Dec 1 2013

Certain Science, Dubious Reporting

IPCC report misread as a green light for false balance

IPCC ReportIt is hardly a surprise when conservative media deny climate change, humanity’s responsibility for it or the feasibility of stopping it. But even media that accept what science tells them are failing to effectively communicate that reality to the public.

Published late September, part one of the fifth and most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced a rise in certainty to 95 percent that warming since the mid–20th century is human-caused, up from 90 percent certainty in the previous 2007 report. To put the numbers in other words, “they are about as certain that global warming is a real, man-made threat as they are that cigarettes kill” (AP, 9/24/13).

But the report has been attacked by skeptics ever since leaks of its findings began. Using a “statistical sleight of hand,” climate change denialists created a false narrative of a nonexistent “pause” in temperature rise (Mother Jones, 10/7/13). Their success can be seen not only in misleading right-wing headlines declaring that the “‘planetary emergency’ is over” (Fox News, 10/11/13), but also in continued attention to denialists in mainstream news reports—when those outlets covered the story at all.

The IPCC comprises thousands of scientists from 39 countries who make a lowest common denominator assessment based on peer-reviewed publications in climate science.

As shown in a study from Media Matters (10/10/13), while 97 percent of climate researchers accept the consensus on human-caused warming, 17 percent of sources in the Washington Post, 29 percent in the L.A. Times and half in the Wall Street Journal were denialists. An overwhelming 69 percent of Fox News’ guests cast doubt on climate science.

An example of this “false balance” is also seen in USA Today, which published “IPCC Exaggerates Risks” (10/14/13) as an “Opposing View” to its own editorial, “Climate Change Is Here and Now” (10/14/3). Though there are many legitimately debatable issues within the realm of climate science and the climate movement—such as how best to slow or stop climate change—USA Today chose to amplify the voice of Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, which prides itself on being “the world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change.” Heartland produces the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) report, which masquerades as a scientific rebuttal to the IPCC—a strategy that has even taken in the BBC (Guardian, 10/1/13).

Falsely portraying the issue as a debate makes it more difficult to garner public support for action—but there is more to accurately reporting climate change than simply acknowledging that it’s a reality. Even discussing the “pause” in warming as a myth can backfire and harm public perception by creating a “familiarity bias”: Some studies show that people remember as the truth what is repeated most often—even when they are told it is false (ThinkProgress, 9/16/12). So rather than discussing myths at length in effort to debunk them, it is often more effective to focus on the truth itself.

CNN Early Start (9/27/13) was one of many that made this mistake, framing the topic by explaining why the “pause” is “key in this particular report.” NPR (9/27/13) aired two shows on the IPCC report on the day it was published, both of which discussed the “pause.”

On CBS, one out of five of those quoted were denialists (Media Matters, 10/10/13). A week before the report’s publication (9/19/13), it ran the headline “Controversy Over UN Report on Climate Change as Warming Appears to Slow.” By the eve of publication, CBS Evening News (9/26/13) appeared to have chosen a side, headlining its report “Globe Not Warming as Previously Thought: UN Report.”

In this confusing, flip-flopping broadcast, correspondent Mark Phillips opened: “Another inconvenient truth has emerged on the way to the apocalypse…. The global atmosphere hasn’t been warming lately.” The graphic illustrating this, however, shows that the atmosphere actually has been warming. After one guest explains that there has clearly been a rise in ocean temperatures, another comes on to argue against urgency and against “crippling cuts in fossil fuel use.” Phillips concludes by emphasizing the “debate is about to heat up,” as if he has just laid out two equally credible positions.

By Sunday, just two days after the report summary was released, it was apparently old news. None of the major Sunday shows—NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union and Fox News Sunday—had one word on the report. Instead, all five of them focused on the impending government shutdown, and a bit on Iran.

Would they have given it some attention if not for the shutdown? Probably not—George Stephanopoulos of ABC also found time to discuss Hillary Clinton’s potential 2016 presidency, and put the “Sunday Spotlight” on a documentary about the Somali battle that inspired Black Hawk Down. But not a second could be spared for the climate.

Climate change is already here every day, and September “should have been the biggest month for climate change journalism in six years” (Mother Jones, 10/1/13). If the release of the most eminent report in climate science expressing more certainty than ever is not an appropriate time to talk about it, when is?

Extra! December 2013