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Hooks, Roles, and the Climate Change Blame Game

Posted on 24 May 2011 by grypo

According to Yale University survey taken late last year, there are large gaps of knowledge between scientists and the public on the subject of climate change within the American general public:

"[O]nly 57 percent know what the greenhouse effect is, only 45 percent of Americans understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth's surface, and just 50 percent understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities. Large majorities incorrectly think that the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans cause global warming. Meanwhile, 75 percent of Americans have never heard of the related problems of ocean acidification or coral bleaching."

Why such a difference in public understanding and scientific consensus on an important policy and environmental issue?  Is it the media?  Have scientists failed to get their cumulative work into the public sphere?  Are there issues within the journalistic and scientific institutions themselves that prevent the needed education?  Where does the blame lie?


As reported by Bud Ward and Keith Kloor, at 2011 AAAS conference, in a session Keith jokingly dubbed, "Why climate Scientists are from Mars and Science Reporters are from Venus", Seth Borenstien, well respected science journalist, commented on how he had been wondering whether or not the January anomaly would end the 311-month streak where the mean global temperature was warmer than normal. This prompted the following question from scientist, Peter Gleick:

"Why isn’t 312 straight months a story?"

Seth's answer:

"It is the equivalent of planes landing safely every day."

In a comment in this thread, Keith, also an attendant, expounds on Borenstien's response providing helpful context:

"During the exchange, Seth further elaborated why this would be a good hook for the story–because it would give him a news reason to write about those 311 consecutive months.

Again, it’s vital that people understand how daily journalism works (I’m not talking about enterprise or investigative stories), but the majority of stuff that people read and tune into every day."

This theme resurfaced in a online article written by Charlie Petit, "No Media Splash: National Research Council says climate change getting worse, we gotta act fast. Again. Not at all the first time. Yawn. Wotta system", Charlie laments on the coverage of the NRC report [link for SkS coverage], America’s Climate Choices:

"Bad enough that much of its contents has been previewed as much as a year ago, with four volumes already published. All this new one says is that that if we don’t do something fast the world as we know it will probably end and the next one won’t be fun. Well, not in so many words, but blah blah blah. One might as well write a report about overpopulation, or the soul-destroying impacts of extreme poverty, or the scientific emptiness of astrology, homeopathy, or a search for Big Foot. True, but not new."



During the same meeting at the AAAS conference, as reported by Ward, this exchange occurred between Elizabeth Shogren (NPR reporter), Kerry Emanual (scientist), and Tom Rosenstiel (Project for Excellence in Journalism):

"You haven’t made your case yet" to policymakers and the public generally, she [Shogren] said, directing her comment at the climate science community, represented at this particular AAAS panel by MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel. "What do you want me to do about it?"

That rhetorical remark prompted a challenge from Emanuel. "No. You haven’t," Emanuel said, prompting a rapid-fire exchange with Shogren, Rosenstiel, and panelist Seth Borenstein, Associated Press science reporter, over the proper roles of the media — and also of climate scientists themselves — in science education.

"If you’re waiting for the press to persuade the public for you, you’re going to lose," Rosenstiel argued, "because the press doesn’t see that as their role."

There are certain rhetorical problems with the exchange that need to be fleshed out before understanding the disconnect.

To further the understanding, I emailed Bud Ward, and as planner and moderator of that board, he elaborated on it:

I can tell you the emphasis, both from Kerry Emanuel and from Tom Rosenstiel, was on the word "You."  As in:
     "No. YOU haven't."
That was not quite so much the emphasis when Elizabeth Shogren of NPR made the initial point ...
     "You haven't made your case yet,"
but it certainly was implicit. And in her
     "what do you want ME to do about it?"
the "me" was if she, and the media generally, certainly could not carry the scientific community's water (evidence) if they themselves were not doing it satisfactorily in the first place. That comment led Kerry to jump in, which in turn led to Rosenstiel's remark.

So do scientsts think it is the media's role to "persuade" the public, as Rosensteil infers?   Or did Emanuel mean that it is the media's role to help the public understand the risk posed by climate change?  

Once again, Bud Ward elaborates, in an email:

"I believe Kerry has a pretty sophisticated understanding of the media, one of the reasons I chose him in particular to participate. So I do not think he thinks it's the job of the media to "persuade," but rather their job to help "educate" the public. I think he was being critical of how well the media generally do their job in terms of informing and educating (a term many media old-timers are not comfortable with, by the way -- they EDUCATE, but they are not EDUCATORS, many point out.)"


Andy Revkin, noted science blogger for the NY Times, suggested during the AAAS meeting:

"[F]or instance, that the scientific community could better reward, rather than seemingly punish, scientists who do effective outreach with the media and the public."

Emanuel answered:

"You touched on a raw nerve" ... "an attitude in our culture: if we’re doing outreach, we’re not in the lab."

Revkin is familiar with this jump from science to advocacy, as evidenced by his story done on Richard C. J. Somerville, "The Road from Climate Science to Climate Advocacy".  The situation is precarious for scientists, and not only from their peers.  As scientist Susan Solomon notes in an email exchange with Revkin:

"If we as scientists go beyond what we know into our personal opinions and values, we begin to engage in the same sort of personal speculation masquerading as authoritative that we dislike when it is done by the skeptics."

The Blame Game


So where so we go from here?  There are clearly roles for both scientists and the media to fill in order to inform the public of the realities of climate change, and risks that are incurred as a result of business-as-usual emissions scenarios.  While several people have filled those roles admirably, there seems to be recognized institutional problems in both the media and science establishments that prevent constant and informative advocacy of climate change risk, and yet, this is what is needed before any movement from the public on legislation, that could be used to curb that risk, can be realized.

This division on ideas has led to the blaming you see at the AAAS meeting, as well as some of the discussion on blogs (linked throughout and below). Nonetheless, since recognizing and moving beyond the issues is expected of those whose roles are considered of supreme importance, the blame game must stop, and issues must be resolved to fit the different challenges that we are subjected to as a result of climate change risk.  

I asked Stephen Leahy, a well-known international science journalist,  a direct question about solutions to this impass between scientists and the media who report on them.  Here is his answer:

"Mutual understanding goes a long way. I did a session in front of 500 ecologists at a conference a few years ago about how media works - deconstructing the process for them. They vented their worst media experiences - some were really awful. I offered advice/tips. No one punched me when it was over.

One of the main things I emphasized is the need for scientists to ask questions before they answer them. Who is the reporter, what have they done, what media etc. Media is not monolithic. In fact it has become extraordinarily diverse making it easy for fakers, pretenders, disinformers to operate with impunity.

I've had lots of science training, workshops etc - way more than any scientist has had or needs about media. But few journalists have."
He also has advise for the reading public, with his Global Warming BS Detector.

Jonathan Gilligan, a physical scientist, who has taken his specialization into environmental policy, has other ideas, which include stepping outside the traditional roles of journalism.

"A viral community-education project (an expert educates a group; each member goes and starts a new group, which he or she leads until everyone learns enough to become a leader him or herself, and so on with exponential growth) might be a very practical model for getting information out on technical subjects more effectively than journalism can do. Think creatively and outside the list of familiar and comfortable institutions and technologies."

Whatever the solution is to the problem of the public being largely out of sync with expert scientists on climate change, I believe more of these panels that interface the production and dissemination of scientific findings should become a staple of the discourse on climate science communication.

There are capacities in the education and warning of public risk that need to be filled by appropriate citizens in order to have functional democracy.  As the famous diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kofi Annan said:

"If information and knowledge are central to democracy, they are the conditions for development."

More to the point, Ben Franklin:

"It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins."

And Thomas Jefferson, simply:

"Information is the currency of democracy."


[link] "AAAS Media/Science Panel Highlights Differences Distinguishing Science and Journalism"  Bud Ward

[link] "No Media Splash: National Research Council says climate change getting worse, we gotta act fast. Again. Not at all the first time. Yawn. Wotta system." Charlie Petit

[link] "Why It's Called News" Keith Kloor

[link] "Tuning Out the Latest NAS Report is Misguided" Keith Kloor

[link] "The Road from Climate Science to Climate Advocacy" Andy Revkin

[link] "Who Should Be the Climate Persuaders" Keith Kloor

[link] "Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change" 

And Special thanks to Bud Ward for corresponding with me through email to give this piece proper context

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Comments 1 to 23:

  1. Journalist Ross Gelbspan writes: "Given the dramatic increase of extreme weather events – you would think that journalists, in covering these stories, would include the line: "Scientists associate this pattern of violent weather with global warming." They don’t." "A few years ago I asked a top editor at CNN why, given the increasing proportion of news budgets dedicated to extreme weather, they did not make this connection. He told me, "We did. Once." But it triggered a barrage of complaints from oil companies and automakers who threatened to withdraw all their ads from CNN if the network continued to connect weather extremes to global warming. Basically the industry intimidated CNN into dropping the one connection to which the average viewer could most easily relate."
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  2. grypo: thanks for an interesting article. It does help put into context the sometimes frustrating lack of "news" in the mainstream media about climate change. rpauli: that anecdote suggests that 'news' organisations in the US have stopped undertaking journalism, and are well and truly 'owned' by their advertisers. To hear that even an organisation such as CNN was cowed by the fossil fuel interests is depressing. I wonder what the response would have been if the management at CNN had been less focussed on short-term profits, and had stood up for journalistic integrity?
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  3. "because the press doesn’t see that as their role" - journalists have some other planet to go to? This one's fate of no concern of their's? Anyway, it is nonsense, they will run campaigns on anything that suits them. Climate change doesn't.
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  4. There is no trusted word for the public so no knows who beleive about what as all general information resources give bias representation. Can there even be a trusted nowadays?
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  5. Re. DH@3 Campaigns that suit them? Funny, I thought they were supposed to report news. Oops, nope, they have personal opinions and use their 'power' to project it.
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  6. Related: Science communication: Who is responsible (for its failing)?
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    Moderator Response: [grypo] Thanks Bart. I recommend this to everyone interested in this subject.
  7. US Public understanding: I have heard on Australian Public radio that there is a huge underclass of Americans trapped in poverty - the working poor. At the base of this is the US education system funded by local authorities - poor neighbourhood, poor education. Why are so many Americans religious? Same answer. Consequently with a poor educational system, you cant expect people to understand even the fundamentals of global warming - they probably don't even know what CO2 is. Role of Journalists: Similar problem - In Australia at least, journalists are wall-to-wall humanities graduates. You wouldn't believe the naive bloopers that come out on public and commercial radio from the mouths of out arts graduated journalists - the newspapers are just as bad. But we do have the world's best science program - the ABC Science Show. Sadly, 90% of Australians, probably better educated than the US lot, aren't that interested in science to tune in. Secondly, the (commercial) media makes money from controversy. It is not in their interest to either educate or state the facts - even if they understood the facts.
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  8. Rpauli, I think the reason that journalists do not include that line is because most scientists don't. While a change in climate will result in a change in weather patterns, extreme weather events (if indeed there is a rise) will not necessarily result. Also, the phrase once bite twice cautious may apply following the claims that hurricane seasons like 2005 will be the norm in a warming world. Five seasons later made those people look foolish, so that scientist are refraining from making such claims (without a scientist to quote, most journalists will back off). The current La Nina has been getting most of the blame (and press) for the recent outburts in the U.S. If adelady is reading, she may relate this to the flooding in Australia. I haven't watched CNN in years due to extreme bias in their reporting, although I am not sure that all the networks do not have biases. If am actually surprised that 45% knew that CO2 trapped heat considering that in one survey 47% could not find India on a map.
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  9. Eli Rabbett had a special post to blame reporters on this. I prefer the message of grypo's post here, at least the way I understood it: the blame game is futile. It's everyone's job to get the truth out. Good science reporters would help, outspoken scientists would help, informed citizens would help too. I wonder what all this would look like as seen from 2050.
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  10. @9 Alexandre It will look exactly like the attacks on Jewish Physics in the 1920s and 30s. Albert Einstein said it best: This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation. Albert Einstein, 1920
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  11. Eric, the big problem for relating climate events in Australia to climate change lies with the concept expressed so neatly in a famous poem, the land of "droughts and flooding rains". The simple fact is that we've had much, much more of both than historical averages. Lake Eyre has filled 3 years in a row, that's unheard of. The first time it filled there were huge contingents of people who went to see the water and the wildlife because they never expected to see it again in their lifetimes. Now it's almost expected as an annual event. As for smarts. Just try getting people to explain why we have seasons. There's a very good reason why old-fashioned classrooms had a globe on the shelf. It's not just for the geography of the continents. It's a constant image of axial tilt. Add atmosphere and hey, presto! we have a liveable climate with identifiable growing seasons in the temperate zones and a couple of nice neat icecaps at the poles to provide much needed albedo.
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  12. RobH: Ugh. Bad logic. All humanities graduates are not journalists. Indeed, few are. I work in the humanities, and I've encountered probably five students in the last five years who aren't concerned about/don't believe the warming planet. Many of the students who are concerned couldn't explain the physics of radiative transfer (they'd think that GHGs "trap" "heat" rather than lengthening the path of OLR), but then 95% of the students in general at my university couldn't explain the physics, and this is a highly-selective university. "You wouldn't believe the naive bloopers that come out on public and commercial radio from the mouths of out arts graduated journalists - the newspapers are just as bad." I would believe, but you wouldn't believe how many smart journalism graduates I know who don't have jobs in journalism. Question: does Fox News hire the best journalists? Does CNN? Do the major media outlets publish the best in investigative journalism? Was CNN focused on Mel Bloody Gibson the other night while a massive tornado mowed down Joplin, MO (USA)? Media owners, their editors, and their managers are much more to blame than even their selected journalists for what gets published and what gets hyped. "Sadly, 90% of Australians, probably better educated than the US lot, aren't that interested in science to tune in." Everyone in the U.S. is interested in science, but many are only to the extent that either A) the results coincide with their existing beliefs, B) the results are sensational but not threatening (robots connected to Facebook but not robots that take your job), or C) the results can be used to generate profit. No one wants to hear that their way of life is responsible for the destruction of their way of life. For most people, science is an explanation for things that already are or have been. Science cannot explain to people what those people have not yet experienced. These people will have to experience global warming. After all, how much energy and time does it take to convince people that a particular God exists? Even after 15-20 years of daily teaching during the most impressionable time, there is still doubt--and often rejection. Why? No direct evidence/experience for the theory, and plenty of evidence/experience against. My lower middle-class, hard-working mother-in-law, when confronted with the idea of a warmer future, will say "it doesn't feel warmer to me." No evidence. We can teach students to think critically about the information they encounter--teach them to understand the experience and evidence of others--, but we can't teach them to have the time to process the information to the degree that it needs to be processed over the course of their lives (and certainly my mother-in-law does not have the time to explore the evidential basis of AGW). For the past fifty years and for the foreseeable future, people have had to--and will have to--choose how to spend their time thinking about the world. The complexity of the modern world descends upon us like a giant blanket, threatening to suffocate, and we flop about trying to find an edge--some place to catch a breath and make sense out of things. If we had enough leisure time to engage in lifelong education, we would, but we don't. Most of the people in this world at this time are trying to keep jobs within an economic mode that only demands more and more of their time and energy. Are they stupid? When time becomes available, basic de-stressing is needed (not heaping more stress by trying to find out where the world is headed). The people who do regularly have the time (including students, business owners, well-paid managers, and professional educators (excepting K-12)) are mostly dependent in a variety of ways on the people who don't have the time, and so they, the former, are interested in keeping the latter in their current positions. Solution: fundamental change. Probability that solution will be self-authorized: .01%. Probability that solution will be forced: 99.99%. Percentage of people who will kick and scream in resistance to the change: 25%. Percentage of current world wealth these people control: 95%. By the way, I'd love to see an analysis of the economic positions of the people who post to the major climate blogs. Ugh. Huge post.
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  13. There's another dimension to the issue -- the role of envornmental organizations in communicating the "urgency of now." This dimension is addressed head-on in "Americans Tuning Out Climate Change", a well-written and informative article by D.R. Tucker posted on FrumForum (May 22). "According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans are less concerned about climate change than in the past. Has the environmental movement dropped the ball on keeping the issue in the public eye?"
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  14. Badgersouth, I do not think the environmental movement has dropped anything with regards to global warming issues. Personally, I think the past two cold, snowy winters have made an impression. People are fickle, have short memories, and react instinctively. During the next major heat wave the issue will be front and center.
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  15. Thanks, all. Sadly, it would seem that there is little money to be made in saving the planet. (Reading that bit about fossil fuel interests cowing CNN was disheartening. DSL, yeah, I guess Mel sells more copy than a town in the US Midwest, which happens to be near me. Who really cares about Mel's, or Tiger's escapades or how many kids Kate has. CNN let go all of it's science staff some time ago; I've lost interest in watching it since then.) Scientists get paid to do research, and reporters get paid to sell stories. IMHO, the reporters and the scientists are not at fault any more than industrial society at large. Poor education is a problem, but it always has been. That doesn't really matter; in the end, humans are not thinking creatures that feel, we are feeling creatures that think. Denial is a powerful psychological tool for dealing with difficult situations; it enables a soldier to charge into battle and in general, enables us to carry on with life when bad things happen around us. Collectively though, it is preventing action when action is needed. There is a minority of people with vision that can see the climate change catastrophe coming and do something about it, but my guess is that the majority just want to carry on with their lives. They won't buy news stories telling them things they don't want to hear until something bad happens to them personally. Unfortunately, by then, we will all be committed to worse. I don't know what can be done except to continue to talk to those that will listen, and try to relate the change to something that they care about. Honestly, I don't know that most people in industrialised nations care about polar bears or the millions in Bangladesh. Food supply and national security issues sometimes strike a cord. Something in our ancestry must predispose us to worry about food and security. :-/
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  16. Who needs journalists anyway? They are redundant - remnants of a former age when the sources of information were scarce and the distribution networks centralised. If "science" journalism ever existed, which I doubt, it is rapidly dying. This provides the opportunity for scientists to clearly present the essence of their work directly to the public via the new decentralised distribution networks. Academic scientists are well suited for this because they deal with students on a day to day basis.
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  17. Mike, In a world where everyone understood basic physics, chemistry, statistics, etc., that would work. But, there is such a huge gulf between what the average person can understand and what seems trivial to someone who has spent a life as a researcher, that your suggestion simply won't work. Take the "AGW violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics" meme; the average person has no idea what the 2nd law is, and some that do know what it is misunderstand it in a way that is almost beyond comprehension for someone at the researcher level of understanding. You can't expect researchers to cover the material from Stefan-Boltzmann to PV=nRT, etc., in every article they write. The information is out there and available, but you can only lead a horse to water, and sometimes they are unwilling to go that far.
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  18. Mike Palin@16 Having worked at a university I can assure you that good communication skills are not a requirement for faculty positions. Someone with a good grasp of the science and the skill to make complex topics understandable and engaging is an invaluable asset. The world needs more Don Herberts. Prof Farnsworth: "Please, Fry! I don't know how to teach. I'm a professor!"
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  19. Chris G @ 17- Perhaps, but is a science journalist going to solve this problem? Among other things, my colleagues and I teach geology to first year university students. Earth science is not taught in high schools, yet we do just fine. pbjamm @ 19- I have studied & worked at 8 colleges and universities and can assure you that they are home to many excellent communicators (as well as many not so gifted). I have also been interviewed by journalists - none have impressed me with their communication skills either during the interview or in the final product. I am confident there are many more excellent communicator scientists than there are science journalists. My basic point is that journalism in the traditional sense is dying as access to and distribution of information is changing. The time is right for scientists (and their professional associations) to take the opportunities this affords. Not all their efforts will succeed, but the best will make the old ways look lame.
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  20. How the new online media landscape is changing the way the public gets its news is also another dimension about how climate science is communicated. This issue is thoroughly explored in the in-depth article, "Online media is replacing newspapers and TV. Is that a bad thing?" posted (May 13) on the Christian Science Monitor website.
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    [DB] Hot-linked URL.

  21. Mike Palin may have a point, not because Journalists no longer have a valuable role to play, but because they are no longer willing to play their role. So long as the primary role of a journalist is seen as selling copy, rather than informing, they are an impediment to public understanding of any issue, not just global warming.
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  22. ROBH @ 8 I don't even know where to start with your post. You "heard on Australian Public radio" about the status of the poor in America and now you are an expert!?!? Public education is funded on the state level, not by local authorities. Deficiencies in education typically result from rural areas where a majority of families do not place a value on education. And, are you implying that religion a bad thing? America's education system is not poor. My wife teaches in a rural community and I can assure you that everyone has heard of global warming and certainly know what CO2 is. Now if you want an essay on how many CARE about global warming, then you might have a story.
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  23. VOA @ 23- Hmm, you sure about funding of primary and secondary education from the state level? Might want to check those numbers again. It varies from state to state, but on average state governments put in 46%, local school districts another 37% and the difference comes from federal and private sources ( As a result, the resources available to local school districts can vary substantially even within a given city or county.
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