Support Our Work

A Tale of Two Climate Change Stories

Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman
(Originally published in The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media)

They were two very different front-page stories about global climate change.

One, in the Boston Globe, was a lifestyle piece about two long-time colleagues and friends — MIT climate scientists Kerry Emanuel and Richard Lindzen. Entitled “A Cooling Trend,” it was light on science and heavy on details about the severe toll that the increasingly toxic political environment surrounding climate change has taken on the personal and professional relationship between the two prominent researchers.

The other piece, in The New York Times, focused on dramatic shifts in public views regarding climate science and policy in Britain and the United States. It followed on the heels of other front-page stories in the Times that were distinctly different from traditional science news storylines in that these stories primarily explored public perceptions of climate change.

News Analysis

The stories may shed little light on how the “front page thought” is evolving in the months since the stolen e-mails scandal at the University of East Anglia; or on the impact of the credibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the stories and reactions to them do shed light on the increasingly perilous minefield that reporters must face in the course of their everyday work covering climate change.

The stories suggest that angles focusing on the social dimensions of climate change may be more likely to move a climate story to page A1, and that articles about climate science studies may face steeper hills in a media landscape in which each new report is relentlessly dissected by voracious bloggers.

Daley: Not a Climate Science Story at All

Neither of the stories went into detail about key climate science findings. In fact, the Globe piece, by veteran environmental reporter Beth Daley, scarcely mentioned climate science at all. Rather, both stories pivoted around the increasingly heated public debates about climate science and policy.

In the Globe’s front-page story from Sunday, May 16, Daley pursued a human interest angle by exploring the complex relationship between Emanuel and Lindzen, two high-profile figures in the climate science community who hold clearly opposing views on the causation and seriousness of human-caused climate change. Emanuel has published widely cited papers on how a warming climate may influence tropical cyclone behavior, and he believes anthropogenic climate change poses significant risks to society. Lindzen, on the other hand, has long downplayed the severity and urgency of climate change, and has served as a go-to source for reporters looking for a contrarian viewpoint.

Daley’s story portrays the increasingly acrimonious personal and professional relationship as emblematic of the broader deterioration of climate-related discourse. At times it resembles the plot of a novel rather than a climate news story. Take, for example, the article’s first four paragraphs (queue dramatic music):

It is no surprise they grew to be friends.

Richard Lindzen and Kerry Emanuel are both brilliant and convivial. Both study the atmosphere and climate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where their offices overlooking the Charles River are one floor apart. In an academic world often dominated by liberals, both have strong conservative streaks and once agreed that the evidence for catastrophic man-made global warming just wasn’t there.

But then the climate changed between them. Friends became intellectual foes, dueling icons in one of the world’s most acrimonious political debates.

Friends had a hard time staying friends.

Later, the story states: “The fact that these serious-minded colleagues and long-time friends disagree so vehemently highlights the immense difficulty of finding common ground on human-caused global warming. That’s because their disagreements are not just about interpretations of scientific data, but about how they assess the risks, amid the uncertainty over global warming’s future impact.”

Opening Door to Charges of ‘False Balance’

A central criticism of the article, however, is that it pitted two scientists against each other without giving readers sufficient information for considering who is correct — Emanuel, who thinks manmade climate change is a major concern, or Lindzen, who downplays the risks at every opportunity (the vast majority of climate scientists agree with Emanuel’s conclusions).

Thus, notwithstanding Daley’s and the Globe’s previous stories on the issue, the newspaper left itself open to charges that it had fallen victim to the “false balance” trap that has proven to be an enduring impediment to accurate climate reporting.

For this reason and others, climate activists such as Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress slammed the story, as well as Daley, the Globe, its publisher, and seemingly anyone else who has ever been associated with the paper, read the paper, or so much as thought about reading it. That take-no-prisoners approach is one that Romm is well-known for, as he himself acknowledges, and it is one that sometimes raises concerns even among those in the climate field who generally are inclined to support his technical judgments.

Not one to pull his punches, Romm wrote on his ClimateProgress blog: “It certainly qualifies as one of the worst news articles ever published on global warming.”

“You would never know from this piece that there is a vast array of climate scientists who share Emanuel’s view (or a more dire view), along with all the major scientific bodies in this country, as well as hundreds of peer-reviewed publications in every major scientific journal — but virtually none that support Lindzen’s. You would never know that because reporter Beth Daley never quotes a single one. Not one!” Romm wrote.

In a telephone interview, Daley said she does not consider her piece to be a climate science story. “I didn’t view the story as a climate science story at all. In some ways, I think that’s where I was being naive,” she said.

“I was trying to write a story about how two smart people … became so divergent and how their own personalities played a role in that.”

Pressures on Media in Reporting on Climate ‘Consensus’

Daley pointed to considerable pressure brought to bear on the media to stick to the so-called “scientific consensus” perspective on climate change. She said when journalists such as her attempt to talk about the public debate that is occurring regarding climate science, or discuss disagreements between climate scientists, they tend to be treated as if they are going off the reservation. She said the public hears a lot of shouting from different ideologues on the climate issue, and that the majority of her readership does not know what to think anymore.

“I am not writing for the ideologues,” she said, but rather “for the people who are genuinely confused” about climate science and policy.

However, writing for the confused people in the middle — those who may be receptive to learning more about climate change but who are turned-off by the intensity of the back-and-forth volleys in the media — is getting more difficult in light of the growing intensity of the debate.

Daley said her story on Emanuel and Lindzen sparked a furious backlash from climate advocates and mainstream climate scientists who she said mistakenly interpreted the piece as casting doubt on the robust scientific conclusion that human activities are warming the climate.

However, from the standpoint of critics of the Globe’s report, the story’s description as it appears online does seem to indicate that there is no scientific consensus: “That these MIT experts now see the facts, and each other, so differently shows how hard climate consensus will be.” (Inserting the word “policy” after “climate” would have negated much of the confusion about the existence of a scientific consensus).

Speaking of the public debate about climate science and policy, rather than the debate in the scientific community, Daley said, “It’s clear to me that somehow mentioning there is this debate going on… tags you as someone who should be vilified.”

“I would think that the general public is smart enough to judge the scientific consensus through a series of articles and not one specific piece that a newspaper publishes,” she said.

Daley’s perception that the public is confused, and suffering from climate whiplash of sorts, is supported by a May 25 page one New York Times story by Elisabeth Rosenthal.

Reporting on shifts in public attitudes towards climate science and policy, Rosenthal wrote: “The public is left to struggle with the salvos between the two sides.” She quoted a British woman as saying, “I’m still concerned about climate change, but it’s become very confusing.”

Shift From Emphasis on Science to Attitudes Toward Science?

The Times story depicted a fall-off of public confidence in mainstream climate science and policies based on such science. The story detailed a string of punches/counterpunches between scientists and advocates of opposing camps arising from the hacked e-mails controversy and developments such as a colder than usual winter in parts of the U.S.

However, the Rosenthal story also did not make clear what the vast majority of climate scientists think based on their understanding of the evidence — that emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are warming the global climate, and that those emissions will continue to do so for decades to come.

Rosenthal’s story was one of several recent Times stories, including one front-page story by John M. Broder on February 10, that have highlighted public perceptions of climate science, rather than the science itself. These pieces may be indicative of a trend away from straight science and environmental reporting, and towards the pursuit of the social ramifications of climate change and its impacts — in itself, not a bad transition.

As Daley said, no doubt echoing the perspectives of a number of other journalists covering the ongoing story, “Another story about a report … is getting harder to put on the front page.”


‘Ongoing Journalism Norms’ Driving Front-Page Coverage?

However, Max Boykoff, a University of Colorado professor who has studied media coverage of climate change for the past decade, says it remains unclear that criteria have shifted for judging whether a climate story belongs on the front page or buried somewhere else in the news section.

“I do think that many of the things that have been showing up on the front page,” Boykoff said in a phone interview, “are those sorts of stories that fall into classic ongoing journalistic norms.”

“My interpretation is that they [the media] continue to play on these norms of novelty, personalization, drama,” Boykoff said.

Interestingly, the Globe article and others show that it is not just climate change “doubters” that are putting pressure on reporters these days: Indeed, advocates for taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and even some climate scientists themselves may be increasingly helping to box-in climate reporters through their bellicose press criticisms and dealings with and attacks on individual reporters. Such a trend could be problematic, perhaps encouraging reporters to self-censor for fear of coming under the harsh lens of the warriors on either side.

“We get shouted down in a really, really harsh way,” Daley said, when reporters deviate from saying there is a scientific consensus on climate change. “Over the years we’ve gotten so blunted by that that we’re not really looking at the public dimension.”

The vitriol directed at Daley and the Globe story suggests that reporters may have very little maneuvering room to explore story angles without incurring a significant backlash, which can take the form of angry comments, letters to the editor, refusals to cooperate with future stories, and even direct threats.

Boykoff said that if reporters are indeed self-censoring, there is an increasing risk that they will fail to discern and report on valuable minority views. “It’s terrible to think that journalists are feeling like they have to self-censor,” Boykoff said. “That’s a huge loss between this pursuit of greater connectivity between science, policy, and the public.”

“I certainly don’t envy a lot of the positions that many folks are being put in from a journalistic perspective trying to cover this in a responsible way,” he said.