today helps to promote this. We see it in all things but especially science. Some journalists have scientific backgrounds. I’m a fish biologist and have a collateral field in environmental biology and work for the US government off and on for over 25 years now. Still, even with that I can’t get even the lowest reporter position anywhere, so expertise isn’t what most papers are looking for, hence they get co-opted by the advocacy groups and muzzled by editors wanting to be fair. Propaganda should be given deference in a debate. Framing is key in this.

  8. 8
    Roger Pielke Jr. says:

    Folks- I won’t clutter this thread further, and I appreciate the opportunity to weigh in with a different perspective. Gavin and I went around on this once before in these posts over at our site:

    No need to replow that ground, but if folks want to follow up on those subjects drop me an email. Thanks.

  9. 9
    Roger Smith says:

    I think it’s right that neither media representation, public opinion, nor the science is a primary driver of climate policy. I do think that together they significantly impact the politics, so it is useful to respond on all fronts.

    I think Roger P. is right that the battle isn’t for public opinion, and it’s certainly not within the scientific community. I think the real targets in the US now are business and political leaders, and framing in the media is one effective way to reach them.

    Republican pollster, message guru Frank Luntz in a 2003 memo to Republican congressional leaders on how to talk about global warming:

    “The scientific debate remains open. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.”

    As far as the scientific certainty/uncertainty frame versus other frames- I think it’s helpful for scientists to reiterate the strength of the science and to clear up misconceptions, and to leave it to others to shift the debate away from the science to the politics where it belongs.

  10. 10
    Bob says:

    See also:
    Boykoff, M & Boykoff, J. (2004). Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press. Global Environmental Change 14, 125-136.

    This paper demonstrates that US prestige-press coverage of global warming from 1988 to 2002 has contributed to a significant divergence of popular discourse from scientific discourse. This failed discursive translation results from an accumulation of tactical media responses and practices guided by widely accepted journalistic norms. Through content analysis of US prestige press – meaning the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, andthe Wall Street Journal – this paper focuses on the norm of balanced reporting, and shows that the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.

  11. 11
    Jean Siracusa says:

    I teach biology at a Community College and have come to the conclusion that mainstream America chooses to be ignorant of current issues regarding anything with scientific content. Even faculty in other disciplines appear to be ignorant of the gravity of global warming, and other issues such as genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). Recently a student who regularly communicates with students on a worldwide blog mentioned that he had to leave the conversation to work on a test (my class). When someone asked him what the questions were and he responded GMO’s, the discussion of these European and Asian students lasted three hours. Most Americans I encounter either do not care, or are completely unaware of these issues, contrary to students in other countries such as those described in this response, and also exchange students I have encountered from other cultures. I believe the quality of an American education has reached an all time low, and regardless my attempt at enlightment of students, I often feel discouraged at the level of ignorance in our country. Reading the refreshing comments on this website tells me that we are singing to the choir, and need to look outside of the scientific professions if we desire meaningful understanding of science by non-scientists and an opportunity for positive change.

  12. 12
    Pat Neuman says:

    It isn’t just mainstream media tending “to present climate science as more controversial than it actually is”. Politicians and industry lobbyists are doing that too, and so are government agency directors and their employees. No single person, agency or group in the U.S. is being held accountable for educating the public on what’s really happening to climate, and what needs to be done about global warming. The government will eventually be charged for this failure, but the people who are in government now will likely not be held accountable for the mistakes. Governments of all countries need to act together to try to solve this problem which may doom entire world. Government, and governments, need to lead.

  13. 13
    Michael Jankowski says:

    No, a lot of journalists and reporters are not well-versed in math and science. But I imagine the same can be said of many of the posters here, and it can certainly be said of many of the crusaders for the cause of educating the public about AGW.

    I’ve seen plenty of scary global-warming headlines, articles, and even school textbook passages that are essentially farces. Are these the product of powerful special interest groups, too, or simply innocent but poor reporting?

  14. 14
    Pat Neuman says:

    What are some of those “scary global-warming headlines” that you say are essentially farces?

  15. 15
    Mauri Pelto says:

    I agree with comment #11. I teach more than 100 new students every semester and a significant portion ask me directly is global warming real. As a researcher in the field I am constantly asked by people aobut this. The point is, Piekle is not correct in saying most Americans except global warming is the reality. They may be leaning that way, but are not convinced enough to voice their opinion or take any action. I have watched five of the glaciers I have montitored for 23 straight years melt away. And even after people read the articles on this they still ask me, “do you think global warming is part of it”. These people have seen the facts, and yes they also hear of the debate, but the facts are not considered carefully enough for an understanding in the public to develop. If the price of gas goes up that gets our attention more than an ongoing climate change.

    There is another example this week of bias on a scientific topic carrying to highest levels of government. This is leading us to fail to pursue scientifically justified practices. That is the FDA’s research on the morning after pill, which shows it is has merit, but which was circumvented with a big red no way stamp, at higher levels. I have no opinion on this particular pharmeceutical, but do not forget that it is not just climate science that is being ignored because it is counter to republican dogma.

  16. 16
    Pat Neuman says:

    You are correct that in general, climate science is being ignored by the republican dogma, but it is not just the republican dogma that is doing the ignoring, the other political groups have essentially ignored global warming too, certainly before 2001, and even now.

  17. 17
    Ariel Thomann says:

    Please reconcile the following statements in a way I can understand:

    (1) “CO2 levels are increasing, something which actually has zero uncertainty.” and

    (2) “everyone who disagrees with them obviously thinks there is no uncertainty. This is a fallacy that I am surprised that you appear to fall for.”

    [Response: While some things are known (for instance that CO2 levels are increasing), many things are still uncertain (interactions between aerosols and clouds). The false dichotomy between everything being ‘certain’ or everything being ‘uncertain’ is just a rhetorical trick. There are a range of uncertainties in all aspects of the science, but (I would contend) many aspects are certain enough to allow us to conclude that human impacts on climate are indeed significant and growing. – gavin]

  18. 18
    Pat Neuman says:

    I’ve been looking for documentation about climate change in Minnesota, and other areas in the Upper Midwest, for over six years. In 2000, I began doing climate studies on my personal time. I felt I needed to do that because no one else was doing that. When I asked government managers about climate change, those whom I thought had responsibility in providing information and education to the public on climate change and global warming, their reply was that the subject was too controversial. The order had already gone out, early in 2000, that government employees were not to discuss climate change or global warming as part of their jobs.

    Although I don’t consider the State of Minnesota to be the unit of government most responsible for providing the public with facts about climate change and global warming, I note that even today, the website of the State of Minnesota Climatology Office, in referring to the subject of Climate Change and Minnesota, states:

    “The subject matter is of professional interest to us, but we make no claim of expertise in this highly complicated and politicized field of study.”

    Climate Change and Minnesota

    “While the State Climatology Office is not actively involved in scholarly work investigating the issue of climate change, our Office is often called upon to offer scientific opinions on the topic. The subject matter is of professional interest to us, but we make no claim of expertise in this highly complicated and politicized field of study. Our thoughts on the issue are well represented by a policy statement prepared by the American Association of State Climatologists (AASC). Staff of the State Climatology Office hold membership within the AASC, and were asked to provide review and endorsement of this statement”.

    American Association of State Climatologists Policy Statement on Climate Variability and Change

    “The views found here or on the linked site do not represent a formal policy position held by the State of Minnesota or the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources”.

  19. 19
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    It’s not just the pro-con format, but the media’s deafening SILENCE on GW. When I bring up GW, the most typical response is that they haven’t heard about it (in the media) for so long, they assumed it had been disproven, or was not a problem in any serious way. In my little world, virtually no one knows about it, and of those who have some inkling about it, very few care or think it involves them. Some have heard about it, but they’ve only heard the contrarian arguments. Science students on my campus complain they aren’t learning the right stuff on it, or the scientific “caution” disallows professors from giving it much credence. Then you get the “geological argument”: “The earth has always been changing, and always will long after we insignificant human are extinct” (I added “insignificant” for dramatic effect, but the rest is pretty much standard Geology 101, according to what students tell me.)

    In the Catholic church (as in many other churches), we’ve had statements from the top (the U.S. Bishops in 2001, and the Pope in 1990) on GW, and how we should work to reduce it, that it’s everyone rsponsibility, that prudence requires that we do something about it, even if we don’t agree on its scientific certainty. I’ve only heard one priest mention it once in the past 15 years, and he confused it with the ozone hole. When I asked my priest to mention it sometime, he said the church members who listen to Rush Limbaugh would be upset and criticize him.

    I see survey stats that XX(double digit)% of people know about GW and/or think it is a problem. Where are these >10% people? Not in my world.

  20. 20
    Gregory Lewis says:

    But Lynn you live in Texas. It not that way here in Berkeley :).
    Actually, a friend of mine, a Ph.D. working physicist, read some of the MM & MBH papers and decided it was too much work for him to figure out what was right. He basically gave up trying and now considers himself a GW agnostic. Furthermore he is well aware of the industry funded disinformation campaign.

    This is a bit off topic, (except that it is related to energy policy and media coverage) but people may be interested in the Alaskan gas pipeline scandal which has gotten no press outside of Alaska. There are a series of articles in the Anchorage Daily News: (registration required but no fee). In short the Governor has negotiated a deal with the oil companies that led to the firing of the head of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the resignation of his six top officials (all Republicans). The deal provides guarantees and subsidies for the pipeline despite the DNR and seven other studies saying they are unnecessary. The upside is that there is a good chance that the deal won’t go through because so many laws will need to be changed, and it wouldn’t take much for a committee Charmain to just sit on the bills. The bad news is that the DNR is now forbidden from working on oil and gas contracts, and the state has no one else with the expertise.

  21. 21
    Michael Jankowski says:

    RE#19 – “It’s not just the pro-con format, but the media’s deafening SILENCE on GW.”

    A quick google brings up:

    San Fran Chronicle “9 hours ago” – “Global warming study forecasts more water shortages”

    ABC Science Online “19 hours ago” – “Global warming models ‘biased'” (not enough emphasis on southern hemisphere, that is)

    ABC News “20 hours ago” – “Global Warming May Harm N.J. Coast”

    Going to and searching for “global warming” in the past 30 days brings up 29 articles. A few of them appear to simply be discussing legislation, but most involve GW fears. The same can be found by searching the archives at the websites of many of the other most widely-read newspapers – Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, etc.

    Knowing you are a Texan: in the past year, the Houston Chronicle archive search produces 133 articles containing “global warming,” 22 of them in the title of the article. If there’s any local paper in a large city in the US that would be pressured by big oil, conservative viewpoints, etc, and bury global warming articles, it would seem that the Houston Chronicle would be it. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any “silence” there.

  22. 22
    stephen says:

    I am not a scientist, reporter, politician, policy analyst, etc. But I think what keeps the general person from caring enough about GW is it’s lack of clearly identifiable effects in people’s localities. People care about what happens in their local geographic space, or at least the geographic space we identify ourselves with. Unfortunately it may be/is nearly impossible for any scientist to point to a tornadoe, hurricane, high temperature, record rainfall, record snowfall, etc and say “there it is, that’s global warming.”

    So I would argue that it may not be so much a gullible, uneducated public; but rather an apathetic public. Not apathetic out of ignorance, but generally because people have trouble caring about things they don’t see directly impacting their daily lives.

  23. 23
    dasilva says:

    With regards to the AP story it’s probably worth noting that editors or designated headline copy writers write headlines, not reporters. And because this was a newswire story, it could conceivably have carried a different headline in every paper in which it ran. It’s a small point, but if you want reporters to understand how science works, it’s only fair that you understand how reporters work.

    Now, a question: To whom are we referring when we talk about the “mainstream media”? USA Today? Do we mean the network news programs? Time and Newsweek? Do we include the science writing in the New York Times? Science Friday on NPR? How about Elizabeth Kolbert’s work in the New Yorker? National Geographic? Smithsonian? Scientific American?

    The point I’m hinting at is: There is reasonably good information out there. If it isn’t what you consider mainstream, then perhaps the real blame for whatever public skepticism there is regarding anthropogenic global warming rests as much with media consumers — i.e., the public — as it does the media itself. Just a thought.

    Keep up the good work.

  24. 24
    Pat Neuman says:

    I went to the doctor last week, just a check up, but with a doctor who recently arrived here from the state of Washington. He told me about the glaciers he saw in his visit to Alaska last summer, which he said have been shrinking since the last ice age. I asked him a couple questions about global warming. He told me what he’s heard (probably from the weathercasters, meteorologists or state climatologists). I told him not to rely on what he’s heard from other people about global warming, that he needed to learn about what’s happening for himself. He replied that he looked at the glaciers for himself. I think I’ll be looking for another doctor next time.

    They aren’t reading articles or watching broadcasts about climate change. The general public has become convinced that every study that comes out with one conclusion, will be followed by another study with an opposite conclusion. With hundreds or TV stations and a direct line to the Internet, people choose what they want to read, watch and do. That’s what freedom here means, I guess.

  25. 25
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #19 and #20,

    Ross Gelbspan, in his books “The Heat is On” and “Boiling Point,” recalls a conversation with a news editor of a major television network. He says that the editor left in “global warming” or “climate change” in relation to a Bangladesh typhoon. The quote was (I seem to recall): “…these events are likely to become more frequent and more intense as a result of global warming.”

    What happened next in the conversation was that the news editor told Gelbspan that the managers of the network scolded him and demanded he not include the terms “global warming” or “climate change” because advertisers, the fossil fuel and automotive industries, specifically, would pull their ads from the network and the network would lose the revenue it generates.

    Now that is a glaring example of the sad state of affairs in the United States (and to some extent here in Canada, except for our CBC, which does not have to worry so much about this).

  26. 26

    Billions already know it, Global Warming is here, as mentioned, it don’t take a weatherman to say it.
    , but it does take a scientist to explain it. Contrarians exploit the weakest link between GW and people. They don’t attack the science but rather its results, and leave one branch of this science unable to answer for another. Scientists are usually a shy bunch, most not PR geniuses. So with words coming from both sides of the debate, from thousands of scientists on one side vs a few PR wizards in the other corner, the entire thing gets muddled into a confusing morass of nonsense, perfectly as planned, the discussion resonates well with uncertainty .

    Examples abound, especially for the lay person, listening to American radio just this past October, “East coast winter is going to be a cold one” … Yet it is starting mighty mild. Who can trust what science is saying? It is right there where the disconnect is exploited, the Radio newsman announcing this coming winter didn’t place essential caveats, didn’t mention the track record of such predictions, just said it was going to be cold. Contrarians will exploit this for as long as erroneous forecasts will exist.

    In addition, contrarians have equated Global Warming science with the uncertain future, who knows what will happen? “No one can tell” is a common refrain. However this is exactly what Politicians want to know, they place their fortunes on, a possible version of the future which they hope may fit their plans. Those in favor of industrial pollution rely that it has been working for 150 years, why break it? Uncertainty is not favorable for framing policies, hence hydrogen engines may cause havoc and chaos……. Even if the cities would have unbelievably clean air. This contrarian atmospheric policy comes as close to a total societal progression stagnancy as can be found in history. However, this is certain: reducing atmospheric pollution only from the fiscal and suffering costs caused by heart, stroke and pulmonary diseases is worth it, let alone while achieving the larger goal, a more natural climate, not a dangerously warming one.

  27. 27
    John Fleck says:

    Without access to the article in question, I can’t comment on its methodology. But if Roger Pielke Jr. has quoted it correctly, it seems to contain a fundamental misunderstanding of the interplay between media coverage of climate and public understanding of climate. Survey data shows over and over again that a strong majority of Americans accept the scientific consensus on climate change and think something needs to be done about it. It is not a lack of public acceptance of the scientific consensus that is standing in the way of action on this issue. Roger’s right. That battle’s been won.

    The Boykoff and Boykoff paper, cited by Bob in #10, makes the same mistake, saying a media-induced disconnect between public and scientific discourse “has played a significant role in the lack of concerted international action to curb practices that contribute to global warming.” The Boykoffs cite no evidence to support that assertion, which seems to fly in the face of the previously noted public survey data. The Boykoff paper also suffers what I think is a fatal flaw – the conflation of the scientific consensus with a specific call for action. “The IPCC has asserted that global warming is a serious problem that has anthropogenic influences, and that it must be addressed immediately.” (emphasis added) I think readers of this blog understand that the IPCC has most emphatically not said the latter, and that scientists are only one of many voices that must be considered in framing a policy response. The Boykoffs clearly think they should have a privileged position in the debate, and are critical of journalists who do not give it to them. That is “scientization” at its finest.

  28. 28
    Stephen Leahy says:

    Gelbspan, former reporter for the Boston Globe, does cover many of the points made here regarding media coverage in his new book Boiling Point. The influence of advertisers and others is considerable as he documents in detail.

  29. 29
    Chris Reed says:

    I don’t think climate science get’s any more of a bad deal in most of the British media than many other branches of science.

    People tend to say/do things with greater consideration when observed than when not observed. I mean this in the sense that if you ask someone do they feel CC is an issue they may well agree, they may even suggest things they’re trying to do to help, it’s usually recycling in my experience. However when not observed, their behaviour will be different. I suspect that for many people the ‘doubt’ reported in climate science is just a useful opportunity for them to reduce the stress that this issue may otherwise cause them. They’ll fall back on using doubts about the scale of impact now that the reality cannot reasonably be denied.

    In this way I see people’s unobserved behaviours as being very animal. More concerned with immediate comfort and wealth, more (subconciously) concerned with status and it’s expression through vehicles/conspicuous consumption. I think that to see where we are headed we just need to consider how any animal would behave. And as far as I understand it the pattern is consume-breed, consume-breed, consume-breed, etc until EXTERNAL factors limit the process, i.e. I really wonder how much human ‘choice’ and ‘intelligence’ will be a factor.

    As it is, I suspect that the unobserved and poorly considered day-to-day choices of over 6bn ‘apex predators’ make the process more one of natural force than considered decision. So whilst accurate representation in the media is important, for the sake of it if nothing else. I see it’s importance as making sure that people were informed, and could have made a difference. I use the past tense advisedly as I can see little precedence to hope most people’s actions will be altered by proper representation of the science.

    So when the frog decides it’s so nice and warm, and continues to languish in the warmth of the pan, don’t feel you’ve failed. The frog just didn’t want to move. I hope the ‘frog’ proves me wrong, but for now I’m off for a cigarette. (Yes I know, I accept the science; heart disease, lung cancer etc etc, but I’ll worry about that tomorrow, or perhaps ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. Just like nearly 6bn others do).


  30. 30
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    A lot of the problem getting action on the issue is the lack of a really juicy climax or even a spicy melodrama. As a prod, GW is fighting for shelf space with nuclear annihilation, AIDS, and a 50% death rate from avian flu. When the early warnings of GW included cities under water, people perked up. Now that the crises have been scaled back, Global Warming stands there with the usual wallflowers like crappy schools, aging bridges, and presidential corruption. It’s all too easy to think: someone will do something when the time comes, and if they don’t, it really won’t matter much. Farming calamities are a tough sell in a country that pays its farmers not to grow stuff, and when honesty kept scientists from riding Katrina’s skirts, that sealed the deal. People know what recession feels like and what 2 degrees of Celsius feels like. People are going to court hunger and humiliation over the temperature difference between 8 AM and 9AM?

  31. 31
    eric says:

    Since I wrote this post, I do feel some need to weigh in.
    First, if you really have a strong opinion about the paper I’m citing, but haven’t read it, then READ IT.
    If you can’t get it for free, ask the author for a copy, or go to your local University library!

    Second, I think that the comments saying that “the public does accept global warming” are missing a point. Antilla doesn’t say they don’t accept it. She says they don’t have “extensive understanding of it”. This is quite different. And this relates to comment #22, who notes that “what keeps the general person from caring enough about GW is it’s lack of clearly identifiable effects in people’s localities.” I agree! But better informed journalism might easily make climate change impacts “real” for people.

    Third, Roger’s claim that Antilla’s study is flawed because she seems to think that “better science reporting will lead to better policy” is off the mark. First, the paper doesn’t say that — neither does the quote Roger cites. Second, the possibility that better knowledge won’t lead to better policy certainly always exists, in any context (not just climate change). But it doesn’t follow that one should apologize for shoddy journalism, however ineffective good journalism might be.

  32. 32
    Gar Lipow says:

    A few points on this. For the first time you are dicussing an area where I have something to contribute, rather than just questions.

    >She says they don’t have “extensive understanding of it”.

    That is a good start; most people don’t have much understanding of global warming. However another point is that while most people vaguely think it is a bad thing, it is not high on their priority list. In addition to lack of understanding, there are good rational reasons for this; in terms of being able do something about global warming is always and eternally a long term problem. What you do now will help prevent worse warming 20 years from. People always have immediate problems to deal with (including possibly the effects of global warming 20 years ago.)

    I think you are mistaken that the problem is how to influence journalists, business peopole, and politicians – the powerful – rather than ordinary people. Or rather I think you are mistaken that we can influence them directly. Mobilize ordinary people on this issue; make it a priority for them and you have more chance of using that to influence the powerful.

  33. 33
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    It’s a sad state if people will only respond to GW when they think it might affect them personally, their area. It’s always been my concern about others that’s motivated me (and I’m sure most on this blog). And seeing the response to Katrina & the tsunami, I think people do have hearts.

    So STATE OF LOVE would be the title of my book about courageous people bucking apathy and ridicule to reduce GHGs out of humanitarian concerns, and STATE OF FEAR would be about the media fearing to present the science on GW in a fairly straight-forward manner (as they do a lot of other issues), and about those contrarians who are scared stiff about losing money and/or liberties, if someone dares lift a finger to reduce GHGs.

    We don’t want to yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there’s no fire. But if there is fire, we would want people to know about it, and implement a quick plan to have them file out in an orderly fashion. But even if we yell, “global warming,” I can’t imagine a dangerous stampede ensuing. Like, what, everyone’s going to collide in a shopping frenzy to buy compact fluorescent bulbs?

    The media, policy-makers, and lay persons in general should be erring on the side of avoiding false negatives. The debate should be between false-negative avoiding people and false-positive avoiding scientists (how’s that for a pro-con format), and not between scientists and those striving for 101% confidence GW is happening.

  34. 34
    Pat Neuman says:

    Re #26 I agree with you that contrarians have equated Global Warming science with the uncertain future. Many politicians and people got that message and refuse to change.

    A couple more things … 1. Global warmers have been equated with bad news, even some scary global-warming headlines(#13). CBS 60 minutes last Sunday had a piece on environmentalists and eco-terrorists, now enemy number one on the government list. I think the piece was guilty of discrimination toward environmentalists of any sort. 2. Global warming implies guilt. People who use excessive fuel should feel guilty about doing that, in my book.

    by Pat Neuman

  35. 35
    Eli Rabett says:

    To start with media people come out of a similar environment as those dealing with policy and in general are much more interested in policy than science. They and the public have a weak understanding of scientific facts and an even worse understanding of the scientific process, which, if they think of it at all, they model as a television script.

    This makes them, and through them the public, easy prey for those who would spread uncertainty and doubt. It is useful to note that in the US, the uncertainty and doubt factories on science issues are based at policy foundations such as the Marshall Institute and CEI. You would do well to start by asking why this is the case.

    Since science types have in general a poor understanding of policy and presenting their results to the public, they are easy prey for the sharks trolling in the waters of any controversy. The first mistake is to assume good will. Although we all have colleagues who stubbornly stick to a weak scientific answer, we assume that it is because they really believe. This is not to be assumed in a policy argument where many making them perceive the science as secondary. Policy types do not make arguments based on science, they use science to support policies they like. Above all one must be alert to how others are trying to manipulate what you say and what you do. Some, of course, are more subtle at this than others. A typical tactic is to repeatedly distort what other have said.

    One could point to several examples in this thread.

  36. 36

    # 34 The future is difficult to forecast accurately, nearly impossible past 72 hours if the resolution of a met network is weak, climate predictions are somewhat easier but no cake walk . Being disingenuous is knowing this but not explaining the difference. This is the core contrarian argument. Speaking to the masses through TV, the distinction is left out for sake of a prompt, easy to understand delivery.

    To be precise with a Global temperature projection is only to come up with one value, compare this to declare the type of clouds in one small quadrant covering the sky one week from today. Expand this to a cloud distribution for the entire world, the increase in complexities involved become astronomical compared to an apparently simpler GT projection.

    I believe itâs the responsibility of the media to show the difference between Climate and Met models, to place them on a comparative scale of difficulty, and to expose those who try to mix the two models just for the sake of winning a debate.

  37. 37
    Pat Neuman says:

    #36 says … the responsibility of the media to show the difference between Climate and Met models, to place them on a comparative scale of difficulty, and to expose those who try to mix the two models just for the sake of winning a debate. …

    Who gives training to insure that meteorologists working for the media are keeping up with the science in meteorology and climate? In the U.S., NOAA’s National Weather Service, having one or more Weather Forecast Offices in nearly every state and a staff of over 5000 scientists nationwide has that responsibility. Who provides state of the science training for media employed meteorologists/climatologists in other countries?

  38. 38

    #37, It’s a media responsibility. I remember seeing Lindzen often berating Meteorologists incapacity to forecast beyond 4 days as being the same as predict ing the climate 1, 10 ,100 or 1000 years from now. Lately on CNN they pit him against many climatologists not once answering this statement , perhaps because the question was never asked to them, perhaps the contrarian argument satisfied the producer as a very sound powerful no nonsense edict not needing any response. At any rate, it made Lindzen look like he had an overwhelming decisive closing argument over the climate guys, who seem to have not been aware of Lindzen’s words. In many other contrarian vs climatologist TV exposes the media failed to distinguish the difference and didn’t ask the right questions, showing the producers significant incomprehension about the subject. The media in similar documentaries unwittingly help propagate a myth, whereas in the example given, no one from NOAA or other Government organizations had a chance to reply, they were never asked to respond. It is a common refrain, contrarians have their clever slogans, climate guys have a lengthy explanation always snipped short in the editing room, establishing more credibility for the slogans. Not all media fails like this, but it seems the shows with the most ratings utterly fail to detect this ruse nor grasp contrarian tricks.

  39. 39
    Richard Simons says:

    With regards to the comments about whether people believe global warming is a concern, I have just spent several weeks in a remote community in Manitoba. It is separated from the nearest road by about 200km of forest, lake and swamp. Heavy supplies, and in particular vehicles, fuel oil and gasoline, are trucked in during the winter on roads built across the ice. There is real concern in the community that the trucking season is getting shorter and that truck weights may have to be limited. People are expecting difficulties in keeping the community supplied in the future. In fairness to the media, I know this has been picked up by newspapers and television in the province.

    [Response:Canadian newspapers have done a far better job than US newspapers. Then again, my experience has also been they do a better job with all their reporting. Canadian newspapers caught on to the covert funding of the Contras about a decade before US papers, for example. I may be biased of course, since I grew up in BC. – eric]

  40. 40
    Pat Neuman says:

    The Minneapolis Star Tribune has had excellent articles on global warming, with no benefit. The reason for the failure on global warming in Minnesota is government. Federal, state and local government agencies and politicians in Minnesota have failed in their duties to protect the people and nature.

  41. 41
    Mark A. York says:

    “The false dichotomy between everything being ‘certain’ or everything being ‘uncertain’ is just a rhetorical trick.”

    Gavin hits it. It’s called the either or fallacy, the same on that says you’re with us or against us.

  42. 42
    Pat Neuman says:

    L. Antilla may be right in some ways … but something big seems to be missing.

    In Minnesota, mainstem media is just repeating what government experts are saying in this state … that global warming is too controversial, too complicated and too politicized to even talk about.

    Just read this!!

    Climate Change and Minnesota

    “While the State Climatology Office is not actively involved in scholarly work investigating the issue of climate change, our Office is often called upon to offer scientific opinions on the topic. The subject matter is of professional interest to us, but we make no claim of expertise in this highly complicated and politicized field of study.

    Our thoughts on the issue are well represented by a policy statement prepared by the American Association of State Climatologists (AASC). Staff of the State Climatology Office hold membership within the AASC, and were asked to provide review and endorsement of this statement”.

    American Association of State Climatologists Policy Statement on Climate Variability and Change

    Just read what’s on that link!!

    Are government agencies failing on global warming in your state? Please comment on how you think government agencies are dealing with the media on global warming in your state.

  43. 43
    Superior Mind says:

    America’s reliance on fossil fuels is a cultural problem. The population is largely ignorant and hasn’t made any intellectual progress since world war 2. Therefore they’re easy to manipulate by the advertising agencies employed by the treasury department and lobbyists. The Harley Davidson cult for example is a part of the American male’s sense of his masculinity and anything requiring more cognition than to understand a bumper-sticker is dismissed as “rocket science” by these fetishistic simple folk.

  44. 44
    Dano says:

    Echoing the nice comment in #39, I did a project in Alaska, outside of Anchorage recently. I can tell you, in addition to an occasional mention in the ADN, the folks up there are quite aware of climate change and the impacts it will have on their society. They just don’t get out the megaphone and bleat it every day. Whether this is a side effect of having Uncle Ted represent them, well, I can’t say for sure.



  45. 45
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #44,

    That may be true, but unfortunately, as covered very well in Mark Lynas’ book “High Tide,” many Alaskans seem to be swayed by the large sums of money and the large influence fossil fuel companies have on the politics of the state.

    Many Aboriginals/Inuit in the region are aware of and have been greatly affected by climate change, yet because they are receiving large cheques from the government (from these companies), many of them do little. It seems that they have been victims of bribery or blackmail, in that, in exchange for inaction, they get great gobs of money.

  46. 46
    Pat Neuman says:

    Re: #40

    Another excellent article in the Mpls StarTribune, delivered, but where is our government?

    Editorial: Industrialization threatens the Arctic
    November 22, 2005
    Drilling, mining, shipping will soar when summer ice is gone.

  47. 47
    Hank Roberts says:


    Framing … the inimitable Benny Peiser, anthropologist, whose “CCNet is a scholarly electronic network” has quoted this [CCNet 162/2005, 9 December 2005 ]:

    … carbon dioxide levels remain significantly below their average for the last 100 million years, at least on this planet. ”

    From here:


    Personally, when I try to frame things, I tell people that I think the Diety is going to come back from her long eighth day, sometime soon, and look in horror at what’s been done to Creation, and thunder:

    “You nitwits — I started Creation toward evolving enough kinds of life that you’d become intelligent, and protect it, and be able to take it with you to fill the big empty universe I’ve been off creating.

    “All those empty planets I’ve made out there, waiting for you — and you’ve eaten or burned most of what I told you to protect, that you’d need to take with you to live.

    “I knew free will might require a lot of restarts, to evolve an intelligent design; but I’m getting awfully tired of these dead end outcomes. Do I have to start evolution from scratch AGAIN, hoping to get an intelligent outcome? ”

    Just daydreaming, of course. But, Pascal’s wager also says, protect life, we may need it.

  48. 48


    Don’t you realise that it is not going to happen! God is not going to come to Earth and say all is forgiven. He has never done that in the past and there is no reason why he should do so in the future. If we fxxx up this planet, He is not going to come down and bail us all out! We will all just join that long list of extinct spiecies that have passed through the history of time!

  49. 49
    Hank Roberts says:


    Look, when I find someone selling chunks of quartz and amethyst at a street fair with blather about how the crystals will align your karma, polish your dogma and wax your aura — I get very wide-eyed and loud and start shouting that Crystals Keep The Earth Balanced And You’ve Got To Put Them Back Where They Belong, You’ve Broken Them Up And Scattered Them and You’ve Got To Restore Them ….

    My wife’s learned not to stand too close to me at street fairs if I spot one of the crystal karma salespeople.

    But you know, I think one or two of them have thought about what I said and gotten out of the business, because I asked them to play by their own rules and showed them they were being hypocrites.

    Same thing works sometimes with religious people. Read them the ‘rainbow’ passage out of Genesis — carefully — and you’ll see “The Book” says it’s all of creation, not humankind, that’s to be cared for and promised protection.

    If they want to believe in a deity, fine — if they read their own books, they have to believe that creation’s to be protected.

    Let people believe in a God if they want — it’s the businesspeople whose books tell them to grind up the world and ruin it, not the religious people, when you look at the doctrines they’re supposed to follow.

    Frame it however you can — but telling people their faith is empty won’t get you as much in the way of environmental concern and cooperation as telling people their faith says they ought to be caring about the environment.

    Frame it for the outcome — that whatever their religion, it says they should be protecting the world — rather than trying to convince them that they’re wrong to have a religion.

    The only religion I know of for sure that specifically argues that the natural environment should be destroyed is the Chicago School of Economics, which holds that all assets should be convertible into money, and all things are assets. Them, we have to convince to convert.