Are journalists at fault for failing to convince us just how horrible global warming will be? Denial and doubt can be tempting—even to those who cover this stuff for a living.
Climate-change activists in Denver, Colorado, last fall. Photo via Flickr user 350.org
When you live in Colorado, apocalyptic reports about the environment are almost as ubiquitous as economic forecasts about the emerging marijuana industry. Fracking and floods are our bread and butter. The University of Colorado at Boulder produces at least as many articles on the subject of climate change as any other university in the world, and once you contact them as a journalist, press releases about melting glaciers and record-breaking droughts begin to arrive like a doomsday prophet in your inbox each morning.
Surrounded by academics, artists, and anarchists in downtown Denver, it would be easy for me to forget that climate change deniers exist were it not for my conservative family back home in Iowa, who maintain that there's no definitive evidence of global warming—and that the whole thing is most likely a power grab by greedy liberals. Unlike their positions on gay marriage, war, or poverty, hearing this doesn't push my partisan buttons. Instead, it soothes me like heroin jazz. Whenever Charles Krauthammer or Sean Hannity laugh about paranoid liberals and their climate-change nonsense on Fox News, I feel no reactionary rage, because deep down I want to believe them. The idea that this is all just a bad dream gives me a maternal euphoria, like the little Irish children being tucked into bed as the Titanic was already half sunk.
Then I'm reminded that a chunk of Arctic Sea ice the size of South Carolina melts every 24 hours and wonder: How is it that, in 2014, 23 percent of Americans doubt the existence of climate change? And why is that number increasing?
After spending an afternoon on the Boulder campus speaking with various climate scientists, I began to suspect that we journalists are to blame for not properly communicating the scientific evidence of global warming to the public.
"How a reporter chooses to interpret scientific evidence has a big impact on what people think about climate change," said Maxwell Boykoff, CU-Boulder professor and author of Who Speaks for the Climate?: Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change.
Trying to wrap my mind around the media's role in climate-change denial, my thoughts quickly turned to those Americans who isolate themselves within the bubble of conservative talk radio all day, following that up with a Hannity/O'Reilly/Van Susteren combo after work at night. You know, the people who dismiss all other outlets as full of biased lies from Hollywood Jew-fags.
But in a recent study, Boykoff looked at articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times and discovered that these very mainstream, very respectable US publications used more "hedging" language—phrases that leave room for doubt—than two Spanish publications did when both reported on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) findings in 2001 and 2007.
"A lot of the papers we looked at show that in the US news there's a tendency to frame climate stories as more uncertain, compared with European and Spanish-language newspapers in the Americas," Adriana Bailey, one of the study's co-authors, told me while sipping a latte at a campus coffeehouse. "Things like 'sea levels could rise' instead of 'sea levels will rise'—subtle things like that."
This wasn't particularly mind-blowing to Boykoff and Bailey. What did surprise them was that both the American and Spanish publications increased their use of hedging language from 2001 to 2007. So just as the IPCC was growing more confident about climate change being real, imminently disastrous, and definitely caused by humans, the media was reporting that evidence with words that implied less and less certainty.
"Because the IPCC uses the scientific method of going back and forth with new data, there's a tendency in the US media to frame climate change as a 'debate,'" Bailey told me, noting the infectious potential of this trend by pointing out that "the Spanish articles in 2001 never once used the word 'debate,' but in 2007 they did."
If New York Times reporters are card-carrying members of the liberal media—the nefarious assortment of outlets allegedly (hedge word!) behind the global-warming hoax—then why do they lack the declarative confidence to report climate change as an inarguable fact?
Boykoff pointed out to me that newspaper stories are often run through large editorial teams, who make small tweaks to stories here and there in the name of accuracy. Due to the large variety of subjects these editors cover, their certainty of the facts isn't as high as it could be when it comes to climate science. So a statement like "sea levels could rise" is preferred as a safe middle ground.
This makes a certain amount of sense. As a journalist, the idea of getting something wrong in a story—no matter how seemingly trivial a detail—and then having it pointed out by some all-too-eager troll in the comments section gives me the cold, primal fear of a drowning polar bear.
And if you haven't already noticed, the internet is loaded to the gills with commenters ready to call out the slightest discrepancy on climate change reporting. (The Climate Research Unit email controversy, or "Climategate," in 2009—as inconsequential as it was—is still basically the cornerstone of global-warming skepticism.)
In the name of balanced journalism, Boykoff told me, US media will often give voice to climate-change skeptics when reporting breaking stories on the subject. This also has the added bonus of engaging readers in a polarized controversy.
"If the IPCC is speaking for 97 percent of climate scientists, and then you place that in contrast with someone who disagrees, to a reader that's only two opposing opinions—it's a 50-50 toss-up," Bailey said.
After leaving the coffee shop and walking across the Boulder campus, my mind grappled with the possibility of climate science being incorrect. The idea of thousands of scientists and dozens of world leaders conspiring together to pull the wool over our eyes doesn't make any sense. (What would they have to gain?) But historically, areas of science such as phrenology, eugenics, and a geocentric universe enjoyed a kind of consensus at one time, only to be proven baseless (and even incredibly damaging) later on.
Is Glenn Beck is right? Are the extreme minority of scientists the Galileos of our time? Is "the climate cult... just as much a state-sponsored religion now as the actual state-sponsored religion was back in the Dark Ages, punishing Galileo for his opinions"?
Well, that argument melts like a fragile glacier when you consider that every climate-denying "scientist" has been shown to be in the pocket of someone with an interest in keeping the environment unregulated. Again, I'm not looking to prove anyone wrong—because I would love Glenn Beck to ultimately be correct on this. I'm not looking to change anyone's mind on global warming except my own.
"I'm with you; I would love this to not be true," Boykoff told me. "Unfortunately, the scientific evidence is just not there."
Walking through the cartoonishly lush campus, I was surrounded by students lounging picturesquely on the grass as they read textbooks. Teenagers walked by, hand in hand, under the mild, 72-degree sun. Two shaggy-haired boys high-fived each other as they passed on longboards.
Is this the generation that will endure the grinding molar teeth of global warming?
Recently, Colorado has already withstood periods of severe floods, drought, wildfires, and extreme weather (including tornados and a mild earthquake). And while some food prices have risen slightly, none of this exactly qualifies as apocalyptic. When can we expect Pompeii levels of decimation? Which will be the generation to first taste Soylent Green, to walk down The Road of Cormac McCarthy? When, as Bukowski put it, will "radiated men eat the flesh of radiated men"?
Jim White, director of CU-Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, explained to me that "what the Pentagon is currently worried about is that as climate changes and sea levels rise, more and more people will be forced out of their homes and become refugees. This is what will probably be the most nasty."
According to the Guardian, we are already seeing this in the Nigerian massacres and kidnapping of more than 200 young girls, where many of the Boko Haram foot soldiers are known to be displaced refugees from nearby Chad and Niger's extreme drought and food shortages.
"The ocean has a heat capacity that takes around a generation, maybe 100 years, to warm up and for the weather patterns to start to change," White told me. "I think in about 40 or 50 years, it will be so in our faces, we here in the western US will be screaming our brains out because we'll be losing our water."
At 32 years old, I most likely won't be around in 50 years. But many of these CU students will be. As Jim White continued laying out the details of New Orleans being submerged and Orlando becoming beachfront property, I looked out the window at the teenagers lounging on the hydrated grass, consuming fast-food meat from plastic containers, and wondered why they weren't more terrified. Like Sarah Connor looking out onto the playground in Terminator II, I picture this bucolic world turned a hazy orange as emaciated, diseased bodies fight one another for the last turnip that could grow from a dry, poisoned soil. My imagery of a post-apocalyptic world suffering the pangs of global warming is virtually identical to the future prophesied by many Evangelical Christians. Boiling seas, blackened skies, famine, disease, and refugees are all tropes from the Book of Revelation.
Growing up in an Evangelical world, it was explained to me that only God has the power to destroy the earth, rather than mere men. We were encouraged to throw our trash out the windows, dump excess paint down storm drains, and go out of our way to ignore recycling bins. Any news that the planet was in trouble was laughed away by my Christian friends and I as we melted large amounts of plastic and oil in a barrel fire.
This sentiment continues today, as co-host of Fox News' The Five Eric Bolling recently said that on Earth Day he purposely "cranks up the air conditioning and opens all the windows" in his house, just to spite the environmentalists.
Obviously, this kind of nihilistic behavior isn't the universal reaction to warnings about climate change. But if someone like me—an environmentally conscious, left-leaning person of some intellect living near the world's leading university on climate change—can actively pursue global-warming denial in order to calm my own fear of the future, is it not possible that many of the editors and journalists reporting on climate change are, whether unconsciously or otherwise, employing uncertain language as a way to quell their own deep-seated anxieties about our troubled planet?
The scientists I spoke with are very cautious about assigning any motives to the media's "room-for-doubt" reporting on global warming. It's possible, but they don't know. Could be. But the science isn't settled on that. It's still uncertain. It's up for debate.
Josiah Hesse is a journalist from Denver, Colorado, covering the local music, comedy, marijuana, and political landscapes. Follow him on Twitter.