The recent election campaign brought huge amounts of criticism, disdain and scorn for the so-called ‘main-stream media’ (MSM), split between those with a conspiratorial point of view and others who have (long) complained that the media focuses more on the election as contest rather than discussing policy issues.
Needless to say, part of the problem stems from the public’s love of controversy (Kim Kardashian always gets more clicks than Hillary Clinton), but the complexity of many policy issues has long bedeviled politicians.
Bill Clinton, known as a policy ‘wonk,’ also created the acronym KISS for Keep It Simple, Stupid, while George H. W. Bush, very definitely an intellectual, pioneered the sound bite, that brief comment that could make the nightly news with its short attention span.
Climate change is a perfect example of how the media reduces something complex to “he said, she said” conflict, and discussion of President-elect Trump’s appointees highlight this.
During a recent NPR interview with Christine Whitman, former EPA administrator, about the proposed appointment of Scott Pruitt as the new EPA administrator, she said “He is very definitely a denier of climate change, something that scientists, by and large, overwhelmingly, say is occurring and that humans have a role to play in that.” The interviewer, David Greene of NPR, remarked that the NPR staff had not been able to find any evidence of him denying climate change (wow, they actually did research!), which fact Whitman waved off.
The next day, there was the reverse. Former Secretary Abraham remarked, “At this point, no one has the categorical answer to the question of how fast the climate’s changing and when we’re going to face consequences from that.” David Greene, oddly, remarked, “I mean, there are a lot of people out there who feel the science is absolutely settled, that humans are causing the climate to change.” Although he then qualified it with, “there are a lot of questions to be answered as time goes on….”
Abraham’s response to whether or not he ‘believed in climate change science’ was “I believe that the climate is changing. I believe that it is likely that humans are playing a role in that. How fast it’s changing is the main issue I think that we have to deduce now.” To reiterate, this is not climate change denialism, but the media seems to have trouble moving beyond that.
There are many aspects of climate change science which are very important, but hardly discussed by the media. This is worsened by advocacy groups and websites, which often reduce every question to belief vs denial of anthropomorphic climate change, saying skeptics are like those who don’t believe in evolution. This is bizarre, since there are numerous debates about evolution, not questioning the underlying science itself but many aspects of it, without being called ‘denialist’. Nor does anyone think that we can predict the next 50 million years of evolution despite having a good understanding of the last 50 million years.
Yes, those like Senator Imhofe who call climate change a “hoax” are denialists, just like many conspiracy theorists who deny the moon landings, for example. But applying the ‘denialist’ label to everyone who says parts of the science aren’t settled is the sort of approach taken by religious fundamentalists like the Catholic Church during the Enlightenment, suppressing discussion of scientific theories.
Most mainstream scientists seem to have no problem with acknowledging the uncertainties surrounding climate change science, including the IPCC. Take this statement from their recent report: “It is extremely likely that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.” “More than half” is better than less than half, but it’s not the same as saying the science is ‘absolutely settled’. Again, the focus in the media is on whether or not climate change is being caused by people, when the discussion should be on issues like radiative forcing and feedback effects.
Using the Search Engine Who Shall Not Be Named, looking at news in the last 3 months for radiative forcing turns up about 100 hits, mostly small papers (Firstpost, apparently Indian), science web sites (phys.org) and environmental organizations, but except for PBS and CNBC, no major media seems to have covered the question. This is a question of primary importance and there is some uncertainty, to say nothing of that revolving around feedback effects.