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Imbalance in US TV Media Coverage of Greenhouse Gas Regulation

Posted on 9 June 2011 by dana1981

As Skeptical Science readers are well aware, there is a scientific consensus that human greenhouse gas emissions are causing dangerous global warming.  The Australian Climate Commission recently concluded that we need to limit global human CO2 emissions to no more than 1 trillion tons between 2000 and 2050, which requires that we take immediate steps to significantly reduce our emissions.  Scientists generally don't offer advice as to how we should achieve the necessary carbon emissions reductions, but in its recent report, America's Climate Choices, the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that a price on carbon emissions would be the most effective way to achieve significant emissions cuts while minimizing the impact on the economy.  There is also a consensus amongst economists with expertise on climate change that the US should commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 1), and that doing so will be beneficial for the economy.

should US reduce emissions


Figure 1: 2009 NYU climate economist survey results when asked under what circumstances the USA should reduce its emissions

On top of all that, polls have consistently shown that over 70% of the US public supports US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation of greenhouse gases (i.e. here, here, and here).  Polls also showed that a majority of Americans supported the proposed carbon cap and trade system (i.e. here, here, and here) before it was blocked by the Senate in 2009.

Media Misrepresentation

Unfortunately, those who rely on the US television media for their information may be unaware of the widespread consensus in favor of regulating and/or pricing carbon emissions.  A new Media Matters report analyzed television news guests who discussed the EPA's role in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from December 2009 through April 2011 on the major US news networks: Fox News (FNC), Fox Business Network (FBN), MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, and on the nightly and/or Sunday news programs of ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox Broadcasting Co.

The results of this analysis are rather disturbing.  During the period in question, 199 guests on the analyzed networks discussed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases.  152 of these (over 76%) opposed the regulations, 35 (less than 18%) supported them, and 12 (6%) were neutral (Figure 2).

media matters

Figure 2: Media Matters survey results

As Figure 2 also illustrates, the guests were predominantly interviewed on three networks: FBN (39%), FNC (32%), and CNBC (15%).  83% of the guests on FBN, 81% on FNC, and 72% on CNBC opposed EPA greenhouse gas regulations.  MSNBC was the network to most accurately reflect the consensus support for emissions controls (80% in favor), but only interviewed 13% as many guests on the subject as FBN.  Note however that this analysis excludes news stories which did not include interviews.

Lack of Climate Experts

Another piece of disturbing information to emerge from the Media Matters report: of the 199 guest interviews on these network news programs, only two might be classified as interviews with climate scientists.  In both cases, FNC interviewed Patrick Michaels, a long-time "skeptic" who works for the right-wing think tank Cato Institute.  Michaels gained some degree of fame by erasing Scenarios B and C from Hansen et al. (1988) in his testimony to US Congress in order to misrepresent the study's results – hardly the lone scientist who should be representing the entire climate science community in these TV network interviews.

Elected Officials

Of the remaining network guests, 35 were elected officials.  30 of these were Republicans (who almost universally oppose carbon regulations), and an additional two were very moderate Democrats (then-Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana and then-Governor Joe Manchin of West Virginia) who also oppose carbon regulations.  All 12 guest elected officials on FBN, all 10 on FNC, and all 8 on CNBC opposed carbon regulations.  MSNBC was again the lone network to accurately represent the prevailing opinion on the issue, with 3 of 4 guest elected officials supporting greenhouse gas regulations.

Advocacy Groups

A further 29 guests were identified as being from "advocacy groups" (i.e. right-wing think tanks like Cato and Heritage Foundation, environmental organizations like Greenpeace and Sierra Club, unions  like United Steelworkers, etc.).  Of these advocacy group guests, in keeping with the previously-discussed statistics, 22 (76%) opposed greenhouse gas regulations, while the remaining 24% were in favor.

Validity of Criticisms

It's worth noting that EPA regulation of greenhouse gases is not the best solution to the climate problem.  It has a larger economic impact than a market-based system like cap and trade, and it's less effective at reducing emissions, and therefore there are valid reasons to oppose it.  However, the US has only implemented greenhouse gas regulations because we have thus far failed to implement a carbon pricing system.  The people who oppose EPA regulation tend to be the same people who blocked the proposed carbon cap and trade system.  So while there are valid reasons to criticize EPA regulations as a suboptimal solution, the problem is that most of those who oppose it oppose all solutions.  In short, there's nothing wrong with opposing EPA greenhouse gas regulations, if you propose a better alternative.  Inaction, which is the goal of most of these critics, is not an option. 

Manufactured Controversy

In short, a vast majority of climate scientists, economists with climate expertise, and the US public in general support carbon pricing and/or regulation.  And yet the vast majority of guests on US TV network discussions of carbon regulations have opposed them.  This represents a major failure of the US media to accurately represent both expert and public opinion in its newscasts.  Instead, the media seems to be creating a manufactured controversy by creating the illusion of widespread opposition to greenhouse gas emissions limits.

Before we lay all of the blame on Fox, while the network and its affiliates are responsible for a large proportion of the imbalance in question, there also appears to be a failure amongst other networks to adequately cover the subject.  For example, CNN – which strives to be the neutral voice between conservative Fox News and liberal MSNBC – only interviewed four guests on the subject during the period in review, three of which opposed the regulations.  The problem is both over-representation of the "skeptics", and under-representation of those supporting the proposed climate solutions, and especially an under-representation of climate experts (both scientific and economic).

We urge the media to both stop manufacturing controversy, and adequately and accurately cover this critical issue.  The only way our populace can make good decisions is if they are informed decisions.

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. Kudos to Dana for another inciteful article. Do you suppose Fox News will "run with this story"?
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  2. will Fox run a story on their own extreme bias on climate stories? I'm guessing not :-)
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  3. Dana, your first sentence talks about "dangerous global warming" but the link points to "scientific consensus for global warming". This is not the right thread to argue whether global warming is dangerous, only that the link you chose does not support that claim.
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  4. Eric, it's pretty much a given that global warming is dangerous, the only question is how dangerous.
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  5. Eric (skeptic) @3, to the question:
    "How convinced are you that climate change poses a very serious and dangerous threat to humanity?"
    and given the option of answering 1 to 7, with 1 rated as "Not at all" and 7 rated as "very much", 34.59% of climate scientists answered 7, 27.84% answered 6, and a further 16.49% answered 5, for a total of 78.92% of climate scientists who believe climate change "poses a very serious and dangerous threat". Of the remainder, 10.81% where uncertain (4) and 10.27% think global warming will probably not be "very dangerous". Amongst those, just 2.162% give no credence to any risk from global warming. That is a consensus in any man's language. Note that there is an ambiguity in the question. Does an answer of "4" indicated that you are moderately certain that global warming will be very dangerous, or as I have interpreted, as indicating that you no more think it dangerous than you think it not dangerous. The former is the more natural interpretation, given which the consensus is much stronger than I indicate, but given the possibility of the other interpretation, I have interpreted the results in the weakest way possible. Survey question is question 22 from here.
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  6. The situation you describe is the mirror image of that prevailing in Australia, where media representation of Climate change has been overwhelmingly in the AGW, science is settled vein. The surveys of public opinion show a trend towards scepticism. Media coverage has tended to follow public opinion rather than driving it.
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  7. Thanks Tom for that link. Looking through all of the responses, that question has very clear support for "yes".
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  8. Patrick, "...surveys of public opinion show a trend towards scepticism." Not any more. Check out this SMH report from last Friday.
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    [dana1981] Good news there!

  9. "It's worth noting that EPA regulation of greenhouse gases is not the best solution to the climate problem." I don't understand why this is stated as a fact. Regulations worked very well for NOx and CO emissions. I personally like the idea that when something is known to be bad, people are simply not allowed to do that thing. The market should work well to find the lowest cost alternatives.
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    [dana1981] I subsequently explained, EPA regs are harder on the economy and less effective at reducing emissions (at least the currently planned regulations) than a carbon pricing mechanism.  A pricing mechanism gives the market more incentive to find low-cost alternatives.  There's more of a financial motivation.

  10. But, but, but we are TOLD there is a main stream/leftist news media conspiracy to delude "We the Sheeple"! Surely it can't be the case that the deniers are selectively choosing the uninformed to pontificate on climate change? Surely there is an arsenal of well trained, professionals with a consistent theory that disproves AGW? Why else would there be all of this self-rightous protest of making a relatively minor change to how we price carbon to protect the future of humanity on earth? The skeptics must have VAST stockpiles of peer-reviewed papers and a complete, logical, intellectually satisfying alternate explanation that we just haven't seen yet. I'll turn on FOX - I am sure it will be here any day now.
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  11. "I subsequently explained, EPA regs are harder on the economy and less effective at reducing emissions (at least the currently planned regulations) than a carbon pricing mechanism. A pricing mechanism gives the market more incentive to find low-cost alternatives. There's more of a financial motivation." Why would there not be a financial incentive to provide people with alternatives to the services fossil fuels provided as fossil fuels are regulated out? Why would people not choose the lowest cost solutions? I don't see the logic. You have made statements of fact without logical or data-driven arguments to support them.
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    [dana1981] I said there's less of a motivation with regs, not no motivation.  With regulations, polluters just have to stay below a certain emissions threshold.  There's no incentive for them to go lower.  In a market system like cap and trade or carbon tax, they can profit from reducing emissions even further.  Plus in those systems, revenue is generated through the carbon price, some of which is then funneled into low-carbon tech R&D.  So there's both more motivation and more opportunity to create low carbon technologies with a carbon pricing system than with carbon regulations.

  12. The American Media has basically been told 'what to say' about AGW by the powerfully rich fossil fuel companies and the Koch Industries. Anyone who thinks there is a free and open press and media in the USA is lost in a dream world OF make believe- there is none. When the problems of AGW become so severe- the prostitutes of the the US media will be as responsible as the fossil fuel and energy titans.
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  13. pdt - I think the general public perception of a market forces solution like a carbon tax, compared to the "heavy hand of government" is more favorable. There are loud voices that protest both, but many economists have pointed out that letting millions of individuals maximize their own economic well being is a more powerful force than banning the burning of carbon fuels by fiat. And I think the first reaction to any carbon reduction strategy is that people are going to increase what they burn - wood, car tires, furniture that isn't bolted down - there WILL be unintended consequences, but overall we need the reduction as soon as possible, and just burning stuff won't be a viable long term strategy.
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  14. @6 Patrick Kelly I don't think you are living in the same Australia as the rest of us. The media, in particular Murdoch's News Corp, has been virulently anti-AGW and anti-Carbon Tax. Even dear old Auntie shows a strong bias against AGW, with their "The Drum" opinion section almost becoming the publishing arm of the IPA.
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  15. I caught a few moments of a show on PBS radio the other day. There was a panel of news media people, who were discussing the media's role in reporting on climate change. They were all making the excuse that since it has become a political issue, they have to cover it as such. Hogwash of course. Maybe NPR would do another show to set the record straight? At the very least they should be made aware that it wasn't appreciated.
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  16. "[dana1981] I said there's less of a motivation with regs, not no motivation. With regulations, polluters just have to stay below a certain emissions threshold. There's no incentive for them to go lower. In a market system like cap and trade or carbon tax, they can profit from reducing emissions even further." I don't see the logic here either. In cap and trade and straight regulations there would be a cap. The whole idea of cap and trade is that there is a cap, which will effectively set the price of carbon based on the difference between carbon technologies and non-carbon technologies. A carbon tax is a straight pricing scheme. Regulations would essentially be like cap and trade without the trade part. If emissions should be lower, we would tighten the regulations, just like what has been done for NOx and CO from cars (and now soot from diesel engines). In the U.S., we have a cap and trade system for NOx from power plants, I'm guessing we are emitting at the cap. What motivation is there to go below the cap in that system? "Plus in those systems, revenue is generated through the carbon price, some of which is then funneled into low-carbon tech R&D. So there's both more motivation and more opportunity to create low carbon technologies with a carbon pricing system than with carbon regulations." R&D will be done in areas where people see opportunity. If regulations are enacted, R&D will follow because there will be a market for new technologies. I work for a company that spends a substantial amount of money on R&D for that very reason. Regulations have been demonstrated to work well. I still don't see the great benefit of cap and trade or carbon taxes.
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  17. I'm not sure if anyone reads this or even cares, but I just read the book "Earth: the Sequel" which strongly argues for Cap-and-Trade. This made me consider this more deeply and answer some of my own questions, stated above. There are some very big differences between regulations for CO/NOx/soot from vehicles and regulation of CO2 which I think make Cap-and-Trade a better solution than straight regulation. The most obvious is that fossil CO2 emissions come from a wider array of sources, some of which have a very long lifetime. For NOX/CO/soot, regulations are put in place and the vehicle fleet essentially turns over in 10 years, solving the problem. Regulations for CO2 would be much more complex to implement in order to be effective. Still, the effectiveness of Cap-and-Trade will depend greatly on the details of implementation. It also will not come without downsides, such as speculation in the carbon markets causing uncertainties in prices. We have been reminded rather brutally recently of the issues with markets. So far I haven't heard of a better solution though.
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