[Coral-List] Public perceptions about climate change

John Bruno jbruno at unc.edu
Thu Oct 29 16:19:04 EDT 2009

> Message: 4
> Date: Wed, 28 Oct 2009 15:11:28 -0400
> From: "David M. Lawrence" <dave at fuzzo.com>
> Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Public perceptions about climate change
> To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov

> I wish John would name names at The New York Times.  The science  
> writers
> I know there, especially Andrew Revkin, generally do a solid job
> reporting on science and environmental issues.

Hello David,

The homepage for my browser is Andrew Revkin's DotEarth blog. I think  
he is a brilliant communicator and journalist and we have corresponded  
in the past on non-climate coral reef issues.  But, he is an example  
of a journalist that has wrongly interpreted the global temperature  
record as indicating a pause in warming:

"...building momentum for an international climate treaty at a time  
when global temperatures have been relatively stable for a decade and  
may even drop in the next few years. The plateau in temperatures has  
been seized upon by skeptics as evidence that the threat of global  
warming is overblown."   -  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/23/science/earth/23cool.htm?_r=1

But there is in fact no plateau (or no cooling).  NOAA, NASA, the MET,  
etc have all said recently that we have seen continued warming, even  
during the last decade, even though 1998 was a very warm year and 2008  
was very cool.  You can read about this here:   http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/10/a-warming-pause/#more-1265

Revkin's comments in blog posts and in the print NYT have been picked  
up by various conservative pundants such as George Will, as evidence  
that even the liberal media concedes there is a pause in warming or  
even a cooling, e.g., http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/30/AR2009093003569.html

Will, and many others such as Glen Beck and Sean Hannity, extended  
this already virulent meme in mid September by wildly twisting the  
words of Mojib Latif to suggest that he now rejects AGW.  Take a look  
at Peter Sinclair's great YouTube video about the development of this  
meme in the mainstream media here:   http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=3364

Note this phenomena is really more analogous to media lies about Al  
Gore "He claimed he  invented the internet" (he didn't) than to the  
examples you allude to below.  This isn't a matter of the media not  
covering science, of science illiteracy, of scientists not wanting to  
talk to the media, not knowing how to communicate effectively, of the  
issue being too complex, newspapers not having enough money, reporters  
wanting both sides of every story, etc, etc.

It is simply a media lie.  An urban myth.  A viral meme that gets  
quickly propagated through mass media.  Once it is out there, it is  
virtually impossible to ever correct.  Just think of what happened to  
poor John Kerry in 2004.

The "the earth is cooling" / "global warming has paused" memes or  
denier crocks developed in the last 6-12 months and now tens (if not  
hundreds) of millions of Americans believe one of them.

I agree for many environmental issues, local and national NGOs and  
true advocacy groups, grass roots and primary school education and  
even talking to our friends and changing our own behaviors as examples  
can all be effective.  For this specific issue though, i.e., public  
perception about trends in global temperature, I don't think that is  
the case.  All these often successful actions are being drowned out by  
a pretty small handful of people with massive numbers of listeners and  

> While there are problems in American journalism today -- most of them
> stem from the economic collapse of the industry -- you should keep in
> mind that journalists answer to a different master.  Most of them are
> not scientific experts.  Generally, if 90 percent of scientists say  
> "A"
> and 10 percent say "B," the journalist has to report both points of  
> view
> and let the reader make up his or her mind.

> This does unfortunately lead to dreadful "He said, she said,"  
> reporting
> in which 99.9999999999 percent say "A" and 0.0000000001 percent say  
> "B"
> and the two positions are given equivalent weight in the story.  This
> doesn't help educate the public, but many of my journalist colleagues
> will say it is not their job to educate the public.  I've been  
> involved
> in some rather vigorous arguments with them over that attitude.
> The fact remains that journalists are generally not experts, thus they
> are bound by what their sources tell them and what they uncover in  
> their
> reporting -- and divergent views generally should be accorded some  
> level
> of balance in the resulting product.
> Given the decline in subscribers and viewers of news content, one  
> might
> think that the masses don't want to be confused by the facts -- unless
> those facts involve some actresses b**b job or some president's b**w
> job.  (My apologies for the bluntness, it's the old sportswriter in me
> coming out.)
> The challenge more than anything else is in building demand for good
> journalism -- especially science and environment journalism.  I don't
> have many answers myself, nor do a lot of other journalists at this
> point.  On the journalism side, we are working on it -- our jobs  
> depend
> on it.  On the scientific side, we should be working on it.  (For the
> record, I wear both scientist and journalist hats.)
> We all need to find a way to encourage an appetite for lifelong  
> learning
> -- we need a much more compelling argument than "You need to know  
> this." 
>  And we need to find ways to make the message much more palatable.
> It's got to be entertaining, else the masses will switch to TMZ to  
> find
> out who John and Kate Gosselin are now doing the nasty with given that
> they are in Splitsville.  Sexual fantasy trumps environmental disaster
> any day -- at least until the disaster lands in the living room.

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