Nov 1 1999

Have Media Warmed Up to Climate Change?

Despite growing coverage, solutions still aren't on agenda

The reality of global warming and climate change are setting in, but major U.S. media outlets have thus far failed to examine the implications of what will be perhaps the most important issue of coming decades.

It is not that no coverage occurs. But it is fragmented and confusing. Media cite bits and pieces of the growing array of evidence demonstrating climate change is occurring. Right alongside, they may print the opinions of scientists on the payroll of fossil fuel interests who debunk the idea of climate change, asserting that global warming is not occurring or even that it is good for life on Earth.

“I don’t have any patience at all with those who claim there is nothing to worry about. There is everything to worry about,” said Dr. George W. Woodwell, director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, who has been involved in climate studies for three decades. “The chances of keeping a heavily technological civilization intact with an open-ended warming of the planet taking place are practically zero.”

He noted the temperature is a full degree centigrade higher on average then last century, and an additional two degree increase is predicted by the middle of next century. “At about that time, the Arctic Ocean goes from being frozen to thawed, from a white body to a black body. And what does that do to the climate of the Earth? We don’t have a clue. But there will be consequences,” said Woodwell.

“The real debate is not whether climate change is going on, but how to deal with it, and how to move to real solutions,” said Dr. Paul R. Epstein, M.D., associate director of the Center for Health in the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

The notion of solutions to global warming, such as switching to renewable energy sources, is rarely even considered in most mainstream media. Most simply accept declarations by fossil fuel interests that any such action could decimate the economy. Yet studies suggest such a transition could benefit the national and world economy, Epstein said, lifting living standards in the Third World while not harming our own.

Just the facts

The average temperature of the globe has increased by one degree centigrade this century, with winter and night time temperatures climbing an average of two degrees. 1998 was the hottest year of the millennium, but 1999 will soon capture that distinction.

Confirming predictions dating back as far as 100 years, the largest changes have come in temperate and northern climes. Alaska’s permafrost is melting, killing forests there. At the same time, apparently for the first time ever, tropical rainforests have dried out and some have burned in massive fires.

Satellite data show spring is arriving a week earlier in the Northern Hemisphere, while autumn arrives five days later then occurred only a decade ago. The ice sheet of Greenland is thinning rapidly. The concentration of carbon dioxide, the prime heat-trapping gas, has increased in Earth’s atmosphere by 30 percent over the pre-industrial era.

“We’ve changed the composition of the atmosphere with respect to heat-trapping gasses. And you don’t do that with impunity,” said Woodwell.

Missing the point?

Recent weather events have provided an indicator of how global warming issues are being minimized in the media. This summer has seen severe drought stretching across the Eastern Seaboard. Then an extreme rain event in August brought New York City to a virtual standstill by dropping more than two inches of water on the Big Apple in about an hour, swamping subways and leaving autos floating on highways. A week later, New York City announced it was initiating a massive spraying program to combat an outbreak of a potentially fatal virus borne by mosquitoes. In September, the gigantic Hurricane Floyd struck the East Coast, leaving North Carolina with the worst flooding the state had experienced in recorded history.

None of these events, drought, flood or disease, can by themselves be attributed to global warming, said Ross Gelbspan, author of a book about climate change called The Heat Is On, and a journalist who worked for 30 years on papers like the Washington Post and Boston Globe.

“No one weather event can be ascribed to global warming, but the pattern is very clear,” said Gelbspan. “It is exactly the pattern of weather events that the computer models predict as the early stages of global warming. And the press is not making this connection at all.”

Indeed, New York’s three major dailies heavily covered the city’s flooding, yet none noted that the frequency of severe storm events, defined as two inches of rain or more per 24 hours, has risen by 20 percent in the last decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Tropical diseases in temperate climes are manifestations of climate change. In early September, daily stories of the viral outbreak in the New York Times mentioned global warming just once, a one-sentence quote by a doctor on September 10 denying that there was any connection with the outbreak and climate change.

Harvard’s Epstein notes that since the early 1990s, predictions have been made that changing weather patterns, especially warmer winters and warmer nights, would allow tropical fauna and insects to live in new areas, bringing diseases along with them. And though the New York viral outbreak does not necessarily represent a “range change” into a new clime, he said, “This is certainly consistent with the predictions.”

Getting it right

Some global warming experts who are not connected with media say there are signs the logjam is beginning to break, and credit local media outlets for undertaking the serious analysis of the issue missing from the national debate.

“At the national level, the media is really not putting two and two together. But we have been pleasantly surprised about the amount of information that is starting to come out on global warming in local media,” said Brandon MacGillis. He is director of campaigns for the Washington, D.C.-based group Ozone Action, which publicizes the problems arising from the deterioration of the Earth’s protective ozone layer and increasing concentration of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere.

MacGillis cited a series in the Newark, N.J. Star Ledger (8/1-3/99) by science writer Kitta McPherson. The work examined the evidence that global climate change is occurring, policies that could be adopted in response to the problem, and the role of industry-funded scientists in muddying the debate.

McPherson said she seeks to stay “ahead of the curve” in bringing readers useful information. She said she wondered why the public still doubted the reality of global warming, although it is accepted as fact by most scientists. “I asked, why is there this disconnect?”

She attributes it partly to the efforts of fossil fuel interests to confuse the public and politicians (see Extra! Update, 8/98), and partly to institutional failures on the part of major media. She noted that global warming is both a scientific story and a political story: “When you have a story that falls somewhere in between, no one covers it.”

She hypothesized a third factor: reporters deciding to ignore the issue. She said she was subjected to “personal attacks on my character” after the story appeared: “I was amazed at their ferocity.” Many journalists, with an opportunity to choose which stories to put their time into, will not select a story in which they will be subjecting themselves to such repercussions, McPherson said.

MacGillis of Ozone Action also cited an editorial in the Atlanta Constitution, and stories in the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times was credited for op-ed pieces by Bob Herbert and others, and articles by William Stevens in the “Science Times” section.

But he noted institutional failure to translate the issue to the main news pages of the Times. That paper and other major media outlets have failed to analyze global warming with the same professional attention brought to bear on the Asian economic crisis of 1998, or the frenzy of coverage surrounding Monicagate. They have dabbled in the shallows of a deep and far-reaching story.

Paid naysayers

The 2600 scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that humans have influenced the climate, and that global warming is real. A handful of scientists disagree, often because they are connected to oil and coal interests.

Woodwell of Woods Hole calls them “nefarious so-called scientists. They’ve exploited uncertainty inherent in science to raise questions in the minds of the public, and they’ve been very effective, because the press have reported them consistently.”

The result? “It has been very effective in muting any political response,” Woodwell said. One industry spokesperson cited by MacGillis is Dr. Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia. A leading skeptic of global warming often quoted in the press, he sits on the board of directors of the Greening Earth Society, a group financed by the coal industry’s Western Fuels Association, which asserts that continuing increases in carbon dioxide levels would enhance life on Earth.

“I can understand editors are trying to create balance. But they should quote legitimate scientists. There is some degree of laziness out there, that they don’t research who these scientists are and why they have contrary opinions,” said MacGillis. “A reporter is doing a disservice to readers by quoting industry-financed hacks.”

Jim Gordon is a reporter in New York State who writes frequently about environmental issues.