Tag Archives: global warming

Climate change and the limits of journalism

Hurricane Sandy flooding New York’s East Village.

The most trenchant piece of media criticism you’re likely to see this week — this month? this year? — is an essay by journalist-turned-climate activist Wen Stephenson that appears on the cover of this week’s Phoenix.

Stephenson, an alumnus of the Boston Globe, the Atlantic and WBUR Radio, argues that though the media have in recent years finally moved beyond the false equivalence of balancing the scientific consensus with the views of a few fringe denialists, news coverage of climate change remains polite to the point of timidity. Stephenson writes:

Our most respected climate scientists … are increasingly clear and vocal about one thing: we’re rapidly running out of time to address climate change in any meaningful way and avoid the risk of global climate catastrophe, with the incalculable human suffering that it will bring, quite possibly in this century.

In the face of this situation — as much as it pains me to say this — you are failing. Your so-called “objectivity,” your bloodless impartiality, are nothing but a convenient excuse for what amounts to an inexcusable failure to tell the most urgent truth we’ve ever faced.

What’s needed, Stephenson says, is for the media to move beyond the political near-silence that has descended over the climate-change issue and instead focus relentlessly on the subject.

It’s a good, important piece, and you should read it. Nevertheless, I have some quibbles.

First, I think Stephenson, for all his experience, misapprehends the limits of journalism. It’s not like our best news organizations have ignored climate change. They’ve reported on it frequently, prominently and with great skill. But they’ve done it in an oxygen-deprived environment. That is, a story in the New York Times or on network television, no matter how it’s played, is not going to get the sort of traction Stephenson would like to see without the oxygen of an engaged political system.

That’s not to say Jim Lehrer, Candy Crowley or Bob Schieffer couldn’t have put President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney on the spot during the presidential debates. But that wouldn’t come close to the intensity generated by genuine political engagement, congressional hearings and the like. Climate change has slid off the public agenda. Journalism’s ability to force it back onto the agenda is not nonexistent, but it is limited.

Second, Stephenson’s argument does nothing to answer the sinking feeling I get whenever I read about climate change — that it’s already too late in many respects, that nothing we can do would offset the massive damage that is already occurring and that, essentially, we’re screwed. I’m not suggesting we be spared the truth. But that’s not the sort of message likely to lead to much more than sullen desperation.

Ironically, as I finish writing this, we are learning that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Obama precisely because the president takes climate change more seriously than his opponent. Citing Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg wrote:

Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.

So maybe facts on the ground — and in the sky, and the oceans — will accomplish what journalism has not: force all of us to take climate change seriously. Of course, we can’t pretend to know the relationship between Sandy and global warming. But it’s worth asking whether the storm was more severe than it would have been absent climate change; whether more storms like it are occurring; and whether Sandy caused more devastation than it otherwise would have because the seas are higher than they used to be.

Don’t misunderstand me. I completely agree with Stephenson and his observation that the mainstream media tend to seek consensus over difficult truth-telling. Maybe events like Sandy, and leaders like Michael Bloomberg, will start to change that consensus.

Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

A Rapturous new attack on climate science

It’s the latest meme among commentators who want to downplay or dismiss concerns about climate change: those doomsayers are just like the Rapture wackos! Three examples:

  • Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby: “The May 21 apocalypse foretold by the fundamentalist minister Harold Camping never materialized, but end-of-the-world doomsaying goes on as usual among the global warmists.”
  • Syndicated columnist Jay Ambrose: “You can, on the one hand, listen to Bill McKibben, who says the raging Midwest and Southern tornadoes are still another sign of global warming doom. Or you can listen to Harold Camping, who recently announced the world would go kaput not too long after Christians were sent heavenward on May 21 by none other than God himself.”
  • Detroit News editorial-page editor Nolan Finley: “The rapture predicters are no more looney than those who want to connect the serial natural disasters to global warming.”

As with Al Gore, Camping and company are a lot easier to dismiss than atmospheric scientists.

Here is a splendid account of how D.R. Tucker, a Massachusetts conservative, moved from denial to acceptance as he immersed himself in the facts. Well worth reading.

Cape Wind and the high cost of fossil fuels

Boston Herald business reporter Jay Fitzgerald today has the latest in his series of reports on the cost of Cape Wind. Fitzgerald finds that the high price of Cape Wind energy will be borne mainly by those who live and work a long way from the offshore turbines.

Meanwhile, Boston Globe environmental reporter Beth Daley yesterday delved into the planning process behind Cape Wind, which grew out of then-candidate Deval Patrick’s support for the project in 2006. It seems clear from Daley’s reporting that state officials either could have done more to keep the costs down or were taken by surprise.

Good journalism? Absolutely. Yet both stories skip over a crucial fact. The cost of fossil fuel is heavily subsidized. The oil, gas and coal industries do not have to pay for the pollution they dump into the environment, especially the massive carbon-dioxide emissions that already appear to be causing significant climate change. And that’s just the beginning, as Cape Wind activists Barbara Hill and Matthew Pawa observe in this commentary.

It’s similar to the cost of cheap food — factor in the cost of pollution from factory farms and from the medical costs of eating highly processed industrial food, and it doesn’t look so cheap anymore.

Why Climategate doesn’t matter (X)

The series explained.

For some time now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to wrap up this series of blog posts. I can think of no better way than with Ross Douthat’s column in today’s New York Times. Douthat, a conservative, is too grounded in reality to argue anything so stupid as the idea that human-caused climate change doesn’t exist. Instead, he unintentionally traces the devolution of respectable global-warming skepticism.

1. Global warming isn’t real. This position was popular at one time, and you occasionally hear it espoused today, though not by anyone who has spent any time learning about the subject. As has been well-documented, the current decade is the warmest on record, followed by the 1990s and then by the ’80s.

2. Global warming is real, but it’s not our fault. Yes, the earth has been warming and cooling for millennia for reasons that are poorly understood, but that are probably related to solar activity. But the current warming trend is occurring with unusual rapidity. Carbon-dioxide levels are the highest they’ve been since the age of the dinosaurs thanks to emissions from factories, power plants and automobiles, and the science of how CO2 contributes to global warming is well established.

3. Global warming is good for you. Now we have arrived in Douthat Land. After asserting the obvious — “Conservatives who dismiss climate change as a hoax are making a spectacle of their ignorance” — Douthat then goes on to make a spectacle of his own, embracing the views of fringe scientists like Freeman Dyson and others, who claim that even though human-caused global warming is real, we shouldn’t be all that worried about it. Douthat writes:

Their perspective is grounded, in part, on the assumption that a warmer world will also be a richer world — and that economic development is likely to do more for the wretched of the earth than a growth-slowing regulatory regime.

I’m not even going to bother to engage in a debate over whether a hotter planet will be good for us. I think it’s enough that the so-called respectable right, having given up the idea that global warming isn’t taking place, or that humans aren’t contributing to it, have retreated to such an absurd position. If that’s where Douthat and company want to make their stand, they are welcome to it.

And though I am surely not done with writing about climate change, I am done with this series.

All posts in this series.

Why Climategate doesn’t matter (IX)

The series explained.

Sharon Begley lays it out:

[N]ot only did British investigators clear the East Anglia scientist at the center of it all, Phil Jones, of scientific impropriety and dishonesty in April, an investigation at Penn State cleared PSU climatologist Michael Mann of “falsifying or suppressing data, intending to delete or conceal e-mails and information, and misusing privileged or confidential information” in February. In perhaps the biggest backpedaling, The Sunday Times of London, which led the media pack in charging that IPCC reports were full of egregious (and probably intentional) errors, retracted its central claim — namely, that the IPCC statement that up to 40 percent of the Amazonian rainforest could be vulnerable to climate change was “unsubstantiated.” The Times also admitted that it had totally twisted the remarks of one forest expert to make it sound as if he agreed that the IPCC had screwed up, when he said no such thing.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

I realize I’m being intellectually dishonest by not pointing out that Al Gore got a massage, but that’s the way it is.

All posts in this series.

Richard Lindzen’s curiously unskeptical skepticism

The Boston Globe today fronts a good story by environmental reporter Beth Daley on the feud between MIT scientists Richard Lindzen and Kerry Emanuel. Lindzen, who is described as a global-warming skeptic, has had something of a falling-out with Emanuel over the latter’s rising fame resulting from his advocating strong steps to combat climate change.

No story about Lindzen’s so-called skepticism, though, would be complete without a reference to his classic 2007 essay for Newsweek, in which he revealed himself not to be a skeptic but, rather, someone who thinks global warming could prove to be a boon. The piece is no longer available on on the open Web, so allow me to quote from it at some length. Here are the highlights:

There has been a net warming of the earth over the last century and a half, and our greenhouse gas emissions are contributing at some level. Both of these statements are almost certainly true. What of it?…

A warmer climate could prove to be more beneficial than the one we have now….

Is there any point in pretending that CO2 increases will be catastrophic? Or could they be modest and on balance beneficial? India has warmed during the second half of the 20th century, and agricultural output has increased greatly. Infectious diseases like malaria are a matter not so much of temperature as poverty and public-health policies (like eliminating DDT). Exposure to cold is generally found to be both more dangerous and less comfortable.

OK, I’m being selective. Lindzen does write that his reading of the evidence shows human-caused climate change is less severe than most scientists believe, and that the climate models used to predict catastrophic global warming are inherently unreliable. He discusses that in more detail in the Wall Street Journal piece that Daley mentions.

But, at root, Lindzen the “skeptic” believes that the earth is warming, and that human activity is contributing to that warming. Nor do we have to worry about warming-related disease — all we need is the guts to bring back DDT.

Lindzen is free to believe anything he likes. But his opinions and political beliefs are not science.