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Who has the real story on climate change? The media isn’t sure.

Unbalanced opinions
by Robson Fletcher

On Monday, there’s a news story about the dangers of global warming. On Tuesday, the same paper says that global cooling is the real threat. On Wednesday, respected scientist A says, “we must cut our production of greenhouse gasses.” But Thursday’s news has esteemed scientist B saying that human activity has no effect on global warming.

If the media’s coverage of climate change has left you scratching your head, you are not alone.

This kind of claim-and-rebuttal formula has led much of the public to think scientists still have no idea whether climate change is fact or fiction. There is obviously some disagreement in the scientific community, but the vast majority of scientists believe that the planet is heating up as a result of human activity, and that this will have a profound effect on the Earth in the not-too-distant future.

“This [climate change] is a serious issue,” says Andrew Weaver, a professor of earth and ocean sciences at the University of Victoria. “It is the issue. Things like Iraq and all that are important, but this is much more serious.”

Phil Austin, a professor of atmospheric sciences at UBC, also considers global warming to be a grave threat. “There’s actually no upper limit to how bad it can get,” he says. “It can always get worse.”

How does this consensus get lost in the news? In the quest for journalistic balance, editors provide a small group of climate change sceptics with disproportionate space to express their views.

In Canada, one such sceptic is Tim Patterson, a professor of geology at Carleton University. He has written more than a dozen opinion-editorial articles since 1999, all of which ran in major newspapers across the country, attacking the science behind climate change. Some examples of headlines included: “Climatic science produces more hot air than facts,” “Junk science,” and “Climate change is determined by supernovas, not carbon dioxide.”

“Carbon dioxide is not the big bugaboo that everybody makes it out to be,” Patterson says. “Although there is a certain amount of forcing of climate with CO2, it’s less than a degree, and that falls well within natural variability. So it’s nothing to be excited about.”

Patterson’s most recent article, “Kyoto debunked,” appeared in the Financial Post on Oct. 29. It refers to an academic paper published the day before in the journal Energy and Environment that criticizes the work of climate scientist Michael Mann. Patterson, himself, had criticized the same work in a 2001 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

This article is a good example of the behind-the-scene issues surrounding climate change, which include access to reputable science and data about the problem. Peer-reviewed, academic journals, are the primary method that scientists to communicate their findings and express their opinions. Journalists tend to look to the respected ones for their background information on scientific issues like climate change. The issues arise when journalists go to journals that aren’t vetted by reputable scientists knowledgeable about the debate.

For instance, Patterson describes Energy and Environment as a “prestigious British journal,” while global warming proponent Weaver disagrees with this characterization. “It’s not a science journal,” he says, pointing to the fact that the paper was written by an economics professor and a Toronto-based analyst, not climate scientists. “If that paper had been submitted to a science journal, it would have been rejected.”

CBC-TV science reporter Eve Savory said journalists will write stories with the traditional, he-said, she-said formula, when they don’t have enough context and information to make sense of a complex issue like climate change. “We say we’re allowing the public or the viewer or the reader to make up his or her mind, and we are, but we’re not really giving them the tools to make up their minds,” she says. “It’s not really fair, but it’s also understandable why we do that because we don’t have the tools.”

Weaver believes that giving equal space to both sides in a dispute can be dangerous, particularly when applied to scientific matters. “They let these random diatribes of absolute, incorrect nonsense get published,” he says. “They’re not able to determine if what’s being said is correct or not, or whether it’s just absolute balderdash.”

Beyond the editorial desire for balance, climate change sceptics often make the news because they understand how the media works. “I think there are much more sophisticated forces at work in the media than people appreciate,” says Margaret Munro, a science writer with CanWest News Service, a national news service operated by CanWest Global. “There’s no question this is a very politicized issue,” she says. “And the opponents of global warming – they are really media savvy … and the scientists aren’t.”

Munro admits that she is frequently approached by climate change sceptics, but won’t report on their claims because their ‘science’ hasn’t been published. “I just say [to them]: ‘Oh, these are very interesting things. Let me know when you’ve got them published in a peer-reviewed journal,’” she says. “And that’s sort of the end of the conversation. So they don’t bother sending me stuff anymore.”

But Tim Ball, a former professor of climatology at the University of Winnipeg, argues that scientific journals can also engage in “peer-review censorship.” “Consensus is not scientific fact,” he says. “If I submit an article that raises questions [about climate change]. . . it wouldn’t get published by a climate journal because the editor would send it to a high priest of the prevailing wisdom – like Weaver – and he’d look at it and say: ‘Heresy! Don’t publish.’”

The response of mainstream reporters can be frustrating for the climate change sceptics, who often turn to the opinion and editorial pages of the newspaper to express their views. Unfortunately the traditional experts aren’t as savvy or motivated to pursue a public forum for their views. Weaver, who occasionally writes op-ed pieces, says that “most scientists just do not have the time nor do they want to get involved in that.”

There are, however, some science-based lobby groups, like the Suzuki Foundation, which are effective at influencing the media, but they tend to be separated from the scientific community. “Many scientists, including me, would never work with a foundation like that, because as soon as you do, you’re tarnished,” says Weaver. “You’re tarnished as no longer being independent, and that is the most important thing for a university scientist.”

For scientists who do want their work to enter the political debate, there is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1988. It includes the work of thousands of scientists from around the world. In 2001, the IPCC published its third assessment report on climate change, including a summary for policy makers. The report is the result of four years of compiling and synthesizing existing research and offers a good resource for journalists interested in the issue.

Debate in the media over climate change won’t likely be resolved soon. On one side is the small but media savvy group of climate sceptics. On the other side are the majority of scientists, with minimal media skills. In the middle are the media, trying to provide the public with a clear picture.

In the end, Austin suggests that the public needs to experience a “climate epiphany.” Margaret Munro agrees, but is not optimistic. “Some sort of epiphany would be good but I think it’ll almost have to be a global disaster.”

Robson Fletcher is a first-year Masters student at the UBC School of Journalism. He is specializing in science reporting and media ethics.

© Thunderbird Magazine, 2003.