It was five years before the turn of the century and major media were warning of disastrous climate change. Page six of The New York Times was headlined with the serious concerns of “geologists.” Only the president at the time wasn’t Bill Clinton; it was Grover Cleveland. And the Times wasn’t warning about global warming – it was telling readers the looming dangers of a new ice age. The year was 1895, and it was just one of four different time periods in the last 100 years when major print media predicted an impending climate crisis. Each prediction carried its own elements of doom, saying Canada could be “wiped out” or lower crop yields would mean “billions will die.”
Just as the weather has changed over time, so has the reporting – blowing hot or cold with short-term changes in temperature.
Following the ice age threats from the late 1800s, fears of an imminent and icy catastrophe were compounded in the 1920s by Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan and an obsession with the news of his polar expedition. As the Times put it on Feb. 24, 1895, “Geologists Think the World May Be Frozen Up Again.”
Those concerns lasted well into the late 1920s. But when the earth’s surface warmed less than half a degree, newspapers and magazines responded with stories about the new threat. Once again the Times was out in front, cautioning “the earth is steadily growing warmer.”
After a while, that second phase of climate cautions began to fade. By 1954, Fortune magazine was warming to another cooling trend and ran an article titled “Climate – the Heat May Be Off.” As the United States and the old Soviet Union faced off, the media joined them with reports of a more dangerous Cold War of Man vs. Nature.
The New York Times ran warming stories into the late 1950s, but it too came around to the new fears. Just three decades ago, in 1975, the paper reported: “A Major Cooling Widely Considered to Be Inevitable.”
That trend, too, cooled off and was replaced by the current era of reporting on the dangers of global warming. Just six years later, on Aug. 22, 1981, the Times quoted seven government atmospheric scientists who predicted global warming of an “almost unprecedented magnitude.”
In all, the print news media have warned of four separate climate changes in slightly more than 100 years – global cooling, warming, cooling again, and, perhaps not so finally, warming. Some current warming stories combine the concepts and claim the next ice age will be triggered by rising temperatures – the theme of the 2004 movie “The Day After Tomorrow.”
Recent global warming reports have continued that trend, morphing into a hybrid of both theories. News media that once touted the threat of “global warming” have moved on to the more flexible term “climate change.” As the Times described it, climate change can mean any major shift, making the earth cooler or warmer. In a March 30, 2006, piece on ExxonMobil’s approach to the environment, a reporter argued the firm’s chairman “has gone out of his way to soften Exxon’s public stance on climate change.”
The effect of the idea of “climate change” means that any major climate event can be blamed on global warming, supposedly driven by mankind.
Spring 2006 has been swamped with climate change hype in every type of media – books, newspapers, magazines, online, TV and even movies.
One-time presidential candidate Al Gore, a patron saint of the environmental movement, is releasing “An Inconvenient Truth” in book and movie form, warning, “Our ability to live is what is at stake.”
Despite all the historical shifting from one position to another, many in the media no longer welcome opposing views on the climate. CBS reporter Scott Pelley went so far as to compare climate change skeptics with Holocaust deniers.
“If I do an interview with [Holocaust survivor] Elie Wiesel,” Pelley asked, “am I required as a journalist to find a Holocaust denier?” he said in an interview on March 23 with CBS News’s PublicEye blog.
He added that the whole idea of impartial journalism just didn’t work for climate stories. “There becomes a point in journalism where striving for balance becomes irresponsible,” he said.
Pelley’s comments ignored an essential point: that 30 years ago, the media were certain about the prospect of a new ice age. And that is only the most recent example of how much journalists have changed their minds on this essential debate.
Some in the media would probably argue that they merely report what scientists tell them, but that would be only half true.
Journalists decide not only what they cover; they also decide whether to include opposing viewpoints. That’s a balance lacking in the current “debate.”
This isn’t a question of science. It’s a question of whether Americans can trust what the media tell them about science.
This doesn't mean that we are not in a period of warming. It doesn't mean that the potential warming might be catastrophic. It does mean that we need to be very, very skeptical of the folks who say the debate is over. We need to wonder what the real motive is for politicians, scientists, and academics to try and squelch the debate. We especially have to wonder when those who promote the idea of global warming want to spend your money.