World of Wonders

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Climate Change and Journalism: Truth in the balance

Leonardo DiCaprio describes Climate Cover-up as “an imperative read”, Wade Davis calls it “an essential book”, and Frank D. Gilliam Jr. says it is “a must-read.” How is it then that the author of such an important book on global warming isn’t a climate scientist, but instead is a public relations professional?

Because, as the book’s author James Hoggan writes in the introduction, the scientific debate concerning global warming is over. “Every science academy in every major developed country in the world [has] stated clearly that the world’s climate is changing dangerously and humans are to blame.” As he and co-author Richard Littlemore portray in depth in Climate Cover-up, the greatest climate change challenge today isn’t the science; it is the organized campaign to manipulate public opinion and maintain the illusion that human-caused global warming is still unproven and the science controversial.

The story is one of “deceit, of poisoning public judgement—of an anti-democratic attack on our political structures and a strategic undermining of the journalistic watchdogs who keep our social institutions honest.” And, writes Hoggan, we can only act on the science and avert serious consequences if we expose the campaign and repel the attack.

Hoggan is chair of the David Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian chapter of Al Gore’s The Climate Project—but it’s his twenty years in public relations and his experience as president of the Vancouver-based PR firm Hoggan and Associates that qualifies him to tell this particular story. To Hoggan, PR is the art of building good relationships through trust and goodwill. But there’s also a dark side to PR, and the climate cover-up is PR at it’s darkest.

As he explained recently to the annual conference of the Canadian Science Writers Association in Ottawa, the disparity between the scientific and the “spun” reality is put into sharp focus by two landmark studies.

Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. In 2005, she published a paper in Science in which she analyzed the refereed scientific journal articles on global climate change published between 1993 and 2003. Of the 928 articles she found, none disagreed with or otherwise challenged the scientific consensus that the globe is warming and human activity is a major cause.

And yet, a 2003 article in the Journal of Environmental Change by Jules and Max Boykoff showed that the debate raged on in the popular media. The Boykoffs analyzed climate change coverage from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times between 1998 and 2002. They found that 53% of the climate change stories gave attention to the view that “exclusively natural fluctuations could explain the earth’s temperature increase.”

What’s going on? When close to a thousand scientific journal articles accepted the reality of human-caused global warming and the dire consequences, why did more than half of the articles in the popular media include conflicting views? The title of the Boykoffs’ article tells the story: “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press.” For the sake of journalistic balance, the press had included opposing viewpoints when reporting on the issue. The result? The appearance of a scientific controversy where none existed.

And there was no shortage of opposing viewpoints. In the book, Hoggan describes in detail the efforts of the energy industry to manipulate the public conversation around climate change through “think tanks” and fake grassroots organizations (which they call Astroturf groups), and by recruiting scientists and others as global warming deniers.

This strategy isn’t new. Public skepticism and confusion over the link between smoking and lung cancer, and HIV and AIDS, lasted long after the scientific debate ended—with tragic and deadly consequences—in large part because of an abundance of deniers and organized campaigns to confuse. In fact, Oreskes refers to this as the “tobacco strategy.”

For example, with funding from ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and others, the Global Climate Coalition spent millions of dollars on advertising and lobbying designed to convince public officials and the general public that global warming science was still in question—contrary to the conclusions of the climate scientists in their own organization.

In 1991, the Western Fuels Association, National Coal Association, and the Edison Electric Institute created the Information Council on the Environment “to reposition global warming as a theory, not fact” and “supply alternative facts to support the suggestion that global warming will be good.”

And in 1998, the American Petroleum Institute developed a plan to convince the public through the media of the uncertainty of climate change science. “Victory will be achieved,” the plan stated, “when media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current conventional wisdom.”

More often than not, the scientists recruited by these groups to spread their gospel in newspaper and television interviews weren’t qualified climate change researchers. However, that didn’t stop the media from quoting their “expert” views.

While the general public’s acceptance of global warming and its consequences has grown in recent years, doubt remains. Clearly, the millions of dollars spent on the campaign of confusion and uncertainty has paid dividends.

Hoggan’s message to the Ottawa audience of science journalists? Question the credentials of the “experts” who doubt the climate change consensus. Are they climate scientists? Have they done pertinent research and have they published in peer-reviewed journals? Perhaps most importantly, who is paying their bills?

And what about journalistic balance? The lesson is that balance in reporting isn’t simply the inclusion of contrary views. Balance is the inclusion of contrary views from equally qualified and appropriate sources; for example, from two climate-change scientists both of whom have done relevant research and have been published in peer-review journals, both of whom are free of conflicts of interest. Balance isn’t achieved if a qualified scientist’s view is countered by the view of a non-qualified spokesperson for an energy-industry-funded “think tank”, someone who has done no research.

If balance is absent because there is no qualified contrary view, then a more fundamental journalistic objective has been achieved: the truth, no matter how inconvenient.

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