Crossing the 2014 Climate Divide: Scientists, Skeptics, and the Media

Feb. 18, 2014

Why some still reject climate science

The world’s climate scientists are in unanimous agreement that global climate is changing and that human-caused activities are a major culprit. A 2,500-page United Nations scientific report released last fall, authored by more than 250 scientists and based on 9,200 peer-reviewed studies, confirmed that human influence has been the dominant cause of warming since the mid-20th century.

If scientists agree, why is climate change still a very public debate in the American media? Climate denialists percolate the blogosphere, have muscled their way onto prime time spots on cable television and convinced a majority of Republicans in the United States’ House of Representatives that denying global warming is part of their responsibility to the party platform.

“[Climate denialists are part of] a fringe group that punches way above its weight,” said Suzanne Goldenberg, a leading environmental reporter and correspondent with The Guardian, who covers climate change denialism as part of her job reporting on environmental issues in the United States. She said that what appears in mainstream media is not a reflection of the science consensus, adding, “This is no longer a debate about science. [Climate change] is a political debate.”

WATCH: Full Panel Discussion

Goldenberg spoke as part of a Feb. 13 afternoon panel sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs’ Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. She was joined by Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard Professor of the History of Science and author of a 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming; and Peter Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy, Union of Concerned Scientists.

In introducing the panel, moderator Cristine Russell, an ENRP senior fellow, HKS adjunct lecturer and veteran science reporter, referenced a similar panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School four years ago. She said, “Though we wish it had gone away – it hasn’t. The [denialist] movement still has strength.”

Part of the responsibility of moving past this so-called ‘debate’ falls to scientists, Oreskes said to a roomful of students, fellows and community members who braved a winter snowstorm to attend the panel. Scientists need to be better communicators of climate change, she said. This idea that scientists can operate a bubble and spend their days hiding in labs doesn’t work. “They do a lot of damage when they don’t engage with the public,” added Oreskes, who authored an influential 2004 essay in Science Magazine, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.”

But part of the onus lies with so-called ‘legacy media’— newspapers and magazines that have been around in the age of print and network stations that have survived the Internet transition. Peter Frumhoff said that more media outlets need to take bold moves like the Los Angeles Times by refusing to publish letters to the editor that categorically deny climate science and Popular Science that has turned off commenting altogether.

The climate denialist movement has been propelled by journalists looking to introduce balance to their articles by giving a voice to both sides of the debate. “However, there really isn’t a debate about global warming,” said Frumhoff, a global change ecologist who has published widely in science journals and worked on several UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. “We have an opportunity to move past this ‘false balance,’” he said. While ‘false balance’ has been criticized by scientists as well as science reporters, the journalism technique of quoting an opposing viewpoint in every story — even if that viewpoint is unrepresentative — is still widely used in political coverage, a kind of “he said-she said’ approach that favors controversy over accuracy.

Despite the persistent problem of effectively communicating science, the panel agreed that communication is improving: “There is not one silver bullet,” Goldenberg said, “but a lot of things are moving in the right direction.”

The seminar was organized by Russell, in conjunction with her HKS class, IGA-451M “The Media, Energy and Environment,” and by ENRP Assistant Director Amanda Sardonis.

Chrissie Long writes frequently about Harvard University.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Environment and Natural Resources
For Academic Citation: Chrissie Long. “Crossing the 2014 Climate Divide: Scientists, Skeptics, and the Media.” News, , February 18, 2014.