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Clamoring for Kyoto:
The Networks’ One-Sided Coverage of Global Warming

by Rich Noyes, Director
MRC’s Free Market Project
May 7, 2001

For years, liberal environmentalists have been insisting that only strict regulations on economic activity can prevent the climate catastrophe of global warming. According to their version of the global warming story, industrial burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil is filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The build-up of these gases would then increasingly trap heat from the Sun and cause the Earth’s climate to warm dramatically, triggering drastic weather changes, including hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and severe coastal flooding, as the polar ice caps melt and raise ocean levels.

While such scary scenarios are unsettling, they are crucial to professional environmentalists’ efforts to increase government regulations on private economic activity. Global warming activists’ biggest policy success had been the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, an international agreement requiring developed countries to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases to levels five percent lower than where they stood in 1990. Because the United States is routinely branded the world’s largest polluter, we were required to cut our emissions to seven percent lower than 1990 levels, or 30 percent below where they are today.

But environmentalists have been robbed of that victory, now that President Bush has refused to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants and then to not implement the Kyoto agreement reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Limiting emissions from power plants would drive up electricity costs even as the western U.S. is wrestling with a power crisis. The Kyoto deal which Bush rejected was forecast to "push up energy prices, inflation, and interest rates and lead to lower consumption, investment and net exports," according to a 1999 study by the Center for the Study of American Business.

Such painful steps would be unnecessary if the environmentalists’ doomsday scenarios are exaggerated or wrong, and there are some good reasons to doubt their claims. Temperature data gathered by satellites and upper-atmosphere balloons have failed to show the same warming trend found by surface measurements taken over the past 20 years. The planet did warm by about 0.6° Celsius over the past 100 years, but that’s only about half as much warming as should have occurred if the models which project severe warming for the next 100 years are correct. Given the uncertainty over long-term warming projections, a wide range of scientists and free market economists argue that the riskier approach is to enact severe economic rules now in order to limit greenhouse emissions which may not be a serious problem in the future.

This debate has been going on for years, of course, but it moved to the fore this spring with Bush’s decisions against imposing new regulations on American industry. Fair and balanced reporting of these issues would have greatly aided the public’s understanding and helped obtain informed support for whatever steps are ultimately chosen by policymakers. But a review of global warming coverage shows the news networks, with the exception of the Fox News Channel, have superficially presented only the global warming arguments of liberal environmentalists, and have heavily tilted their coverage to favor critics of the two Bush decisions.

The study by the MRC’s Free Market Project (FMP) reviewed 51 stories1 on five early evening cable and broadcast news programs — ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN’s Inside Politics, the Fox News Channel’s Special Report, and NBC Nightly News — from Inauguration Day (January 20) through Earth Day (April 22). Twenty of these were lengthy field reports that focused on global warming, while an additional 11 were brief anchor-read items. The researchers analyzed another 20 stories that were not specifically focused on the global warming debate, but which contained comments about Bush’s actions on Kyoto, carbon dioxide regulations, or climate change in general.


Except on Fox News, No Debate Over Global Warming

Four years ago in "Facts Frozen Out," a Special Report by the MRC’s Free Market Project, Timothy Lamer reported that an examination of ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC’s coverage from 1993 to 1997 showed a wide majority of network news stories on global warming (81%) "simply assumed that science supports warming theories," and that any human-induced warming that might be forthcoming over the next century would be destructive.

Yet despite the obviously lopsided tilt in favor of those who argue that industrial emissions are causing catastrophic global warming, Lamer managed to find a handful of network stories that informed audiences about the many scientists who are skeptical of those theories. Now, four years later, experts who depart from liberal environmental orthodoxy have been completely erased from the picture at those same networks; only the Fox News Channel (which was not available for the previous study period) conveyed both sides of the global warming debate to viewers.

During the 2001 study period, FMP researchers catalogued 49 statements from network reporters or news sources either affirming liberal environmentalists’ dire global warming scenarios or professing skepticism. Of those, 86 percent expressed the view that climate change was a real threat, compared with only 14 percent — just seven statements — that challenged that assumption.

But six of those seven statements were on the Fox News Channel. (See chart.) Looking only at ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC — the four networks that were included in the 1997 study — a nearly unanimous 97 percent of all comments reflected just the liberal side of the global warming debate. ABC, CBS and NBC totally excluded skeptics from their coverage during the study period, while the only hint CNN gave that science had not yet settled all of the key questions was on March 14, when environmental correspondent Natalie Pawelski cited a statement from President Bush in which he referred to "the incomplete state of scientific knowledge" of the causes and solutions to global warming.

Pushing the premise that the regulation of industrial emissions is the only way to avoid more climate damage, CBS’s John Roberts opened his March 28 story on Bush’s Kyoto decision by summoning images of weather disasters: "Global temperatures on the rise, glaciers retreating, storms more frequent and severe — a looming crisis, say many scientists, of the greenhouse effect. Yet, claiming potential harm to the economy, the White House today confirmed it will abandon the global accord to curb emissions of carbon dioxide, the number one greenhouse gas."

Even in stories that were not focused on the politics of global warming, reporters asserted the environmentalists’ line on global warming. On April 13, for instance, CNN’s Jonathan Karl reported on new technology that reduces the amount of "traditional" pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, that are emitted when coal is burned. But, Karl explained, "what most concerns environmentalists now about coal power is carbon dioxide, or CO2, the gas that causes global warming....Coal can be made to burn cleaner, but it will still be a leading contributor to global warming."

In a March 29 report, CBS’s Mark Phillips peddled environmentalists’ fears as fact and wrongly labeled greenhouse gases as pollutants: "Other [critics] point to severe weather conditions around the planet: flooding, for the second consecutive year, in Mozambique; drought and famine in the Sudan. And, they say, the U.S. is substantially to blame. With only about four percent of the world’s population, the United States famously produces about 25 percent of the world’s harmful greenhouse gas pollution."

For the record, the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is not a harmful pollutant, as Phillips claimed. As the science books they use in elementary schools explain, all green plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Far from being dangerous, carbon dioxide is necessary for life to exist.

David ShusterFNC was the only network to offer balanced coverage of these claims. Special Report anchor Brit Hume was alone in mentioning a Boston Globe item about the graduate class at Columbia Journalism School being taught by former Vice President Al Gore. Hume reported that Gore "suggested that they [the students] should ignore the views of scientists who have questioned the dire global warming forecasts which, Gore says, have been accepted, quote, ‘by the vast majority of the world’s scientists.’... Students said after the class that Gore had suggested it was a cop-out for journalists to include such skeptical views in their coverage of global warming."

Presumably, most network reporters have not had the benefit of Gore’s tutoring, but their one-sided coverage seems to indicate that they nonetheless agree with the former Vice President. In contrast to much of the media’s unanimity, many thousands of scientists reject the view that severe global warming is a settled fact and that immediate changes are needed to end mankind’s destructive influence on the environment. The state climatologist of Oregon, George Taylor, publicly wrote about his increasing doubts about the need for strict new regulations. His comments were posted on the January 14, 2000 edition of junkscience.com:

Ten years ago, I believed the [climate] 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.

Since the Kyoto treaty was signed in December 1997, more than 17,000 scientists — including more than 2,600 physicists, geophysicists, climatologists, meteorologists, oceanographers and environmental scientists — signed a petition stating that there "is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing, or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate." But not one of these scientists was ever shown on ABC, CBS, CNN or NBC, which instead led audiences to believe that the scientific debate about the causes and extent of global warming was over.


All Gloom and Doom Forecasts

In his book, The Costs of Kyoto, Fred Smith of the Competitiveness Enterprise Institute noted that if there is indeed a shift towards warming, "it will largely occur at night, in the winter, and at higher latitudes. Such a warming pattern would lengthen growing seasons and, by reducing temperature variations over time, tend to reduce extreme weather events. Furthermore, higher levels of carbon dioxide increase plant growth and thus increase agricultural production."

University of Virginia climatologist Patrick Michaels made the same point in testimony before the House Subcommittee on National Economic Growth, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs in 1999. Michaels recounted that global temperatures rose by about 0.6" Celsius (or 1" Fahrenheit) during the last century. "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," Michaels explained. "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."

But the notion that global warming could be anything but the disaster predicted by the environmental establishment was completely ignored on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, whose coverage of this aspect of global warming during the time period covered by the study focused on a sensational summary of a much longer United Nations report predicting catastrophic climate changes in the next 100 years.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw offered only the most extreme scenario on January 22: "A new report from a United Nations conference says that global temperatures could rise as much as 10 degrees this century. That’s the biggest rate of change in the climate in 10,000 years." On the February 19 CBS Evening News, reporter Byron Pitts cast climate catastrophe as just retribution: "This is punishment, say scientists, for sins of the past, the end result of years of pollution....In the Midwest, deadly heat waves and severe droughts. And in the Northeast, what is now precious waterside property could one day be underwater. Scientists say it’s no longer a matter of if, but when."

With the exception of the Fox News Channel, the networks treated the U.N.’s "Summary for Policymakers" as above reproach. "Because it’s a sensitive issue, government representatives went over it line by line," explained ABC’s Peter Jennings on February 19, adding that the report predicted "more freak weather changes, including cyclones, drought and floods, massive displacement of populations." But Jennings didn’t need to be convinced by the U.N. — four days earlier, the ABC anchor had relayed without challenge the claims of the World Wildlife Fund that global warming is melting ice caps in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, threatening to flood villages. "The Wildlife Fund calls it a time bomb," Jennings intoned.

The Fox News Channel’s David Schuster was the only reporter who did not present the U.N. report as a call to action. Schuster uniquely pointed out the politics behind the U.N. paper: "The report comes just two months after international negotiations on industrial emissions broke down and, with U.N. scientists openly admitting they’re trying to get everybody back to the negotiating table, critics of the report are having a field day, claiming the numbers have been cooked." Schuster then quoted climatologist Richard Lindzen, who participated in the U.N. process but who argued that the summary was highly exaggerated. "It came from having scenarios with horrific and unimaginable emissions and putting them in the most sensitive [climate] model," Lindzen said.

Another American scientist who participated in the creation of the U.N. report also repudiated the spin of the "Summary for Policymakers." Dr. John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, told the London Times on February 20 that "there are 245 different results in that report, and this was the worst-case scenario. It’s the one that was not going to happen. It was the extreme case of all the different things that can make the world warm."

But network correspondents seem truly convinced by environmentalists’ gloomy global warming forecasts. A Nexis search revealed an interesting exchange on CBS’s The Early Show on April 18, just before Earth Day. During "co-op time" — a discussion among the CBS morning personalities made available to those few stations that don’t offer local news during scheduled breaks, host Bryant Gumbel asked if the rest of his show colleagues believed in global warming; all affirmed that they did. While not included in this study of evening news programs, the Early Show conversation revealed both an unquestioning belief in the assertions made by some of the most fervent global warming activists, and horror that President Bush would pursue any policies that were not endorsed by liberal environmental activists. (See box).

Genuine disagreement within the scientific community exists about whether anything human beings are doing is really changing the planet’s climate and whether such changes would be positive, neutral or negative. For reporters, the most basic requirement is to report on all sides of a debate. While FNC fulfilled that expectation, the three broadcast networks did not, since not one of the global warming stories they produced this year even hinted at the existence of climate scientists skeptical of catastrophic global warming, let alone offered viewers a chance to hear their contrary views.


Scolding Bush on Carbon Dioxide and Kyoto

In addition to their nearly complete one-sidedness on the scientific questions, the networks also heavily skewed the debate over President Bush’s global warming policies in favor of his environmental critics. The President’s first major decision, announced on March 13, was his refusal to include carbon dioxide among a list of gases whose emissions would be strictly regulated by the government. The Bush administration cited a study conducted by the Department of Energy last year when Bill Clinton was President; that report concluded that such rules "would lead to considerably higher energy prices for consumers." ABC and FNC mentioned the Energy Department study in their coverage, while CBS, CNN and NBC did not.

On the March 14 Evening News, CBS’s Dan Rather darkly hinted that the decision was rooted in campaign cash, not the national interest: "President Bush insisted today that he was not caving in to big-money contributors, big-time lobbyists and overall industry pressure when he broke a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. But the air was thick today with accusations from people who believe that’s exactly what happened."

Overall, the networks gave critics of Bush’s anti-regulatory stance twice as much airtime as supporters. Only FNC and CNN showed soundbites from individuals other than Bush administration officials supporting the decision not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. When all statements from reporters and sources are considered, the three broadcast networks offered the most skewed coverage, where Bush’s critics outnumbered supporters by a nearly three-to-one ratio. Those who wanted more regulation also dominated CNN’s coverage, although by less than a two-to-one margin, while FNC’s presentation was the most balanced. (See chart at left.)

After the President’s decision on the Kyoto Protocols was announced, only CNN and FNC informed viewers that Bush’s decision was more of a formality than a radical break from past policies. "Only one nation has ratified that treaty," CNN’s Candy Crowley explained on March 28, "and in 1997 the U.S. Senate signaled unanimously it wouldn’t agree to it anyway."

But NBC’s Campbell Brown ignored those facts, instead trumpeting that "the outcry over the President’s decision on global warming is not just coming from Democrats but also U.S. allies, and the President is expected to hear more complaints tomorrow when he meets with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder."

On this issue, the networks were tilted even more in favor of Bush’s critics. CNN was the most balanced, followed by FNC, which gave Kyoto proponents twice as much airtime as Bush supporters. Once again, however, the three broadcast networks were the most one-sided, showing a total of 14 condemnations of Bush’s decision on Kyoto compared to only 4 positive statements. (See chart on right.)

One reason the debate on both of Bush’s decisions was so lopsided: pro-regulatory comments from environmental activists vastly outnumbered statements from free market opponents of new restrictions on economic activity. While the number of quotes from Congressional Democratic critics roughly equaled statements from Bush and other administration officials, representatives from environmental groups — such as the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Environmental Trust — were shown 20 times, compared to just three soundbites from two conservative groups, the Competitiveness Enterprise Institute and the industry-backed Global Climate Coalition.

The environmentalists featured by the networks were uniformly critical of Bush’s actions. For example, the CBS Evening News on March 29 showed Robert Higman of the group Friends of the Earth claiming, "What we’re seeing here is oil man Bush putting his, the interests of his particular backers — Exxon Oil Corporation and other fossil fuel producers — over and above the interests of the U.S. economy, over and above the interests of the people of the world at large, and over and above the future of the planet." On March 14, a story by reporter Brian Wilson on FNC’s Special Report showed Dan Becker of the Sierra Club protesting that "the polluters got what they paid for in electing President Bush."

However, that same story by FNC’s Wilson also showed Myron Ebell, a representative of the free market Competitiveness Enterprise Institute, explaining the Bush administration’s reasoning: "They realized with the new information from the Department of Energy that [the carbon dioxide regulations] will be extremely expensive and that it would eat up between 35 and 70 percent of the tax cut."

Mark PhillipsWhile the Fox News Channel offered a balance of praise and criticism for Bush’s position, CBS chose to just pile on the criticism. In his March 29 report, correspondent Mark Phillips quoted an official of Britain’s Labor government who joined in Higman’s complaining of Bush’s Kyoto decision: "This short-termism and this isolationism is profoundly flawed and misplaced."

The President’s policy choices were also criticized as political errors. "The Bush administration is looking for ways to clean up its image," CNN’s Candy Crowley reported on April 3, "following a series of high-profile decisions on the environment involving carbon dioxide, arsenic levels in water, and an international treaty on global warming, all decisions criticized as hostile to the environment." Crowley found a former Bush aide, Ed Gillespie, who she said agreed with the point that the political rollout of Bush’s policy decisions wasn’t well organized. But Gillespie’s sound bite made a different point: "The liberal side and some of their charges, some of which were unfounded and false, got out ahead of us."

Indeed, those liberal critics of the President’s global warming policies were granted favored access to the airwaves in the wake of each of those decisions, while scientists who supported Bush’s anti-regulatory stance were not. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal published April 19, Frederick Seitz, a past president of the National Academy of Sciences and current chairman of the George C. Marshall Institute, commended Bush’s decision to scrap the Kyoto Protocols.

"The science of global warming tells us this self-inflicted economic damage is unnecessary," wrote Seitz. "According to enhanced greenhouse effect theory, when CO2 in the atmosphere increases, the earth’s atmosphere always warms more rapidly than the surface. But actual temperature measurements show the atmosphere is not warming more than the surface; in fact, there has been no significant atmospheric temperature change over the last two or three decades."

Similarly, climatologist Fred Singer, head of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, praised Bush’s rejection of environmentalists’ demands for greater regulations. In a column published in Canada’s National Post on March 17, Singer wrote:

Scientists skeptical of the science behind the Kyoto Protocol were greatly encouraged by the statement in Mr. Bush’s letter that the science of global warming is "incomplete," by which he meant that it was insufficient as a basis for taking action. This is a position that many of us have maintained for some years, pointing out that the actual observations do not support the climate models that predict a strong warming in the future

The evidence against a warming trend is overwhelming: Weather satellite observations, the only truly global measurements, independently confirmed by weather balloon data, show little if any rise in mean temperature. The well-maintained network of U.S. stations, after removal of urban heat-island effects, shows no appreciable rise since about 1940! Non-thermometer data from various "proxies," like tree rings, ice cores, ocean sediments, etc., all show no warming trend in the past 60 years.

Yet neither Singer nor Seitz nor any other scientist who disagreed with the environmental establishment was given a chance to lend their weight to the point of view that neither the carbon dioxide rules and the Kyoto limits on emissions were foolish restrictions that would harm Americans’ standard of living for no good reason. Instead, the networks gave favored treatment to environmental critics complaining about Bush’s decisions, and then blamed the President for the damage to his image.

"Fairly or unfairly," Dan Rather told viewers of the April 17 CBS Evening News, "critics of President Bush’s environmental policy believe the only green policy he’s displayed is the color of big business money." The story, by John Roberts, explained how the President’s image came to be tarnished: "Activists have pummeled him for diluting rules on arsenic levels in drinking water and abandoning curbs on carbon dioxide emissions."

Many independent scientists and free market economists would have argued that Bush’s decision to spare the United States the heavy costs of the Kyoto Protocols was neither a policy error nor a political error, but was in fact a reasonable and meritorious act. The heavy tilt of the coverage in favor of Bush’s critics created the misleading impression that his anti-regulatory steps had few supporters outside of the ranks of his own government, when in fact the U.S. Senate’s unanimous (95-0) rejection of Kyoto’s main elements indicated that his opposition to the treaty was more "mainstream" than the environmentalists’ support for it.


Recommendations For the Networks

With the exception of the Fox News Channel, the networks stacked the deck when it came to this year’s debate over global warming policy. By refusing to show any skeptics or critics of environmentalists’ belief that only regulatory schemes such as the Kyoto Protocol could halt the climate damage they say is being caused by industrial emissions of greenhouse gases, the President’s actions seemed (at best) to be short-sighted, unscientific decisions designed to offer near-term economic benefits at the risk of long-term harm to the climate. By showcasing the President’s critics in the aftermath of each decision, the networks created the impression that Bush’s actions were environmental errors, not reasonable policy choices.

By revealing the existence of scientists and other experts who disagree with the liberal environmental orthodoxy on global warming, the Fox News Channel was different. As a network, FNC was hardly an apologist for the Bush administration; like the others, FNC gave more airtime to environmentalists who were critical of the President’s anti-regulatory moves. But on the other networks, the theory of human-induced global warming was undisputed; on FNC, it was more properly treated as just another opinion that had supporters and opponents.

Here are just three steps that the networks could take which would improve future coverage of this important issue:

  • Because the political and economic debate over global warming policy is also a scientific debate, the networks need to tell viewers about scientific findings and arguments that cast doubt on environmentalists’ global warming theories. When reporters pretend that science has settled every important question about human effects on long-term climate, they are being more than superficial — they are twisting the facts to favor one side of the policy debate over the other.

  • Include all salient facts. Environmentalists were given considerable airtime to attack President Bush’s decision that the United States would not implement the Kyoto agreement, but ABC, CBS and NBC never balanced those attacks by telling viewers that Kyoto has essentially been a dead deal for the past several years. Instead of helping these activists frame the issue in a way that helped their side, network correspondents need to make sure that viewers have all of the necessary background information they need to judge the merits of both sides’ arguments.

  • Balance the comments of environmental activists with the views of free market experts. One major reason why the network coverage of this debate was so heavily lopsided was because pro-regulation activists outnumbered conservative experts by 20 to 3. Network news is supposed to inform viewers about all major points of view on public issues, not serve as a public relations office for the environmental movement. The networks need to do a better job of reporting the views of free market experts — and stop giving liberal environmentalists a free ride.


1CNN’s Inside Politics and FNC’s Special Report were selected for inclusion in the study because they provided regular coverage of political issues, making them the cable programs most similar to the early evening news broadcast offered on ABC, CBS and NBC. To further ensure direct comparability, unique features of the cable programs — journalist roundtables and lengthy interviews with newsmakers — were excluded from the study, which only examined traditional field reports and anchor-read briefs.



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