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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Confusion

Air Date: Week of

"Climategate" has damaged the credentials of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and decades of science on global warming. But as scientists push back against efforts to dismiss the threat of global warming, some media watchers say journalists aren't balancing their coverage of climate change with the scientifically-sound other side of the story - that the impacts of a warming world could be worse than the IPCC predicts. Host Jeff Young talks with media experts and scientists about the fallout of the hacked email scandal, and how to repair damage.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young.

For climate scientists, now is the winter of their discontent. Their major work, the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, which won the Nobel Peace Prize, is now under attack. A sloppy paragraph wrongly projected how soon Himalayan glaciers might melt. Another section overestimated flood-prone areas in the Netherlands. Scientists say the mistakes are minor. But the errors came to light just as the heat was building around another matter: embarrassing revelations in thousands of emails by climate scientists that were hacked.

NEWS MONTAGE: “Climategate set to break wide open…a rain of questions being raised today in the debate over global warming…the scandal over global warming heating up…anyone who thinks that those emails don’t damage the credibility of the entire movement is naïve…a major scientific scandal concerning researchers and their behavior.”

YOUNG: Well, now scientists are pushing back. The IPCC announced an independent panel to further review research. And leading figures – including the president’s science advisor and the head of the National Academy of Sciences – have launched a full court press to defend the integrity of climate studies.

We spoke with Penn State University Geosciences Professor Richard Alley, who helped write a section of the IPCC report.

ALLEY: There’s no question that there’s a paragraph in [sigh] buried in the thousand pages of the second working group report of the fourth assessment report of the IPCC that’s wrong. Scientifically it is not a big deal. The difficulty is that it’s shaken the confidence of some people in the public who have heard a lot of excitement about a bad paragraph and who may possibly think that because there’s one bad paragraph, it’s all bad, uh, I…[draws breath] no [laughs]. It’s completely absurd. The effort that the authors put in, the quality of the science is very, very high.

YOUNG: And why do you think it is that the story that most people are hearing about the IPCC now is of that nature, that, boy, there’s problems with this report?

Climate scientist Richard Alley. (Courtesy of CIRES)

ALLEY: I really wish I knew – what’s come out doesn’t shake the fundamentals of the science as we know it. One of the key things about science about the IPCC and all of us in general – a big result which is put forward to the public can never be broken by one mistake, and so my suspicion is that we just have not done enough of a job of communicating this.

YOUNG: That’s Penn State Professor Richard Alley. He faces a tough PR battle. Scientists waited months to respond. And reasoned, nuanced answers are hard to deliver in the press once a powerful – if factually challenged – story line has taken hold.

Veteran science writer and journalism teacher Bud Ward finds all this both fascinating and depressing. Ward edits the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. He faults some major media outlets for the way they’re telling this story.

WARD: It’s probably not being told with proper context. Let’s keep in mind that there are thousands of emails that were released. Like it or not, they lend themselves to what I call ‘cherry picking’, so it’s very easy for anyone to go in and pick a sampling of emails to support one’s previous perspectives. The whole story broke on a Sunday with two national newspapers doing the first stories on this, and that was the New York Times and the Washington Post.

I would fault them both for accepting prima facie the term ‘Climategate’. That of course harks back to Watergate, and in my view it’s something of a misnomer. I think Watergate was an extraordinarily important historic development at the highest levels of government. The climate emails that were hacked or stolen from the University of East Anglia – that may be a scandal, there may be an embarrassment, though probably not at the level of ‘gate’ like Watergate was. And that initially helped set the framing of the issue.

YOUNG: What about the accuracy of the coverage of the errors in the IPCC report?

WARD: Well, let’s keep in mind that IPCC, which of course won the Nobel Peace Prize just – what was it? – 15, 18 months ago, shared it with former vice president Al Gore. The IPCC was on a pedestal. I think they’ve fallen off that pedestal as a result of both the hacked emails and a result of the mistaken data that they reported on melting of Himalayan glaciers.

YOUNG: So if winning the Nobel Peace Prize sort of put them on the pedestal, I guess there’s a strong desire among journalists to knock them off that pedestal, isn’t there?

WARD: I guess one lesson is that one can’t remain on a pedestal forever; their time will come. Now in this case, with IPCC I think they basically would lead the league with an extraordinary batting average throughout their reports of accuracy, but it’s not perfect, there are mistakes. And some of these mistakes have come out just at the worst possible timing from IPCC’s standpoint, in the wake – if you will – of the hacked emails. So, it’s a combination of things that have begun to come together. But I think it have knocked IPCC a bit off stride, and certainly off its pedestal.

YOUNG: Are news consumers getting a sense from this coverage, though, that relatively minor errors in the scope of a 3,000 page scientific report, results in the whole thing being suspect or tainted?

The much-disputed hockey stick graph as shown in the 2001 IPCC report. (Courtesy of the IPCC)

WARD: I think it’s very easy to make a point that this hacking, or release, or a theft – call it what you want – of these emails did have a profound and has had a profound impact on the politics and the perception of climate science. There are a number of public opinion polls, which have shown the public’s concern over this issue has gone down, the percentage of the public who are considered critical of this issue or opposed to doing anything on climate change, on carbon dioxide, that percentage is going up. But it has not had much impact on actual climate science.

Like it or not, the earth is still warming and the glaciers are still melting, regardless of what happened with those emails. The climate doesn’t care, but the perception of those issues has taken a hit. I think what we’re also seeing, and it’s going to be real interesting to watch, is we’re going to see an increasingly lack of confidence in the science community. We’re going to see this, Jeff, not only in the climate science community directly involved here, but in the broader community of scientists. How much ground can scientists lose before the science, itself, loses ground in the popular mind?

YOUNG: You know, one of the earliest insights I gained into journalism, as a reporter, was that reporters don’t just gather and spread facts, reporters tell stories. And the narrative of the story can become very strong, sometimes too strong a temptation. Do you see that happening here, and what sort of narrative might we see in this coverage of climate science now?

WARD: Well, I think the narrative simply is this whole deck of cards could be falling apart – everything we’ve thought based on all the expert scientific evidence over the past two or three decades is now wrong, that’s the narrative that we’re at risk seeing take charge. And of course, there’s no truth to it, and truth eventually will out.

YOUNG: It’s just amazing to me that a body of science with this number of very smart people involved – I’m talking about the IPCC – won the Nobel Prize, and yet, in the court of public opinion is getting whipped.

WARD: Well, not only are they getting whipped in the court of public opinion, but I’m concerned they’re getting whipped in some other ways that are even a greater risk and a greater threat. There’s absolutely no question that the scientists involved in what we’ll call the establishment science, again the IPCC, the mainstream science has seen a frightening up-tick in the amount of hate mail that they’re receiving, they’re receiving threats. I know of one world-class scientist – no exaggeration here – one world-class scientist who has had dead rodents tossed onto the front door stoop with a note attached saying, ‘This could be you. This could be your children.’

So, it’s gotten extremely ugly and extremely dangerous out there. I can tell you there are scientists who’ve been working these fields for decades and are basically saying, ‘I’m not sure it’s worth it anymore. I don’t want my kids to be threatened; I don’t want hate mail coming to my email address or to my front door step. This isn’t the field I got into and I didn’t get into it to do these kinds of battles, I got into it to do the science.’

YOUNG: Bud Ward edits the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, thank you very much!

WARD: A pleasure to be with you.

YOUNG: Recent polling shows this coverage having an impact on public opinion. But, as Ward mentioned, nature seems singularly unimpressed. Despite some big snowstorms, global measurements show this January among the warmest on record. And emerging science points to climate change impacts that could come faster than the IPCC projected.

William Freudenburg tracked how those new studies were reported in major newspapers. He’s the Dielson professor of environment and society at University of California at Santa Barbara. And Professor Freudenberg found a curious disconnect in climate coverage.

William Freudenburg

FREUDENBERG: There were very few new studies coming out indicating climate change wouldn’t be so bad. There were more than 20 times as many new studies coming out indicating it would be far worse than the IPCC had estimated.

YOUNG: So this is – you’re comparing it to the sort of consensus projections in the IPCC and 20 times as many reports say it’s going to be worse than that?

FREUDENBERG: It’s going to be worse than that. The bottom line, I guess, for any journalist that really wants to cover both sides of the story, the scientifically credible other side is that the IPCC hasn’t been nearly straight enough about how bad it’s going to be.

YOUNG: I guess the irony in what you’re finding here is that the page-one stories we’re reading indicate, oh gosh, the IPCC seems to have overblown likely impacts, when in fact, the science sections of the same paper tells us something completely different.

FREUDENBERG: The people who cover the stuff that gets on page one, they tend to quote folks that don’t know that much about the science, but when you look at the sections where the science journalists – if you can find science journalists who are still employed today – they do a pretty impressive job. The coverage has been dominated by a relatively small number of contrarians, many of them affiliated with think tanks that manage to get a lot of their money from major fossil fuel companies.

YOUNG: And what’s the lesson here?

FREUDENBERG: Well, the lesson for the people who consume the news is that we’ve been getting sold a bill of goods for 20 years and we should demand that the scientific truth come out where there is scientific truth and the evidence is really pretty clear: global warming is happening, people are largely responsible for that, and it’s probably worse than we think.

YOUNG: Dr. William Freudenberg of the University of California at Santa Barbara, thanks very much.

FREUDENBERG: Thank you for your interest.

[MUSIC: Nguyen Le’ “Totsu” from Walking On The Tiger’s Tail (ACT Music 2005)]

YOUNG: Just ahead – a nuclear money meltdown – paying again for dealing with waste. Keep listening to Living on Earth!



Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media

Click here to learn about more dire climate predictions.

For more on balance and bias on global warming coverage, click here.

William Freudenburg’s website.

Richard Alley’s website.


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