The organizers of this year’s Earth Day (Saturday, April 22) have
selected global climate change as their central issue, and much of
the national media appear to be following suit. While experts
continue to debate the main causes, extent and consequences of a
warming trend that is generally expected to continue through the
21st century, news coverage has frequently portrayed the scientific
debate as a settled matter.
decades of rancorous debate, only a handful of the most doctrinaire
die-hards still dispute the idea that human activity is heating up
the planet," declared Time's Michael Lemonick in a special
Earth Day issue.
"What will it take for us to get serious about saving our
environment?" asked his colleague, Eugene Linden, in the same issue.
"When will environmentalism move from being a philosophy promoted by
a passionate minority to a way of life that governs mainstream
behavior and policy?"
Activists don’t just argue that the globe is heating up; they
insist that the warming seen during the 20th century has been
unnatural, that a main cause has been industrial activity (the
burning of fossil fuels), and that continued warming will cause
catastrophic weather changes that will imperil human society.
Television news, in particular, seems to be pushing the idea that
disaster is looming. On Tuesday, April 18, CBS’s Dan Rather began
the newscast by noting "new and ominous signs that global warming is
generating drastic and dangerous weather changes." That same night,
ABC’s Ned Potter reminded viewers that "scientists and
environmentalists warned for years that if the world became warmer,
the result could be calamitous: hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves,"
while NBC’s Robert Hager said that a new report from the Clinton
administration "finds that in the midst of all the violent weather,
the year 2000 is off to the warmest start ever in U.S. history."
According to my colleague
Brent Baker, "In all that network time [on Tuesday night]
devoted to impending weather disasters, not one doubter who holds a
position contrary to the liberal environmental demands for more
regulation or who does not believe warming causes extreme weather"
appeared on any of the three broadcasts. Instead, professional
activists such as Michael Oppenheimer of Environmental Defense were
granted air time to warn that current weather disasters "present a
picture of what could happen in the future, they present a picture
of our vulnerability."
While such scare tactics may be unsettling for viewers, they help
professional environmentalists in their efforts to change government
policy. Global warming activists’ biggest policy success was the
1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, an international agreement
that required developed countries to trim emissions of greenhouse
gases such as carbon dioxide to levels approximately five percent
below what they were in 1990.
Although the international community continues to negotiate the
mechanisms by which Kyoto’s provisions will actually be implemented,
it’s certain to "push up energy prices, inflation, and interest
rates and lead to lower consumption, investment and net exports,
thus reducing total production and income," although the magnitude
of such costs has yet to be determined, according to a December 1999
report by Milka Kirova of the Center for the Study of American
It’s still uncertain whether the U.S. will ratify Kyoto.
Believing that the treaty would lose, President Clinton hasn’t
sought a Senate vote on the matter. Looking to the next election,
Vice President Al Gore recently re-affirmed his support of the Kyoto
Protocol, while Texas Governor George W. Bush opposes it.
Still, given the magnitude of the potential costs, the news media
should take the opportunity provided by Earth Day to inform the
public about the ongoing scientific debate over important aspect of
global warming, rather than continue to give the cold shoulder to
climatologists who dissent from the environmental establishment’s
The following is a summary of some of the main points of the
so-called "skeptics," with links to a number of articles presenting
their arguments in greater detail.
Links Between Human Activity and Global Warming
The Earth’s surface is indeed warming, according to temperature
data collected over the last century, but there’s disagreement about
whether this is part of a natural variation and whether it can be
conclusively linked with greenhouse gas emissions. According to
Fred Singer, an atmospheric physicist and president of the
Science and Environmental Policy Project,
"There is general agreement that the global climate warmed
between about 1880 and 1940, following several centuries of the
‘Little Ice Age,’ which in turn was preceded by the ‘Medieval
Climate Optimum’ around A.D. 1100. There is less agreement about
the causes of this recent warming, but the human component is
thought to be quite small.
"This conclusion seems to be borne out also by the fact that
the climate cooled between 1940 and 1975, just as industrial
activity grew rapidly after World War II. It has been difficult
to reconcile this cooling with the observed increases in
Singer also wrote that an international climate panel’s finding
that 20th century warming was correlated with human activity
"depended entirely on the arbitrary choice of the time interval 1940
to 1990. During most of this period, temperatures were actually
decreasing. A different choice of interval could have produced a
zero, or even a negative, trend."
For more, you can download "What
Do We Know about Human Influence on Climate Change," a report
Singer prepared for the Center for the Study of American Business.
Surface Temperatures vs. Atmospheric Temperatures
There was widespread media coverage of a National Academy of
Sciences (NAS) panel report released on January 13 that concluded
that the Earth's surface had warmed by about 1.0ºF over
the past century, but that atmospheric temperatures haven’t risen
along with surface temperatures. Initial media reports termed the
NAS report of surface warming "a blow to global warming naysayers,"
as CNN’s Natalie Pawelski put it on the January 16, 2000 edition of
But if both sets of data are correct — and the NAS panel said
that they were — the study actually reveals the flawed nature of the
climate models that activists have used to push for restrictions on
greenhouse gas emissions. Atmospheric scientist Richard Lindzen told
The New York Times in February that both the lower atmosphere
as well as the surface should have warmed if temperatures were
rising due to elevated levels of greenhouse gases. The fact that
atmospheric temperatures remained constant means that "what’s
happening at the surface is not related to the greenhouse effect,"
Lindzen told the Times.
Commenting on the NAS report, Oregon state climatologist George
Taylor questioned the integrity of the surface data. "I am very
cautious about using data from individual stations to infer global
trends," he wrote in
comments that were posted on the Internet on January 14 by the
Cato Institute’s Steve Milloy. "My explanation for the difference
between U.S. temperatures (which show almost no warming this
century) and global data (which show a lot) is that the latter is of
considerably lower quality, and much more biased, than the
carefully-constructed [Historical Climatology Network] data set."
"Ten years ago, I believed the modelers that global warming
was a serious problem that needed attention and intervention. As
I studied the issue year by year, I became less and less
convinced that the ‘problem’ was truly serious.
"My current bottom line: while human activities doubtless
influence climate (on a local, regional, and even a global
scale), the human-induced climate change from expected increases
in greenhouse gases will be a rather small fraction of the
natural variations. I don’t foresee global warming causing big
problems. I believe if we controlled every molecule of human
emissions we would still see substantial climate change, just as
we always have."
Lowering of Official Warming Forecasts and Predicted Consequences
Apart from the divergence of atmospheric and surface
temperatures, it’s also noteworthy that official estimates of how
much the Earth would warm over the next hundred years have been
lowered several times over the past decade. Dr. Roy Spencer, the
senior scientist for climate studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight
Center, wrote in
Earth Report 2000, a book published in January by the
Competitive Enterprise Institute, 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 (3.3ºC
in 1990, 2.6ºC in 1992, and 2.2ºC in 1995.)
The warming of 0.6ºC in (1 F) in the last
century is only about one-half of what current global warming theory
predicts should have occurred."
Testifying before the House Subcommittee on National Economic
Growth, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs last year,
University of Virginia climatologist
Patrick Michaels also reported that "observed surface warming is
most consistent with a forecast below the lowest statistical range
forecast by climate models. Recent observed changes are several
times beneath what was forecast a mere ten years ago, assuming
historical changes in carbon dioxide." (Emphasis in the original)
The divergence between observed atmospheric and surface
temperatures, coupled with the repeated lowering of official
estimates of future warming, indicate inadequacies with the
prevailing climate models that helped make climate change a
political issue a decade ago. Yet the assumption that global warming
is a largely manmade phenomenon (and therefore one that can be
controlled by changing human economic behavior), remains the guiding
belief of environmentalists and many policymakers. So, too, is the
assumption that global warming will introduce a variety of
destructive changes to both human society and the broader
But in his congressional testimony, Michaels noted that the
warming that’s been observed so far has been limited mainly to the
cold air masses that hover over Siberia and North America, and that
most of the temperature increases have been during winter months.
"Because of their coldness," Michaels told the subcommittee, those
air masses "are very dry, and because of their dryness have very
little ‘natural’ greenhouse effect and are consequently ‘warmed’ (if
changing the temperature from -40ºC to -38ºC
can be called a ‘warming’!) more rapidly than moist, summer air."
"During this century," Michaels further testified, "we
experienced a temperature rise of approximately [0.6ºC].
Crop yields quintupled. Life span doubled, in part because of better
nutrition. Winters warmed. Growing seasons lengthened. The planet
became greener. Increasing carbon dioxide had something to do with
each and every one of these. There is simply no reason to assume
that doing the same, this time in 50, instead of 100 years, will
have any different effect in kind."
Lack of Media Skepticism Regarding Environmentalists’ Claims
Such a sanguine view of global warming is rarely, if ever,
mentioned by the media, which typically view environmental activists
as independent voices while taking a more skeptical view of industry
groups and the politicians who side with them. In an exhaustive
survey of the environmental issues facing the U.S., the Heritage
Foundation’s Angela Antonelli noted that professional
environmentalists, like the corporations they frequently condemn,
have their own interests to defend.
Indeed, Antonelli reported that ten of the largest environmental
groups posted combined annual revenues in excess of $1 billion, and
she noted that public fears about various environmental crises
increases the political muscle and financial resources of these
"Their activism today has less to do with achieving cleaner air
and water, healthy fisheries and abundant wildlife than it has to do
with gaining political clout and raising money. These
environmentalists defend the status quo, deny that any improvements
have been achieved, and scare Americans into giving them financial
support, even when this approach results in policies that harm the
environment and endanger public health," Antonelli wrote.
This shouldn’t imply that the media ought to ignore the views of
professional environmentalists when covering issues such as global
warming. It does imply that the media should treat self-serving
liberal claims with the same skepticism that they reserve for
conservative and free market ideas.
Unfortunately, the public hasn’t seen a balanced presentation of
both views; a study directed by Tim Lamer, former director of the
MRC's Free Market Project, found that more than 80 percent of global
warming stories on the networks' evening newscasts from 1993-1997
pretended that skeptical climate scientists didn't even exist. "For
the most part," Lamer wrote in "Facts
Frozen Out: Network News and Global Warming, "the media debate
over global warming has been one-sided, with the legions of
skeptical scientists left out."
Will those who argue that the evidence on global warming doesn't
support major changes in economic policy finally get their turn this
Earth Day, or will they once again be frozen out of the coverage?