Global warming is an unproven theory. Trying to stop it will cost the economy dearly and accomplish nothing. It is being promoted by environmentalists as a cynical ploy to raise money.
Reading statements like these, does it seem like you are looking at a Canadian daily newspaper?
Like many North American media outlets, Canadian newspapers have been supplying the public with such a steady diet of misinformation and skewed science on the critical issue of global warming that it might best be described as journalistic malpractice.
Consider this: would it be ethical for a news editor today to publish an opinion piece by a tobacco-industry-funded “expert”, now long inactive within the scientific community, stating that there is no proven link between tobacco and cancer?
Such journalistic mischief went on for many years, clouding the public debate and probably costing many lives. However, the days when such “balanced reporting” would be considered acceptable have long passed.
Even ExxonMobil, which funded climate-change deniers for years, finally admitted this month that global warming is real, even though it has been obvious to the scientific community for many years that humans were contributing to the problem through emissions of greenhouse gases.
Yet papers like the Vancouver Sun and the National Post published articles by such deniers as Patrick Michaels and S. Fred Singer, who some might remember from his previous efforts to allay public fears about the dangers of secondhand smoke. And the Province promoted right-wing columnist and environmentalist-bashing Jon Ferry to the position of editorial-pages editor.
And then there is the curious case of Tim Ball, a long-retired professor from the University of Winnipeg and a well-known climate-change denier who has not published a peer-reviewed scientific publication on climatology in more than a decade.
That’s not to say that Ball hasn’t been busy writing lately. Over the past five years, he has published no less than 39 opinion pieces and 32 letters to the editor in 24 Canadian newspapers. Fifty of these pieces ran in papers owned by CanWest MediaWorks. These efforts totalled an incredible 44,500 words.
This is even more surprising, given the monotony of his material. Virtually all of these articles were variations on a single theme: science does not support the idea that global warming is caused by humans. Invariably, the bylines of the opinion pieces characterized Ball as an expert on climatology. What is the public to think?
Among his unorthodox views, published as recently as last month in the Calgary Sun:
- Global temperatures have declined since 1998 in direct contradiction to computer models on which the Kyoto Accord is based (incorrect).
- Ice-core records show that temperature rises before CO2 rises, not because of it (misleading).
- Evidence is mounting that pre-industrial levels of CO2 may have been much higher than the 280 parts per million assumed by environmentalists to have existed at that time (again, misleading).
- New research shows that changes in the energy output of the sun account for most of the recent warming and cooling of our planet (wrong).
- The primary evidence of human influence on climate, the famous “hockey stick” temperature-trends graph of climatologist Michael Mann, has been debunked as manipulated and wrong (not so).
An essential component of journalism is fact-checking. Do these surprising assertions have any scientific basis?
When told of these claims, Richard Gammon, professor of oceanography and atmos heric sciences at the University of Washington, somewhat exasperatedly refuted them as either scientifically baseless or misleading.
Andrew Weaver is a leading Canadian researcher in the field of climate science who holds a Canada Research Chair in climate modelling and analysis at the University of Victoria. He is also the chief editor of Journal of Climate, the leading academic publication in this field, and a lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme). This is the largest peer-review exercise in the history of science, involving more than 2,000 climate researchers from 100 countries, and its much-anticipated Fourth Assessment Report is due for worldwide release on February 2.
Weaver also quickly confirmed that those widely published views of Ball’s have little scientific basis.
What’s going on? Do news aper editors not possess a phone? How can it be that Ball has managed to publish all those articles stating more or less the same thing if what he is saying has little scientific merit?
Here is what Gammon had to say concerning links between humans and climate change. “This is like asking, ”˜Is the moon round?’ or ”˜Does smoking cause cancer?’ We’re at a point now where there is no responsible position stating that humans are not responsible for climate change. That is just not where the science is.”¦For a long time, for at least five years and probably 10 years, the international scientific community has been very clear.”
In case there is any doubt, Gammon went on: “This is not the balance-of-evidence argument for a civil lawsuit; this is the criminal standard, beyond a reasonable doubt. We’ve been there for a long time and I think the media has really not presented that to the public.”
How does Gammon explain the climate holdouts? “You can always find somebody paid for by the Western Fuels Association or ExxonMobil to stir the pot and say that we don’t know yet or we are still confused and we need to listen to all sides, and ExxonMobil will take that point of view.” (Ball, in a Globe and Mail interview last summer, said he has not knowingly received any funding from oil companies.)
THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA in shaping the so-called climate debate is much larger, however, than merely providing space to industry actors. Consider the following from some major media outlets.
The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times last year: “Major news media have gone after scientists who argue there’s still time to study global warming rather than plunge into some half-baked environmental jihad that could waste possibly trillions of dollars.”
Vancouver Sun business columnist Michael Campbell (B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell’s brother) regularly holds forth on climate change. Last year, he scolded the scientific community for its slapdash work: “I see little evidence that proponents of man-made global warming know how damaging the shoddy science behind some of their claims has been to their cause. They don’t seem to understand that for many of us, global warming is not an article of faith, but rather of science. And when the science is faulty, it damages the credibility of their cause.”
We can only assume that Campbell is referring to those dullards at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its 2001 assessment report stated: “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”
Or perhaps Campbell was referring to the various academies of sciences of 11 countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., that released a joint statement in 2005: “The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action.”
In his polysyllabic fashion, Rex Murphy also hectored the nation on the issue of climate science last month in his column in the Globe and Mail: “It is emphatically time for the most scrupulous and disinterested inquiry to determine the solid core of what is really known about the subject, separated from the great clouds of speculation, advocacy, geopolitics and calculated alarmism that overhang and shadow that core.”
It is as if these opinion writers and the scientific community exist on separate planets. Have the media never heard of the numerous, if pedantic, ways that the world’s scientific community has been trying to warn the world about global warming? When does it become unethical for the media to be used as a PR tool by a powerful corporate sector to delay meaningful regulation?
That was the question asked by the U.S.–based Union of Concerned Scientists in a report released this month called Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to ”˜Manufacture Uncertainty’ on Climate Change. The report draws the obvious parallel to the infamous and highly successful PR campaign by the tobacco industry to plant doubt in the minds of the public about the link between smoking and cancer.
Like oil companies today, Big Tobacco faced costly regulation due to mounting scientific evidence of the dangers of its product. However, it had a problem. It knew that no one would believe it if it told the public that cigarettes were safe.
The solution? Tobacco companies realized that they must instead fund phony scientists to speak on their behalf. These “skeptics” had two important advantages over real scientists.
First, they didn’t have to bother defending their positions in the scientific community, because the public was the target audience. Like washed-up boxers who only pick fights in bars, these skeptics, many of whom had impressive-sounding credentials, restricted their pugilism to the popular press rather than peer-reviewed scientific journals.
On this footing, it is a rather unfair fight. The rules of engagement in the media are very different than in the scientific community. The mastery of the sound bite rather than the possession of robust data almost always carries the day in the media minute. The notoriously bad communication skills of some active researchers do not help matters.
The second advantage is that “skeptics” do not have to win the public debate; they only need to cloud public opinion so as to delay regulation.
A now-famous 1969 internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company put it bluntly: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ”˜body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
Compare this with another internal memo—this one from the American Petroleum Institute in 1998—calling for a “campaign to recruit a cadre of scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science and to train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify”.
What was old is new again. Remarkably, this chilling plan by Big Oil to use the media to deceive the public was largely ignored by news outlets when it became public.
According to the UCS report, ExxonMobil “funnelled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science”.
If there is a significant difference between the PR efforts of the tobacco industry and the fossil-fuel industry, it is size. The oil, gas, and coal sectors make Big Tobacco seem positively puny by comparison.
Fossil fuels make up the largest industrial concern the world has ever known, currently worth $8 trillion to $9 trillion annually. This is four to five times larger than the next-largest industrial sector. By this yardstick, the amount of money invested in funding climate-change deniers is pocket change to Big Oil.
Has this campaign against climate science been successful? You bet. It may well go down as the most audacious, successful, and cynical campaign in public-relations history.
Consider a 2004 academic paper—published in Global Environmental Change and titled Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press—on the very subject of how climate-change science is distorted by the media. The authors analyzed media stories from the five most prestigious newspapers in the U.S.—including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal—over a five-year period to see what relative weight was being given to mainstream scientists and so-called skeptics.
“From a total of 3,543 articles, we examined a random sample of 636 articles. Our results showed that the majority of these stories were, in fact, structured on the journalistic norm of balanced reporting, giving the impression that the scientific community was embroiled in a rip-roaring debate on whether or not humans were contributing to global warming.”
The report found that the “U.S. prestige-press coverage of global warming from 1988 to 2002 has contributed to a significant divergence of popular discourse from scientific discourse”¦that the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropo enic [human-caused] contributions to global warming and resultant action.”
Translation: the public is being misinformed on climate science by poor journalism that continues to tell both sides of the story even when there is no other side. The resultant political inaction might well kill the planet.
Returning to the original question, is it, then, ethical for an editor to provide space to industry-funded spokespeople claiming scientific credi ility they don’t have?
“In my opinion, that is where the ethical problem lies,” said Eric Jandciu, research coordinator at the UBC school of journalism. “You are, in effect, providing misinformation to the public because there is no more [scientific] debate on this, and we seem to be very far behind in Canada and the U.S. In the European media for years now, they have stopped with this debate.”
(Although it must be tempting for editors to publish material that runs counter to conventional beliefs, is there something else going on? Advertising revenue in Canadian newspapers was a whopping $2.6 billion in 2004, according to the Canadian Newspaper Association. Of the top 30 corporate advertisers in Canadian papers, 15 were car dealerships or auto manufacturers. Car ads represented fully 54 percent of those top-30 revenues, totalling $549 million.)
Has this systematically inaccurate coverage influenced public opinion?
Consider these numbers. A McAllister Opinion Research poll from the fall of last year showed that fully 50 percent of Canadians still believed that “most scientists disagreed with each other about whether global warming was happening.” In the U.S., the numbers are even worse. An ABC News poll last year showed that 64 percent of Americans believed the majority of scientists are still arguing about whether or not global warming was even happening.
And how important is public opinion in influencing politics? Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: “Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the voice of God.”
The Georgia Straight asked former federal Liberal environment minister (1999 to 2004) David Anderson whether or not skewed media coverage on climate science made his job more difficult.
“Of course,” Anderson said. “There was a very professional group of people who managed to get a large number of articles and letters to the editors [from climate skeptics] into Canadian media—they worked hard at it.
“If you look at the columnists in Canada, you will find a very surprising interest in the views of dissenters. Just about every columnist in the Globe and the Vancouver Sun recites this intellectually preprepared stuff on climate science. Where does it come from? In Canada, there has been a successful campaign to get the views of the deniers into the media, and it has been enormously successful. It has been very secretive, and someone has been funding it”¦”
When asked why Big Oil would care so much about little old Canada, Anderson was blunt: “Bush said restrictions on greenhouse gases will destroy the U.S. economy.” Therefore, Exxon Mobil and others “never wanted a North American economy—Canada, close to the U.S. in every respect—to succeed and prove him wrong. We were quite important to the American campaign. We succeed, and Bush looks as incorrect on climate and the effect on the American economy as he is looking on Iraq.
“They did not want Canada to succeed [in creating a green economy] because they knew that it wasn’t that hard. They knew the [economic] loss, especially in a growth economy such as ours, would be essentially imperceptible. No calculation suggested that this was going to be a severe dislocation to the Canadian economy.” So what, then, is Anderson’s explanation for the federal Liberals’ lack of greater progress on climate policy? “You had the official Opposition against you, had the provinces against you, you had business against you,” and, lastly, “you had a coherent campaign in the media against you.”
Anderson believes Canadian editors “were consistently getting under their noses the results of a sophisticated campaign of communications”, and that newspaper columnists “repeat some things in language and format which is so consistent across the board that it can only come from one source.”¦That’s the people to whom the communications experts were focusing on—they focused on media.”
That campaign didn’t make Anderson’s job any easier. Although the Liberals’ record on reducing greenhouse gases was, admittedly, abysmal, so was the public’s understanding of the issue. In 1999, when Anderson became environment minister, only two percent of Canadians believed global warming was the most important environmental issue.
The political importance of keeping the public confused about climate science was made clear in a remarkable 2003 memo by U.S. Republican spin doctor Frank Luntz to the Bush administration: “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that the North American public has been grossly misled by our news media comes this month from the biggest member of Big Oil , Exxon Mobil. While Tim Ball and Michael Campbell seem utterly steadfast about the need for greater scientific debate and research, ExxonMobil now seems not so sure.
This month, the world’s largest nonstate oil company executed a stunning flip-flop on global warming. Kenneth Cohen, Exxon’s vice president for public affairs, acknowledged: “We know enough now—or, society knows enough now—that the risk is serious and action should be taken.”
Exxon also took the opportunity to publicly announce that it was cutting support to such notorious climate-change deniers as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and “five or six” other groups active in the so-called climate-science debate. According to Cohen, “The issue has evolved.”
That is not to say that much precious time has not been wasted, but this development will, hopefully, begin to shift the public debate from arguing science to debating policy.
UVic’s Weaver agreed. “Debating the science is good, but it doesn’t happen in the opinion-editorial pages of newspapers; it happens in the scientific community.” At the same time, he feels that “debating the policy [of global warming] is crucial, and that is what has to happen in public discourse.”
The University of Washington’s Gammon thinks that media coverage is improving but has a long way to go. “It’s beginning to move to where we need to be, but not nearly fast enough. In my mind, people are not scared enough. It’s a funny issue because the scientists are more worried about it than the general public.
“You just can’t give up, though, because these guys [climate-change deniers] don’t give up. As long as they can plant the seed in the public mind that this is all controversial, they’ve won. That’s all they have to do. We need to keep strengthening the science and saying it as clearly as possible and working with the media so that the media gets the right message out.”
How much is at stake here? Do scientists think that dealing with global warming is urgent? “Incredibly urgent,” Weaver said. “On a scale of one to 10, how about 10? I don’t worry so much for me as a Canadian; I worry about the global instability that will result from it. An example I give is, ”˜What are we going to do about 100 million people that are displaced from Bangladesh this century?’ ”
The possibility of tipping points are particularly troubling to Weaver. “Permafrost in the northern hemisphere is a massive reservoir of carbon.”¦If you look at the last time there were massive methane releases [which would result from melting permafrost], 94 percent of species of life on the planet died. If we don’t have this baby turned around by 2030, it’s game over for an awful lot of people.”
Weaver bristled at the notion that we need more research before we can act. “What bugs me most is that I have been criticized that the only reason I am doing this is that I want more research money. The irony is that [scientists] are saying we don’t need more research. What we need is action”¦we know what’s going on. We know what needs to be done. The thing that would get me more research money would be to say, ”˜Yeah, there’s a lot of uncertainty and I really think before we do policy, we need to spend some money to figure this thing out.’ That would be the purely selfish thing to say, but that has not been the response from the [scientific] community.”
He also offered this advice to the media: “What newspaper editors have to realize is that there are people out there who are using them. People don’t like being used, but they have to realize that they are being used.”¦Rather than thinking that they are serving the public discourse, ask the question, ”˜Am I being used to further an agenda?’ And the answer with the issue of climate change is ”˜Yes.’ ”
There is irony in a career scientist like Weaver seeing so clearly what is wrong with how the media covers climate change when he has had to endure so many media commentators publicly lecturing him on science.
Lastly, there has been a twist to the Tim Ball story. In April of last year, one of his op-eds in the Calgary Herald slamming the science of climate change raised the ire of Dan Johnson, a professor of environmental science at the University of Lethbridge.
Johnson wrote a letter to the editor questioning Ball’s academic credentials and was quickly sued for defamation. Ball filed suit on September 1 against Johnson and four editors at the Herald for $325,000 for, among other things, “damages to his income earning capacity as a sought after speaker with respect to global warming”.
In the statement of defence filed by the Herald on December 7, the paper noted that Ball “is a member of the Friends of Science, a group dedicated to discrediting mainstream scientific beliefs and theories regarding the contribution of human sourced greenhouse gases to global warming”, and that “the Friends of Science and the plaintiff are, at least in part, supported and funded by members of the oil and gas industry who have a vested interest in limiting the impact of the Kyoto Accord on their business.”
The Herald also stated that Ball “has published few articles in academically recognized peer-reviewed scientific journals” and that he “has not conducted research regarding the relationship between climate and elements within the atmosphere”.
And here is how Herald editors characterized the man whose opinion pieces on climate change they had chosen to publish eight times in the past five years: “The plaintiff is viewed as a paid promoter of the agenda of the oil and gas industry rather than as a practicing scientist.”
Strange. This was not how he was identified in his bylines. In an op-ed in April of last year, the Herald cited him as “a Victoria-based environmental consultant. He was the first climatology PhD in Canada and worked as a professor of climatology at the University of Winnipeg for 28 years.”
Therein lies the crux of the matter. This is not about freedom of speech. No one is suggesting that a paper should not have the freedom to publish whatever it wants, as long as it is not violating any laws.
The question, instead, is one of properly identified sources—a foundation of good journalism.
Imagine if the next time Ball is cited in the popular press he is identified as “a paid promoter of the agenda of the oil and gas industry” rather than as a scientist.
Not much chance of that, it seems. Incredibly, Ball’s controversial op-eds have been published an additional eight times in CanWest papers since Ball sued the Calgary Herald. In all of those cases, Ball was cited as a former professor at the University of Winnipeg.
What if we demanded more from our media on what is emerging as the leading issue of the 21st century? What if the mainstream media stopped being a big part of the problem and became part of the solution?
Does it seem strange, for instance, that although the environment is the number one issue of concern for Canadians that the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun have no one writing a column on the environment? Arguably, both of these papers already have several commentators that regularly spill buckets of ink questioning our movement toward a greener world.
Or how about our venerable CBC?
Radio One has programs for business, sports, advertising, science, Quebec culture, pop culture, food, storytelling, spirituality, comedy, and theatre. There are three shows on writing and books and 11 programs on music. CBC’s three television networks air programs on fashion, gardening, antiques, and fly-fishing.
Amid this dizzying Can-Con diversity, however, there is one glaring omission. For now, at least, there is no dedicated CBC radio or television program on the number-one issue of concern to Canadians: the environment.
If any of these editors and producers need a writer, I’m available.
Mitchell Anderson’s blog is at www.mitchellanderson.blogspot.com/ .