In Denial on Climate Change

Leading pundits reject science on global warming

For years, the chief media problem with coverage of global warming was a simple one: too much balance. No matter what the scientific consensus, news reports would suggest a serious debate was raging in the world of climate specialists. In fact, no such debate was happening. By the mid-1990s, climate scientists were confident that there was a measurable warming of the Earth, and that human activity had some discernible impact on climate change.

Much of the journalism of the period, however, adopted a “he said/she said” approach, giving space to critics, often industry-backed, who dismissed the scientific consensus (Extra!, 11-12/04). Coverage of this sort matched the advice of longtime GOP strategist Frank Luntz, who advised the party in a 2002 memo (New York Times, 3/2/03): “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. . . . Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

In the last few years, the global warming consensus—and the scientific knowledge underpinning it—has only strengthened. A study in the journal Nature (12/3/04) found that out of 928 peer-reviewed articles on the subject of climate change from 1993 to 2003, not a single one took issue with the idea that human-caused warming was ongoing.* And in most instances, news reporters now steer clear of industry-sponsored think tanks and warming “skeptics” lurking of the fringes of the scientific community.

The reaction to the latest reports from the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this year served as another powerful notice that the scientific community was in agreement on the most fundamental questions regarding global warming. (It should be noted that the IPCC report actually understates the consensus in favor of human-caused climate change; as the New York Times reported (4/7/07) governments participating in the process have often watered down or removed scientific conclusions for political reasons.)

As Time magazine noted in its special issue about global warming (4/9/07), “Some lingering critics still found wiggle room in the U.N. panel’s findings. . . . But when your last good position is to debate the difference between certain and extra certain, you’re playing a losing hand.”

But that “losing hand” is still played skillfully by several prominent media figures. A handful of pundits and columnists have for years given the “skeptics’” argument a kind of media cover, resulting in a media universe where the prevailing body of scientific evidence more or less holds sway in news reports, but where opinion journalism—where the policy agenda is defined and debated—is dominated by those who question or reject that evidence.

For whatever reason, those pundits who accept the scientific warnings that the Earth is facing a climactic catastrophe don’t seem to talk or write much about it. You’d be hard pressed to find commentators of similar prominence who spend as much time calling for climate action as these denialists do railing against it.

John Stossel

ABC News free-market evangelist John Stossel is no stranger to distorting facts and attacking environmentalists for their “earth worship” (4/28/00), so it’s no surprise that he would be among the corporate media’s most outspoken global warming deniers.

Stossel’s 2001 special Tampering With Nature (6/29/01) tried to argue that climate skeptics are excluded from media discussions of the issue despite their impressive scientific credentials—not to mention their sheer numbers.

In contrast to environmentalist “preachers of doom and gloom,” Stossel portrayed the marginal skeptics’ movement as the majority: “You may have heard that 1,600 scientists signed a letter warning of ‘devastating consequences,’” Stossel reported. “But I bet you hadn’t heard that 17,000 scientists signed a petition saying there’s ‘no convincing evidence’ that greenhouse gases will disrupt the Earth’s climate.”

While the implication is impressive—10 times as many scientists question global warming—what Stossel didn’t tell ABC viewers were the significant qualitative differences between the two petitions. The first petition was circulated by the well-respected Union of Concerned Scientists and signed by 110 Nobel laureates; the second petition was a response organized by industry-affiliated groups that included dentists, nutritionists and others with no expertise in climatology; the only alleged requirement for signing on was a bachelor’s degree in science. For a time, the screening process was so lax that the list included a number of gag names, like Ginger Spice and Michael J. Fox, added by environmentalists (AP, 5/1/98).

As the scientific consensus has strengthened, Stossel’s reporting has changed only slightly; perhaps signaling that actual scientists who will make his case are in short supply, Stossel turned to science-fiction writer Michael Crichton (ABC’s 20/20, 12/10/04), heralding his anti-environmentalist novel, State of Fear, for “contradicting something most people believe and fear”—human-caused climate change. Stossel reported that after years of research, Crichton had “concluded it’s just another foolish media-hyped scare. And many climate scientists agree with him, saying the effect of man and greenhouse gases is minor.” No evidence was offered to bolster the claim that “many” scientists agree with the likes of Crichton, who went on to compare the climate crisis to the Y2K scare.

Stossel has slammed other journalists for their “idiocy” in stoking fears about climate change by “quot[ing] the same alarmist scientists” (MSNBC, 5/31/06)—as opposed, apparently, to cool, rational science-fiction writers.

Stossel sees no reason for alarm; in his 2006 book Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity, Stossel argued that we should “let the science develop”—though he hasn’t seemed all that interested in scientific developments so far—and that if “sea levels rise, we can build dikes and move back from the coasts. It worked for Holland. Farmers can plant different crops or move north.”

Sounds easy—until you consider that the U.S. Geological Survey (2/00) estimated that a 10-meter rise in sea levels, which could result if the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melted, would displace 25 percent of the U.S. population. The World Bank (2/07) calculated that a 5-meter rise could displace 246 million people in the developing world.

But Stossel is adamant that nothing should be done, and as usual it all comes back to his laissez-faire ideology. Appearing in a debate on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country (6/28/06), Stossel responded to a call for international cooperation to battle climate change with this rejoinder: “Sounds like socialism to me. . . . Let me just say that this, at bottom, is a hatred of capitalism and a hatred of industrial production.”

George Will

Conservative syndicated columnist and TV pundit George Will has amassed a long record of climate change “skepticism.” As his ABC colleague George Stephanopoulos said to him (2/4/07), “You have one of the longest living question marks in history on this issue.”

This is a kind description of Will’s record; he was an early critic of Al Gore’s position on the issue, accusing him (Washington Post, 9/3/92) of being “cavalier about the truth.” As Will confidently pointed out, “Gore knows, or should know before pontificating, that a recent Gallup Poll of scientists concerned with global climate research shows that 53 percent do not believe warming has occurred, and another 30 percent are uncertain.”

This would have been a more effective argument if it had been true. The poll found that 66 percent of the scientists said that human-induced global warming was occurring; 10 percent disagreed, and the rest were undecided. Gallup actually issued a corrective to Will’s inaccurate claim (San Francisco Chronicle, 9/27/92), which went unmentioned by Will.

Not that being caught distorting poll results would divert Will’s rhetorical assault. Still on the topic 12 years later, he used a column (12/23/04) to approvingly summarize the plot of Michael Crichton’s anti-global-warming novel, a scenario where the environmentalist “villains are frustrated because the data do not prove that global warming is causing rising sea levels and other catastrophes. So they concoct high-tech schemes to manufacture catastrophes they can ascribe to global warming.”

Like Stossel, Will found in this conspiratorial fantasy an illuminating parallel to actual environmental efforts around global warming, which he called more recently (4/12/07) “a campaign without peacetime precedent. . . . Never, other than during the two world wars, has there been such a concerted effort by opinion-forming institutions to indoctrinate Americans.” The odd reference to April 2007 as “peacetime” aside (letter, Washington Post, 4/21/07), coverage of global warming can only resemble world war-era propaganda if you believe that while Americans were fighting Germany, there were numerous prominent pundits playing the George Will role by continually promoting pro-German arguments.

In one Post column (4/2/06), Will noted that the increase in global temperature “might be the margin of error when measuring the planet’s temperature”—as if the world’s climate scientists were likely to have overlooked something as basic as the margin of error. Will soldiered on, comparing global temperature to that of the human body: “To take a person’s temperature, you put a thermometer in an orifice or under an arm. Taking the temperature of our churning planet, with its tectonic plates sliding around over a molten core, involves limited precision.”

In a Newsweek column rounding up some notable end-of-year stories (12/18/06), Will chuckled: “Two U.S. explorers went to the North Pole to study how global warming threatens polar bears. They had planned to go last year, but were forced to delay Project Thin Ice because of unusually heavy snow and ice.” As blogger Glenn Greenwald noted (Salon, 4/14/07), pointing to cold weather as disproof of global warming is exactly as persuasive as citing individual obituaries to debunk the notion that the world’s population is growing. Not that the scientific details matter to Will, but one of the Project Thin Ice explorers told Extra! that the team encountered largely lake-effect snow—which is created by open water—a phenomenon that may be related to warming rather than debunking it.

One panel discussion on ABC’s This Week (3/26/06) found Will conceding that while there might be such a thing as human-caused global warming, “any solution requires trillions of dollars of sacrifice from world economic growth. That’s trillions of dollars that won’t be spent on education, culture, AIDS prevention. Are we sure we want to do this?” Will doesn’t usually promote government spending on such problems, of course—not unless it can be used to beat back the threat of doing something about climate change. After Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel summarized the scientific case on climate change, Will’s incisive reply was “shut up.”

One might conclude that Will has little else left to support his case. That could explain his exasperation with the fact that the subject is even being discussed. “Enough already,” Will wrote in Newsweek (2/12/07), before going on to deride “climate Cassandras” and the “consensus catechism about global warming.” Alliterative accomplishments aside, Will’s real problem seems to be that scientists refuse to agree with him.

Despite their prominence, pundit skeptics portray themselves as lone voices of calm in the wilderness, and bash the media for not providing more viewpoints like their own. While noting that the vast majority of Americans “say warming is probably happening” (Washington Post, 4/2/06), Will asserted that the change in the planet’s temperature is impossible to notice: “Did 85 percent of Americans notice? Of course not. They got their anxiety from journalism calculated to produce it.” Of course, most phenomena covered by the media are not personally witnessed by the general public; one doesn’t generally therefore doubt that they happen.

He went on to criticize ABC for posting an online article that discussed industry-funded warming deniers: “It suggests there has been a misinformation campaign implying that scientists might not be unanimous, a campaign by—how did you guess?—big oil.” The fact that this is true (Mother Jones, 5-6/05) did not deter Will from closing his column by lamenting, “Perhaps the problem is big crusading journalism.”

Glenn Beck

In a more sensible media system, Glenn Beck would probably be a rather obscure figure. He rose to talk radio success by referring to September 11 widows and hurricane survivors as “scumbags,” and fantasizing about violent deaths for congressmembers and documentary-makers (FAIR Action Alert, 1/18/06). When that kind of talk won him a show on CNN Headline News, he followed through by demanding that a Muslim congressmember prove his loyalty to the U.S. (11/14/06), and musing aloud about the inevitability of putting Muslims behind “razor wire” (FAIR Action Alert, 12/5/06). He’s also become one of the loudest global-warming “skeptics” in the mainstream media.

Beck’s brand of “skepticism” can be summed up in his quip (5/24/06): “I think I even buy into, you know, global climate change. I just don’t think that my SUV is necessarily the cause of it.” Or as he put it on another occasion (1/17/07):

You’ve got to be a full-fledged moron to deny that something is going on with the earth’s temperature and weather systems. . . . [But] opinions on why that’s happening change with the seasons. I’m not convinced that we’re to blame or that we can fix it before we all drown in one of Al Gore’s melting glaciers. . . . It probably is natural.

Taking Stossel’s “socialism” line an extra step, Beck compares those who accept the scientific consensus to Nazis. Here’s Beck talking about Al Gore on his radio show in 2006 (Media Matters, 6/8/06):

When you take a little bit of truth and then you mix it with untruth, or your theory, that’s where you get people to believe. . . . It’s like Hitler. Hitler said a little bit of truth, and then he mixed in “and it’s the Jews’ fault.” That’s where things get a little troublesome, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

This was no slip of the tongue; Beck repeated the Nazi analogy almost a year later (4/30/07).

Beck, who aptly compares himself to a “rodeo clown,” also evades the conclusions of experts with his gift for dreaming up irrelevant analogies (1/17/07):

You know, if doctors can disagree with whether somebody should get laser eye surgery, then it isn’t insane to presume scientists everywhere totally agree about something as complex as the study of the earth’s minute climate changes over millions of years. Of course, that’s nuts.

Beck also offers his version of the we-can’t-afford-to-fix-it line. “We actually had some of the world’s top economists look at this,” Beck asserted (9/21/06), “and their answer was it’s going to cost $150 billion a year trying to do the Kyoto Protocol, but it will do very little good. It will basically postpone global warming six years in 2100.”

It’s not clear who Beck’s “some of the world’s top economists are”—his figure seems to be most closely associated with anti-environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg (Scientific American, 5/1/02), whose PhD is in political science—but in 1998, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers predicted the treaty would cost about 1/10 of 1 percent of gross domestic product by 2010 (New York Times, 3/4/98)—in other words, roughly $15 billion a year, not $150 billion. A Yale study (by an actual economist) estimated that the total worldwide cost of implementing the Kyoto treaty on climate change would be less than $400 billion (Washington Post, 5/10/06).

This puts aside, of course, the costs of not addressing climate change. A report by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern (Washington Post, 10/31/06) argued that inaction could cost the world economy between 5 percent and 20 percent of its gross domestic product, which in 2000 would amount to roughly $2 trillion to $8 trillion.

Such one-sided “economics” are in keeping with Beck’s booking policy when it comes to global warming. In the first four months of 2007, Beck had four guests on the subject: the aforementioned Lomborg (1/7/07), TV meteorologist James Spann (who proclaimed that “the Earth’s climate has changed since the day God put it here”—1/22/07), and two appearances (1/30/07, 2/2/07) by Sen. James Inhofe, who once dubbed global warming “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state” (Tulsa World, 1/22/05).

Given his guestlist’s limited expertise in climatology, it’s not surprising that Beck resorts to complaining about science (“When are scientists going to lose their arrogance?”—1/17/07), insisting that truth-telling “skeptics” are being silenced (“I feel as though we’re almost living in McCarthy times when it comes to global warming”—1/22/07) and dismissing the whole subject with creepy ethnic jokes (Media Matters, 6/15/06): “Does anybody really care? I mean, come on. Shanghai is under water. Oh, no! Who’s gonna make those little umbrellas for those tropical drinks?” (Shanghai, for the record, has a population of 17 million.) Echoing Will’s sentiments, Beck once declared (1/30/07) that he was “sick of this whole global warming thing.”

On May 2, CNN gave Beck a chance to make himself really ill—he hosted a special program called Exposed: Climate of Fear, which sought to debunk climate change “myths.” Months before the special aired, Beck joked on the air with Inhofe (1/30/07): “Senator, we’re going to do a special on global warming soon. How dead are we when we put that on the air? Will I have a job the next day?”

Beck needn’t worry; if being spectacularly wrong about things would get him into trouble with his CNN bosses, he’d be long gone.

Robert J. Samuelson

Newsweek and Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson has carved out a peculiar role in the climate change debate—he’s not exactly a “denier,” and he doesn’t seem to challenge the scientific findings in the area. But he’s nonetheless bothered by the environmental activism that has made global warming a top-shelf concern—as he recently lamented (3/21/07): “Global warming has gone Hollywood, literally and figuratively.”

Samuelson’s writings on global warming are almost nothing but snark and cynicism. The “Hollywoodization” that so offended him is rooted in what he sees as an oversimplification of the issue: “The script is plain. As Gore says, solutions are at hand. We can switch to renewable fuels and embrace energy-saving technologies, once the dark forces of doubt are defeated. It’s smart and caring people against the stupid and selfish.”

This has more or less been Samuelson’s pose for years. In 1997, he declared (Washington Post, 7/9/97) that “we won’t do much” about climate change but “argue ferociously” and “make some fairly solemn- sounding commitments to avoid it.” Global warming, according to Samuelson, “promises to become a gushing source of national hypocrisy.” Samuelson saw himself as a uniquely brave voice: “It’s politically incorrect to question whether this is a serious problem that serious people ought to take seriously.”

In 2001 (6/21/01), Samuelson lauded George W. Bush for rejecting the Kyoto protocol, cheering that Bush’s “candor seems more commendable than the simplifications and evasions of his critics.” His column began: “Greenhouse politics have long blended exaggeration and deception. Although global warming may or may not be an inevitable calamity, politicians everywhere treat it as one.”

For all the writing he has done on the subject, Samuelson did admit (7/5/06), “I’m unqualified to judge between those scientists (the majority) who blame man-made greenhouse gases and those (a small minority) who finger natural variations in the global weather system.” Apparently, when faced with a subject that he admittedly doesn’t understand, Samuelson finds whether or not to side with the vast majority of experts to be a matter of personal taste.

Samuelson has good reason to downplay his expertise in threat assessments: A year before the turn of the millennium (12/9/98), he chastised all involved for not dealing with the coming Y2K computer meltdown. “But it won’t be completely fixed by the year 2000,” he warned. “So what should have been no more than a minor mishap could mushroom into a major economic setback or even a social crisis.” Climate change, he suggested, was much less of a clear threat than the Y2K bug: “There were warnings, and unlike many techno-controversies (say, global warming), the legitimacy of the Y2K problem was never in doubt. Yet hardly anyone listened.”

Samuelson’s February 7, 2007 column perhaps best captures his full-bore cynicism on the matter. With the release of the IPCC report and indications that politicians and major corporations seem to agree that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is necessary, Samuelson noted: “Strong action seems at hand. Don’t be fooled. The dirty secret about global warming is this: We have no solution.” Since that is apparently the case, Samuelson advised readers to “treat the pious exhortations to ‘do something’ with skepticism, disbelief or contempt. These pronouncements are (take your pick) naive, self-interested, misinformed, stupid or dishonest.” Like Will, Samuelson blamed his media colleagues: “As for editorialists and pundits, there’s no explanation except superficiality or herd behavior.”

But for all his complaints about the state of the climate change debate (“It seems impossible to have an honest conversation about global warming”—Washington Post, 11/10/06) and the grandstanding of opportunistic politicians, Samuelson’s recommendations are hardly groundbreaking: “a more urgent program of research and development,” “new technologies” and the suggestion that Americans “temper our energy appetite.” You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with such platitudes; for someone who’s spent years lashing out at politicians for their empty rhetoric, Samuelson is hard to distinguish from the double-talking politicians whose global-warming talk he lambastes.

* Anthropologist Benny Peiser claimed to find 34 articles that disputed the idea that humans were causing climate change—a claim that did not stand up to scrutiny (Crooked Timber, 5/5/05). It’s worth noting, however, that the strongest denialist response to the Nature survey was to claim that there was actually a tiny minority of scientists who disagree.