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The Minnesota Daily: The end of the global warming debate

September 14, 2006

With the debate over, the media need to stop giving the skeptics airtime.
By Holly Lahd

To take a line from Fox News, “fair and balanced” journalism is a hot topic in our extremely polarized society right now. To avoid charges of bias from both the left and the right, the media strives for balanced journalism in all issues. Often this means having experts from both sides of a debate duke it out (professionally, of course) for the public to judge. But when the media reports on science, can they still use the model of balanced journalism without compromising the truth?

Before writing this column, I wanted to get a sense of what students here at the University know about global warming. I took my quest for new ideas to the street where I conducted some very informal, unscientific surveying on what people believe about global warming. A vast majority of people I asked responded that global warming is a real problem that is firmly backed by science.

But my poll seems to fly in the face of another, much more scientific poll, performed this past April. A poll conducted by Time Magazine, ABC News and Stanford University found that 64 percent of Americans believe that there is “a lot of disagreement” among scientists about global warming. Why this discrepancy?

Without trying to fuel the conspiracy-theory fire, I firmly believe the reason behind misinformation is the coverage the media still give the remaining minority of climate-change skeptics. These climate- change skeptics can be so vocal because of continued financial support from the oil and coal industry, whose interests lie with continued inaction on global warming.

By applying the traditional model of a pro and con side to the debate on global warming, the media have created bias in favor of global warming skeptics in the name of balanced journalism. The scientific jury on global warming and climate change has returned with a verdict: Global warming is real, and humans are the cause of it.

Organizations like the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reviews thousands of scientific articles on the topic, is just one example of the overwhelming number of scientific organizations that support the widely-known science behind global warming. That’s the science speaking, not advocates or politicians. But because of news media failures, we still have a public that is largely ignorant of global warming facts.

To illustrate how out of control this problem has become, let me introduce you to one of the leading global warming skeptics in the U.S. His name is Pat Michaels. When I “Googled” Michaels, I received an impressive 36,100 hits.

Michaels’s stance is that global warming isn’t caused by human activities, and he downplays what effects – if any – global warming will have. Michaels often mentions that he is a climatologist of the University of Virginia to give some credibility to his statements. However, the state of Virginia has publicly asked Michaels to stop referring to them when he makes his unsupported statements.

Perhaps a better-fitting affiliation for Michaels is with the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. The Cato Institute is a free-market think tank that has long history of pushing regressive social policies, such as abolishing the Department of Education. Representing Cato and their backward global warming views, Michaels has appeared on numerous major TV and radio networks, from ABC and CNN to NPR.

In preparing for this column, I did some research as to where the Cato Institute gets its funding from. Understandably, Cato doesn’t readily post their corporate funding sponsors. However, ExxonMobil’s own yearly giving reports records contributions over $90,000 to Cato since 1998. The Cato Institute is also purported to be funded by companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell Oil Company and Tenneco Gas, the American Petroleum Institute and the Amoco Foundation.

Michaels’ and other climate skeptics’ works are propped up by an industry that thrives on government inaction on this problem.

An excerpt from a memo of the American Petroleum Institute illustrates this stance perfectly: “Victory will be achieved when … average citizens (recognize) uncertainties in climate science.”

By funding the work of these skeptics, the industry is able to continue this false sense of an uncertain debate to the American public.

By giving these paid skeptics an open mic, the media has done a great disservice to the public. This blunder has created a public that still believes there is some doubt about the science behind global warming. What’s worse, we still have national elected officials who openly question the science, even during official hearings. When our elected officials don’t understand that the real debate is over, we all have a serious problem.

Leading scientists say that we have a 10-year window to begin reducing our global warming emissions. If we allow this false debate to continue, we will have waited too long to prevent some of the most serious warming.

The first step to addressing this problem needs to be silencing paid skeptics and removing them from the ears of our politicians. Only then can we move on to the important work of finding and implementing solutions.

It’s always a good idea to check sources when you hear a questionable statement. But when the topic is global warming, we need to be especially vigilant on who we receive information from.

Next time you hear an “official source” doubt global warming or its causes, I implore you to ask yourself what’s this person’s motive.

You can try my favorite tool (Googling), but most importantly, check out their funding sources (try www.guidestar.org).

Until the media finally removes the mouthpiece of these paid skeptics, let us all remove them from our ears by digging deeper into their motives, their organizations, and their funding.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected].

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