The media, global warming and Climategate
Scientists' efforts to defend the integrity of climate studies thwarted by unbalanced media coverage.
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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.
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.
Penn State University Geosciences Professor Richard Alley, who helped write a section of the IPCC report, says the errors in the report, while minor, had a big impact with the public.
"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," he said. "It's completely absurd. The effort that the authors put in, the quality of the science is very, very high."
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.
"It's probably not being told with proper context," said Ward. "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."
Ward says it didn't help that the "New York Times" and the "Washington Post" -- the papers that broke the story -- used the term 'Climategate' in their stories.
"That of course harks back to Watergate, and in my view it's something of a misnomer," he said. "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."
According to Ward, the combination of the email hack and the reports of the errors in the IPCC report have impacted the politics and perception of climate science profoundly.
"There are a number of public opinion polls which have shown the public's concern over this issue has gone down," he said. "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."
The only thing not impacted, he says, is the 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."
The backlash from the court of public opinion is going further than just criticism and skepticism. Ward says there's been an uptick in hate mail and threats made to scientists. "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.'"
Recent polling shows news coverage having an impact on public opinion, but 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.
Professor Freudenberg found a curious disconnect in climate coverage. "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."
What this means, said Freudenberg, is that the IPCC projections underestimated how bad the impact of climate change can be.
"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," said Freudenberg.
The irony, he says, is that while the news coverage of the IPCC points to how it has overblown likely impacts; the science sections of the same paper tells the opposite story.
"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," said Freudenberg. "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."
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