Last week, Ron Rosenbaum published a call for greater journalistic coverage of scientific dissent on global warming. Journalists covering climate change find an overwhelming consensus among the scientific community that mankind's release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the last century will cause dramatic changes in the Earth's climate. If true, this consensus seems to call for a substantial policy response. To Rosenbaum, the scale of the costs attendant upon dealing with global warming justifies granting a heightened profile to those who dispute the factual basis for the scientific consensus.
Most of our readers found Rosenbaum's argument unpersuasive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of Fraysters support marginalizing the fringe voices in the climate-change debate. Many posters wonder along with brucewhite where to draw the line between legitimate dissent and crackpot theory:
I admire Ron Rosenbaum as a writer but wonder if this matter is as simple as he paints it. There are sceptics everywhere but do we want to relitigate everything all the time unless serious new evidence comes to light? Evolution? Alien visitors? The intervention of demonic forces? Holocaust denial?
I'm not arguing that there is no possibility of a good case to be made against anthropogenic global warming but most of the scepticism one reads is pretty low level and not much of it emanates from climate scientists. If we are to inhabit a world shaped to such a degree by the fruits of science we need to give scientists some credit when they present us with inconvenient truths. In fact we rely on a huge amount of consensus for our global society to function—this doesn't mean that other voices shouldn't be heard, but journalists do have the right not to accord them all equal respect.
New York Times science writer, Andrew Revkin, writes in to challenge Ron Rosenbaum's use of his blogroll to bolster a climate-change skeptic's credibility:
I wish Ron Rosenbaum had explored my Dot Earth posts and Times articles on how best to cover climate science as well as my blogroll. Then he might have realized that Nick Lemann's admonition to "find the argument" is only one of the vital steps required to effectively communicate a complex subject.
An equally important step is to place the areas of ongoing scientific dispute within the broader context of what is not in dispute. If that step is not taken in a story, the lure of conflict can mask the broader reality, and perpetuate policy stasis.
So, yes, "find the argument." But then also "find the agreement" as well. It's not as sexy, but it may be the only way journalism can help society absorb that climate science has a herky-jerky trajectory, that some uncertainty is normal, but that a growing human influence on the planet's thermostat is not in dispute.
Another step is to discriminate between scientific and policy arguments. High-profile skeptics on climate have a hodegepodge of views on the science, but are bound by a common stance that restricting greenhouse gases is a waste of resources. On a science development, I don't seek input from policy advocates, whether from Greenpeace or the Cato Institute. On a policy story, everyone's invited.
To auros, debating the factual basis for believing in global warming is a sideshow to the policy argument we should be having.
I understand the CJR author's point, while disagreeing with some of her methods. I think Ron gets it too, as he recognizes that if the consensus is right, and global warming poses a serious peril to civilization, then anything that tells the voters that such peril doesn't exist will tend to slow down action to address it. Personally, I think of the situation more as deciding how much insurance to buy. You don't buy homeowner's insurance because you believe your house is definitely going to burn down. You buy insurance because it might burn down. If the best available science says there's a 1% chance of catastrophic climate change, the kind that sinks New York, Miami, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Boston under several meters of seawater—well, how much are you willing to pay for insurance against that risk? Is 0.1% of GDP unreasonable? 1%? 10%?
Given that there are also a bunch of non-global-warming-related disadvantages to our current energy system, I'd vote for devoting a significant chunk of GDP to dealing with this situation. Maybe not 10%, at least not immediately—trying to transition the economy that fast would cause a lot of dislocation and unnecessary pain. But a percentage point or two? Sure.
One of the most interesting replies came from Arlington, who sees parallels between our reaction to the bad news of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and today's response to global warming:
There are parallels to instruct us. When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, she was attacked by debunkers who sounded like those now objecting to the global warming consensus. Some of it was very personal and mean, impugning her sanity and her sexuality, if you can believe it. Fortunately, most honest scientists recognized Carson was calling attention to a real crisis, something that was actually happening and could be documented, even though they realized Carson's appeal was largely emotional and scientifically flawed. The result was the DDT ban, which saved the bald eagle, among many other species, from extinction.
But Carson's detractors are sore losers. Now that the bald eagle is no longer threatened with extinction, the debunkers say the whole thing was a manufactured crisis in the first place and would have taken care of itself. There was no reason to ban DDT, they claim, and doing so promoted worldwide famine and caused malaria deaths by the millions. Carson was the devil.
And journalists hopped on the bandwagon. They reproduced accusations that Carson was responsible for more deaths than Hitler. They researched their articles by lifting quotes from authors who contribute to organizations like junkscience.com and others who insist that science should direct itself at the goal of making life easier, safer and more comfortable for a consumerist society. This was all very convenient, since Carson was long dead and the problem she identified had been effectively addressed by regulation and enforcement. And it sold newspapers.
This is the point of the CJR article. Go ahead and promote your byline. Sell your papers. Advance your career. Just don't forget you owe your readers something of the truth. Journalistic ethics require discriminating between various sources of information. Some sources should be used with skepticism and some should not be used at all. It's difficult to determine the difference, particularly when the writer doesn't have the scientific background to draw a clear line. Conveying the truth involves more than presented the reader with John said this and Mary said that. Who is John? Who is Mary? Where do they get their funding and support? What do their peers say about them? Not everyone who challenges scientific consensus is a martyr.
There are many more great posts in the Spectator Fray. Check them out and share your thoughts. GA … 2:18 p.m. PDT