Award-winning journalist Richard Harris reports on science for National Public Radio's newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
Over the past 25 years, Harris has traveled to the ends of the Earth for NPR, reporting from Timbuktu, the South Pole, the Galapagos Islands, Beijing during the SARS epidemic, the center of Greenland, the Amazon rain forest, and the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro for a story about tuberculosis.
His distinguished reporting has brought him many awards for improving public understanding of science, among them:
- Council of Scientific Society Presidents – Sagan Award
- American Medical Writers Association – Walter C. Alvarez Memorial Award
- American Association for the Advancement of Science – two Science Journalism Awards
- Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory – Lewis Thomas Award
- IEEE – USA Activities Award for Distinguished Literary Contributions
- Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University – Silver Baton
- National Association of Black Journalists – First Place Award
- Peabody Award – Investigative Reporting
- Aviation/Space Writers Association – Gold Award
- Association of Visual Communicators – Cindy Award
Of special note is that these awards have ranged across the entire spectrum of science, technology, and medicine: endocrine disrupters, investigative reporting on the tobacco industry, the first Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, the ecological impact of alien plant and animal species coming to North America, biology, AIDS in Black America, and filtering out background noise.
Before joining NPR in 1986, Harris was a science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. From 1981 to 1983, he was a staff writer at The Tri-Valley Herald in Livermore, California, covering science, technology, and health issues.
Harris is past president of the National Association of Science Writers and co-founder of the Washington, D.C. Area Science Writers Association.
A California native, Harris earned his bachelor's degree in biology with highest honors from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1980 and was valedictorian of his college graduating class.
Harris commutes to work in Washington, D.C. by bicycle, logging more than 2,500 miles a year. He also likes to backpack and bird watch.
Covering Climate Change in a Changing Media Climate
Climate change is a topic I’ve been thinking about for thirty years, which is as long as I’ve been a journalist and as long as I’ve been thinking about what’s going on in the world. I’ve considered the way we think about climate change, read about it in the news, hear it on the air waves, and read about it on blogs. So let’s reflect on this story and how it has evolved, in both good and bad ways.
Climate change evolved from a scientific curiosity back in the early 1980s when scientists realized the climate was warming. Then their thoughts were, “Oh, this is terrible, but it’s not our problem. It’s going to be so far in the future and it’s so big to think about, let’s not spend a lot of time dwelling on it.” But later in the 1980s and in the early 1990s, people became greatly concerned about it and expressed their desire to do something about climate change. Within the last couple of years, however, a remarkable and rather unhappy decline in public interest and belief about this topic occurred.
This especially has been hard for me, somebody who has spent so many years trying to report about the facts, telling people what’s been going on and how sure we are about what’s going on. And to see public opinion go in an opposite direction from where scientific opinion is has been a blow.
As I thought about the story of climate change, I realized what the story is really about. It’s not about the science; it’s about the media. It’s about the synergy between the science and the media. What’s changed more than the science has been the way people take in information and appreciate information on a subject that’s difficult to understand to begin with.
I’ll start by giving you the punch line, to give you an idea where I’m going so you can think about these things in the same context as I do. The fundamental issue we’re confronting is that it’s really impossible for most people to understand the deepest science that underpins global warming.
It’s such a complex issue, so multifaceted, that it comes down to the fact that, ultimately, we have to trust the messenger. My messengers are the scientists and I trust them. I’ve talked to so many of them for so many years. I’ve formed my own opinions partly by reading their work and partly by talking to them and understanding why they believe what they believe.
The problem is that many people don’t use scientists as messengers, and the messengers they use don’t try to stick to the truth. The messengers we’re hearing on television, certain elements of cable television and the blogosphere have something else in mind than just simply telling us the truth. Because people are receiving mixed messages from many with ulterior agendas, they don’t know what to believe, and I appreciate that.
So let’s think about the evolution of the science in parallel with the evolution of the media and how we got to where we are today. At the end, I’ll suggest some positive ways that perhaps will help rectify the situation, which I think is beginning to go pretty badly awry.
Let me start with a bit of history about climate change. In 1896, Swedish scientist [d1] Svante Arrhenius realized that carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere was the reason our planet was habitable. So if we had no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the planet would be so cold that it would be permanently frozen. Arrhenius realized this during the beginning of the Industrial Age when we were burning more coal and wood than ever before. He knew we were adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Arrhenius couldn’t put numbers on it, but he knew the planet would get warmer if we kept burning these carbon-based fuels that released carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The fundamental physics of this is more than a century old, and it was well accepted at the time. That early physics has not been challenged in any serious way.
I came into this topic as a very young reporter back in the early 1980s. I was covering the American Geophysical Union meetings in San Francisco. The American Geophysical Union is a huge scientific society that meets every year in San Francisco. Way back then, they were talking about climate change. Basically, their attitude was, “Wow! This is scary. It’s amazing what’s going to happen to the planet 50 years from now.” End of story.
Because they couldn’t really believe it, they couldn’t grasp it or deal with it in any serious way. It wasn’t a scientific problem; it was a political and societal problem. The data indicated that the planet could get nasty eventually. But it seemed so far away. It was one of those odd, theoretical things, like in five billion years the Sun’s going to expand and wipe out the inner planets. That was bad news, but it was bad news they didn’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about.
There are three lines of evidence that underpin the evidence of climate change and how these scientists came to know it was happening. One is that people looking at historical data see that the planet has indeed been warming up, both the air and the oceans. By the way, 80 percent of the heat from climate change goes into the ocean, so warming of the oceans is a very strong signal that the planet is warming up.
The second line of evidence is the basic physics of Arrhenius establishing the fact that gases like carbon dioxide trap heat. There’s no question about it; the planet would be an ice ball if they didn’t. Thank goodness they’re there in modest quantities. It’s just common logic that if you add more, it’s highly probable you’re going to trap more heat in the atmosphere.
And the third way we know about climate change is the data from computer models -- the models that examine what the planet would look like if you double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These are computer projections. You can’t say with certainty that they’re going to be right, but if you want to know what the future is, you do the best you can. These models are becoming incredibly sophisticated and scientists have quite a number of competing models, or mostly competing models – there are some shared elements in them. But through those models scientists are saying, “As best we can tell, if you double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the planet is going to get appreciably warmer.” How much is debatable, but it could be a little bit of pain to a great deal of pain.
And let’s also not forget that there’s no rule that says we’re going to stop once the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubles. In fact, we’ll probably more than double atmospheric carbon. So even if we can predict how bad things are going to be in 2100 or how bad things are going to be when we double the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the reality is we’re not likely to stop carbon output anytime soon. If scientists’ predictions are off for when[d2] conditions get bad, eventually, in 50 or 100 years, their predictions will come to pass. So there’s little solace in believing those figures are overestimated in terms of years.
From the late 1980s into the early 1990s, scientists started to realize global warming wasn’t just a curiosity; it was a very serious phenomenon. The United Nations pulled together scientists from all over the world from all sorts of disciplines with various different points of view to compile reports for the IPCC, which is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They’ve issued now four reports.
The highlights of those reports show how scientific confidence in this matter has grown over the years. I’m just going to read you some of the highlights from some of these reports so you can get a flavor for how the tone and attitude have changed. In 1995 the IPCC said, “These results indicate that the observed trend in global mean temperature over the past 100 years is unlikely to be entirely natural in origin. The balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on global climate.” So in 1995 scientists are fairly certain that the warming trends can be attributed to human influence – at least in part. Not an overwhelmingly strong point of view. It was a consensus view – some people felt more strongly than that while others thought the IPCC overstated the facts. But that was the consensus.
In 2001, six years later, the IPCC said, “There’s new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities.” And in 2007, which was really in some ways a major flex point for the science community in general and the IPCC in particular, the money line for the IPCC report was, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Most of the increase in global average temperature since the mid 20thcentury is very likely to be due to an observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” In other words, from 1995 to 2007, the consensus went from “it’s likely that this may be happening and humans might be involved” to “this is definitely happening and humans play a major role in it.”
This warning comes from a body of scientists brought together under the auspices of the United Nations, but people have argued whether this is really a representative body of scientists. The best conspiracy theorists say this is just a group think. I’ve talked to far more than a hundred scientists about climate change over the years – to individual scientists on their views about whether climate change is real, how serious it is, how much to believe, the data, and how accurate the models are.
I’ve seen clearly that the scientific evidence accumulated by the main body of scientists has steadily grown. Scientists think global warming is a real thing; it’s not just a plot, as some skeptics put it. It’s not clear what advantage scientists have to form a plot, to deny that we have a serious problem. But some people, nonetheless, argue that this is potentially a plot of some sort.
I’m in a privileged position in that I’ve been able to talk numerous times to many of these climate change scientists. I’ve watched individual conservative scientists go from questioning the whole issue to saying, “This guy is really thinking critically and asking hard questions. He’s not just going along with the crowd because of funding or whatever. He’s really thinking about how strong the evidence is. So how good is his evidence?”
Many of those conservative scientists have evolved along with the IPCC report, which I’m completely convinced is a scientific consensus. It’s not a plot; it’s not a group think. It’s a real, genuine evolution of scientific thought about climate change. The consensus is scary. Nobody wants to believe it because the implications are huge. Nonetheless, most of the people I know in the world of science, sometimes reluctantly but very broadly, have come to the same conclusion – global warming is occurring rapidly and it is human-induced.
Public opinion about climate change has taken a very different trajectory from the thoughts of these scientists who have been studying and reading the literature on it. Let me start by citing a statistic. Public opinion on the existence of climate change started at a fairly low level; people were not that aware of the issue. But by 2006 a Pugh poll found that 77 percent of Americans believed there was solid evidence of global warming. This high degree of public opinion was before the 2007 IPCC report came out, which, in some ways, made the scientists’ strongest point. Public opinion had been more or less tracking scientific opinion. There was a fair amount of skepticism and uncertainty, and a lot of people hadn’t thought much about the issue at all. But as scientific certainty on global warming grew, so did public confidence in the scientists’ reports.
Unfortunately, since probably 2008 and early 2009 (depending on the poll), public opinion has shifted dramatically. There has been a reversal. In the 2006 Pew poll, only 10 percent said there’s no evidence of global warming. That number went from 10 percent in 2006 to 20 percent in 2009. These are the people who say it’s a hoax or deny the existence of global warming.
The number of people who were not worried about global warming rose 13 percentage points – a very substantial increase. When the Gallup organization in 1997 asked Americans, “Do you think the threat of global warming is exaggerated?” Thirty-one percent said, “Yes.” In March 2010, Gallup had a new poll that showed 48 percent of Americans feel that global warming is exaggerated.
Many people doubt there’s a scientific consensus on climate change. Thirty-six percent of Americans say scientists themselves are unsure whether it’s a real thing. It’s a perception that certainly is not matched by my understanding of what’s going on in the scientific community. Included in this percentage is a small number of scientists who remain skeptical. But to say there’s a huge scientific uncertainty about climate change is simply not the case.
So why does scientific opinion and public opinion diverge so dramatically? The bottom line is that it’s not about science. It’s about the messengers and who people believe. The issues are so complicated that you can’t read and learn about them easily and come to your own conclusions about who’s right and who’s wrong. You ultimately have to believe the people who are telling you. And, for the public, who the believable messenger is has changed a lot in the intervening time.
It’s important to recognize that there are genuine, honest questions about climate science that are not resolved yet, not completely. For example, there’s no complete scientific consensus about how much the Earth will warm up when we double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There’s a fairly wide range of uncertainty from a couple of degrees Fahrenheit to 11.5 degrees (very scary numbers) to numbers that we might be able to tolerate. The scientific consensus does not include zero warming, but will at least go from mild to severe.
The same is true with sea level rise, which might occur by the end of the century. If you’re an optimist, you may think sea level will only rise seven inches, which isn’t too bad. If you are a pessimist who reads the scientific literature carefully, you may think three feet is more accurate. Actually, those are some of the worst projections in the scientific literature. Or if you believe the most extreme projections that are published – but I’m sure have less scientific consensus – you might think sea level will rise two meters, which is more than six feet. So you have a very wide range of uncertainty about what the effects will be. That’s just the uncertainty in the science and we have to deal with.
I covered a climate change controversy in the late 1990s that illustrates some of the problems scientists sometimes encounter. A scientific instrument on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) satellites that were orbiting the Earth was showing that the air wasn’t heating up, although the temperature at the ground stations was. This instrument was a microwave sounder on the satellite, and the data it had recorded since 1979 showed no warming in the atmosphere. This was astounding. It didn’t coincide with the measurements on the ground. But this was a real scientific instrument on real NOAA satellites. It was a really serious question about what was going on.
The National Academy of Sciences thought it was a serious enough question to convene a panel of experts to look at this data and try to figure out what was happening. They wanted to determine why they weren’t seeing heating in the atmosphere as recorded by this instrument when they should be. After the first review, the Academy came back and said, “This is a mystery. We really don’t get it, but something is going on. The instruments aren’t lying, but we don’t understand it.”
A few years later they finally realized what had happened. It was a technical error in the way the data was being adjusted. The instruments were in sunlight more than they realized, so the instruments themselves were heating up. The instrument readings were correct but wrong for how they were using the data. They were not being adjusted for the direct heat from the Sun. They were never designed to record temperature trends – which was part of the problem with these errors.
But it was a real, honest, scientific mystery about why the air was not heating up when the ground was. Ultimately it was resolved, and even the guys who were working on the instruments came to agree that “Yep, looks like we made some very understandable errors in the way we were reading the measurements.” Once those were corrected for, there was no mystery. The climate was warming, but everybody was fooled by this oversight, including the National Academy of Sciences.
There are quite a number of genuine scientific questions. As a journalist, I try to cover those by saying, “Look, there are things we know and things we don’t know. We don’t know 100 percent about all science in climate change, but what we do know is that the most likely range of possibilities is not happy.” It’s a grim situation potentially for the planet. We can acknowledge that there could be errors within the science, but the reality is that we would have to be extremely lucky, beyond lucky, to say that all the errors are going to fall in our favor. So much so that we don’t have to worry about climate change.
It’s a hard message. If the pain is not going to happen in this century, then wait until the 2100s. That’s not that far away when you think about how old our country is, how old civilization is. A hundred years will go by pretty quickly. Maybe we’re not messing things up totally for our children and grandchildren. But, after a couple of generations, the planet is certain to suffer from the effects of elevated and sustained temperatures.
One of the problems with covering and writing about climate change is that it’s really hard to get a straight, central, narrative, like saying a storm was caused by global warming. That’s not the nature of global warming. There are a few things now we can point to as evidence of climate change. We can look at the warming of the Arctic and the ice pack disappearing at a rate phenomenally faster than any scientist had expected.
There’s no question that the glaciers around the world are melting. Some of the melting can be attributed to the fact that we’re still coming out the end of our last ice age. But glaciers are melting at such a rate that it’s not fully explained by the fact that glaciers just melt after ice ages and then rebuild in the next ice age. We’re beyond that in terms of the rate of melting we’re seeing.
It’s tempting – and many people have been tempted – to overstate the facts in order to get to that simple narrative. But as a journalist who tries to tell the truth as straight ahead as I can, I find the complexity of the evidence to be a serious impediment to conveying climate change.
The other major problem is Washington, D.C., where I live and work, and what many of you have experienced in many ways. Washington doesn’t like to deal with issues unless it’s a crisis. To say we’re going to create horrible problems for our children and grandchildren 50 election cycles from now is not very effective in grabbing legislators’ attention. Some of the success in dealing with these issues in Washington has been to gin up the crisis a little bit.
I’ll give you a couple of quick examples, one of which was the ozone hole. Back in the 1970s, scientists realized that the chlorofluorocarbons – chlorine compounds – in the atmosphere were destroying the ozone very slowly. This high altitude ozone protects the surface of the Earth – and us – from excessive ultraviolet radiation. There was some effort to deal with CFCs, particularly domestically. But it wasn’t until this so-called ozone hole appeared in the Antarctic in the mid 1980s that people realized, “This is going to be really bad, much worse than we thought.” The adoption of the Montreal Protocol, the treaty to control ozone and the most successful environmental treaty ever, really saved our skin as a planet – literally and figuratively.
The ozone hole was not completely understood in 1987 when the Montreal Protocol was negotiated. But people realized something bad was happening, though they didn’t understand it fully. The good news was that it wasn’t too hard to figure out how to address it and the treaty came through. The planet could have undergone a disaster but it didn’t. There was a bit of panic injected into that potential crisis.
Other examples of accentuating a crisis are the electronic revolution in this country and the interstate highways. Both were produced largely out of the Cold War. It was not as though the government planned for everyone to have computers, an iPod, and the Internet. The government was worried about the Russians -- the Soviet Union -- so they poured huge amounts of money into Silicone Valley to develop microelectronics for defense purposes. And we’ve all reaped the benefits of that.
Same with the interstate highways. The interstate highway system was a response to the Cold War so the military could get tanks across the country quickly in case we were invaded by somebody. It was a crazy idea then. Now the highways are so useful to us that it seems crazy that they were built for defense.
So that’s the way Washington works. And people who know that figure out how they can make climate change an issue that Washington will respond to. The temptation is so strong to tell what you know about climate change because there’s a reasonably strong possibility that it is going to be really disastrous, and we have to do something. You want to sell it as hard as you can, to get people’s attention, to get action. We started to see that with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and his push to do something about climate change. He knows Washington; he knew what he was doing. He realized that if he wanted to get action on climate change, he had to get out the message, and that’s what he chose to do.
Of course, nothing goes without debate in Washington, and so pretty soon you had representatives and senators like Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma saying it’s a hoax. The whole debate essentially devolved from a considered attempt to understand what was going on with the science to the typical thing that happens in Washington, which is politicians choosing sides, rolling up their sleeves, and taking after one another.
I remember being at a congressional hearing where I had a surreal experience. One congresswoman got up and said, “You know, I accept the science that says the world is heating up. I trust scientists. I believe that’s true. But I don’t believe humans are responsible for it.”
Wait a second. How can you believe the scientists who say the planet’s heating up and then not believe the same scientists who have a rational explanation for saying that humans are responsible? There’s just an amazing mental disconnect that happens in Washington, and we’ve seen it play out very strongly.
Al Gore said what I would never say on the air, which is essentially to imply that Katrina was the result of global warming. He crafts his comments very carefully so that they are accurate but very lawyerly. So if you took him to court, he could defend himself. But he basically implied and left everyone with the impression that Katrina was the result of global warming.
What I said when I covered Katrina was, “This is the kind of storm that higher water temperatures in the Gulf are more likely to generate – making stronger storms because global warming likely will heat up water temperatures in the Gulf. This is the kind of thing you’ll see more of as a result of climate change.” But I didn’t go so far as to say Katrina was caused by climate change. Al Gore probably didn’t go quite that far either. You would be forgiven for not noticing the nuance in which he skirted the issue but still left you with the impression that climate change caused Katrina.
So that feud over whether climate change is real and human-induced – both on Capitol Hill and increasingly in the public eye – caused public confidence in global warming, which was previously high, to go down in the time span of a couple of years.
Let me give a couple of other examples. One was a big attack on a piece of science – the famous hockey stick controversy – which was the idea that scientists Malcolm Hughes, Michael Mann, and Raymond Bradley had put together a bunch of tree ring data that stretched back 2,000 years. Tree rings show that trees grow fast when it’s warm and not so fast when it’s cold. By measuring the width of the tree rings, you can reconstruct the historic climate.
These guys did that with their tree ring data and concluded that the Earth was not too hot for almost 2,000 years. Then in the last 25 years of the 20thcentury, the change became extremely noticeable and corresponded with the huge and dramatic buildup in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, a global-warming gas. These scientists showed their findings in an illustration in one of the earlier IPCC reports. The graph resembled a hockey stick, with a level line – the shaft – up to the year 1900, then a near-vertical climb to 1999 – the blade of the hockey stick.
Hughes, Mann, and Bradley were attacked by two Canadians – one from the mining industry and the other an economist – who looked at their data and asked some fair questions about whether they had handled their data correctly. Fair questions – except they were really loaded questions because these guys had some ideological biases and didn’t believe the hockey stick was a real effect at all. This was a huge fight.
Again the National Academy of Sciences came in and looked at the data. The Academy agreed with Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick – the two Canadians – that Hughes, Mann, and Bradley did not use the ideal statistical method for analyzing the data. But who in science always uses the ideal method the first time? But looking at the data fresh, the Academy said there’s no question that the last few decades of the 20th century were the warmest in at least 400 years, although maybe not 1,000 or 2,000 years. There’s less confidence that we have been in an exceptionally warm period dating back before the year 1600 because it’s hard to measure temperatures that far back.
The National Academy of Sciences also concluded that many locations were warmer in the last 25 years of the 20th century than any other period since the year 900. So the fundamental point of the graph was correct. The tree ring data and the other temperature data shows that the world has heated up remarkably and measurably in the last 25 or 35 years. The scientists didn’t get the methodology 100 percent correct, but their basic message was correct. That was the conflict that started what I think of as the food fight on the Web. These conflicting ideas blossomed at about the same time the blogosphere appeared, and the idea that the hockey stick was a fraud went viral.
One of these Canadians has his own blog that is very popular, and he has been pushing this argument for quite a while. Now the guys that did some of the hockey stick work also have a blog. So if you want to take, I don’t know, two or three weeks, you can read these two blogs and try to sort through the arguments and counterarguments and counter-counterarguments, and counter-counter-counterarguments. I tune in occasionally to see if there’s anything crushing and new; but basically, it’s a food fight.
Sadly, it’s not really a science fight. Things that sound like science are just surrogates for real science and are completely different from the issues of real science. It’s hard for me as a science reporter to be stuck in the middle of this ideological debate over a bunch of questions like what responsibility we have for putting all this carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and what responsibility we have to the rest of the world, which is likely to suffer the biggest effect of climate change when it happens. At the rate we’re going, there’s no question about if, but when. These are moral, ethical, legal, and fundamentally economic questions that are being parsed out in the world of science.
It’s easy to debate this science that seems so weird and confusing. You can convince people fairly easily, just the way you heard about death panels as part of the health care reform, for instance. It’s easy to confuse people by telling them these climate change denials are genuine scientific disputes. That’s obvious from the statistics I cited earlier; it’s been a very successful strategy for people who are trying to sell doubt and concern about climate change.
I don’t mean to dismiss the economic questions. I think there are very serious economic questions to ask, some of which have transpired in Washington, D.C. in terms of how best to approach the economic impacts, such as cap and trade. They’re all issues that deserve huge amounts of discussion and debate. I’m fairly sure Congress hasn’t figured out how to deal with this. But as a society, we’re not talking about economics and equity and all those other issues. We’re engaged in a false debate so we don’t have to get to the harder questions. Some of these false debates came into being at the same time as the blogosphere, and the blogs played a major role in these false debates.
The other trend that I’ve seen, which is not a happy one for me as a member of the mainstream media, is that many people have come to doubt the veracity, the truthfulness, the purpose, and the motivations of the mainstream media. My colleagues in the world of science reporting have done an incredible job of looking at the best science and putting it out there –The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and all these other publications that are read by opinion leaders. Our message is increasingly less trusted, similar to the way the public is moving on the issue of climate change.
It’s interesting that the mainstream media are attacked by both sides, partly by activists who say we’re just shilling for these scientists who have some mysterious plan to take over the world. Also, we’re being accused of buying into a disinformation campaign generated by organizations skeptical about climate change. Some science journalists have been accused of being overly balanced. They go so far out to get a balancing point of view from skeptics in their articles that they show bias toward them.
Then, of course, we’ve seen Fox TV, Glenn Beck, and others concerned about creeping socialism raise issues about global equity and taking responsibility for our carbon emissions. It’s easy to take the step toward socialism and to whip up people by telling them doing so would be an assault on the American way of life. When not denying responsibility, they deny the seriousness of the matter and don’t worry about the tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The origins of some of the errors in climate science actually can be traced and eventually explained. I’ll give you one example. One of the latest IPCC reports had a factual error in it. It was a 3000-page report that contained a huge amount of supporting material. One of the facts that got buried in this report – it didn’t even make the executive summary – was the assertion that the snow packs in the Himalayas would be gone by the year 2035. This is an idea not just kicked around by the IPCC; this has been knocking around in Congress on Capitol Hill.
It was an accepted fact that by 2035 these ice packs would be gone. They supply water to 300 hundred million people in Asia. If you lose these glaciers in the Himalayas, there could be unbelievably catastrophic events in Asia. The region would lose the water that supplies the Ural, Yangtze, Ganges, and Irrawaddy rivers -- all the rivers that feed Asia. It would be a disaster.
Somebody took the trouble to track down the origin of that statistic – 2035. It turns out the IPCC had referenced another scientific study, which is what it’s supposed to do. But it referenced the study from World Wildlife Fund, which had in turn referenced an article in New Scientist Magazine, a British popular science magazine. The British magazine reporter had talked to Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist in India, who had cited the year 2035 as an off-the-cuff comment. It was not supported by any scientific literature. To make matters worse, a scientific paper had been published about this projection and it said to look at the water resources in the Himalayas by the year 2350 – 2350. There was a transcription error: somebody took 2-3-5-0 and made 2-0-3-5 – 2035.
Unfortunately, this error was entered into the IPCC report. Once that was pointed out to the IPCC, they said, “Oh gosh, that was a really bad mistake. Sorry about that.” And they corrected the error. There was another one of a similar magnitude but neither of these changed the substance of the report or the overall conclusions. However, these errors are a black eye to the scientific debate because the IPCC is supposed to be based on the best science in the scientific community. Clearly, here were two errors based on typos.
In February 2010, Ralph Cicerone, head of the National Academy of Sciences, was attending a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego and was reflecting on whether the latest IPCC report had factual errors in it, which it did. During a press conference he was quoted in The Observer, published in London, as saying, “There’s been a widespread deterioration of the public attitude to science – not only in the U.S., but in many other countries – in the past three months. As to how long it will last, there’s no way of knowing. It can only do harm, however.” And this is the head of our National Academy of Sciences, a very thoughtful and valid organization that deals with climate science, bemoaning the fact that we go from a typo to a huge shift in public opinion about climate change.
It’s not with a little irony that I’m quoting from a paper in the United Kingdom because, given the loss of science writers at American newspapers, these were not U.S. journalists covering this press conference. Cicerone’s lament was only reported in the British Press. That’s a commentary on how far we in this country have shifted from the mainstream media to the blogosphere as a source of information.
As a journalist and somebody who’s been covering climate change for many years and thinking how I can make a difference, how I can understand and convey to the best of my ability what the scientific community thinks about climate change, where do I go? What do I do? And the problem is, as I mentioned, this is not really about science; this is about economics.
We’ve been using the atmosphere as a sewer for our carbon dioxide. It’s free; it’s great; we don’t pay for it when the power plants pump it into the air. The result is – and this is done all over the world, of course – that the metabolism of the global economy is by now based on producing carbon dioxide and dumping it in the atmosphere free of charge. We have become totally used to this. And it’s expensive to do something about it. If you realize that it’s actually not free because there’ll be consequences down the road, it becomes very quickly an intractable problem about how you deal with it as an international plague, where China produces even more carbon dioxide than we do these days.
We really don’t understand the economics of what it would take to control carbon emissions, how much it would set back our economy. Optimists say, “Oh, it’s not going to cost much at all, a very small drain; we would barely notice it. Gasoline price fluctuations are much more dramatic than the sorts of things we would encounter by addressing climate change.” Others say, “It’s going to bring the American economy to its knees. We’ll give a competitive advantage to China and India and that will be end of our country.” The truth lies somewhere in between. But it’s a debate we haven’t even gotten to in a serious way because it’s much easier to argue about this supposed scientific controversy than it is to address the real questions.
I’ve read some of the psychological literature about this. When we encounter a problem that seems so hard to deal with, it’s a very common response just to say it’s not a real problem. It’s a very common, understandable, psychological response. I would like to believe it’s not a real problem because it’s such a mess to deal with. I would love the thing just to go away. It’s a human defense, an emotional defense to deal with it in the way we are. When we think, “Oh my goodness, do we have to really remake the entire global economy? How much is it going to cost me to buy electricity and gasoline and all the rest of that stuff?” It’s easy, with just a little nudge, to get people to believe that the science is in doubt. People will be really happy to seize on that as a potential answer.
You can see a little bit of that in the statistics of public opinion. It’s not the people on the fence who are thinking it’s not such a big problem. The really dramatic shift has been in the people who say this is not a problem at all. The number of people who say it’s all a hoax has gone from 10 percent to 20 percent. The biggest shift in public opinion is people who deny the problem entirely.
So what do you do? Well, one thing the psychologists tell us is that the messenger matters. It’s not just the message, but it’s who’s telling us and why we should believe that messenger. If people don’t believe the mainstream media that much anymore, maybe other people need to start carrying this message. Whether it’s somebody’s clergyman or a neighbor or whoever, the messenger really matters. Al Gore is a very polarizing figure in this country. Some people have learned a lot from him and have really seized his message. On the other hand, he’s provided fuel for skeptics who don’t like him to begin with. So the question is: where do you go, who should be the messenger?
That’s something we as a society need to think about. The sense to just forget about this, to not talk about climate change as a scientific issue is already happening. So let’s just skirt the whole debate or quasi-debate or pseudo-debate or whatever you want to call it. There are quite a number of strategists who say this is what we should do, that it’s too complicated and not a debate you can expect people to get to the bottom of. So let’s just skirt it.
We’ve seen this in the Obama administration where they’re saying this isn’t about saving the planet; this is about creating green jobs and efficiency. If you ask Americans if they think we should make more efficient use of our energy, 90 percent say, “Yes, we should use our energy more efficiently.” So people get that. If you ask them if they want to compete with China, do we want as a nation to keep up with China, to try to be the leader of this new industry of low-carbon energy, people say, “Yeah, we should really make sure we compete with China.” So we’re starting to see people skirt the so-called science debate and possibly make some progress.
There was even a very prominent Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, who was brought in by the Environmental Defense Fund, which is a fairly liberal environmental group. Luntz basically said, If I were crafting this message, this is the message I would sell: I would just say forget it, don’t talk about saving the planet, don’t talk about international equity, just go for these issues – using energy efficiently, competing with China on green energy. And that’s maybe what we’re starting to see happen.
As somebody who likes to believe we can have rational discourse in this country, this approach is disappointing. Have a rational discussion? Of course, we’re not. We’re skipping it. We’re saying we won’t talk about it anymore. We’re not going to try to help people understand the issues or deal with them in any rational way. We’re just going to reframe the issue entirely. I’m sad about that because I think we should have a rational discussion about things that matter to the planet. But on the other hand, if it works, I understand this approach.
My thought is that not only should we frame or reframe this issue to appeal to people’s personal interests, but we should reframe it, to some extent, as a moral issue. We should ask some broad questions like: if we are changing the planet, what responsibility do we have? America is a fairly religious country and I think even people who may be skeptical about the science of climate change might acknowledge moral responsibility. If we are doing something damaging, we have some moral responsibility to the rest of the people on the planet.
Typically, poor people are going to suffer much more than Americans are from climate change. With the exception of Florida, we basically can find our way around climate change without suffering too badly personally. I make an exception for Florida because Florida actually has extremely porous soils. We can build dikes around New York City, San Francisco, and all these other low-lying places. But if we build a dike around Florida, it’s not going to help because the water is going to come up right through the soil. You would have to pave the entire state! With Florida the exception, we probably won’t do too badly in the United States with the effects of climate change. We’ll have the likelihood of more big storms, but we’re a rich country and we can deal with those.
So, in closing, I have to ask myself if there’s something different the news media could have done in helping the public understand climate change. Could we as gatekeepers have made a difference here? I take at least some solace in believing that as much grousing as there is about mainstream media, people still believe we provide useful information. People who say the media is wrong mostly get their information from the media! They still rely on the media for reliable news.
But journalists can’t cure scientific illiteracy. People tell me I’m a science educator. I’m actually not a science educator. I can’t possibly teach people science. I perhaps can help them understand individual issues; I can talk to them about what the scientific method is. I can help people understand how scientists frame their questions and how they see the world, but I can’t teach science in a meaningful way in my career. That’s the job of schools and universities, to make sure science education happens. That’s a process that takes decades, and we don’t have time to wait for the public to acquire scientific literacy. We don’t have a couple of decades before we take this issue seriously.
My final point is that I need – and want – to continue to provide the facts as best I can ascertain them and tell listeners there are still people who care. The facts will still have weight even if they aren’t necessarily the whole story. They’re at least part of the story. That’s what keeps me motivated. Good information can provide the basis for a rational argument. Here are the facts to pursue that discussion. I hope that’s good enough.