Like many people on the East Coast, I spent a lot of time last week shoveling snow. When I came inside, I then had to endure a secondary storm of nonsense about how the winter weather disproved global warming, humiliated Al Gore, et al. This was, in turn, much-commented-upon, most incisively by Grist’s Dave Roberts, who concludes that the inability of many journalists to point out the ridiculousness of snowstorm-climate change denialism is a symptom of the profound ills afflicting traditional journalism.
But what’s really going on here? It’s not just that the press is stupid, or timid. With the fracturing of the political and media landscape, there are no sources of universally-accepted authority any more in American life (except – Oprah?). This has driven political reporters ever deeper into a cocoon of their own construction, one with no objective reference points, because all of those are disputed by somebody, somewhere. So we end up with traditional journalistic “objectivity” with the actual objective realities edited out. It’s genius, really. Reporters privilege the political process itself over policy, over science, over common sense. Political advantage, or victory, is what matters. Everybody likes a winner, after all.
When climate doubters win, though, the results are objectively disastrous. It’s pretty clear the world is lurching toward environmental disaster, and temporizing over snowstorms isn’t helping. And the doubters won quite a lot over the past few months, as this Washington Post story details, with denials and doubters seizing on the “climategate” emails and lately on mistakes in the supposedly-bulletproof IPCC report.
It ought to be possible for media outlets to separate the genuine scientific issues here from the political ones. It doesn’t take that much effort.
In the case of Snowmageddon, for example: it’s impossible to attribute a single weather event to global warming, or to the supposed lack thereof. But as Bill McKibben notes in this piece, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere has risen 4 percent since 1970, which would tend to produce wetter weather in some areas. That’s useful information, even without a cause-and-effect relationship established.
In the case of the IPCC, how did mistakes and citations from interest groups creep into the IPCC report? Does this signal a broader “bias” problem? Does that appear merely in the shaping of the report and its language, in the way the authors interpret data and studies, or in the data and studies themselves? Is something truly “rotten in the state of the IPCC”? I’d guess not, because if you drill down almost all the evidence holds up. On the other hand, I don’t want my climate consensus document to contain any spin – give it to us straight! – so it’s not enough to say “move along, nothing to see here.”
But many of these questions and distinctions get lost when this moves into the field of politics and media coverage of politics. The Post itself is a living example of what happens when politics, and the protection of political interests by journalists, interferes with climate coverage. George Will has embarrassed the newspaper with his repeated twisting of climate data and his assertion that climate change is a scientific fad, like bell bottoms. This weekend, the Post featured both the McKibben piece and a column by Dana Milbank saying that because Gore and some unnamed environmental groups went overboard in attributing weather events to global warming, they deserved whatever they got from the other side. Never mind that the other side is wrong on the fundamentals.
These mixed messages are confusing. To an average reader, who may not care much about the details, the impression one gets is of science politicized and contested, with no true bottom line. This is corrosive to the debate over what to do about global warming. The Post can certainly entertain different voices on these issues. But in some ways it appears too deeply invested in the short-term political process and the conventions of political reporting, to consistently separate the real questions from the BS.