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Is the media conspiring to stoke alarmism or deny science? Shrill voices on each side can't decide

Researchers at George Mason University and Yale University bring the grave news that "belief in global warming" is at a "six year low". 
 
I. Do You Believe?
 
The study [PDF] comes courtesy of principle investigator Professor Anthony Leiserowitz, an environmental scientist at Yale.  Other principle investigators include Professors Edward Maibach and Connie Roser-Renouf (GMU communications professors, specializing in climate).  Geoff Feinberg, a Yale university employee who lacks a Ph.D but was a private sector polling specialist on environmental issues also contributed to the work. 
 
Another odd addition was psychopathology researcher turned climatology investigator Professor Seth Rosenthal, a member of Yale's climatology team. Rounding out the team was Professor Jennifer Marlon, a PhD expert in geography who currently teaches climate science at Yale.
 
The first oddity -- which you may notice -- is that there's nary a Ph.D credentialed climatologist in the field.  I think this is worth noting as critics of the more alarmist brands of "global warming" rhetoric are often attacked for not holding climatology degrees, despite the fact that many of them hold master's degrees or doctorates in related fields, such as physics or civil engineering.
 
Moving along to the 66-page study, it consists of a series of black and white questions such as:

Do you believe climate change is happening?

 
global warming belief

It concludes that after near record levels of "belief" in global warming in 2012 (with 70 percent in the "believers" camp, and 12 percent in the "non-believers" camp), things have sharply changed over the last year.  Today "non-believers" account for an estimated 23 percent of the American public, where as the believers have dwindled to 63 percent.

It also asks:

How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements...? "I could easily change my mind about global warming."

 
Global warming belief

It notes that roughly two-thirds say they won't be changing their minds, but a third say they could be swayed either way by evidence.  The researchers speculate that the recent decade-or-so lull in warming has turned some global warming "believers" into "skeptics".

II. Conspiracy + Media = Media Conspiracy!

Some in the media say it's time for the self-flogging to begin.  Mother Jones blogger Chris Mooney writes:

Journalists take heed: Your coverage has consequences. All those media outlets who trumpeted the global warming "pause" may now be partly responsible for a documented decrease in Americans' scientific understanding.

Should the flagellation begin?  Let's pause to consider another opinion.  Forbes columnist James Taylor wrote in March of last year:

The mainstream media are reporting in breathless fashion about a new paper claiming current temperatures are their warmest in 4,000 years. Already, however, objective scientists are reporting serious flaws in the paper...

When many temperature studies, including studies presented by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indicate current global temperatures are cooler than the vast majority of the past 4,000 years, and then an outlier study with quickly identified serious flaws claims exactly the opposite, one would think the media would make note of the discrepancies. Unfortunately, the media has demonstrated little interest in doing so. There are several reasons for this.

First, the news media is prone to overhype the news events of the day. Hype sells newspapers and attracts viewers. This is the case for all news topics and certainly applies to global warming.

Second, fear captivates people. This is one of the reasons why television and print news contains so much bad news and so little good news. A single breathless report of impending global warming doom is going to rope in more viewers and readers than a whole collection of reports explaining that current temperatures are actually quite cool in historical perspective.

Third, it is no secret that the media drifts left on many issues, and drifts left on environmental issues in particular.

Well, it appears there is agreement that some sort of media conspiracy is afoot.  But before we can self-deprecate we have to figure out which direction the foul conspiracy runs in.  Therein lies the humorous challenge.
 
You see, if anything the shrill media commentary on both sides of the issue seems to suggest there is a diverse, if perhaps misleading debate.
 
Personally, I find the paper to be interesting, but not necessarily for the reasons the authors attend it to be.  First, I feel the language of the questions is very questionable, and perhaps reflective of the climate debate as a whole.  To some on either side you're a "denier" or you're an "alarmist".
 
I have a fundamental problem with that because from both external observations (e.g. the "pause" in warming) and from peer reviewed literature I've read, I feel many researchers are jumping to sensational conclusions without a proper understanding of how the Earth will respond to climate change and warming.
 
If global warming and politics were kept separate we wouldn't have this problem.  But with policy makers urging the public embrace wealth distribution schemes such as "carbon credits", what should become a question of science has become a matter of political debate.
 
III. Climate Change is Real, But Its Effects, Both Negative and Positive, Remain Poorly Understood and Exaggerated
 
What are the facts?
 
First, carbon gases are greenhouse gases, meaning they trap heat.  Second, the Earth has at least a modest ability to dampen heat trapping, as increasing CO2 levels lead to an increase in vegetation, etc., such that runaway warming is unlikely.  History further suggests that runaway warming is unlikely as there is evidence that global temperatures were higher, but stable when most of the carbon that today is stored in fossil fuel deposits was found in the atmosphere and short-lived deposits.
 
I have a fundamental problem with the hypothesis that global warming will somehow cause mankind to "go extinct" or that it's solely a bad thing.  If the dinosaurs can survive high levels of atmospheric greenhouses gases, you better bet that the most flexible creature ever to walk the face of the Earth can flourish in such conditions, as well.

dinosaurs
If dinosaurs could thrive in a warmer world, so can we. [Image Source: PA]

It's important to bear in mind whether or not mankind had come along, some level of climate change is inevitable.  The climate is constantly changing.

Mankind has shifted the climate in a certain direction, but there are clear benefits (access to new resources deposits, arid polar land becoming fertile, etc.) of a warming plant.  There are also downsides, but many of those -- such as a small rise in sea levels -- are only an issue if mankind proves stubborn.

For example, much is made about the erosion of sediment in Alaskan villages and how they might "sink into the sea".  But the report ignores that it was the U.S. federal and Alaskan state governments that forced the native people to settle in this geographically unstable location. In other words, this was a government created problem as the government refused to continue to allow native peoples to migrate based on climate conditions.

polar bear
[Image Source: Free Republic]

Mankind would be wise to learn from the example of these native people when adapting to climate change.  Relocating our villages, cities, and towns in some extreme cases may be necessary -- but a move isn't going to kill us or destroy the economy.

I think it's almost an inevitability that mankind will burn most of its fossil fuels and that warming will run its course.  It's one thing to ask people to be a bit more efficient (which supply and demand will eventually force without intervention), it's quite another to ask people to go back to the Stone Age.

Refinery
You can't expect mankind to stop burning fossil fuels [Image Source: Independent Refiners]

Eventually mankind will move to renewable/sustainable energy sources, but only when it becomes no longer economically feasible to burn fossil fuels.
 
In the aftermath of fossil fuel depletion, I think we'll look back and realize how much we overstated the dangers and understated the gains of global warming.  As I said, the climate is constantly changing; if the dinosaurs could thrive in a warmed globe, so can we.
 
IV. More Science, More Debate, Less Politics
 
There's a need for research.  But surveys on public opinion asked in shrill black and white terms offer little help to a legitimate debate.
 
And as much as there's a need for research, there's an equal age to push to remove this issue from a political debate.  Until someone can come up with a financially sound approach to emissions control, the government needs to step back and let the private sector handle its own affairs.
 
Mankind is changing the climate in numerous ways, many of which surpass even strong warming on a local basis.  From desertification to water cycle changes due to deforestation, many serious manmade climate changes are overlooked due to global warming's chokehold on media attention.
Global warming church
Singling out global warming "nonbelievers" seems silly.  Alarmists and proponents alike in the warming discussion tend to exagerrate and sensationalize to further their own financial and political ends. [Image Source: Lisa Benson]

Instead of focusing on querying public beliefs and condemning (or praising) "nonbelievers", let us instead focus the dialogue on constructive solutions to both adopt a sensible path to alternative energy (e.g. algae, nuclear power, solar), so that when fossil fuel supplies do near exhaustion, we're prepared.  And let's acknowledge that climate change -- manmade or not -- has always been occurring on planet Earth.

Last, but not least, let's not blame the media for putting things in alarmist or overly skeptical terms, when researchers themselves often resort to the same extremes for funding.  After all, most members of the media have at least a bachelor's degree in a technical subject.  Like many who publish climate research, we lack a Ph.D in climatology.  But so long as we express our opinions respectfully, keeping an open and questioning mind, I see no reason why the media's opinions are more or less valid that non-climatologist thinking heads in academia.  To suggest otherwise is simply elitist "ivory tower" type thinking.

The great biologist Thomas Henry Huxley once wrote:

Thomas Henry Huxley

I believe that quote is applicable here.

Before you self-flagellate, members of the media, consider instead embracing a diverse range of opinions.  And be open to debate and discussion; you might learn something.

Sources: Climate Change "Beliefs" Study [PDF], Mother Jones, Forbes





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