NYT discusses politics of global warming, ignores facts

October 21, 2010 • 6:00 pm

A front-page article in today’s New York Times discusses the strong tendency of Tea Party members to deny the existence of global warming. The statistics are pretty alarming: while 49% of American see global warming as an environmental problem that is currently affecting the world, only 14% of Tea Party supporters feel this way.  And, of course, there’s the effect of religion (Tea Partiers are often allied with conservative Christianity):

“It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.” . .

“They’re trying to use global warming against the people,” Ms. Deaton said. “It takes away our liberty.”

“Being a strong Christian,” she added, “I cannot help but believe the Lord placed a lot of minerals in our country and it’s not there to destroy us.”

It’s a pretty good piece, and goes on to describe the unholy efforts of the oil and gas industries to combat global-warming legislation, as well as the strong tendency of Republicans to also deny there’s an issue (“Of the 20 Republican Senate candidates in contested races, 19 question the science of global warming and oppose any comprehensive legislation to deal with it, according to a National Journal survey.”)

But the piece is missing something. Nowhere in its contents will you find any indication of what the facts are. If Tea Partiers are denying a scientific contention, what’s the evidence that that contention is true?

It seems to me that presenting an article about the politics of what is really a scientific controversy demand at the minimum that the scientific consensus be describe. It’s like writing an article about how Tea Party and Republican candidates deny evolution without stating that evolution is a scientific fact.  Would it be too hard for the Times to add one sentence saying that “a large majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is a serious problem that’s affecting our environment now”?

43 thoughts on “NYT discusses politics of global warming, ignores facts

  1. The Richard Mellon Scaife brigade is quite proud. We can thank the George C. Marshall Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the CATO Institute as well.

    Thanks a lot!

  2. You’ve heard of “teach the controversy”? Well mainstream journalism has in recent years adopted the philosophy of “report the controversy.” It’s easier. And it saves you the headache of being accused of “bias” by the huge percentage of people who are divorced from objective reality.

  3. True enough, the Times owes its readers a fuller recapitulation of the prevalent view among responsible scientists, and yet the second the third graphs of the piece read:

    >>> It will create jobs in Indiana, reduce foreign oil imports and address global warming, Mr. Hill said at a debate with Todd Young, a novice Republican candidate who is supported by an array of Indiana Tea Party groups and is a climate change skeptic.

    “Climate change is real, and man is causing it,” Mr. Hill said, echoing most climate scientists. “That is indisputable. And we have to do something about it.” <<<

    "[E]choing most climate scientists" is a meager assertion, yes, but it is prominent in the piece.

    1. Agreed, but, as the piece makes clear, the vast majority of both Tea Partiers AND the public agree climate change is real:

      And 8 percent of Tea Party adherents volunteered that they did not believe global warming exists at all, while only 1 percent of other respondents agreed.

      The issue is whether it’s a problem now and needs to be addressed with legislation before serious damage is done. The “consensus of opinion” states only that there is anthropogenically induced climate change, period.

  4. I read an article sometime ago on the Discover magazine, on whether Science journalists should take sides? the question seems very relevant to the discussion here so I’m pasting the link below:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/09/23/should-science-journalists-take-sides/

    In essence, a science journalist should take the side of truth and it is a problem when they try to be objective or neutral – thereby violating this very basic goal. Without communicating the truth, the journalistic piece is only there to stir more controversy among the noise that already is.

  5. The way I see it, denial of climate change is rather inconsequential. Given the steadfast belief that growth is necessary for a healthy economy (from which derives the “grow the economy” mantra of politicians) and given that growing the economy implies a growth in population, any measures that might be employed to reduce carbon emissions will be canceled out by the consequences of population increase.

    1. “growing the economy implies a growth in population, any measures that might be employed to reduce carbon emissions will be canceled out by the consequences of population increase.”

      Is there any data to back that statement or is it a general opinion? It seems overly simplistic to say population increase is the strongest factor for economic growth. Also, if Climate change has extremely adverse effects for basic living necessities in the long term, sacrificing growth a little bit may be the wise idea.

      1. There is some discussion of the issue here. I see carbon emissions as only one of the kinds of pollution that increased population growth will bring. Given that it is it is politically taboo to approach the issue of birth control as a means of slowing growth, I don’t see how we get there. I hope things will change in that regard, but here in the USA, there isn’t just the economic impediment, there is the religious one as well.

        1. Tim Fishman’s new book Shock of Gray isn’t likely to help with any of this if some of his recent interviews and their responses (on NPR no less) are any indication.

    2. If we anticipate a growth in population, and this growth is responsible for increased carbon emissions, doesn’t that increase the need to address the issue of climate change?

      It seems to me that it’s better to employ measures that cancel out the effects of the population growth than to not employ measures and be that much worse off.

      1. GDP growth is a stronger indicator of energy consumption than population growth, although of course population growth is part of what drives GDP growth.

        Basically our economic development is screwing the planet.

  6. As Chris Mooney and others have pointed out, for many people, world-view trumps scientific truths. Unfortunately, most of these folks cannot be convinced by facts alone – as Eugenie Scott says – you can continue to throw science at them but it won’t stick. And as much as many of you disparage accommdationists, I believe that they may have a greater impact on changing the culture than will militant non-accommodationsists.

    1. That’s why everything was going so well before the ‘militant non-accomodationists’ (there’s some framing for you ) showed up.

    2. But I think that if we keep throwing science at them, someone will notice and eventually accept. Just keep repeating the science as it is, until it seems weird to hear it denied.
      I’ve been trying to do this when talking about nature. It’s becoming second nature for me to mention evolution in most converstations on this topic. Instead of saying “it was made that way”, I say “it evolved that way”. A lifetime of hearing the former has now been replaced by the latter in my own thoughts. Too many people pussyfoot around the word evolution and now the term climate change.
      As Greta Christina says in her atheist meme of the day “Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across”.

  7. I have a running disagreement with my PI about the propriety of openly teaching students that climate change is real and the overwhelming source of climatic disruption is anthropogenic. I hold that the data correlating the present rise in atmospheric GHG’s and ambient temps, as well as the increasingly obvious extremes in weather ‘incidents’ is confirmation enough that it is time to move past debate and onto consideration of strategies for abatement. My PI would not disagree with the preceding at all, except that he pulls the same dodge as Dr. Coyne does in the present post– he merely urges that students defer to the judgment of professional climatologists and the attendant scientific consensus to make the case that action is warranted– as if mere sentients cannot judge the evidence for themselves. “I’m not well-read enough in the literature to assert such a claim” he will say, and suggest that students should simply trust the folks in white coats (and some in cowboy boots, but that seems a bit dodgey in itself).

    At what point does one stop trusting students to accept their own capacity for common sense (providing that they are equipped with the basics of temperature dynamics that govern climate on this earth in this specific case) versus saying to them: “Trust them, they’re scientists”?

    1. “Common sense” is an interesting term, because that’s exactly what needs to be doubted in many cases. Especially when dealing with science.
      (I know you qualified this a bit, Arabiflora, but it made me think about perceptions.)
      I’ve been reading Dawkins God Delusion (finally) and have hit the very best part of the book “The Mother of All Burkas”. Our common sense about the universe is based soley on our tiny perspective evolved for us to survive among what is important to us. Sometimes we have to learn to push past our “common sense” to get to the truth. In this case, our common sense tells us that the earth is big and can handle buffer lots of change. That we still have cold winters. Etc. With a little more information, our common sense tells us that climate change is a normal phenomenon of our earth, that it’s been really warm before, etc.

      Unless your students are studying climate science, we can’t expect them to be as fully versed in the science (even then, not so much yet) as those actually working in the field. There is a point that we have to trust the science–maybe not always the scientists individually, but when there’s a consensus…
      Something like “Trust…with evidence”. (Isn’t that just regular old skepticism?)

  8. What I absolutely can’t understand is why the discussion about “accomodationists” vs “confrontationists” never gets past the “moderate religion enables fundamentalists who blow up airplanes” point when it comes to the negative effects of religion. Even people like PZ and Dawkins are guilty of that.

    When Eugenie Scott says “My job is to keep creationism out of schools, not to promote atheism”, she is completely our of touch with reality and with the significance of keeping creationism out of schools. Compared to the really serious negative effects of religion, creationism in schools is a very minor issue.

    And the really serious negative effects of religion is our whole unsustainable course (with climate change, resource depletion and all other sustainability crises we face) we have taken that threatens us with extinction. That is very serious and religion and the “We’re separate from nature and with a special and privileged status in the universe so we can do whatever we want because the rules don’t apply to us” attitude it promotes is the root of it. That’s true even for the softest versions of religion. Anthropocentrism is the real problem and anthropocentrism isn’t going to go away unless religion goes away.

    Why is that not being pointed out all the time by atheists is beyond me. Compared to the magnitude if these problems, whether they teach evolution in Texas is of absolutely no significance, and if we eliminate religion from people’s thinking for the very serious reasons outline above, they will teach evolution in Texas anyway. So why are we so short-sighted?

    1. GM,

      i simply dont accept that religion is in any way a cause of the climate crisis before us.

      Climate change is a result of our species’ ability to manipulate our environment. that behaviour was selected long before religion was cooked up. Unfortunately some sense of long term conservation has not been selected (quite logically, why invest resources in future unborn generations at the expense of the very next generation?)

      I concede that religiosity/conservatism provides a context within which one can deny climate change, but grounds for denial and inaction are markedly different to a real cause.

      And if Eugenie Scott can keep creationism out schools maybe our kids will come to realise this.

      1. First, I talked about a lot more than climate change alone, climate change is only one component of our global sustainability crisis, and not even the most urgent one.

        Second, I have yet to hear someone present a reasonable argument why religion has nothing to do with that. Just saying “i simply dont accept that” doesn’t suffice. Climate change, resource depletion and , ecosystem collapse and everything else are result of unchecked growth of our population and per capita consumption. Of course, those are things that all organisms maximize and they pay the price by collapsing when they overshoot the carrying capacity of the environment. It is different with us because because of the unprecedented power we have to change the environment around us, we can pretty much destroy the whole planet if the overshoot and collapse thing goes down particularly bad. In the same time we also have the unprecedented ability to see that, act accordingly and shrink our footprint.

        Which we aren’t doing because we do not see ourselves as another animal to which the same ecological principles we have observed in nature apply, we see ourselves as a special creation of God which is the sole reason the universe exists. That’s the root of denialism, BTW – people are so deep into this kind of thinking so they choose to ignore the message that threatens it.

        Show me which of the above is not true and why

        1. No one can deny the vast negative effects of religions of various stripes. However, I would say that there are some religious minorities that have contributed a lot of good to the world. Even E.O. Wilson, who is hardly an accomodationist, has recognized that the “softest versions of religion” that espouse care for the environment can be important allies in saving the planet. Quite interestingly, he presented a lecture at Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Northern Indiana, probably because he recognized that many Mennonites have been practicing environmental care for decades.

        2. GM,

          I think in a round-about way you’ve reinforced my thinking.

          You make the case that our environemntal challenges are a result of unchecked population growth and consumption (i acknowledge these causes are complex and varied).

          We completely agree on that.

          My point is that I dont see the connection with religion as a cause. Overconsumption and environmental exploitation isnt confined to “religious” countries.

          I live in a coal mining region in Australia which contributes more than its fair share of GHG’s. And while everybody here acknowledges the fact of climate change/resource depletion, I dont know anyone who thinks its OK on the basis its a God-given right.

          Religion and politcis are the causes of the denial, not the problem itself.

          The reason (in my mind) we dont seem to do anything about it is because its not a behaviour that has been favoured by natural selection (which doesnt make it right)

  9. “Carbon regulation, cap and trade, it’s all just a money-control avenue,” Ms. Khuri added. “Some people say I’m extreme, but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too.”

    Well yes, yes they did.

    1. “Some people say I’m extreme, but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too.”

      And they were right.

    2. There is a very real danger that policy achieves absolutely nothing worthwhile and yet squanders money and other resources. For example, all of Australia’s proposals to date would be colossal wastes of money and we know this because Australia is simply parroting the EU. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme is nothing but bullshit – the office clerks claim it is a success but I don’t personally know a single scientist who agrees and all the data confirms that the EU ETS is a miserable failure. I’m in favor of simple outright taxes, but there needs to be something else in there to encourage change because it would be pretty useless if we all simply paid more due to taxes and yet did nothing.

      I’m also very disappointed in Australia’s greenhouse gas accounting (and other nations likely do the same) – the reports are pretty much 100% spin to say “we’re meeting our Kyoto targets” but the reality is quite different. Unfortunately Nature doesn’t care for politics; so far most political responses I’ve seen which claim to be doing something are really nothing more than Lysenkoism.

  10. A book I read recently (well, actually yesterday) on climate change was “The Climate Fix. What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming” by Roger Pielke.

    He isn’t a global change denialist, but he states that scientists should just state the science of global change (with all its uncertainty) and not try to politicise by ‘sexing’ up the science, by making the projections even worse than they are or attempting to ascribe any natural disaster (such as Katrina) as being a consequence of global warming (it’s impossible to ascribe weather events to long-term climate changes).

    If and when they are caught trying to politicise the science clouds and casts doubt on the science.

    But of course there are other reasons for reducing use of fossil fuels (and decarbonising the economy).

    It’s a given that the world’s population is going to continue to grow (unfortunately). It’s also a given that billions of people will want a better standard of living (currently 1.5 billion don’t even have electricity even). It’s also a given that the reserves of fossil fuels are also finite and will eventually run out.

    I share Roger Pielke’s dislike of ‘cap and trade’.

    The best way is a straight-out carbon tax; whether you use all the proceeds to invest in alternate energy sources (as Roger Pielke favours) or giving all of it back as an equal dividend to all the population who would then have an incentive to reduce their use of fossil fuels, because it’s then money in their pockets (as Jim Henson favours), is a moot point.

    1. Exploring North Carolina had a great show yesterday on climate change specific to NC. They spelled out the science as clearly as I’ve ever seen. They proactively answered some of the denialists claims (without even mentioning “the controversy”). These were scientists talking about the facts. Just like teaching/talking about evolution, climate science just needs to be discussed as it is, without politics.

  11. I agree with everything that Jerry Coyne says, except on one point: I do think that this business would be better spoken of in terms of ‘the science of what is really a political controversy’ and not in terms of ‘the politics of what is really a scientific controversy’ (JC’s words). So far as I can see, there is no genuine scientific controversy here, any more than there is a scientific controversy over the fact of evolution. This is fundamentally a political struggle in which science is being made to play a part. And political struggles have to be won by political means, and this of course involves, among other things, bringing pressure to bear on reporters, editors and others and insisting that, in a case like this, it is the reporter’s responsibility to state what the scientific consensus is. Political struggles are first of all about power and who is going to wield it, and secondarily, I’m afraid, about such things as scienific truth, and I think this needs to be recognised more clearly.

    1. Tim, I should have read your comment before posting my reponse to Wayne above.

      So far as I can see, there is no genuine scientific controversy here, any more than there is a scientific controversy over the fact of evolution.

      Exactly why science reporting shouldn’t be about politics. Just state the facts. Let the pundits discuss the politics of the possible actions.

      1. Yes, and as to the politics of it, who is providing the money and influence to pull the wool over people’s eyes and muddy the issue, nobble politicians who might otherwise act sensibly, and stymie efforts at achieving some kind of agreement on actually doing something? That’s the question that needs to be asked, and it’s a far more important problem than what right-wing know-nothings, filled with Christian fervour and living out in the sticks, think about the matter.

    1. Hmm. Dining by candlelight. The only issue here is that for a fair comparison you have to look at the entire production route for candles vs. lamps and the electricity to power them. The huge comparative expense of burning candles suggests (though it is by no means a guarantee) that burning candles is the more eco-unfriendly option.

  12. From the second paragraph:

    “Climate change is real, and man is causing it,” Mr. Hill said, echoing most climate scientists.

    Maybe this was a late addition (and it certainly could be better phrased), but they are saying that scientists agree that global warming exists.

    1. Huh. That reminded me of that idiot AG of Va:

      “Climate change is real, and Mann is causing it,” Mr. Cuccinelli said.

  13. There are no airplanes in the bible, so airplanes must be a lie. I wonder if the writers have to spend much time looking before they discover some imbecile who believes the bible has anything relevant to say about the world.

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