Global Warming, Spin and Media

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Saturday, October 19, 2013

Consider the following:

97% of actively publishing climate scientists are convinced about global warming’s reality; only 28% of US media reporting reflects this and since the so called climategate scandal (which was shown not to be a scandal) public opinion has similarly dropped to only 26% of people believing global warming is happening and caused by humans. Source: Matthew Glover, Global Warming – the debate, Renegade Conservatory Guy, July 30, 2010

Despite the strong consensus from climate scientists of man-made global warming, a vast portion of the mainstream media and public remain skeptical.

How did we get to such a situation? While the exact percentages aren’t as important as the overall trend that is shown, the answers to this question involve years of politics.

Introduction

Accompanying the concerns of climate change and global warming is the media spin, propaganda, and special interests. For many years in some countries, scientists and environmental groups raising concerns about climate change faced stern opposition, and at one time, ridicule. Initially, many big businesses and countries such as the United States were openly challenging concerns of climate change. Industry coalitions and lobby groups have also been accused of misinforming the public or pressuring media into “false balancing.”

In recent years, many large businesses have distanced themselves from those previous positions and some have even openly accepted climate change and global warming concerns, even asking for governments to provide regulation and guidance on the matter.

Yet, even into the mid-2000s by which time climate change and global warming had finally been accepted as real by the most suspicious governments, some such as the then US’s Bush Administration were accused of silencing those who spoke out about the problem, including leading government climate scientists who warned of consequences from global warming.

Increasingly, a number of governments such as those from the US, Australia and elsewhere have become fearful of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that they have long been subjected to (but not ever achieved) if large developing countries such as China and India are not subject to them as well. Developing countries correctly note that they were not the ones who pumped most of climate change-inducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during the last few decades and centuries.

As further reports regarding climate change impacts reveal a bleaker future, there are concerns that there will be accompanying fear-mongering by environmentalists, green washing by some business interests, and spin by governments to show “reductions” in emissions.

Some feel global warming is one of the biggest frauds of our era, with some even believing it is designed to harm the US economy and make the UN more powerful. Others feel it is simpler than that, and instead, climate scientists are able to make a lot of money by using fear as a tool to earn more research grants.

Such a vast, global conspiracy of scientists, the United Nations and environmental groups/lobbies does seem a bit far-fetched given that far more resourceful, powerful and immensely wealthier corporations and governments (with their access to, and influence on, the media) would surely be able to counter such a tactic (and have indeed been involved in their own spin/propaganda attempts, which, even with their resources, are failing to hide the reality).

A lot of time appears to have been wasted, and political spin on issues such as describing a reduced rate of greenhouse emissions as an actual reduction, risks is a false sense of hope and achievement.

This article, explores these issues further, also drawing in details which have been raised in other parts of this web site.

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“Climategate”; the scandal that wasn’t

In November 2009, servers at the University of East Anglia in UK were hacked into and emails were stolen. A selection of emails between climate scientists were published on the Internet and a few quotes used out of context to claim global warming was all just a vast conspiracy. This incident was nicknamed “Climategate.”

Despite a vast media frenzy, a number of independent investigations all cleared the scientists of any wrong doing; many quotes were taken out of context, such as “hide the decline”, statistical “tricks”, “can’t account for lack of warming” to make it look sinister and many media outlets were unable to explain this allowing conspiracy claims to go unchallenged.

More information about all the investigations from skepticalscience.com (which, unlike its name suggests, tackles all climate skeptic and denialist arguments head-on):

Media Lens also provides a useful article with a number of links from another authoritative web site: RealClimate, a site run by climate scientists at the forefront of climate research. But what was also interesting from Media Lens was the quote they got from James Hansen, the US scientists who brought climate change to the world’s attention in 1988:

The media have done a great disservice to the public. This mess should be cleared up in the next year or so, although the damage may linger a while, because some people who paid attention to sensationalism may not bother with accurate explanations of the truth.

The impression left from this affair is that there are some parts of the media that care less about responsible reporting than about selling newspapers or other ware. Some of the problem may be honest ignorance, as the quality of science reporting has declined in recent decades. And of course some media are controlled by people who have a political axe to grind.

James Hansen, email to Media Lens, Gates of Delusion; Media Distortions And Real Climate Scandals, Media Lens, February 22, 2010

As much as “Climategate” was a non-issue, it seems that an anti-climate campaign scandal has been uncovered.

In February 2012, leaked internal documents from the right-wing organization the Heartland Institute appeared to show that rather than being a think tanks, it was more like a lobbyist, funded by many large corporations and individuals with an aim to discredit climate change science and propagate denialist views (amongst many other campaigns). They also pay some scientists and others because they are skeptical on climate change. It was even planning a school curriculum to keep teachers from addressing climate science.

And the documents have also revealed the value of disseminating denial messages to influential business outlets:

Efforts at places such as Forbes are especially important now that they have begun to allow high-profile climate scientists (such as Gleick) to post warmist science essays that counter our own. This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out

Heartland Institute Exposed: Internal Documents Unmask Heart of Climate Denial Machine, DeSmogBlog.com, February 14, 2012 (Emphasis by DeSmogBlog)

(DeSmogBlog exposed the leaked documents and provides far more details.)

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Changing Business Interests?

Initially, many large businesses, mostly from the energy and transportation sectors, were hostile to the idea of climate change and therefore against any action to address it.

For many years, talk of climate change led to a lot of skepticism and denial, typically from corporate-backed interests such as energy companies. For example, just recently, the British Royal Society, and separately, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported on ExxonMobil waging a campaign of disinformation on global warming between 1998 and 2005, funding right wing think-tanks and journals such as the American Enterprise Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. And “with the help of right-wing media, such as the Wall Street Journal, … columnists deliberately spread disinformation about climate change.”

As another example, the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) revealed that some business lobby groups have influenced the Australian government to prevent Australia from reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This lobby group included interests from the coal, electricity, aluminum (aluminium), petroleum, minerals and cement industries. The documentary exposing this revealed possible corruption within government due to extremely close ties with such industries and lobby groups, and alleged silencing of government climate scientists.

Often funded by such corporations, many lobby and interest groups tried to undermine reports of climate change and its impact, for it threatened their position and economic future. For example, noting the above ExxonMobil case, Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientist’s director of strategy and policy says, “These groups promote spokespeople who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings or cherry-pick facts in an attempt to mislead the media and public into thinking there is vigorous debate in the mainstream scientific community about global warming, when in fact there is none.”

Professor Matthew Nisbet notes the influence of conservative think tanks in science and environmental skepticism. Writing in ScienceBlogs he notes “A new study by a team of political scientists and sociologists at the journal Environmental Politics concludes that 9 out of 10 books published since 1972 that have disputed the seriousness of environmental problems and mainstream science can be linked to a conservative think tank.”

Other times, some scientists in earlier years showed skepticism based on science, but as data and research improved over time, most changed their positions to indicate some sort of concern or agreement about climate change and human effects/causes.

In more recent years, many large companies that have formed these coalitions or funded such lobby groups have now distanced themselves from those past positions, either as they accept climate change is happening or because they see their reputation being damaged by such association (or both).

Furthermore, some businesses are urging world leaders to tackle climate change. Some are even asking for regulation to help reduce their economic uncertainty, to provide a level playing field (so as to try and take measures but not lose out to competition form a rival that may not take such a view).

In countries, such as the United States, that have been openly hostile toward actions on climate change in the past, local governments, states, and businesses have started to take action anyway, showing that buy-in and support from industry is a key to tackling these concerns.

However, some are still trying to undermine climate change action through deception. As the British paper, the Guardian reports, scientists and economists have been offered a lot of money to undermine a major climate change report in February 2007, from the IPCC (this report is mentioned further below). The “American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration” was accused of such practices.

(This site’s article on Reactions to Climate Change Negotiations and Action has more details.)

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The US and Climate Change

Some countries, of which the US is the most influential and powerful, have been accused of being counter-productive during climate change negotiations.

When the Kyoto Protocol was written in 1997, it was mainly the US and its business lobby that vehemently opposed the protocol based on economic concerns.

While the Clinton Administration signed and ratified the protocol, the Republican majority Congress, was opposed to this. When Bush came to power, he eventually withdrew from the international agreement.

President Bush cited a number of concerns, along the following themes:

  • Economic concerns;
  • That the Kyoto protocol was a political document;
  • That it is unfair that countries like China and India do not emission reduction targets.

But are these concerns and reasons justified or legitimate?

Policy Strategy

In a June 2000 presentation, the World Resource Institute (WRI) asked what is fair concerning developing countries and climate change.

WRI noted that there has often been a strong push by big business lobbies and related interests when environmental regulation is attempted. The resulting environmental policy strategy tends to have the following steps:

  1. Deny it
  2. Fight it
  3. Dilute it
  4. Delay it
  5. Do it
  6. Market it

These steps have also applied to climate change discussions:

Step 1: Deny it

With this step, we saw a lot of skepticism initially coming from US-based scientists, many accused of reporting for big business interests, such as oil and automobile industries.

Step 2: Fight it

With step 2, and with climate change, WRI notes that step 2 has become “blame someone else for it”, referring to Bush’s attempts to criticize the Protocol for not imposing reductions on developing countries.

Step 3: Dilute it

With step 3, it is interesting to note that the climate change negotiations that led to the Kyoto Protocol involved extremely heavy concessions on steps and measures to take, in order to get the United States in on the agreement. To criticize later the Kyoto Protocol for being a political document (see below) is a cruel irony.

Step 4: Delay it

With step 4, many have criticized the US and others of delaying effective action or in other ways attempting to derail effective action.

Steps 5 and 6: Do it and Market it

Steps 5 and 6 still have to unfold for the climate change issue. At the same time, while the Bush Administration has at least admitted it is not against action on climate change (just that it opposes the Kyoto Protocol), it is spending money on research and technology.

Yet, combined with delay tactics, this may be a way to ensure the US doesn’t lose its position of power by implementing climate change measures. If its companies can find ways to be more efficient and clean, then it can gain clout and prestige and recognition of help save the world.

By going its own way, it is ignoring international issues and concerns, and so this can be seen as a political move to ensure economic and geopolitical success on this major environmental issue without consideration of the rest of the world. Unfortunately it is often this “go it alone” approach that also creates a lot of resentment against the US in the eyes of many around the world.

Bush Administration Accused of Silencing its own Climate Scientists

As revealed towards the end of January 2006, NASA’s top climate scientist says NASA and the Bush Administration have tried to silence him.

While NASA said this was standard procedure to ensure an orderly flow of information, the scientist, Dr. James Hansen disagreed, saying that such procedures had already prevented the public from fully grasping recent findings about climate change that point to risks ahead.

Dr. Hansen, according to the New York Times reporting this, noted that these were “fresh efforts” to silence him because he had said that significant emission cuts could be achieved with existing technologies, particularly in the case of motor vehicles, and that without leadership by the United States, climate change would eventually leave the earth “a different planet.” (By contrast, the Bush administration’s policy is to use voluntary measures to slow, but not reverse, the growth of emissions.)

Furthermore, “After that speech and the release of data by Dr. Hansen on Dec. 15 showing that 2005 was probably the warmest year in at least a century, officials at the headquarters of the space agency repeatedly phoned public affairs officers, who relayed the warning to Dr. Hansen that there would be ‘dire consequences’ if such statements continued, those officers and Dr. Hansen said in interviews.”

Earlier, in 2004, Dr. Hansen fell out of favor with the Bush Administration for publicly stating before the presidential elections that government scientists were being muzzled and that he planned to vote for John Kerry.

The New York Times also notes that this echoes other recent disputes, whereby “many scientists who routinely took calls from reporters five years ago can now do so only if the interview is approved by administration officials in Washington, and then only if a public affairs officer is present or on the phone.”

Furthermore, “Where scientists’ points of view on climate policy align with those of the administration, however, there are few signs of restrictions on extracurricular lectures or writing.”

And in terms of media manipulation, the Times also revealed that at least one interview (amongst many others) was cancelled because it was with NPR, which the public affairs official responsible felt was “the most liberal” media outlet in the country. This implies a political bias/propaganda in terms of how information is released to the public, which should be of serious concern.

At the beginning of June, 2006, the BBC Panorama documentary followed up on this and found that many scientists felt they were being censored and that various reports had been systematically suppressed, even altered. In one case, a major climate assessment report was due out a month before the 2004 presidential elections, but was delayed because it had such a bleak assessment, and the Bush administration did not want it to be part of the election issues. It was released shortly after the elections were over.

Panorama also interviewed a pollster who had advised the Bush Administration when they came into power in 2000 to question global warming, that humans caused it if it existed at all, to hire skeptical scientists, and play down its impacts. (The advisor has now distanced himself away from the Bush Administration’s stance today because he felt the science was more certain than it was in 2000.)

Just weeks before hurricane Katrina devastated parts of Southern United States, Panorama reported that “Another scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) … had research which established global warming could increase the intensity of hurricanes. He was due to give an interview about his work but claims he was gagged.” After Katrina, the “NOAA website said unusual hurricane activity is not related to global warming.” When a leading scientist was asked why NOAA came out with such a statement, he suggested it was ideologically driven.

(The BBC Panorama documentary is called Climate chaos: Bush’s climate of fear and as well as a summary, you can watch the actual documentary online.)

Despite attempts to discredit global warming concerns, the Bush Administration has now conceded that there is climate change and that humans are contributing to it, but Panorama reports that a lot of vital time has been lost, and that some scientists fear US policy may be too slow to carry out.

Almost a year after the story about attempts to silence NASA’s top climate scientist, many media outlets have reported on a new survey where hundreds of government scientists say they have perceived or personally experienced pressure from the Bush administration to eliminate phrases such as “climate change” and “global warming” from their reports and public statements. A US government hearing in the US is also pursuing this further as the seriousness of climate change is becoming more accepted.

Bush Administration also accused of interfering with UK’s attempts to tackle global warming

The build-up to the 2005 G8 Summit was billed in the United Kingdom as a key moment for Tony Blair’s leadership on climate change and his “special relationship” with the United States to bear fruit. Yet, this meeting saw the US’s position on climate change quite clearly, as reported by the Observer:

Extraordinary efforts by the White House to scupper Britain’s attempts to tackle global warming have been revealed in leaked US government documents obtained by The Observer.

… The documents [part of the Bush administration’s submission to the 2005 G8 action plan for the Gleneagles G8 Summit] obtained by The Observer represent an attempt by the Bush administration to undermine completely the science of climate change and show that the US position has hardened during the G8 negotiations. They also reveal that the White House has withdrawn from a crucial United Nations commitment to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions.

The documents show that Washington officials:

  • Removed all reference to the fact that climate change is a “serious threat to human health and to ecosystems”;
  • Deleted any suggestion that global warming has already started;
  • Expunged any suggestion that human activity was to blame for climate change.

Among the sentences removed was the following: “Unless urgent action is taken, there will be a growing risk of adverse effects on economic development, human health and the natural environment, and of irreversible long-term changes to our climate and oceans.”

Another section erased by the White House adds: “Our world is warming. Climate change is a serious threat that has the potential to affect every part of the globe. And we know that … mankind’s activities are contributing to this warming. This is an issue we must address urgently.”

Earlier this month, the senior science academies of the G8 nations, including the US National Academy of Science, issued a statement saying that evidence of climate change was clear enough to compel their leaders to take action…. It is now clear that this advice has been completely ignored by Bush and his advisers.

Mark Townsend, New US move to spoil climate accord, Observer, June 19, 2005

US 2007 State of the Union speech on being greener: policy turn or spin?

In the 2007 State of the Union speech at the beginning of January that year, President Bush announced various strategies and investment plans for cleaner technology and reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. Was this part of the steps 5 and 6 mentioned above? Or was there some spin associated with the announcements?

The Worldwatch Institute and others criticized the proposed measures as being too little.

As the BBC notes, some terminology has been used very misleadingly. For example, claims of emissions reductions may actually involve emissions rises, but just at a slower rate. Hence, while scientists talk about emission reduction as actual reductions, politicians talk about future reductions based on current emissions, which sounds positive, but is misleading compared to the intents and actual advice of climate scientists.

The BBC correspondent noting this warned,

The publicity from [US Energy Secretary Samuel] Bodman and his benevolent business allies spoke of reducing emissions… It is a linguistic trick of huge importance to … everyone else who is likely to be at the sharp end of some climate-related impact in the coming years. We should all observe its emergence, document its every use, and fear it like the plague.

Richard Black, The semantics of climate change, BBC, February 3, 2007

Furthermore, while talking about energy conservation, Bush’s speech in this area appeared put more emphasis on reducing foreign energy dependency (i.e. from the Middle East in particular), than on addressing climate change (though his administration does now accept that climate change is happening).

Some US States and businesses defy Bush Administration’s position

Some states, cities and businesses in the US have decided to take action against climate change even if the federal government will not. For example, in California, the California Global Warming Solutions Act was agreed to in mid-August, 2006. Hundreds of cities have also committed to reducing carbon emissions. In the north east of the US, several states have also committed to greenhouse gas emission reductions, including Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont.

Putting Climate Change Policy and Science on Public Trial?

The largest American business federation, the US Chamber of Commerce, a lobby group, recently called for a public trial on both the US policy decision to regulate CO2 emissions and the science behind climate change concerns. It would seem to be a spin tactic that reaches out to popular notions of fairness.

However, as science and technology site Ars Technica argues, putting climate change on trial is a terrible idea because, “The sort of arguments that make for good courtroom statements tend to obscure the details of science, and the specific example proposed by the Chamber clearly indicates that they do nothing for the public’s understanding of science.”

The lobby group’s hostility to climate change science and action has got to the point that a number of high-profile multinational companies have pulled out of the US Chamber of Commerce as they have become uncomfortable with the organzation’s hard-line opposition to measures tackling climate change. Big names include Nike and Johnson & Johnson amongst others.

“Suppressed” climate dissenter was not suppressed

In what would seem to be a twist to suppression of government reports, it was widely claimed around the end of June 2009, that the US Environmental Protection Agency had “suppressed” a report that was skeptical of climate change.

However, it turns out that while the report was written by an employee on EPA time, it was on his own initiative and not solicited to do so by the agency, and so couldn’t be published by the EPA and therefore was not suppressed.

Furthermore, as the previous link finds, the report contained large pieces of plagiarism. In addition, the report was flawed as RealClimte.org, a blog maintained by well-regarded climate scientists, quickly showed, ending with this:

Finally, they end up with the oddest claim in the submission: That because human welfare has increased over the twentieth century at a time when CO2 was increasing, this somehow implies that no amount of CO2 increases can ever cause a danger to human society. This is just boneheadly stupid.

So in summary, what we have is a ragbag collection of un-peer reviewed web pages, an unhealthy dose of sunstroke, a dash of astrology and more cherries than you can poke a cocktail stick at. Seriously, if that’s the best they can do, the EPA’s ruling is on pretty safe ground.

Gary Schmidt, Bubkes, RealClimate.org, June 26, 2009

The headlines about this episode talked of “suppression” and would likely increase the view amongst those still skeptical about climate change. Corrections to those headlines have been few, and less prominent, by comparison.

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The UK and Climate Change

British Governments’s attempts faltering, despite rosy spin?

On March 5, 2007 the UK’s Channel 4 broadcast their Dispatches documentary. This one was about greenwashing and climate change and how the British government’s attempts to tackle climate change are faltering once you look through the spin.

George Monbiot, a writer on various global issues, and Channel 4’s Dispatches commissioned a team of environmental scientists at University College, London to conduct a peer-reviewed audit of the government’s planned greenhouse gas reductions. “The results are staggering,” Monbiot noted in his blog entry, Just a lot of hot air.

The audit revealed that:

  • The government’s assessment of its own policies is wildly optimistic
  • Instead of a 29-31% cut by 2020, it is currently on course to deliver a reduction of between 12% and 17%
  • At this rate the UK won’t meet its 2020 milestone until 2050.

How has this happened? Monbiot asks. “You don’t have to look very far to find out. In almost every sector, government programs have been characterized by voluntarism, vacillation and surrender to industrial lobby groups.”

In transportation for example, they found that

  • There was an understating of the expected rise of flights (while not counting international flights at all, which will account for an estimated 97% of flights in the UK)
  • A voluntary agreement with car makers in 1998 (who promised they would bring the average emissions from new cars down from 188 grams per kilometer to 140 in ten years) was way off target: The deadline is 2008 by which they will miss their target by half: the real figure is likely to be 164 grams per kilometre.
  • Vehicle taxes supposed to discourage “gas guzzlers” are hopelessly cheap for those who can afford such thirsty vehicles. (And furthermore, there are currently no cars (at time of the broadcast) in the UK that fit into the tax-free band they have created!)

The shift to biofuels (diesel or alcohol made from plants), which the US, Europe and some others have embraced is also hugely controversial, as Monbiot explained:

Beyond a certain point the production of fuel begins to compete directly with the production of food. A study conducted last year by Sarasin, the Swiss bank, placed “the present limit for the environmentally and socially responsible use of biofuels at roughly 5% of current petrol and diesel consumption in the EU and US.”

… the new market has stimulated a massive expansion of destructive plantations, especially of oil palm. Palm oil planting is the major cause of tropical deforestation in both Malaysia and Indonesia. As the forests are cut down, the carbon in both the trees and the peat they grow on turns into carbon dioxide. A study by the Dutch scientific consultancy Delft Hydraulics found that the production of every tonne of palm oil causes 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. This makes oil palm 10 times worse than petroleum.

George Monbiot, Just a lot of hot air, March 5, 2007 [Emphasis added]

The limited use of biofuels is in sharp contrast to the amount of attention it has received in the mainstream as a viable alternative.

And it was not just in transportation that these problems were found. “In every sector the audit found similar oversights, elisions, and deceptions.”

And the often-used double accounting trick has appeared in climate change related estimates too (though it is not clear if it is deliberate or a genuine mistake). “The government claims that Phase 2 of the European Emissions Trading Scheme (which allows power companies to buy and sell permits to pollute) will cut carbon emissions by 8 million tonnes against 1990 levels. [The audit] found that the cut appears to be not a reduction in absolute emissions, but a reduction in future gases which might have been released if the scheme did not exist.”

Monbiot’s final warning on the seriousness of the implications is also of interest:

And even if the official aim—of a 60% carbon cut by 2050—were met, it would, I believe, be too little, too late. Climate scientists warn us that if global temperatures rise by two degrees or more above their pre-industrial levels, the warming is likely to trigger runaway feedback. We are already beginning to see some signs of this. In parts of the West Siberian peat bog, the permafrost has begun to melt, releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The more methane escapes, the more the planet warms, so the more methane escapes. The West Siberian bog alone is believed to contain 70 billion tonnes of the gas whose liberation would equate to 73 years of current manmade CO2 emissions.

If runaway feedback sets in on a large enough scale, the biosphere takes over from human beings as the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions. At that point the problem is snatched from our hands—there is nothing more we can do.

George Monbiot, Just a lot of hot air, March 5, 2007 [Emphasis added]

(Channel 4 also published the audit report on their web site.)

Great Global Warming Swindle Documentary itself a Swindle

Just two days after the above documentary, Channel 4 then aired The Great Global Warming Swindle, a documentary to show the scientific consensus that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are primarily responsible for climate change was a lie.

The documentary interviewed prominent scientists who challenged the notion that humans may be to blame for climate change. Key issues included that the sun was the cause of climate change, that models were notoriously error prone and reflected only what the modeller put in as variables, that climate change was only popular because of enormous funding available, and that all environmentalists wanted to deny the poor countries a chance to develop.

The documentary sounded very plausible on initial reaction. However, it employed some techniques that were questionable for a documentary about scientific issues, such as making the situation seem black and white (e.g. “all” environmentalists wanted to deny the poor countries a chance to develop, all environmentalists were hostile to anyone that denied climate change), using smear and polemic (e.g. “you are being told lies”) and so on.

Given the IPCC report (written by some of the leading climate scientists) feels there is some 90% certainty of human-induced climate change, and that the vast majority of climate scientists feel this to be the case, it would seem important for such a documentary to include their views.

For example, on the counter argument that the sun is to blame (a common point from skeptics), the documentary did not mention research to the contrary or that the research by some of the scientists presented were actually proven incorrect later. For example, the science journal, Nature, published a paper in September 2006 in which researchers reviewed existing evidence and found that known variations in the sun’s total energy output could not explain recent global warming. In addition, observations about the sun affecting many planets is also inconclusive as it may be coincidence and some planets and moons may be warming due to other localized reasons.

Side Note

Some documentaries have tried to scare people into doing something about climate change and themselves have used propaganda techniques. That too should be frowned upon. That does not excuse this documentary to ignore the goal of invoking debate, and aim for politicization instead.

The next morning, many British newspapers were taken in by the documentary commenting that this was a major story.

It turns out, however, that much of the documentary itself was a swindle, or, as media watchdog, Media Lens described, “Pure Propaganda.” For example,

  • Some theories had long been discredited
  • At least one scientist was misled about the nature of the documentary and his views were edited to suit the message of the documentary
  • Misleading graphs

Why Channel 4, often known for its good documentaries, would air such a flawed film, is unclear. It also turns out that the producer has been found to mislead other interviewees about the purpose of the documentary. Channel 4 was asked to apologize then and yet continued to air another of his films without, it seems, much scrutiny. A summary from The Independent noted,

one of the most distinguished scientists that it featured said his views had been “grossly distorted” by the film, and made it clear that he believed human pollution did warm the climate.

Professor Carl Wunsch, professor of physical oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said he had been “completely misrepresented” by the program, and “totally misled” on its content. He added that he is considering making a formal complaint.

A Channel 4 spokesman said: “The film was a polemic that drew together the well-documented views of a number of respected scientists to reach the same conclusions. This is a controversial film but we feel that it is important that all sides of the debate are aired. If one of the contributors has concerns about his contribution we will look into that.”

Geoffrey Lean, Climate change: An inconvenient truth… for C4, The Independent, March 11, 2007 [C4 is often the short name used for Channel 4]

Given that two days earlier it reported on the British government’s spin on the issue, perhaps Channel 4 thought this was an example of balancing? It may be an honest mistake given that many other journalists writing the next day were also taken in by the documentary. But it is also an example of “false balancing.”

As the philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.” (Roads to Freedom)

In that regards, many who naturally hope that global warming is not going to happen may want to believe this documentary. Indeed, from the personal accounts experienced shortly after the documentary, that is happening for many people.

Furthermore, as mentioned later on this page, there is another fear that some claims of climate change effects are fear-mongering, exaggerating or being used as part of some spin, which are also dangerous. Channel 4 therefore has responsibility to ensure that any critical documentary is of decent quality. This is not saying that the voice of deniers should not be censored. On the contrary, their voices should be heard. On this topic, being scientific in nature, and coming from an extremely minority point of view, the documentary clearly needed to further balance out the views with responses and findings from the mainstream scientific consensus.

Side Note

An interesting side note about censorship is that the documentary made points that deniers were all being silenced, that all environmentalists were hostile to their views, etc. It is probably an unfortunate reality that there will be some (maybe many) who will be very cynical of counter views, and will be hostile. Yet, as George Monbiot notes (see link below), it seems criticism is being confused with silencing: “This is the best example of manufactured victimhood I have ever come across. If you demonstrate that someone is wrong, you are now deemed to be silencing him.”

For more details, see the following:

  • Pure Propaganda: The Great Global Warming Swindle is a short, yet detailed look by MediaLens, including many links explaining some of the above issues further.
  • Channel 4’s Problem with Science by George Monbiot, provides a number of examples about how discredited theories were being used to present the case, and this was not noted to the public.
  • Swindled! from RealClimate.org (a site by climate scientists) looks at some of the false arguments made.
  • The Great Global Warming Swindle, a critique by Sir John Houghton, former chair of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), looks at most of the issues in the documentary and criticizes the points made.
  • Facts and fictions about climate change from the Royal Society, which serves as the academy of sciences in the UK, addresses key criticisms from climate change skeptics in general. (This is also written by Sir John Houghton.)

One other area of interest that this documentary noted was the impact on developing countries: The documentary tried to claim that it is only the deniers of anthropogenic climate change that have the interests of the poor countries at heart. But this was more propaganda and spin:

  • For years (and many years before climate change was accepted in the mainstream media at all), environmentalists and others spoke of the importance of climate justice (that developing countries should be allowed to develop for it is not the fault of all humans)
  • That the basis of international agreements had “common but differentiated responsibilities” at its core

As this site has also argued for many years, Western mainstream talk of climate change has indeed ignored the impact of developing countries. This has made made spin by Bush, Blair and others that China and India must be subject to emission targets more easily accepted, without knowing the context. However, this is not the position of all environmentalists and climate scientists, as the documentary made it out to be. Furthermore, there seem to be more political and economic agendas behind such a position and this is discussed further below.

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Some rich countries blame developing countries such as China and India. A diversion tactic?

Politically, it has long been established and agreed that it is the industrialized nations that are responsible for the anthropogenic aspect of climate change and that developing nations have only recently entered industrialization phases. Therefore, it was internationally agreed that there would be “common but differentiated responsibilities” and that industrialized nations would need to reduce their emissions, while developing countries should continue down the path of development but avoid the polluting route of today’s industrialized countries.

However, a combination of lack of action by richer nations (who have been increasing emissions) with the realization that the climate is already changing has at least created a sense of urgency amongst some richer nations. But the additional line coming from governments of countries such as the US, Australia, and even the UK (where climate change is accepted and recognized as something that needs urgent addressing) is that little can be achieved without large developing countries such as India and China being part of the solution.

As larger developing countries are clearly industrializing and using more and more resources, they will be increasing their greenhouse gas emissions. However, as detailed further on this site’s section on global warming and population, given their late entry into the industrialization phase, such countries’ emissions (and per person) are far lower than industrialized nations and they have not been the primary cause of climate change. Politically then, such countries will find it hard to accept emission caps without the industrialized countries showing some progress.

Another concern is not so much with those developing countries themselves, but that large polluting industries from the West may be encouraged to move to countries that are not subject to emission reduction targets. The complication here, at least from the developing world’s perspective would be that targets for emission reductions because of this reason may be unfair as their entire nation would be penalized for a problem caused by the rich countries and their corporations. It is perhaps one of the many weaknesses of the Kyoto Protocol then, that businesses themselves aren’t specifically targeted, but only countries.

From the perspective of developing countries, it may appear that the rich countries are attempting to minimize the changes they have to make, even though they are the primary cause of climate change, and then getting the developing countries to make a larger set of changes than they otherwise would have had to. After all, the world has known for over two decades (even three) that changes are needed, and instead, most of the rich world has only managed to slow down its rate of emission increase, not actually reduce them. These perspectives are rarely mentioned in western mainstream media, whereas the concerns of population growth, China and India’s rise, are.

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Media Reporting

The types of issues raised above have an impact on the media reporting. More recently, the mainstream media has generally been looking more and more at climate change, its effects, and what people are doing. The measures and tactics employed by businesses and governments in the past may not be as successful in the future, potentially. Is this a positive turn, or could there be other forms of spin and “green washing”?

Criticism and ridicule of Climate Change concerns, initially

Throughout the 1990s, especially in the United States, but in other countries as well, those who would try and raise the importance of climate change, and suggest that we are perhaps over-consuming, or unsustainably using our resources etc, were faced with a lot of criticism and ridicule. The previous link is to an article by George Monbiot, writing in 1999.

Media False Balancing Allowed Extreme Views to be Treated Same as Scientific Consensus

In 2004, Monbiot notes a similar issue to the above, where media attempts at balance has led to “false balancing.” Disproportionate time is given to more fringe scientists or those with less credibility or with additional agendas, without noting so, and thus gives the impression that there is more debate in the scientific community about whether or not climate change is an issue to be concerned about or not:

Picture a situation in which most of the media, despite the overwhelming weight of medical opinion, refused to accept that there was a connection between smoking and lung cancer. Imagine that every time new evidence emerged, they asked someone with no medical qualifications to write a piece dismissing the evidence and claiming that there was no consensus on the issue.

Imagine that the BBC, in the interests of “debate”, wheeled out one of the tiny number of scientists who says that smoking and cancer aren’t linked, or that giving up isn’t worth the trouble, every time the issue of cancer was raised.

Imagine that, as a result, next to nothing was done about the problem, to the delight of the tobacco industry and the detriment of millions of smokers. We would surely describe the newspapers and the BBC as grossly irresponsible.

Now stop imagining it, and take a look at what’s happening. The issue is not smoking, but climate change. The scientific consensus is just as robust, the misreporting just as widespread, the consequences even graver.

“The scientific community has reached a consensus,” the [U.K.] government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, told the House of Lords last month. “I do not believe that amongst the scientists there is a discussion as to whether global warming is due to anthropogenic effects.

“It is man-made and it is essentially [caused by] fossil fuel burning, increased methane production… and so on.” Sir David chose his words carefully. There is a discussion about whether global warming is due to anthropogenic (man-made) effects. But it is not — or is only seldom — taking place among scientists. It is taking place in the media, and it seems to consist of a competition to establish the outer reaches of imbecility.

But these [skeptical and illogical points against climate change] are rather less dangerous than the BBC, and its insistence on “balancing” its coverage of climate change. It appears to be incapable of running an item on the subject without inviting a skeptic to comment on it.

Usually this is either someone from a corporate-funded thinktank (who is, of course, never introduced as such) or the professional anti-environmentalist Philip Stott. Professor Stott is a retired biogeographer. Like almost all the prominent skeptics he has never published a peer-reviewed paper on climate change. But he has made himself available to dismiss climatologists’ peer-reviewed work as the “lies” of ecofundamentalists.

This wouldn’t be so objectionable if the BBC made it clear that these people are not climatologists, and the overwhelming majority of qualified scientific opinion is against them. Instead, it leaves us with the impression that professional opinion is split down the middle. It’s a bit like continually bringing people on to the program to suggest that there is no link between HIV and Aids.

What makes all this so dangerous is that it plays into the hands of corporate lobbyists. A recently leaked memo written by Frank Luntz, the US Republican and corporate strategist, warned that “The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general—and President Bush in particular—are most vulnerable… Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need… to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.”

George Monbiot, Beware the fossil fools, The Guardian, April 27, 2004

Eric A. Davidson notes similar things about false balancing and is also worth quoting at length:

The media likes to present both sides of any issue as if they were boxers of equal stature and strength, and so scientists with opposing points of view are interviewed as if they held equal stature and respect within the scientific community. In terms of strength of argument and credibility, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change created by the United Nations] scientific consensus about the importance of global warming is a heavyweight compared to the bantam weight of the handful of dissenting scientists. Unfortunately, the well-funded and ideologically and financially motivated bantams are running circles around the pensive, cautious, lumbering heavyweight, and the impact of the bantams’ clever program of misinformation far exceeds their numbers or their scientific credentials. Their strategy has been to find little chinks in the armor of the global warming evidence, draw attention to these minor points, blow them out of proportion, and thereby gain publicity in the popular press that cases doubt on the strong mainstream scientific consensus on global warming. When subsequently debated in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, these issues are usually put to rest, but by then, the damage has already been done in the popular press, and the global warming naysayers achieve their goals of undermining confidence in the science behind the global warming consensus.

Eric A. Davisdon, You Can’t Eat GNP: Economics as if Ecology Mattered, (Perseus Publishing, 2001), pp. 110 - 111

If these issues had been mostly recognized and the media and public discourse had moved on, then that would be fine. However, this has not really been the case.

Gary Schmidt is a leading climate researcher working for NASA. He is also a contributor to RealClimate.org, a blog by climate scientists that attempt to dispel misinformation by climate skeptics and provide background information often missing in mainstream media. In one of his posts, he laments at the continual diversion caused by misinformation:

Recently there has been more of a sense that the issues being discussed (in the media or online) have a bit of a groundhog day quality to them. The same nonsense, the same logical fallacies, the same confusions – all seem to be endlessly repeated. The same strawmen are being constructed and demolished as if they were part of a make-work scheme for the building industry attached to the stimulus proposal.

Gary Schmidt, Groundhog Day, RealClimate.org, June 8, 2009

For many, many years, then, organizations with political agendas to stifle climate change action (who also claim that there is a vast global conspiracy perpetrated by climate change scientists with a goal to get more funding!) have diverted time and effort from action to inaction.

Furthermore, as subsequent pages mention, at major UN meetings on climate change in the recent past, the mainstream media often failed to report on it, or placed it much lower in priority than other stories, with even celebrities getting more media coverage at times.

This isn’t just a media/propaganda issue, it is a time issue; the warnings from scientists since even the 1980s was that urgent action was needed. It is not “humanity” proving once again that we cannot come together and deal with issues, it is powerful interests proving a historical pattern.

Scientists show more certainty of human-induced climate change, media reporting increases. Will further spin follow?

Leading climate scientists at the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have released major, definitive reports detailing the progress in understanding climate change. From the outset they have recommended that there be emission reductions. This body is comprised of hundreds of climate scientists around the world.

At the beginning of January 2007, the IPCC’s fourth major report summarized that they were even more certain of human-induced climate change than before. They were 90% certain that warming since industrialization had been due to human activity.

As the IPCC’s fifth major report draws to a conclusion in 2013 it notes that scientists have increased that certainty to 95%, or “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”, as summarized PDF formatted document by the IPCC.

As their fifth report started to come out, a number of climate skeptics and media outlets were arguing that the slowdown shown in surface temperatures in recent years proved global warming had stopped or paused. Yet, this slowdown was in surface temperatures only even though the overall trend (using a more longer period which is more valid in climate change analysis) showed an increase in temperatures. Two simple graphs help illustrate this:

The dip in warming in recent years is surface temperatures only. When looked against a sufficiently and more appropriately larger time frame, and compared to the much larger warming occuring in the oceans, that dip is miniscule Source: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis , IPCC Working Group I contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, September 2013. Chapter 3. [Note, graph modified to add the zoomed in portion highlighting the area skeptics use to claim climate change has stopped.]

The next graph is an animation from Skeptical Science showing how time-frames to interpret climate data is significant:

Source: The Escalator, Skeptical Science, last accessed October 19, 2013

For further information on the above see also Does the global warming “pause” mean what you think it means?, from Skeptical Science.

In recent years, it is noticeable how much climate change related concerns are entering mainstream discourse as this realization is becoming more widespread. Governments, businesses, public sector and others are all talking about it in some way or another, it seems.

Even in the US, perhaps the most vocal about questioning climate change consensus, most major media outlets have been accepting it and quickly moving on to discussing ways forward. Columbia Journalism Review notes,

And the media are, despite Huggins’s criticisms, slowly but surely eliminating false balance when addressing human activity’s role in global warming. According to Boykoff’s more recent work (pdf), “balanced” coverage of the anthropogenic contribution to climate change tapered off from 2003 to 2006 in the five largest American papers in favor of stories that depicted it as undeniably significant. Furthermore, stories that depict man’s contribution to warming as negligible have all but disappeared from news pages. Regional papers seem to be improving as well. According to Krosnick, though, misunderstanding persists due to the early problems.

“Our research suggests that there’s actually kind of a carry-over, that people don’t forget that quickly,” he said. “… Americans heard a lot skeptics in a lot of news stories for a lot years, and the impact of those skeptics doesn’t disappear simply because the skeptics aren’t being mentioned any more.”

Curtis Brainard, Public Opinion and Climate: Part II; Where’s the consensus, and where does it end?, Columbia Journalism Review, August 27, 2008

And, Inter Press Service (IPS) reports that environmentalists are warning of more spin on climate change action, that “with the stark realisation that global warming is transforming our world, there will be [a] crazy new era of ‘greenwashing’, desperate ‘geo-engineering’ schemes, ‘grandfathering’ of newly-built coal power plants and carbon-credit ‘profiteering’.”

“Geo-engineering” schemes are large-scale attempts to manipulate the environment to produce environmental change, such as

  • Injecting chemicals into the atmosphere;
  • Putting reflectors into orbit to deflect some of the sunlight away from the earth;
  • Dumping tons of iron into the oceans in the hope that phytoplankton will boom and absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“There’s a little bit of panic brewing, governments are taking these wacky ideas seriously,” says Pat Mooney of the Canadian-based NGO, the ETC Group. “The U.S. government has been lobbying the IPCC to include geo-engineering in the third part of its report to be released in May on ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change” adds IPS.

Some recent studies found geoengineering would be fraught with unintended and unexpected consequences.

As another example, “Knowing the green tide is rising, there is a major rush in the US to build new coal-fired power plants before any carbon emissions caps are passed into law, says David Archer, a climatologist at the University of Chicago.”IPS adds that “Once built, such power plants can operate for 50 or more years. In the past, whenever tougher new pollution rules came into place, existing plants were usually ‘grandfathered’, meaning they were exempted from having to comply with the new regulations. And that is a major concern.” Some 150-160 such plants are being proposed to meet US energy demands.

In Europe, a carbon trading scheme has received a lot of attention, but as IPS also reports, the ETC Group, a Canadian-based non-governmental organization, says that the it is a “failure” because it “simply slows down the pace” of emissions.

In relation to that, as already mentioned above, the intentional misuse of the phrase “emission reduction” to mean reducing the rate of emission increase, rather than an actual reduction, may also lead to a false sense of hope.

The above-mentioned IPS article notes other ways that spin and dirty fuels will still likely be employed.

Media critics at Media Lens noted a questionable mix of a news story on climate change accompanied by advertisements for car essentials and cheap holidays abroad at the UK’s Independent newspaper. In addition, as their main story, the Independent’s on Sunday Supplement even had a report by a journalist suggesting that, “Alarmed by global warming, shocked by the imminent mass extinction of species and distraught at the environmental damage wreaked by mass tourism, I have decided to act before it is too late. Yes, carbon-neutral travel can wait. I’m off to see polar bears, tigers and low-lying Pacific atolls while they’re still there”.

Media Lens found this objectionable given that the World Health Organization had estimated 150,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses each year from global warming, and wrote in asking “Given this extraordinary and rising level of suffering, what is the moral justification for today’s front cover?”

Their initial article, the response from the Independent together with Media Len’s response to that is worth taking into account in regards to media reporting of climate change.

As more companies attempt to become “carbon neutral”, some will attempt to become so by offering to plant trees or contribute to forest schemes. This sounds green and useful, but environmentalists are concerned that this may not lead to actual (or substantial) reductions in emissions. Furthermore, these “carbon sinks” are controversial, for while they can soak up excess carbon dioxide, they can also burn (if, for example, global warming contributes to more forest fires). This aspect has been a concern for many years, and still not discussed in length in many mainstream outlets (or at least certainly not contributing to prime time news/headlines). See this site’s sections on Flexibility Mechanisms and Carbon Sinks, Forests and Climate Change for more details.

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A challenge for the mainstream media

Some time ago, the NGO PANOS wrote:

Climate change is, in theory, the perfect topic for an international environmental agreement. All countries are affected by, and contribute to, the build up of greenhouse gases, and should be willing to join in the effort to stop it. However, it is far from easy to agree what to do, and how to do it….

Just a Lot of Hot Air? A close look at the Climate Change Convention, PANOS, November 2000

Similarly, it is a “safer” political topic for the media to cover than many other issues.

It is promising that recent mainstream attention seems to have turned towards actions and solutions, but can a mostly corporate-funded mainstream media be part of the solution, or will some of the more business-impacting measures be likely toned down? Will consumers be willing to change their life style if technology and industry cannot find some quick energy-related solution?

At the same time, will the developing world once again face the blames for the world’s problems? Will China, India, and others allow themselves to be easy targets for time-wasting diversion, or will they have the ability to pursue a more sustainable path to development compared to what they are doing now?

Media manipulation and fake news has hit many media outlets in recent times on various issues, including in countries such as the US and UK—often perceived to have a good quality mainstream media. The pressure to satisfy advertisers while media companies are downsizing and increasing “operating efficiency” in reality has often meant less independent and diverse journalism, as detailed further on this site’s mainstream media section.

And what of media reporting? Some fear that too much reporting of climate change in headlines will lead to a kind of climate fatigue whereby people are desensitized to the issue. Yet, just as it is common to have a sports segment in many broadcasts, why not more topical issues? Granted, with pressures to reduce news time and coverage it would not be easily, but if the headlines at the time of writing this managed to include a celebrity with a drug problem, surely a small note about global issues such as climate change or poverty could be added more regularly?

As also seen with other global issues, and discussed elsewhere on this site, another problem is what makes climate change a headline-worthy item: if a major report or a world leader says something about an issue, or if it is sensational enough, then it seems to make news headlines. If they do not, then it seems not to be newsworthy. In other cases, if a particular country faces a heat wave or other extreme weather, then climate change may be discussed in that context, but what when that is gone, and we continue spewing out greenhouse gases? This is a generalization for sure, but it is hard to see issues like climate change or global poverty and third world debt covered at other times in immense depth.

Yet, as some scientists have warned to the BBC, there is a fear of “overplaying” the global warming message which risks confusing the public about the threat. Reactionary documentaries on the other side, as described above in the UK section (about the supposed “swindle”) shows that the public may be further confused if sensationalism on all sides wins over proper debate and understanding.

As well as overplaying, there is also concern that some media may be understating the impact of climate change.

No doubt that many media outlets are responding to this, as the above-mentioned Australian Broadcasting Company exposé of corruption and lobbying of the Australian government shows. Newspapers, with more pages to cover such topics, for example are also writing more about these issues than before. However, television news is still (for now) the major source of information about the world for most people. Yet, if history is any indicator, even at (or perhaps because of) such challenging times, propaganda, spin and misdirection will perhaps be the norm unless democracies can become more democratic and the mainstream media reports issues more thoroughly.

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Where next?

Other options

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Wednesday, February 14, 2007
  • Last Updated: Saturday, October 19, 2013

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Document Revision History

DateReason
October 19, 2013Added some graphs and charts showing climate change has not stopped despite recent slowdown trends in surface temperatures, because ocean temperatures and a more appropriate time-frame shows otherwise.
March 5, 2012Added notes about Climategate and about the Heartland Institute funding climate changed denial views.
September 27, 2010Small note about some media outlets understating climate change impacts
August 10, 2010Added an info graphic contrasting scientific consensus on global warming vs media reporting and public perceptions. Also added a small note about some geoengineering projects having unintended consequences.
October 4, 2009Added a small note about conservative think tank influence on climate skepticism and the US Chamber of Commerce wanting to put climate change policy and science on trial
July 6, 2009Added small notes about how a suppressed report was not actually suppressed
August 30, 2008Added a small note about improving media coverage of climate change issues in the US
March 18, 2007A documentary claimed that global warming was a great swindle. Turns out that the documentary itself was a swindle. It got mainstream airing and was well received, despite that
March 6, 2007Added a section on UK and Climate Change

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.