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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Monday, January 17, 2000

Volume 8, Number 1

CBS Rings Alarm Bells on Global Warming

It’s always interesting when one of the three broadcast evening news programs parts company with its competitors and champions a story that the others ignore. Among other things, this raises the nettlesome question of exactly whose news judgment is out of kilter. One case in point: even as ABC’s World News Tonight and the NBC Nightly News were taking a pass, the CBS Evening News broadcast four reports last week about what anchor Dan Rather hyped as "the strongest evidence yet that the Earth is in an accelerated phase of warming."

global.gif (10858 bytes)Unfortunately for Rather, there’s no new scientific evidence on the subject -- although there may soon be a renewed attempt by the Clinton administration to impose new, stricter standards on American industry. So, CBS viewers might be surprised to learn that, despite what they were told last week, such regulations aren’t warranted by any scientific consensus, but they would impose severe costs on the U.S. economy in lost jobs, lower income and higher energy costs.

The drumbeat began on January 10, when reporter Jim Axelrod snagged an interview with James Baker, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Rather headlined the story as an exclusive: "U.S. government climate experts tell CBS News they now believe global warming is real and under way." Baker told Axelrod, "There’s no question we’re seeing global warming....humans are interacting with the environment in such a way as to change the global environment."

"So, do we have something to be worried about?" Axelrod asked him.

"I think we do," Baker replied.

Two days later, the Evening News made global warming its lead story. Axelrod stressed the fact that "federal weather experts revealed to CBS News earlier this week...that global warming is a real threat," making it sound as if Baker had taken the reporter into his confidence. Axelrod then quoted Rafe Pomerance, an environmental activist who previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment and Development in the Clinton administration.

"[Global warming] won’t stop," Pomerance asserted. "Sea levels will rise, forests will move, water resources will be shifted all over the Earth. It’s a very unpredictable and dangerous future and there, there is all the rationale in the world to act and act decisively."

Axelrod’s story was immediately followed by a report from CBS’s Maureen Maher, who attempted to link increased numbers of jellyfish with global warming. "Perhaps this silent creature is sending a loud and clear message that we should not ignore," said Maher.

The Evening News did quote skeptics, including George Taylor, a climatologist at Georgia State University, who told Axelrod on January 12 that "the global warming problem has been overstated by quite a few people." But none of CBS’s reports contained direct criticisms of the point pushed by both Baker and Pomerance, that what scientists already knew about future global warming was sufficiently dire to require a swift response from government policymakers.

Indeed, the reporters themselves sometimes seemed eager for action. "Tonight, a growing number of scientists are hearing the critics, but looking at the data and saying it’s a forecast that can’t be ignored," Axelrod concluded on January 12.

The closest thing to new scientific evidence was a report released on January 13 by the National Academy of Sciences, "Reconciling Observations of Global Temperature Change." The panel was tasked with figuring out why surface-based thermometers showed a warming trend over the last 100 years, while measurements taken from weather balloons and satellites did not. The panel’s conclusion was that both sets of data are correct -- the Earth’s surface is heating up but the atmosphere is not.

According to John Wallace, who chaired the scientific panel, "There is a high level of confidence among panel members that the surface temperature is indeed rising." The panel estimated that during the last 100 years, global temperatures increased by between 0.72º and 1.44º Fahrenheit. That was apparently the evidence that NOAA’s Baker was referring to in his interview with CBS News -- proof that the Earth is indeed warming. Citing the NAS report, The Washington Post and Associated Press both carried stories that asserted that global warming was "real."

But David Murray, Research Director of the Statistical Assessment Service, told MediaNomics that reporters shouldn’t have interpreted these data as a breakthrough in the long-simmering global warming debate. According to Murray, scientists have basically agreed for several years that the Earth has warmed; the real disagreement has been about whether or not the observed increases are due to normal climate variations, whether any appreciable amount of this warming can be attributed to human activities, and whether climate models that purport to show continued warming over the next 100 years are a sufficiently reliable basis for dramatic changes in government policies.

"There are two senses to the phrase ‘global warming is real,’" says Murray. "The first is just the empirical fact that the Earth has warmed on the surface. That can be ‘real’ without establishing the second sense, which is that the scenario of global climate change predictions for the future has somehow been validated," an interpretation which Murray says has actually been undermined by the NAS report. He says that none of the climate models used to predict future warming anticipated the "de-coupling" of surface and atmospheric temperatures that the NAS panel discovered.

In fact, as climatologists develop increasingly sophisticated climate models, their estimations of future global warming are actually decreasing. In a new book, Earth Report 2000, published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Roy Spencer, the senior scientist for climate studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel, reported that "as computer models of the climate system have been improved in recent years, their projections of global warming by 2100 continue to be revised downward (3.3º C in 1990, 2.6º C in 1992, and 2.2º C in 1995.) The warming of 0.6º C in (1º F) in the last century is only about one-half of what current global warming theory predicts should have occurred."

Yet these caveats weren’t much in evidence on the Evening News, which broadcast yet another global warming story on January 13, after the release of the NAS report. This time, the focus was on the politics of global warming. According to White House correspondent John Roberts, "Spurred on by the strongest evidence yet that the Earth is getting hotter, the Clinton administration will seek a 50 percent increase in funding, to $1.6 billion to combat global warming....While some scientists believe it’s a natural cycle, many blame industrial and auto pollution, so-called ‘greenhouse gases,’ which trap heat from the sun, for the rapid increase in temperature."

Roberts then quoted Michael Oppenheimer, head of the liberal Environmental Defense Fund, who made the plea for immediate action. "If greenhouse gases are not reduced soon, then life will become increasingly difficult for most societies and for much of nature. There may be no future at all."

That’s not what the scientific evidence shows, of course, but comments such as Oppenheimer’s are designed to make inaction seem not just irresponsible, but immoral. Roberts then told viewers that "America, the world’s biggest polluter, is stuck on what to do about it. An international treaty [the Kyoto treaty of 1997], which would have cut greenhouse gas emissions to pre-1990 levels, has not been ratified by Congress. Industry groups have lobbied that the only way to achieve these targets is to cut energy use, a move they say would strangle the U.S. economy."

Roberts then quoted Glenn Kelly of the Global Climate Coalition, which represents a coalition of businesses and trade associations, who said that, if the Kyoto treaty rules were enforced in the U.S., "two and a half million American workers will be out of work for little environmental benefit." In fact, according to a study conducted for the Heartland Institute, potential consequences of the Kyoto rules do include high new taxes on gasoline, a drop of nearly $2,700 in average household income, and the loss of 2.4 million jobs.

With such high economic stakes, it would seem to be important to nail down the science of climate change before embarking on such a high-risk course. That’s exactly what scientists such as NASA’s Roy Spencer urge. "I believe that any warming will likely be more modest and benign than had originally been feared," Spencer wrote. "Even if warming does prove to be substantial, the time required for it to occur (many decades) will allow us considerable time to better understand the problem, and to formulate any policy changes that might be deemed necessary."

But by presenting such a one-sided view of the global warming issue, CBS’s reporting last week suggested an enthusiasm for action and an impatience with those who advocate further study. Cooler heads ought to prevail.

Rich Noyes


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