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."
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
"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
"[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
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
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
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
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
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
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.