December 10th, 2013


Editor, Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media

Founder, Skeptical Science

Co-founder, DeSmog Blog

For the last 25 years, people have testified to Congress about the problem of human-caused global warming. Yet the narrative continues to be skewed by the media, leading to doubt and political stagnation.
Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media and co-founder of the Society of Environmental Journalists, has been immersed in the media for decades.
“I think the climate situation has gotten worse,” Ward said. “I think we’re starting to run out of time for the kinds of reforms and ways to address the issue that we should have been taking years ago.”
Jim Hoggan, co-founder of DeSmog Blog, said he is troubled by the fake debate over climate change.
“You basically have this ideological polarization,” Hoggan said. “I think that the way the narrative has unfolded and the way it unfolds right now, it reinforces this polarization but it's not a good kind of polarization. It's not a polarization that takes you to a greater understanding – it's a polarization that takes you to greater gridlock.”
In order to find middle ground, people need to remember something they have forgotten since childhood: You could be wrong, Hoggan said.
“We need to have an eye on intellectual modesty in these issues because if self-righteousness takes over, it reinforces this kind of ideological polarization,” he said.
John Cook, founder of Skeptical Science, discussed how when people reject climate science, it’s not because of a lack of knowledge.
“There's been ideological groups and just various attempts to I guess confuse the public about the fact that scientists have been agreeing on this for decades,” Cook said.
When it comes to mainstream media, lack of climate coverage may be linked with journalism’s rocky times, according to Ward.
“I think we have kind of a perfect storm with this issue which communications scholars have referred to as a 'wicked issue' – a great term for it because of the difficulty in communicating about it – coming at a time when the media for distribution of information to many of Americans including local television have withered,” Ward said.
The New York Times recently disbanded its environmental desk, The Wall Street Journal no longer has an environmental reporters and Northern California’s KQED disbanded its Climate Watch department.
“I think we’re at a real risk of furthering the information gap just like the income gap in the United States and other countries,” Ward said. “If you really want to know about climate change, you can pretty much be very knowledgably informed by trolling the web intelligently and getting outstanding information, but you've got to go to it – it doesn’t come to you.”
While social media plays an important role in spreading information, climate media may have trouble reaching outside niche readers.
“The problem is that the people who read it are probably not the people who need to,” Hoggan said.
Communicating against the odds is a challenge for all three journalists, and articles may need to be more morally or psychologically driven than fact-based.
“You need to start some place deeper than your mouth in communicating with people because people are not stupid and they know what you're up to and what you're feeling,” Hoggan said. “If you don’t deal with the inner ecology, the outer ecology doesn’t have a chance.”
Cook discussed the popular tactic of getting spokespeople who are not experts in climate science to portray the impression that there’s a 50/50 debate over the science behind climate change, also known as ventriloquism.
“I tend to examine the behavior rather than the motive behind it,” Cook said. “If someone is misinforming people, you can't comment on whether they're lying or whether they genuinely believe it. You just have to address the behavior.”
The speakers talked about Fox News and how its “fair and balanced” tagline encourages the idea that nobody is balanced, and therefore, there’s no such thing as objective facts.
“If you ask me what the biggest problem of climate change, inaction on climate change is, it's not climate change denial, it's that people have just turned off,” Hoggan said.
Ward agreed, saying that a lot of editors around the country are experiencing climate fatigue.
“I'd say, clearly, PBS stands above the rest in terms of its coverage of this issue, although it's far from perfect,” Ward said. “It's a tough issue to cover.”
On a positive note, the closer you get to people, the more good news and good activity you see, according to Ward and Hoggan. But stalemates go up the chain to political leadership.
“The U.S. leadership, which we once exerted in the world on environmental issues broadly, is completely gone – it's just no U.S. leadership,” Ward said. “As a matter of fact, I'd suggest that there's no U.S. leader.”
- Danielle Torrent
December 10, 2013
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California