A Hard Week on the Planet

Mainstream science’s concerns are left out of the media conversation on climate change, writes Eric Alterman.

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United Nations climate chief Yvo de Boer addresses a press conference in New Delhi, India, on February 4, 2010. Today de Boer announced his resignation in the wake of the organization’s failure to achieve much of anything in terms of concrete commitments at Copenhagen. (AP/Gurinder Osan)
United Nations climate chief Yvo de Boer addresses a press conference in New Delhi, India, on February 4, 2010. Today de Boer announced his resignation in the wake of the organization’s failure to achieve much of anything in terms of concrete commitments at Copenhagen. (AP/Gurinder Osan)

The climate is not cooling, but environmentalists are when it comes to their hopes for an environmental presidency. United Nations climate chief Yvo de Boer announced his resignation in the wake of the organization’s failure to achieve much of anything in terms of concrete commitments at Copenhagen. And as Gautam Naik and Keith Johnson reported in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, “The spate of recent controversies about climate research has given fresh voice to a group of scientists who question the mainstream view that human activity is warming the planet to dangerous levels.” Naik and Johnson go on to do just that by offering an inventory of the well-trodden views of several well-known climate “skeptics” (pretty much without skepticism, one might add). Adding insult to injury, Tom Friedman has come up with his silliest cutesy-but-deeply-annoying headline in ages: “Global Weirding.”

This skepticism, which has always received far more play in the U.S. media than it did in scientific circles, has two significant effects. On the one hand, it appears to legitimize editorials like this one, in which the noted climatologists of Journal editorial page feel emboldened in their frequently stated belief that “the science [of global warming] is still disputable.” On the other hand, it adds significance to the decisions of corporations like oil giants BP PLC and ConocoPhillips and heavy equipment maker Caterpillar to withdraw their cooperation from business-environmental efforts—in this case the three-year-old U.S. Climate Action Partnership—designed to encourage industry to engage constructively in policy discussions to meet the perceived threat.

To be fair, the critics have a point. Their storyline is driven by more than just a bunch of purloined emails from East Anglia scientists making embarrassing admissions and giving voice to their own uncertainties. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the alleged “gold standard,” as the Journal editors point out—has been caught offering some questionable or flat-out wrong arguments regarding the pace of melting of Himalayan glaciers and threats to Amazon rainforests—though much of the complaint about the latter seems to stem from its publication by the World Wildlife Federation, an NGO that does research and advocacy on environmental issues. (Many capable scientists do research with WWF and other NGOs, just as many skeptics in both science and media are underwritten by energy resource companies. The source of funding is not a priori cause for dismissal of the research, though it is important background information.)

Suffice to say that the skeptics do not exactly have a hard sell in the rest of the media. The number of reporters, pundits, and television pontificators who actually understand the science of global warming is infinitesimal, but the number of those who enjoy staking out an “edgy” or contrarian position for the hell of it is undoubtedly infinite. Thus we get repeated arguments from the right by Washington Post pundit George Will here and here and from the extreme left from Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, both of which have been repeatedly and specifically debunked in the publications that pay them and by Gawker’s Nick Denton, who admits to simply having a fondness for “doubters over firm believers.”

And of course the Fox News/Tea Party wing of the Republican Party concludes with shamelessness and stupidity to a degree that may be unparalleled in history that the mere fact of a lot of snow on any given day is proof positive that decades of science have been disproved. In part because Fox is leading in the cable ratings and in part because many people who work in cable television believe their jobs are to mimic, Lemming-like, whatever silly slogan will fill the endless airtime with pretty pictures, these climate inanities are repeated over and over until what was once true becomes false, at least for political and commercial purposes, to the point where we barely even need “The Daily Show” for satire purposes anymore. It’s practically straight news.

Atmospheric scientist Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, or NAS, says his “reading of the vast scientific literature on climate change is that our understanding is undiminished by" the new information, and the ensuing brouhaha reflects, instead, “the fragile nature of trust between science and society, demonstrating that the perceived misbehavior of even a few scientists can diminish the credibility of science as a whole.”

Yes, I believe Mr. Cicerone. After all, what do I know about this complicated science? But I do wonder, like many people, I imagine, what to make of those emails that appeared to call them into question. So I did a little research calling on a scientist friend employed by NAS, and she explained to me that as far as the scientific content of the East Anglia emails goes, they are principally concerned with the data and analysis of changes in temperature over the last thousand years.

As I now understand it, most of the controversy revolves around the scientists’ refusal to make their data and models available to other people. What’s the big deal? Apparently, it is not as simple as it sounds: The data are voluminous and difficult to collect and collate; the models are complicated, sometimes proprietary, and can certainly be seen as the intellectual property of the scientists. Moreover, complying with the requests can be very time consuming.

The data, analyses, and conclusions of the scientists involved in the East Anglia emails are not discredited by the set of emails—although one set of data from Chinese weather stations is under serious review. But they can be fairly accused of having violated the “scientific ethic” of welcoming re-analysis of their data in the pursuit of truth. They succumbed to a siege mentality and became resistant to even reasonable requests.

The more recent disclosures of unrealistic glacial disappearance rates and incorrect Netherlands geography also demonstrate some scientific sloppiness in the editing and review in the IPCC process. The physics, models, and most observations of climate change remain sound, however. A consensus among scientists appears to support a review and strengthening of the IPCC process, but again, it’s not inspiring very many scientists to question the principal conclusions: that the enormous changes we’re making to atmospheric chemistry are having a significant effect on climate, which will in turn have a significant effect on ecosystems. And none to the good.

For further research, the most exhaustive review of what we know and don’t know about the East Anglia email controversy was undertaken byGuardian science reporter Fred Pearce. Another useful examination of all of the big questions involved can be found in the two-part Climate Progress feature “How we know global warming is still happening” by physicist and CAP Senior Fellow Joseph Romm, who I’m guessing also knows what he’s talking about (though not because Tom Friedman says so. That’s actually a minus.).

Interestingly, for all the attention inspired by recent polls demonstrating an actual reduction in the public understanding of the issue since the Obama presidency began, it’s notable that despite the claims that all these revelations have seriously damaged the public’s confidence in “climate science,” 54 percent of voters in Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s poll, released on January 21, 2010, believed that climate change is either “definitely” or “probably” occurring, compared with just 18 percent who believed that it is “definitely” or “probably” not occurring. An even larger majority, 63 percent, say they believe climate change is likely caused by humans. So far, at least, the skeptics have lost the larger battle, despite the irresponsible reporting of it in the media.

And yet politically this may not matter. As Luntz’s poll also shows, climate change itself isn’t important for most voters. A mere 5 percent pick “ending climate change” as the single most important environmental and economic goal. Alas, it falls far behind ending dependence on foreign fuels, halting air and water pollution, saving the planet from destruction, and creating new energy jobs. American politics today is all about passion and, of course, money. And unfortunately, almost of all both appear to be lining up on the side of doing nothing.

The horrific and likely implications of failing to meet this challenge—particularly for the most vulnerable among us who cannot move to higher or more fertile ground in the event of rising oceans or disrupted ecosystems—make it a threat to the security of the United States and much of the world. The media have failed to accurately translate mainstream science’s concerns when it comes to climate change, but then again, it’s so much more fun to make fun of Al Gore because it snows, and as everybody knows, the purpose of news in our era is entertain, not to inform. If only scientists could be funnier.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

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