What are the dangers of the kind of journalistic irresponsibility that currently characterizes the media’s role in our public policy debate? Too many to enumerate here, of course, but let’s consider one example: climate science.
Scientists have not had an easy time trying to convince Americans that global warming’s threat is genuine and worrisome. In a March Gallup poll, nearly half of those questioned said that they believe the threat of global warming to be "generally exaggerated," whatever that means. This was a rise from 35 percent two years earlier. According to the same poll, a bare majority of 52 percent of Americans believe that "most scientists believe that global warming is occurring," down from 65 percent in 2008.
To be fair, climate change is a terribly complicated matter whose dangers remain, for the moment, invisible to the average American, if not hypothetical. But it doesn’t help that we are visited by a daily barrage of misinformation about the issue from oil companies to Glenn Beck to your local news meteorologist insisting that the science behind global warming is just a big hoax designed to, well, it’s never quite clear what it’s designed to do, but there it is.
What’s more, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the number of lobbyists devoted to climate change has soared by more than fivefold since 2003, to a total of 2,810—or five lobbyists for every lawmaker in Washington. This money works in myriad ways. For instance, when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) joined Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) to author an op-ed for The New York Times calling for genuine bipartisan in support of climate control legislation, he was met with a stream of advertisements back home, including one that asked, "Why would Sen. Lindsey Graham support new energy taxes—called cap-and-trade— that will further harm our economy and kill millions of American jobs" at a moment when economic conditions have "pushed local businesses to the brink?"
Other lobbyists further did their darndest to confuse the issue and scare voters silly. "The government is going to monitor where you set your thermostat, how much plane travel you do," declared Marc Morano, a former Republican staffer on the Senate Environment Committee who now runs Climate Depot, a clearinghouse for misinformation about global warming. "It’s a level of control we’ve never even contemplated in America."
But as Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out in The New Yorker this week, "the most immediate explanation for this disturbing trend is the mess that’s come to be known as Climategate." We have discussed the Climategate events at length in this column here and here, along with some of the problems with climate reporting generally here. Suffice it to say that for all of the hullaballoo regarding stolen emails and hyped-up reports, the fact is the science of global warming remains where it began.
In a development that was buried in the news last week, a British parliamentary panel investigating allegations that scientists at one of the world’s leading climate research centers misrepresented data related to global warming announced Wednesday that it had found no evidence to support that charge. And yet, much of the media is simply proceeding on the basis that the global warming "scam" has been refuted and the problem is solved.
Of course, some of this is just stupidity. The New York Times recently profiled a group of meteorologists who have no particular expertise in climatology playing the role of climate deniers to the general public as a means—it would appear—of retribution toward climatologists because of all those fancy degrees real scientists have. Meteorologists have only bachelor’s degrees, while climatologists have doctorates and lab experience and the like and tend to look down on their little brothers and sisters.
"There is a little bit of elitist-versus-populist tensions," Bob Henson, meteorologist and writer, explains. "There are meteorologists who feel, ‘Just because I have a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on,’" apparently unaware that the American Meteorological Society has affirmed the conclusion of the United Nations’ climate panel that warming is occurring and that human activities are very likely the cause.
Meanwhile, a survey released by researchers at George Mason University found that more than a quarter of television weathercasters agree with the statement "Global warming is a scam," and nearly two-thirds believe that, if warming is occurring, it is caused "mostly by natural changes."
The New York Times article featured Joe Bastardi, who calls himself an "expert senior forecaster" at AccuWeather.com and who appears frequently on Fox News (and more recently, "The Colbert Report" ). He insists, for instance, that a combination of volcanism, sunspots, and a sea-temperature trend known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is really cooling the earth, and we should all just chill. This is "the greatest lab experiment ever," he explains, as if he would know. (Sadly, researchers at Yale and George Mason found that 56 percent of Americans trusted weathercasters to tell them about global warming far more than they trusted other news media.)
For some conservatives, however, science—like so much of reality—is the actual enemy. Bret Stephens, writing on The Wall Street Journal editorial page, titles his column, "What’s the Next ‘Global Warming?‘"—by which he means pointless panic. He thinks the entire notion of any kind of threat has now been demonstrated to be a big joke, with the vast majority of the world’s scientific establishments behaving no differently than the folks who believe "that we are approaching the End Time."
Stephens deploys as ammunition for his argument that "Gallup reports that global warming now ranks sixth on the list of Americans’ top 10 environmental concerns," as if a) that’s an accurate measurement of the nature of the threat and b) as if all of these reports and attacks of the kind Stephens and his colleagues are always writing and broadcasting all over the place would have had no impact on the public’s beliefs.
Stephens believes the entire global scientific and political establishments to be in cahoots about the global warming fantasy because when one invents such a threat, "money begins to flow toward grant-seeking institutions and bureaucracies, which have an interest in raising the level of alarm. Environmentalists counsel their version of virtue, typically some quasi-totalitarian demands on the pattern of human behavior. Politicians assemble expert panels and propose sweeping and expensive legislation."
Keep in mind that the nature of this problem, while impossible to predict with perfect accuracy, is as serious a threat to the well-being of the earth’s inhabitants as almost any war or famine the world has seen in more than half a century. Even the American Meteorological Society believes that the buildup of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to "major negative consequences." What might these be? According to a report prepared by the Guardian’s Alok Jha for the Copenhagen summit, should we stay on the path we’re on, we can expect a four-degree rise in the earth’s average temperature, and this likely scenario:
The Arctic permafrost enters the danger zone. The methane and carbon dioxide currently locked in the soils will be released into the atmosphere. At the Arctic itself, the ice cover would disappear permanently, meaning extinction for polar bears and other native species that rely on the presence of ice. Further melting of Antarctic ice sheets would mean a further 5m rise in the sea level, submerging many island nations. Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey become deserts and mid-Europe reaches desert temperatures of almost 50C in summer.
That’s just for starters, of course. The cost, both in money and human misery, would be staggering. And the likelihood of the world facing this situation is much higher than for any military scenario for which we spend trillions on our respective establishments to protect us. And yet, in so much of the media, all of this is somehow treated as a joke. Unfortunately, when these effects finally arrive, the joke will be on all of us.
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.