Asymmetric Coverage of Climate Science Fools Very Few, and It’s Not the Koch Brothers’ Fault

In climate change, there’s a remarkable disconnect between what people read and what they think.
March 1, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes​.com on March 1, 2013.

USA Today has run yet another dire climate change feature, this time riffing off a federal compendium on climate change that hasn’t even been published—it is in draft form and is being severely criticized at this very minute.

Judging from what people really think about global warming, the paper should have saved its talent for something they are actually interested in.

Hardly a day goes by without some climate scare, and earlier this week we found a terrific example of how biased the reporting on this issue has become. This particular threat, coming from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Eastern Germany, is that increasingly persisting jet stream patterns “almost freeze” weather anomalies in one place. This would create longer heat waves and persistent rainfall anomalies (high or low), which, they say, “can result in a high death toll, forest fires, and dramatic harvest losses”. The cause, of course is dreaded global warming caused by pernicious economic activity.

Needless to say, that generated a lot of news traffic.

At precisely the same time, two University of Melbourne scientists published a paper in Geophysical Research letters, studying virtually the same data and finding little significant change. Further, they found that any changes in these patterns, known as atmospheric “blocking”, under which weather tends to stagnate, were small compared to natural year‐​to‐​year variability. In what is always a bad sign for solid science, they found that any connections between blocking frequency and global warming are highly dependent upon the methodology they used. Bottom line: they couldn’t find much of a signal, and even if they did, they weren’t sure what it all meant.

News traffic? Zilch.

The difference is that death and destruction sell ad copy, while, as the story goes, “plane lands on time” doesn’t. But, in climate change, there’s a remarkable disconnect between what people read and what they think.

A large number of people will be exposed to the story that scientists are reporting that global warming is leading to more severe weather. Meanwhile, no one will hear about the negative results in Geophysical Research Letters.

The type of global warming science reported to the public grows asymmetrically, with alarming evidence receiving far more exposure than evidence for more modest changes and impacts, or, climate‐​as‐​usual.

And what’s the bottom line? People still don’t give a darn.

The prestigious National Opinion Research Center (NORC), located at the University of Chicago, just released a report on what it calls “priority worries”.

Given a list of 8 “problems”, only 3.6 per cent of Americans rank “Environment” as their highest priority. Within a sub‐​list of seven environmental “problems”, 19.6% rate climate change as “extremely dangerous”, where it ranks fourth out of the seven.

My greener friends are convinced that this is all because of the mean old Koch brothers. But if that’s true, they must have huge propaganda operations in Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Flanders, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and France, where even lower percents rate climate change as “extremely dangerous”. And they must be really active in Argentina (despite its nationalized oil companies), where environment ties for dead last among the eight issues, and only 5.9 per cent of the respondents ranked it as the most important environmental problem. (Weirdly enough, it ranks absolute lowest in Israel).

Nor have the numbers really budged much. This is the third iteration of NORC’s environment and climate survey. The first was in 1993. Since then and this survey (which is actually 2010 data), the percent calling it “extremely dangerous” has gone up in eight countries and down in seven, about as even a split as is possible.

So, despite a wonderful recent example of the asymmetric coverage of climate science in the news, people just aren’t buying the end of the world. Around the world, there’s about five times as much concern for the economy than there is for climate change.

The causes for this disconnect are mysterious. The adage that if you repeat something enough it becomes a fact just doesn’t seem to hold with climate change. The increasing cumulation of science horror stories seems to be ignored.

On can only conclude that either the public just doesn’t trust the press on environmental stories, or they don’t trust the scientists whose work is preferentially reported. That’s too bad, because absent trust in science, what’s left to guide people with regard to environmental policy? And further, how did the press—once the most cherished of American institutions—lose so much of its authority?

Finally, despite all the one‐​sided blather, people just aren’t all that concerned, which makes one wonder what President Obama was doing when he devoted more words to climate change than to any other issue in his second Inaugural Address.

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