The Climate Change Gap

U.S. media fiddle while Earth burns

If 2006 was the year that the issue of global climate change broke through into greater public consciousness—thanks in large part to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, plus books like Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe—2007 could be the year that it becomes old news.

Between February and May of this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a joint project of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization, issued a series of three comprehensive reports designed to present the scientific evidence for climate change, as well as the likely consequences and how the most catastrophic effects can be avoided. By the end of it, “Live Aid” organizer Bob Geldof could be moved to harrumph on hearing of Al Gore’s planned “Live Earth” concerts to raise consciousness of the issue: “We are all fucking conscious of global warming.”

How conscious you are, though, likely depends largely on where you live—and how you get your news. While the IPCC, as its name implies, includes researchers from all over the world—and, it should go without saying, global climate change will affect everyone on the globe—a comparison of U.S. media coverage with that by British and other non-U.S. English-language news outlets shows that the panel’s findings were reported very differently on opposite sides of the warming Atlantic: Where U.K. media generally presented climate change as an urgent crisis that requires immediate action, in the U.S. it’s still widely portrayed as an unresolved debate, regardless of the scientific evidence.

“It’s all our fault”

The IPCC, made up of scientists but subject to the approval of governmental delegates, is by its nature not inclined to groundbreaking pronouncements. In his book The Weather Makers, Australian scientist Tim Flannery criticized its findings as “lowest-common-denominator science . . . delivered at glacial speed.” As a result, he noted, “When the IPCC says something, you had better believe it—and then allow for the likelihood that things are far worse than it says they are.”

The first IPCC report, issued on February 2, focused on the now-overwhelming evidence that the dramatic rise in global temperatures over the last century (about 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit total), and especially the last decade, is due to human emissions of greenhouse gases. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” concluded the IPCC, noting that 11 of the 12 warmest years on record have occurred since 1995, while the polar ice caps are melting and sea levels rising at increasing rates. The panel concluded that there is greater than 95 percent certainty that human activity is to blame.

The next day (2/3/07), alarmed headlines greeted newspaper readers: “Official: Global Warming Is All Our Fault.” “World’s Scientists Convinced That Humans Cause Global Warming.” “Worse Than We Thought: Report Warns of 4 C Rise by 2100: Floods and Food and Water Shortages Likely.”

None of those, though, were seen by readers of U.S. newspapers—they appeared in, respectively, Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and Guardian.

The same day’s U.S. headlines were mostly far more demure: “U.N. Study Spurs Call to Fight Warming” (Boston Globe); “From Global Warming Report, U.S. Feels Heat” (Chicago Tribune). The New York Times titled its front-page story “Science Panel Calls Global Warming ‘Unequivocal’”—ducking the more significant finding that not only is climate change underway, but that human-created greenhouse gases are the culprit.

While both sets of papers presented the IPCC report’s basic findings, the accompanying features that appeared in U.S. and U.K. newspapers offered very different details.

In the U.K., the liberal Guardian (2/2/07) reported that “human use of fossil fuels, and changes in land use, are the main drivers behind the increase in carbon dioxide levels”; the next day, the paper noted that a rise of 4 degrees Celsius, projected as the most likely scenario by the end of the century if emissions aren’t reined in, could “wipe out hundreds of species, bring extreme food and water shortages in vulnerable countries and cause catastrophic floods that would displace hundreds of millions of people.”

The conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, ran a news analysis piece by columnist Alasdair Palmer (2/4/07) noting the IPCC’s “unusually blunt” report that global warming is both real and human-caused, and that “its effects could be to make not just parts of Asia and South America uninhabitable, but also most of southern Europe.” Palmer further questioned why the British government is “dragging its heels” on taking action—albeit for “carbon-capture” technology to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions of existing fossil fuel plants, a favorite solution of the coal industry.

In the U.S., however, the feature stories had a largely different spin. The Chicago Tribune (2/4/07) sent chief business correspondent David Greising to report on “investments in companies likely to benefit from new, stricter environmental laws.” The New York Times, meanwhile, ran an article (2/3/07) noting that global warming is “an unequivocal fact likely to make summers hotter and winters warmer for the next few centuries, with potentially dire consequences for the ecosystem”—then spent the next 17 paragraphs discussing the likely effect on groundhogs.

The widely contrasting coverage mirrored the differing approaches that the U.S. and U.K. governments take to the issue. In Britain, Tony Blair’s government has long been an outspoken advocate of cutting carbon emissions to forestall climate change. The Bush administration has not only withdrawn from the Kyoto Treaty, in 2002 it deleted a statement on climate change from the Environmental Protection Agency’s report on air pollution, and the following year it inserted so many qualifiers into an EPA paper on climate that, according to an internal agency memo (nwf.org, 4/29/03), it inserted “uncertainty . . . where there is essentially none.”

Far from examining the validity of the administration’s climate-change skepticism, though, the U.S. media responded by requiring that every article include a nod to skeptics, regardless of the facts. “Reaction runs the gamut,” declared NBC’s Brian Williams (2/2/07), neatly balancing the scientific consensus on the one hand against the government’s disbelief on the other: “Some say it’s a wake-up call loud and clear. But U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman today called America a small contributor to climate change.” In fact, as the Los Angeles Times reported (2/3/07) but NBC did not, the U.S. is the world’s leading producer of carbon dioxide, emitting about 25 percent of the globe’s gas despite having just 4.5 percent of its population.

The Chicago Tribune, in a story that mostly focused on the likely battles to come in the U.S. government over how to take action to ward off the IPCC’s dire predictions, included a section headed “Bush’s Mixed Record,” in which it reported that “the Bush administration said it is already taking action,” devoting “nearly $29 billion to climate-related science, technology, international assistance and incentives since 2001.” The Tribune didn’t further investigate this oft-repeated Bush claim; when the Government Accounting Office tried to investigate Bush’s climate-change spending claims the previous July, though, it determined that it was “unclear whether funding had changed as much as reported” because the administration’s reports were both inconsistent and incomplete.

Climate-change naysayers weren’t limited to administration officials, though, as several U.S. outlets made space for non-governmental skeptics. The Chicago Tribune (2/3/07) quoted Patrick Michaels of the libertarian Cato Institute as saying that the report’s projection of a “modest” 7 to 23 inches of sea-rise by the year 2100 should be taken as a sign that “this very small but very widely quoted group of alarmists—who are talking about 20 feet of sea-rise—[are] far, far beyond the fringes [of environmental science].”

(Michaels’ reference is to predictions of a 20-foot rise in sea levels if the Greenland icecap were to melt—something that environmental scientists have predicted is likely, albeit not for a millennium—New Scientist, 4/7/04.)

The Tribune failed to identify Michaels as a visiting scientist at the Marshall Institute, which the Congressional Quarterly (3/19/04) has described as “a Washington-based think tank supported by industry and conservative foundations that focuses primarily on trying to debunk global warming as a threat.”

In 1999, Michaels testified before Congress (10/6/99) that “there is no overall statistically significant warming in the average temperature of the United States,” and that while greenhouse gases may lead to some “small” increase in temperatures, “I cannot view what has happened as a net negative; some might easily argue that it is a net benefit.”

Michaels later signed onto a letter from the industry-sponsored Competitive Enterprise Institute (6/7/02) calling global warming predictions “junk science” and urging Bush to “dismiss or re-assign all administration employees who are not pursuing your agenda, just as you have done in several similar instances.”

The Washington Post (2/3/07) likewise followed up a declaration that “some critics” question the need for limits on carbon emission by citing at length a statement from the Marshall Institute. “Claims being made that a climate catastrophe later this century is more certain are unjustified,” wrote the top two executives at the think tank (which the Post did note “receives funding from ExxonMobil”), arguing that the scientific evidence “does not justify scare tactics or provide sufficient support for proposals . . . to suppress energy use and impose large economic burdens on the U.S. economy.” The Post article ended there, with no analysis or rebuttal of the institute’s claim.

The routine reliance on industry-connected sources for rebuttal of the IPCC report was especially ironic coming just one day after the U.K.’s Guardian (2/2/07) revealed that the American Enterprise Institute (which has also received funding from ExxonMobil) had offered $10,000 apiece for scientific articles contradicting the IPCC’s findings. This news item was picked up by Agence France Presse and Reuters, with a report by the latter appearing in the Toronto Star (2/3/07), but aside from one article in the Washington Post (2/5/07) and a web-only piece on CNNMoney.com (2/3/07), U.S. readers likely never heard about it.

Fires, floods and drought

The IPCC’s second report, issued on April 6, studied observed effects of global warming that’s already occurred as well as the likely effects in coming decades. In addition to increased droughts and flooding as precipitation patterns change, it found that “the resilience of many ecosystems is likely to be exceeded this century”—scientific lingo for ecosystems being at risk for sudden catastrophic collapse, with existing plants and animals no longer being able to survive. At the same time, the report predicted, millions of people are expected to suffer increased malnutrition, death and injury due to heat waves, storms and droughts, and increased exposure to infectious diseases whose range will expand farther from the equator.

Even with such dramatic warnings, though, the New York Times was still only catching up with the news from two months earlier. “U.N. Draft Cites Humans in Current Effects of Climate Shift” ran the headline on a report on a leaked draft of the second IPCC report (4/5/07); the piece led with news that the group had “‘high confidence’ that greenhouse gas emissions are at least partly responsible for a host of changes already under way, including longer growing seasons and shrinking glaciers.” Only further down did the story get around to reporting on effects, mentioning the likelihood of “heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts,” but also “some benefits to health such as fewer deaths from cold” as well as the greening of cold areas. (A Times follow-up the next day did cite “widening droughts in southern Europe and the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, the American Southwest and Mexico, and flooding that could imperil low-lying islands and the crowded river deltas of southern Asia.”)

The Times’ corporate sibling, the Boston Globe (4/7/07), was even more circumspect, reporting that “manmade global warming is probably already causing noticeable environmental changes throughout the world” and that “if emissions are not reduced, the panel warned, 20 percent to 30 percent of plant and animal species could face increased risk of extinction.”

A careful reading of the IPCC report, though, shows that that’s not exactly what the scientists said. The report indicated that 20 to 30 percent of plant and animal species would face increased extinction risk if global temperature rise were to “exceed 1.5-2.5 degrees C.” Yet because it takes decades for carbon dioxide to leave the atmosphere, scientists believe we are doomed to see global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C even if emissions are reduced immediately. Even in a best-case scenario, then, more than a quarter of all species could face extinction.

The Globe, like other U.S. papers, also stressed that a warming globe could have a silver lining: “Crop yields could increase by as much as 20 percent in North America, largely because of longer growing seasons.” The IPCC, though, actually warned that while a rise in local temperatures of 1 to 3 degrees C would likely lead to increased food production, beyond that it was projected to decrease. And just the previous month, a study of worldwide cereal crop yields (Independent, 3/19/07) estimated that between 1981 and 2002, global warming had reduced production of wheat, corn and barley by $5 billion a year.

The news as reported by the U.K.’s Times was far more dramatic, and detailed: “A 3 C rise in temperatures is predicted to make up to 30 per cent of all species extinct and a 5 C rise up to 70 per cent. . . . Africa, Asia, the southern U.S. and southern Europe would suffer a crash in crop yields when temperatures rise by 2 C, widely expected by the middle of the century.” And while parts of the Northern Hemisphere (primarily Canada and Northern Europe) could expect more rainfall and longer growing seasons, noted the Times, worldwide hunger and malnutrition would remain high, with climate change-induced famine expected to wipe out any future reduction of hunger expected as the result of technology.

The Daily Telegraph (4/7/07) put numbers to the New York Times’ mention of floods and droughts, noting that “600 million more people could suffer from droughts in Africa and billions will face risks from coastal flooding by the end of this century.” As a result, reported the Financial Times (4/7/07), as many as 50 million people could become refugees as soon as 2010, something “expected to become a source of serious conflicts within a few decades.”

The IPCC’s second study was also accompanied by a public controversy over the report’s wording, which had been altered at the last minute at the behest of several nations’ government delegations. In one instance, a graph showing that billions would be at risk from coastal flooding was changed to read "millions" (Daily Telegraph, 4/7/07); in another, delegates from China and Saudi Arabia insisted on watering down the report’s conclusion that there was a “very high confidence” that warming-spawned changes are already underway worldwide. In the end, several exasperated scientists walked out of the drafting session, including study co-author Cynthia Rosenzweig of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “The authors lost,” the Guardian (4/7/07) reported one scientist as saying. “A lot of authors are not going to engage in the IPCC process anymore. I have had it with them.”

As for the role of the U.S. in the talks, the New York Times (4/7/07) credited the U.S. as a positive influence, noting that “scientists who worked on the report criticized China for weakening some language in the summary, while they credited the United States, which had for years stressed uncertainty in the science, with playing a mostly constructive role.” The London Times, in contrast, reported (4/7/07) that “a paragraph stating that North America was ‘expected to experience severe local economic damage and substantial ecosystem, social and cultural disruption’ was removed at the behest of the U.S.,” whose delegation was led by White House science aide Sharon Hays. (Only the Los Angeles Times—4/7/07—noted this among major U.S. papers.)

Years or decades?

The panel’s final report was designed to present recommendations for action, and while the paper itself was largely filled with impenetrable lingo—“an effective carbon-price signal could realize significant mitigation potential in all sectors” is one of the more comprehensible phrases—IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri summed up the findings at a post-release news conference (BBC.co.uk, 5/4/07):

Human society as a whole has to look for changes in consumption patterns. If you want to stabilize [carbon dioxide] around 450 ppm, that means in a decade or two you have to start reducing emissions far below the current level. So in other words, we have a very short window for turning around the trend we have in rising greenhouse gas emissions. We don’t have the luxury of time.

The London Times (5/4/07) summed up the report’s findings: “To keep within the 2 C threshold that scientists say is needed to stave off disastrous changes to the world’s climate, emissions of carbon dioxide need to drop between 50 and 85 percent by 2050.” “13 Years to Turn Round Global Warming,” ran the headline in the Financial Times (5/5/07). “There could be as little as eight years left to avoid a dangerous global average rise of 2 C or more,” reported the Guardian (5/5/07) beneath a headline reading, “U.N. Scientists Warn Time Is Running Out to Tackle Global Warming. . . . Panel Urges Governments to Act Immediately.”

In the U.S., little of this urgency was passed on to readers. The New York Times (5/4/07) remained stuck on the mere fact that scientists now agreed on the scope of the problem, presenting readers with the page-one headline: “Climate Panel Reaches Consensus on the Need to Reduce Harmful Emissions.” The accompanying story began by noting that the “world’s established and emerging powers” would need to find new energy sources “within a few decades,” adding: “The report concluded that significant progress could be made toward halting the increase in the next 25 years using known technologies and policy changes.”

The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, contributed a front-page story (5/5/07) introducing the IPCC’s “comprehensive strategy to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming”—then immediately added that “experts said political and economic realities likely doom it to failure.” The only expert cited for this view: Robert Mendelsohn, who called the panel’s proposal for a $100-a-ton carbon tax “not realistic because those targets are incredibly expensive.” Described by the Times simply as “an economist at Yale University,” Mendelsohn has links to both Cato and the American Enterprise Institute, and his books The Greening of Global Warming (published by AEI) and Global Warming and the American Economy have argued that climate change would be good for the U.S. economy.

The New York Times (1/18/07) cited Richard Richels, described as “a climate expert and an economist at the Electric Power Research Institute,” as dismissing a carbon tax or cap as unrealistic because governments would not be able to impose one strict enough to be effective: “A carbon policy without an R&D policy is bankrupt,” declared Richels. The Times failed to inform readers that the EPRI is the research and development arm of the U.S. electric utility industry, and so might have reason to prefer R&D funding to a carbon tax.

The underlying question of such articles—can we afford to fix earth’s climate? —just happened to be the main rhetorical point of the Bush administration against quick action on climate change, as was evident by the quotes from White House environmental adviser (and former power-industry lobbyist) James Connaughton that were a fixture in U.S. coverage. Taxing carbon emissions enough to stabilize CO2 levels would reduce world gross domestic product by 3 percent, which “would, of course, cause global recession, so that is something that we probably want to avoid,” Connaughton told the Washington Post (5/5/07). “Certainly there is no leader in the world that is going to be pursuing a strategy that would drive their economies into a deep recession,” said Connaughton in the Boston Globe (5/5/07). “It would cause a global recession,” he told the Chicago Tribune (5/5/07). “Our goal is reducing emissions and growing the economy.”

U.S. papers did not examine the White House’s contention that acting on climate change would be a drag on the world economy. In particular, virtually none attempted to assess the cost of not acting. In 2001, the reinsurance company Munich Re projected $500 billion in costs from climate change by 2050; other estimates of detrimental impact on the world economy have ranged as high as 20 percent of global GDP by the end of the century.

British government economist Nicholas Stern’s report last October, which predicted the 20 percent decline (and just a 1 percent GDP cost to countering climate change), was widely covered in the U.K. and Canada—and even Australia, the only industrialized nation to have joined the U.S. in refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol—but barely noticed in the U.S. (The L.A. Times on May 5 noted only that “a study by the British government last year found that damage from global warming—flooding, starvation, drought and other calamities—would easily top 5 percent of global GDP annually.”) While some scientists later criticized Stern’s figures as overstated, at least the costs of unchecked climate change were being publicly debated; as BBC Radio 4 (1/26/07) quoted Stern, in an otherwise critical report: “The broad conclusion, that the costs of action are a good deal less than the damages they save, I think is pretty robust.”

The differing coverage of climate change on either side of the Atlantic is not unexpected—it’s unsurprising, certainly, for a British official like Stern to get more coverage in the British press. But the consequences are potentially huge. If the media allow their framing of the climate change issue to be shaped by their government’s position, then by definition the worst global offenders are going to receive the least pressure—a feedback loop as potentially dangerous as any of the climatological ones involved in global warming.

In his critique of London’s carbon policies (2/4/07), the Telegraph’s Alasdair Palmer concluded with an unnamed government official who charged:

Nero fiddled while Rome was burning. But we’re twiddling our thumbs while the whole world is going up in flames. I don’t want to think about how history is going to judge us—but I know that future generations are going to pay dearly for the opportunities to slow down global warming that we’re squandering right now.

On that same Sunday, the New York Times “Week in Review” section included a short essay by its environment reporter Andrew Revkin that said the just-released IPCC report “contained much to fear, but no clanging alarm bells,” characterizing the scientific debate as “whether a car starting to roll down a hill toward a cliff is going 1 mile per hour or 2.”

Scientists, wrote Revkin, “were left wondering if the public would grasp this as disaster.”

That’s likely to depend on whether they’ve been reading the New York Times.

Neil deMause, a frequent Extra! writer, is the co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit (Common Courage Press) and a contributor to America's Mayor: The Hidden History of Rudy Giuliani's New York (Soft Skull).