Climate Activists: Giving Skeptics Media Coverage Is ‘Dangerous’ For the Planet

Patrick Goodenough | August 19, 2019 | 4:24am EDT
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Climate activists rally in New York. (Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

( – Citing a new study arguing that the media give too much prominence to climate skeptics in their coverage of climate issues, a group advocating for governments to declare a climate “emergency” says those responsible for such editorial decisions are “sacrificing the future of our planet for the sake of appearing objective.”

“This idea of equating climate deniers with scientific experts is a dangerous practice which frames the threat to our planet, our existence as an ongoing debate,” said Margaret Klein Salamon, founder and executive director of the New York-based The Climate Mobilization (TCM).

“I don’t think sacrificing the future of our planet in exchange for a look of ‘objectivity’ is an even exchange,” she added in a statement. “It’s one the coming generation will judge us on, if we don’t move with the urgency necessary to fight back against global warming and win.”

TCM is a group dedicated to what it calls a “World War II-scale mobilization to restore a safe climate.”

It played an “advisory role” in a resolution announced last month by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) calling on the U.S. House and Senate to symbolically declare a “climate emergency.”

Around the world, activists are campaigning to have local and national governments declare climate “emergencies” in their areas. The step has now been taken by more the 950 jurisdictions in 18 countries – including the U.S. where Hoboken, N.J. was the first city in the nation to do so, in November 2017, and the New York City Council in June became the largest to join the list..

Those who raise questions about man-made global warming are labeled “contrarians” in a study by three academics at the University of California Merced, published in the journal Nature Communications this month.

It argues that U.S. media outlets give too much prominence to climate skeptics in a bid for “balance,” and in so doing give them and their views legitimacy which they don’t deserve

The academics collected data on 200,000 scientific articles and 100,000 media articles on climate change, and found that in mainstream media reports, climate skeptics get roughly the same amount of media visibility as those who align themselves with the dogma. (The researchers use the abbreviations CCS and CCC – “climate change scientists” and “climate change contrarians” – for the two groups.)

But when it comes to non-mainstream or “new” media, the skeptics get considerably more visibility than what the researchers call the CCS, the study found.

The researchers acknowledge that journalists often quote “contrarians” in order “to dismiss their position outright,” but suggest that they should not do even that, because in doing so they “provide the counterproductive impression that there is something substantial in contrarian arguments to be debated.”

“Thus the time has arrived for professional journalists and editors to ameliorate the disproportionate attention given to CCCs by focusing instead on career experts and relevant calls to action,” the study adds.

‘Hold people and media outlets accountable’

The authors make clear their contempt for skeptics’ views.

“It’s time to stop giving these people visibility, which can be easily spun into false authority,” one of them, computational scientist Prof. Alex Petersen, said in a statement.

“By tracking the digital traces of specific individuals in vast troves of publicly available media data, we developed methods to hold people and media outlets accountable for their roles in the climate-change-denialism movement, which has given rise to climate change misinformation at scale,” he said.

(Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Another author, climatologist Prof. LeRoy Westerling, said media were attempting to “balance” the views of experts, “who represent the overwhelming majority of reputable scientists,” with those of “a relative handful of non-experts.”

“Most of the contrarians are not scientists, and the ones who are have very thin credentials,” Westerling charged. “They are not in the same league with top scientists. They aren’t even in the league of the average career climate scientist.”

Some of the most vocal and sought-after climate change campaigners in media are also not scientists.

They include politicians (former Vice President Al Gore, former Secretary of State John Kerry, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, and Ocasio-Cortez), actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Lucy Lawless), authors (Bill McKibben), and a Swedish teenager.

The study in Nature listed 386 “contrarians” – drawn up from lists of former speakers at Heartland Institute conferences, a list of lead authors of Heartland Institute’s “Climate Change Reconsidered” report, and a list of skeptics profiled by the global warming-focused site DeSmogBlog.

Some of those listed have reacted publicly to the study. Among them:

--Susan Crockford, a Canadian zoologist who runs the Polar Bear Science blog:

“The clear intention of this paper is to try and put an even tighter lid on the scientific literature and mainstream media so that any individuals with views that run counter to a message-of-climate-doom are excluded.”

--Joanne Nova, Australian science writer:

“Skeptics get banned, rejected, blocked and sacked from the mainstream media yet somehow Nature has a paper on Skeptics getting too much media. Believers don’t have to be an expert to control the news agenda, just a Greenpeace activist, or a teenage girl. Skeptics on the other hand, can be Nobel Prize winners, but the BBC won’t even phone them.”

--Judith Curry, president of Climate Forecast Applications Network, former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology:

“Apart from the rank stupidity of this article and the irresponsibility of Nature in publishing this, this paper does substantial harm to climate science.”

“Climate science is a very broad and diffuse science, encompassing many subfields. Each of these subfields is associated with substantial uncertainties, and when you integrate all these fields and attempt to project into the future, there are massive uncertainties and unknowns. There are a spectrum of perspectives, especially at the knowledge frontiers. Trying to silence or delegitimize any of these voices is very bad for science.”

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