The Media, Climate Science, and Deniers: Time to Tell a New Story

In recent days, I have read several interesting articles—some about science journalism, some about former climate skeptics—that made me think about the ongoing struggle to portray climate change in American society.

Andy Revkin, who was a science writer for the New York Times for years and now blogs for its editorial page, describes the challenge that journalists face: how to they fit the centuries-long saga of global warming into the cycle of breaking news.

Revkin writes, “No one can ever expect to see a headline in The New York Times reading: “Global Warming Strikes. Seas Rise. Coasts Flood. Crops Fail. People Flee.” Those events will occur—and indeed have already begun—but they will happen over time in a dispersed fashion.

It is hard to communicate a sense of urgency when you are writing about ice melting. I get the sense that some journalists handle this dilemma by reporting on climate change as if it were a sports event.

Some of the recent coverage of the Senate’s failure to take up clean energy and climate legislation in July, for instance, sounded like stories about the Yankees versus the Red Sox. It was as if they were saying “The polluters won this round; will the enviros recover before the World Series?”

I understand why that approach is compelling: everyone loves a contest. But this isn’t a match-up between two equally strong teams. There are facts backing up one side and nothing more than denial backing up the other.

Another science journalist, Mike Lemonick, recently wrote a piece about covering climate science for NRDC’s OnEarth Magazine. Lemonick wrote the first major media article about climate change in 1987. He has been reporting on the issue ever since, and he has noticed an interesting convergence of trends.

Just as the science of climate change became more conclusive, the media became more fragmented. In order to compete against blogs and cable news, papers turned to more sensational, polarized coverage. “Thanks to pressure from climate skeptics,” Lemonick writes, “Some journalists started adding dissenting voices in an attempt to add "balance" to their stories.

But then something interesting happened. It became harder and harder to find quotable skeptics, because, “scientific skepticism about climate change has largely vanished among true experts. It now lies with nonexperts like Freeman Dyson -- scientists from unrelated fields who don't know much about climate science but weigh in anyway.”

Lemonick’s view about the shrinking number of skeptics was confirmed a few days ago when an article in The Week listed six influential climate skeptics who recently changed their minds, including Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish academic who wrote the 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. The book he published in 2010 is called Smart Solutions to Climate Change.

If the science is so unassailable that the last few hold outs are giving up their skeptical stands, isn’t it time for the media to stop trying to “balance” climate articles? The press doesn’t cover evolution or the physics of a hurricane’s path as if it were up for debate. Why should it persist in treating climate change like an open question.

Perhaps more important, why give the impression that the flat Earth crowd is representing a point of view backed by facts?  To deny that fossil fuels emit vast amounts of carbon dioxide, that carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, that the excess carbon dioxide acts just like a greenhouse glass, and that temperatures are rising as a result is simply the equivalent of asserting the Earth is flat.  Climate deniers should be viewed in the same light.

The dispute over climate science is over. It’s no longer news. Instead, we need coverage on two far more pressing stories: how is climate change already changing our world and how are we going to cut global warming pollution enough to avoid the most catastrophic impacts?

These are the questions I hope to see journalists investigate more in the months ahead.