Journalists have to decide what to do about candidates who are climate change denialists

Claims that climate science is a hoax, that human action is not a factor: these are not defensible positions in a normal debate. They are ways of saying — and saying to the press — hey, the evidence doesn’t matter.

23 Mar 2015 12:25 am 81 Comments

In October of last year, the New York Times ran an in-house interview with its own editor in charge of environmental coverage, Adam Bryant. The interview was about how the Times treats climate change. It included this exchange:

Q. Is the equivalency issue dead? To what extent should we feel obligated to include the views of climate change skeptics?

A. Claims that the entire field of climate science is some kind of giant hoax do not hold water, and we have made a conscious decision that we are not going to take that point of view seriously. At the same time, there is a huge amount of legitimate debate and uncertainty within mainstream science. Scientists are pretty open about not being sure how bad things will get, or how quickly. These are the valid scientific issues and uncertainties that we want to cover.

A recent front-page piece by Justin Gillis — Scientists Trace Extreme Heat in Australia to Climate Change – provides a good example of providing informed second opinions on a topic. In his piece, Justin quoted an expert who has often been skeptical of claimed links between weather events and global warming in the past. But in this new study we were reporting on, he said the evidence was strong. That insight is more useful to readers than quoting someone who believes the entire field of study is built on a pillar of sand.

We have made a conscious decision that we are not going to take that point of view seriously. You don’t hear that very often from editors and producers of mainstream news coverage. The prohibition against “taking sides” in a public controversy normally prevents it. That the Times had made an exception in the case of climate change denialism was welcome news, an important development, but as soon as I saw Adam Bryant’s statement, I thought: Let’s wait for the 2016 campaign. Then we’ll see.

A few months earlier,, which does environmental news and commentary from an unapologetically Green point of view, published Meet the climate deniers who want to be president by Ben Adler. The likely candidates fall into four categories, Adler wrote:

(1) Flat-Earthers, who deny the existence of manmade climate change; (2) Born-Again Flat-Earthers, who do the same, but who had admitted climate change exists back before President Obama took office; (3) Do-Nothings, who sort of admit the reality of climate change but oppose actually taking any steps to prevent it; and (4) Dodgers, who have avoided saying whether they believe climate change is happening, and who also don’t want to take any steps to alleviate it.

Notice: the first two categories would fall under Adam Bryant’s “we are not going to take that point of view seriously.” Candidates in category (3) would not. Part of the purpose of campaign journalism is to “convert” the candidates in category (4) into ones, twos or threes, or some other position. Getting them to clarify what they believe — and comparing it to known facts — is the whole point of having journalists involved in the deal. Adler sizes up the field:

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker fall into the latter [dodgers] category. The Do-Nothings are blue and purple state governors, Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio. In a sign of how far rightward Republicans have moved since 2008, these are actually the guys who are trying to position themselves as relatively moderate and pragmatic. The Born-Agains are Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Both are staunch conservatives but only partial wingnuts. Back when that meant believing in climate change, they did, but they have since followed their base into fantasyland. Everyone else is an outright denier and always has been.

Again, that is stated from an openly “green” point of view. This is from National Journal’s guide, which is more willing than Grist to call a candidate’s position “unclear.”

There is now near unanimous consent among Republican congressional leadership and likely 2016 contenders that the climate is changing. But that’s as far as the GOP climate consensus goes, and it’s a far cry from the conclusion of the vast majority of scientists who say that human activity is a primary driver of global warming. Many would-be 2016 contenders publicly question the extent to which man-made greenhouse gas emissions contribute. And few say that the U.S. should take action to cut emissions.

(My italics.) So here’s the problem: As more and more journalists come to the conclusion that they should no longer take seriously the arguments of “someone who believes the entire field of study is built on a pillar of sand,” the Republican presidential field has more and more of these someones, and candidates who often flirt with that position. What to do?

I see four ways campaign journalists might go. All of them have problems.

1. Normalize it: treat denialist claims like any other campaign position. Here you simply say “the Senator doubts that climate change is really happening” and leave it at that, treating this as a normal position in a debate that carries on. You deal with a candidate’s denialism by not drawing any special attention to it. Just as some candidates think we need a fence at the southern border and others don’t, some think climate change is a myth or hoax and others do not. That’s politics! Advantage: It appears to be the most neutral way of handling the issue. And in a bitterly contested election neutral sounds awfully good. The problem: gross abandonment of the “checking” function that a free press is supposed to provide. It’s hard to feel good about that.

2. Savvy analysis: is denialism a winning move or is it costing the candidate? Here you go beyond stating “the Senator doubts that climate change is real” to look at the likely gain or loss in taking such a position. The risks and the rewards. What the polling says. Bracketing all questions of evidence — of truth — you focus instead on the smartness of the tactic. Advantage: you get to sound savvy and smart yourself, cool and analytical, not like those hotheads at Grist. Problem: Who cares if it’s true, let’s find out if it works! shatters the illusion that journalists can and do “hold their feet to the fire.” It’s hard to part with that.

3. Persistence: Call it what it is — a rejection of the science — and keep calling it that. “The Senator doubts that climate change is real, a position at stark odds with an overwhelming scientific consensus.” Here, you take responsibility for pointing out to voters that, while the candidate has his views, the evidence does not support them. And you do this not once, but every time the issue comes up. This is the fact-checking solution. Advantage: puts the campaign press back on the side of truthtelling. A major plus! Problem: likely to result in charges of bias from the candidates so described, likely to trigger the backfire effect among some voters (“in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”)

4. Confrontation: Try to raise the costs of denialism. Sort of like this…

Senator, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 1990, “Emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases,” leading to global warming. They said it again in 1995. They said it again, but more strongly in 2001. They were even more emphatic in 2007. And in 2014 they said they were 95 percent certain that human action was the primary cause of global warming. The World Bank has come to similar conclusions. The position you have taken on this seems to suggest that you have better evidence than they do. Will you be making that evidence public? And may we have the names of your science advisors so we can ask them where they are getting their information? (Links.)

You can quarrel with the wording of my hypothetical press conference question but I hope you get the point. Actively confronting the candidate is a more aggressive way to go. Advantage: Fulfills the watchdog role of the press and says to politicians: there are limits, this is beyond the pale. Problem: Easily politicized, certain to trigger culture war attacks. Plus the backfire effect is likely to be even stronger.

What to do? All four paths have problems. In my view 2.) is the worst option, 1.) is not much better, 3.) is probably the best choice, but that doesn’t mean it will make a difference, and 4.) is the riskiest but might be a worth a try.

On Monday, Senator Ted Cruz will become the first candidate to officially announce his run for President. In reporting this news, the Washington Post reviewed Cruz’s career and positions. About climate change the Post reporters, Katie Zezima and Robert Costa, wrote this:

Cruz does not believe in climate change and has said that data does not support it. Cruz chairs the Senate committee that oversees NASA and has said that the agency needs to focus more on space exploration and less on Earth science.

That’s Normalize it: treat denialist claims like any other campaign position. But we’re just getting started. How will the rest of the coverage line up? I don’t know. The most likely pattern is a mix of 1.) and 2.) from my list of coverage paths. I do know this. Claims that climate science is a hoax, or that human action is not a factor are not defensible positions in a political debate. They are ways of saying: hey, the evidence doesn’t matter.

Honest journalists have to look that statement in the face and decide what to do about it.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

UPDATE: JULY 1, 2015. This study by Media Matters (a liberal leaning watchdog group) looks at how the major news providers handled climate change denialism among Republic candidates for president.

Several months into the 2016 presidential campaign, the media is frequently failing to fact-check statements by presidential candidates denying the science of climate change. Seven major newspapers and wire services surveyed by Media Matters have thus far failed to indicate that candidates’ statements conflict with the scientific consensus in approximately 43 percent of their coverage, while the major broadcast and cable news outlets other than MSNBC have failed to do so 75 percent of the time.

UPDATE: May 21, 2015.

BEDFORD, N.H., May 20 (Reuters) – Republican Jeb Bush said on Wednesday that the Earth’s climate is changing but that scientific research does not clearly show how much of the change is due to humans and how much is from natural causes…

“Look, first of all, the climate is changing. I don’t think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you,” he said.

There is a lot to report by way of reactions and follow ups to this piece. Ready?

My post highlighted how passive and uncritical the Washington Post’s initial summary of Ted Cruz’s climate change position was. Since then, the Post has really sprung into action.

Chris Mooney, who blogs about climate change for the Post (he also studies denialism) dug into some of the claims Ted Cruz makes, including the data he was relying on and the scientists who reported that data. One of them is Carl Mears, physicist and senior scientist with Remote Sensing Systems. Mooney writes:

To explore Mears’s views further, I did one thing journalists can do when covering the climate views of presidential candidates — I contacted the researcher. And his response was quite critical of Cruz’s approach to the evidence on this issue…

“Satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years, there’s been zero warming. None whatsoever,” Ted Cruz has said. Here’s Max Ehrenfreund, writing at the Post’s Wonkblog about that claim:

Although the pace of global warming has slowed, the planet is still getting warmer, and 2014 was the hottest year on record for average temperatures worldwide. What’s more, Cruz distorts the data by choosing a 17-year-period as his yardstick, since 1998 was an exceptionally warm year. Focusing on the past 16 years or the past 18 years, the pace of warming has been more dramatic.

Philip Bump at the Post’s The Fix blog: Ted Cruz compares climate change activists to ‘flat-Earthers.’ Where to begin? Snippet:

What Cruz is doing is treating as valid one magazine article from 40 years ago but rejecting as hopelessly flawed study after study showing that the world is warming.

This all happened since he announced, indicating that climate change denial may become an issue that follows Cruz around as he campaigns.

Number of times Obama and Romney were asked about climate change in 2012 presidential debates: zero. Number of times they brought it up: zero. (Link.)

David Roberts of Grist, who is gone further into this subject than just about anyone (with the possible exception of Chris Mooney) comments on my post.

To make it consequential, journalists would have to push — ask about climate again and again, grind against the going-along-getting-along gears, make a fuss. That would inevitably entail some awkward encounters and social ostracism, not because D.C. is a hive of deniers, but simply because there’s a social order and behaving that way disturbs it. A journalist who did too much of that would wind up on the outside, branded an activist.

Here’s how the AP handled Ted Cruz’s views on climate in its round-up:


When Cruz recently startled a New Hampshire 3-year-old girl by declaring “your world is on fire,” he was attacking the Obama administration’s foreign policy – not talking about climate change. Cruz says that for the past 17 years, satellite images show that “there’s been zero global warming.” But scientific experts say satellite data is the wrong way to measure global warming, which the vast majority of scientists say is happening and is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Temperatures at ground level show that the planet has warmed since 1998 and that 2014 was the hottest on record. Cruz has acknowledged that climate change is real – but does not attribute that to human activity.

That’s option 3 from my list.

Michael Hiltzik, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, responds to this post: How should journalists treat candidates who deny climate change? His idea:

Educate the readers about the reason for climate change denial, especially its absorption into the Republican mainstream. The driving force, you see, is money.

Climate change denial, at its core, is an economic position, not scientific. Reporters who take a basic “follow the money” approach soon discover that their path leads them to fossil fuel interests.

I have had to do this only three, four times in 12 years of blogging. I closed the comments at this post.

Re-litigating the science that has led to the conclusion that climate change is happening and human activity is the primary cause, hand-to-hand combat over any kind of study cited, shouting “just politics” at evidence no matter how dry or technical it is— this is a pointless exercise at a press criticism blog. I am not allowing my site to become a forum for the denialism I am writing about.

Ars Technica explains how it moderates climate change comments threads. Excerpt:

Starting a discussion by throwing out phrases like “the whole thing is a giant fraud” is a quick way to get a moderator’s warning. Even if you’re not aware of the history of our understanding of the greenhouse effect (there’s over a century of it) or the decades’ worth of work that has built our modern understanding of the climate, it should be clear that diverse governments, private organizations, companies, and scientists all recognize the reality of climate change and take it seriously.

I have tried to develop my own term for denialism: “verification in reverse.”

Verification is taking something that might be true, and trying to nail it down with facts. In reverse verification you take something that’s been nailed down and try to introduce doubt about it. “Was Obama born in the United States?” is the clearest example. The phenomenon of “verification in reverse” poses a special problem for journalists. On the one hand, they are supposed to report what people are saying. They are supposed to bring us the news of controversies, protests, disagreements. “Conflict makes news,” and all that. On the other hand, verification is their business. If they cannot support that, they cannot support themselves or their users. They are socially useless, in fact, if they cannot stand up for verification.

Aaron Huertas, science communication officer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, has suggestions. “Journalists have their work cut out for them when they interview politicians who reject mainstream climate science. Can they do more to move our political dialogue past scientifically inaccurate talking points? I think so…” He names Jake Tapper of CNN for the effectiveness of some of the stratagems.

George Schultz in a March 13, 2015 op-ed: “I conclude that the globe is warming and that carbon dioxide has something to do with that fact. Those who say otherwise will wind up being mugged by reality.” Schultz was Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan.

Slate reports that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has staked out a leadership position:

On Monday, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Graham lambasted his fellow Republicans for their lack of progress on climate change, saying some “soul-searching” was needed within the party on this critical issue. “When it comes to climate change being real, people of my party are all over the board,” he said.

To my four ways to go listed above I can now add two more:

5. Deep dive: Re-report the statements the candidate has made about climate change. Here you go back, as Chris Mooney did, and re-trace the candidate’s steps. Dig into the sources of data, the experts relied upon, the people quoted. Does that study really say what the candidate says it says? Does that person agree with the use made of his or her work?

6. Highlight the conflicts internal to the party. As the op ed by former Secretary of State George Schultz demonstrates, climate change denial is actually a fissure within the Republican coalition, a point of internal conflict. Reporters have a lot of experience with putting a sharp point on differences among speakers who are otherwise on the “same side.” They could do that here, and ask about those differences when they have the chance.


Martin Ryeland says:

In 1976 our enlightened head of science burst into my third year chemistry class to tell us that they had discovered a hole in the ozone layer.

This however did not register with my peers although it scared the hell out of me as I was aware of the impact of single species numbers in plague proportions and the detrimental effect on their environment.

This blighted my late teens as I delved deeper into the depth of our consumption of the worlds resources and the inevitable consequences.

To paraphrase Brian Cox: It is the natural order of things that species wax and wane which is why its highly unlikely that any civilization will be able to evolve and survive to achieve contact with other worlds.

This is homo sapiens last gasp and irrespective of its denying detractors protestations or the fighters for the future the facts are irrelevant and the outcome certain for we are mortal and so is everything in the universe.

eco-worrier says:

This article almost invalidates itself by failing to discuss the large no if influential conservatives and outright crooks who are being paid to play down the seriousness of changing climate. The next generation will despise this immoral behavior, but by then it will be too late to avoid huge problems. It is the job of all media to expose and stop wrong-doing. Endangering future life is about as wrong as it gets.

Kathy Moyd says:

unless there is proof the candidate has been paid directly (not as a campaign contribution) to take this position, stick to the facts.

Fred Beloit says:

Strange. I have never met anyone who denies the climate changes, i.e., warms and cools. I have met many who dispute that climate is now a one-way phenomenon, warming only. I am one of them too.

You’re also a guy who doesn’t understand the difference between weather and climate. I can only assume you’re equally ignorant of climate science.

Brent Sullivan says:

I don’t think it’s journalists’ place to be concerned about any “backfire” effect. Play your part in the process and let the outcome be what it will be.

I’d like to see 4 24/7

I agree. And I also note that claiming the ‘backfire’ effect dominates is basically saying ‘we can’t tell the truth, because some will not believe us’.

I agree. Option 4. Every day, all the time.

A good approach may also be to better explain what’s on the table, as shown in this piece from the Guardian. It’s valuable to put things in context:

ezra abrams says:

do you recall J K Glabraith’s advice to a young beauracrat?
never trust experts…

If you read what a card carrying member of the climate change science community wrote in a flagship journal, Fyfe et al Nature climate change sept 2013, you will read that models are not working; the community of *scientists* took this seriously, which has stimulated a lot of work on how to improve models, mostly related to pacific ocean stuff

However, since models are the ONLY, repeat, only way we have of doing forecasts, if the scientsts – not me, the scientists – say the models aren’t working, what conlcusion can you draw ??

you are as bad as rubio; you know nothing about the science, yet make extrme, comfident statements. look in the mirror, rosen

“do you recall J K Glabraith’s advice to a young beauracrat?
never trust experts…”

That is ironic.

eco-worrier says:

Read the article again – that debate is over. Either think about mitigation and adaption, or (actually I can’t be bothered to go over it all again)- just f off and die, please.

ezra abrams says:

boy, r u missing the point
the point is, not is the article accurate today, but at the time it was published, it generated a lot of concern in the science community about the models

and, I don’t think the debate is over – way I read stuff about deep water pac temps, pac/atlantic cycles, etc, the debate is ongoing

but, since I have provided a reference to the peer reviewed literature, u cd do the same ??

I think you don’t understand well what a model in the sciences does.

Gravity (Newtonian) is a model. It’s an incomplete model though. It breaks down with masses that are very large, velocities that are very large, or both. But it works well enough that we use Newtonian gravitational models to send rockets into space and keep satellites where they belong.

Einsteinian gravity (Relativity) is of course a more complete model. But that doesn’t invalidate Newton.

In a similar vein, climate models get better. The ones from the 70s are not as good as later ones, but that doesn’t mean they are “not working” — it just means we get better answers. And the models have been pretty good at predicting some broad trends. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, there’s simply no denying that unless you want to take on some very basic laws of physics that have been experimentally demonstrated repeatedly.

Also, Mars isn’t a ball of ice, Venus is insanely hot, and many climate models rely on data we’ve picked up not just on Earth but on other planets as well. SO it’s not like there’s no point of comparison. (FYI the atmospheres of both Venus and Mars are ~90% CO2).

Not knowing everything is not the same as knowing nothing.

ezra abrams says:

that you emphasize CO2 is a greenhouse gas shows you don’t understand
CO2 is the man made forcing; most of the greenhouse effect is from water; more CO2 = slightly more heat = more water = more heat

uh, like duh
I know about models; the paper by Fyfe et al – again, this is the scientists themselvves – suggests that the quantitative guidance is less certain then they say

You might enjoy this: “I do not doubt … that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzlesolving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s.”

My only questions for you are
1) Who pays people like you to comment on climate change articles?
2) How much?
It must be a lot to sell out your grandchildren.

Did you actually read the article? I did. It absolutely says the climate is still warming, just at a slower rate than had been predicted. It also suggests that natural variations might (or might not) be factors.

So Cruz and the denialists are still wrong.

Scientists who support man caused climate change: 95%.

Comment ratio of people (not scientists) who deny man made climate change: 95%.

Deniers tend to be louder, comment more and be passionate about their (erroneous) position, where as the rational people choose to walk away from the foaming at the mouth crazy.

Denying the facts doesn’t make them less factual.

Climate has joined a group of issues that have roots in American cultural differences (gun control, evolution), and there are excellent books you can read about the origins of the politics. James Webb’s “Born Fighting,” David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed,” and Colin Woodard’s “American Nations” all help explain what’s going on.

I’m all for option #4, 24/7. Add to it: “If you were elected President, how would you determine what science is true, and what science is false?”

Ezra: the underlying understanding of climate change goes back 150 years, and is not controversial in the realm of science (which is why the world’s science academies unanimously concur on the basic findings). You’d have to repeal basic physics to get it to turn out differently. The Royal Society provides an introduction here:

ezra abrams says:

to equate the confidence scientists havve with evolution with the confidence scientist have in the predictions of climate models is, imo, just wrong
evolution is consistent with a huge amount of solid data from many fields

In climate, the data are less good, the theorys are less good, etc

Well, damn it, I hate to do this, but you are correct in one aspect of your comment. The evidence for evolution is virtually air tight. However, it’s not from different fields, it’s all from subsets of biology. It is global warming that has evidence coming from multiple fields. And, while it is true that the certainty of global warming is not at the level it is with evolution, why is 95% not cause enough to take action? Why are you still arguing?

ezra abrams says:

i have two core arguments
1) man made climate change is not at the level of evolution, much less relativity

2)afaik, the only – the only way we have of predicting the *quantitative* effects of climate change are the computer models; the paper by fyfe etal which I mentioned above, suggests that the models are less accurate then the sellers (scientists) would have you believe

Your “afaik” shows the limitation of your knowledge in this field. Paleoclimatology provides a source of data separate from “the models” – there are multiple lines of hard physical evidence (Antarctic ice cores, ocean sediment cores, permafrost ice cores, etc.) bearing on the answer to the question “what conditions occurred in the past on Earth when the CO2 equivalent was x ppm”. For example, a substantial portion of Jim Hanson’s analysis is based on paleoclimate evidence. And then answers are pretty much in accord with “the models”.

An essay from Walter Russell Meade draws on the sources I mentioned above, to explain the political landscape this issue is now part of:

The swing story with climate, as with so many American issues, rests with this group:

“If Jeffersonianism is the book-ideology of the United States, Jacksonian populism is its folk-ideology. Historically, American populism has been based less on the ideas of the Enlightenment than on the community values and sense of identity among the British colonizers who first settled this country. In particular, as David Hackett Fischer has shown, Jacksonian populism can be originally identified with a subgroup among these settlers, the so-called “Scots-Irish”, who settled the back country regions of the Carolinas and Virginia, and who went on to settle much of the Old West—West Virginia, Kentucky, parts of Indiana and Illinois—and the southern and south central states of Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. Jacksonian populism today has moved beyond its original ethnic and geographical limits. Like country music, another product of Jacksonian culture, Jacksonian politics and folk feeling has become a basic element in American consciousness that can be found from one end of the country to the other.”

The even more radical version of Option 4 would involve being more transparent about the motives behind the denial:

It doesn’t seem at all out of the ordinary for reporters to connect Democratic opposition to charter schools to political allegiance with teachers unions. Why can’t reporters be as offhand about connecting Republican climate science opposition to its polluting, anti-regulation and anti-tax base?

Jay, you’ve shown a fifth option here: Shame the journalists who punt by opting for your first or second options.

If enough people with clout did this, a search on the offending journalists’ names would turn up examples of shoddy practice.

As a result, I suspect we’d see a widespread adoption of options 3 & 4 in fairly short order.

This is a fascinating dilemma, for those who challenge the deniers will inevitably be linked to the left – the so-called ”the liberal media.” If that’s acceptable, then the idea of taking a stand on the issue pushes deniers into Hallin’s sphere of deviation. The problem with that is that if global warming is painted as an anti-business position, it falls into the sphere of legitimate controversy for conservatives, if not even the sphere of consensus. “Science” isn’t God, and that, too, is a problem with this issue, for a great many (and not all of them crazy) people feel that God is more than capable of righting any wrongs that humans create. Since science has no way of refuting that argument other than to say it supports facts, not myths, the problem becomes acute, for the vast majority of people in the U.S. believe in God.

The “science versus faith” issue will not be resolved by those who write history claiming their position is the only correct one, especially in the era of the great horizontal. This is where the battle belongs, and the problem, of course, is that one-to-many influencers aren’t welcome here. Truth has to bubble up from the bottom, not be dictated from on high. Perhaps a better strategy for the left would be to relentlessly distribute the scientific position in clever and creative ways, so that individuals can pass it amongst themselves.

I rhyme about climate,
I care more than most,
The death of real science
Left behind us its ghost,
An evil poltergeist,
Pseudo-science it is called,
And this shadow figure
Has politicians enthralled.
Read more:

Your rhyming is clever,
your wordplay is taught.
But what do you know?
Not a hell of a lot.

Dedicated 7 years to study
Still I can’t find the proof,
From incredulous speculation
I remain quite aloof.

John Daschbach says:

One of the best short articles on Climate Change is by Steven Koonin, formerly of Cal Tech and DOE. He notes that human impact on climate is not a hoax and suggests the median impact estimate for human impact vs. natural variability is about half. However, decades of research have not improved the range of climate sensitivity to CO2. The extreme speculations of some people in the climate world are just that, speculations. They reject science as much as the climate deniers. To have an intelligent debate we have to acknowledge what we know scientifically including uncertainty and proceed from there. Some aspects of increased average temperature from CO2 will be good for some regions of the world and some will not be good. And we don’t that much about the magnitude of the changes. As a scientist, I find the extreme catastrophe claims of some (non-scientist) climate scientists to be as much a rejection of science as some of the deniers. Journalism should provide the public with an accurate representation of the real science.

John, I’d suggest taking a look at the reply to Koonin in the WSJ, from Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore.

I saw Koonin give a talk a few weeks ago, and it’s as though he’s on autoplay. First “we can’t be sure,” then “it may not be bad,” then “there’s nothing we can do, given the scale of our reliance on fossil fuels.”
In fact, that recipe of delay goes back to many previous industrial issues, CFC’s being a prime example. Even more than journalism, this kind of social, economic and political decision goes to how we think. Here’s a clearly written piece, from which you can draw your own conclusions:

I also recommend a letter that Matt Ridley, to his credit, has on his own site. It’s from David MacKay, Cambridge physicist and until recently, science advisor to the UK department of energy. The key understanding of the science is below the photo of the rock cores.

It’s sad to see an experienced journalist and several pathetic commenters completely naive on the fact that taking sides isn’t the only or the best option for a reporter to inform the readers. Candidates subject to 3 or 4 will clam up, for example, and the public will know less about them than they should.

In practice the best way to handle any situation is by treating it as unique and devising the strategy that will bring about the best journalism on the there and then. Ideology and prejudice won’t ever work in that respect.

I thought this post does treat the situation as unique. That’s why journalists have to decide what they are going to do. It’s all about “devising the strategy that will bring about the best journalism on the there and then.”

Jay – each of your four ways assumes that the journalist goes out there with some Truth in his/her mind and has to protect the public from exposure to some particular Untruth.

What I’m saying is that this is not an approach that will elicit great pages of campaign journalism, especially as it automatically and prejudicially isolates the politician from the journalist.

What if anything genuine will those politicians do and say when this Truth Holder of a journalist is around, I cannot fathom. At best, he or she will be considered by the candidate and the entourage as an eco-zealot buffoon, somebody who should be fed made-up morsels of non-news.

I repeat – the only way for a campaign journalist has to be to find the best way to extract news from candidate and campaign, considering the uniqueness of each situation. To go around with pen, paper, microphone and a lot of self-important grandstanding, isn’t good journalism.

The fossil fuel industry is a big advertiser. And a big player in political donations.

It’s easier for our corporate press to treat the denial nonsense with kid gloves and kick hippies instead.

And so they do.

I have a problem with journalists acting as advocates for fighting climate change by calling out those who deny its scientific validity because it makes them look like they’re advocating one candidate over another. Instead, simply present the facts as honestly as they can and let the viewer or reader decide for themselves.

So you would favor path 3, correct? “The Senator doubts that climate change is real, a position at stark odds with an overwhelming scientific consensus.”

That’s presenting the facts as honestly as possible.

the most often wielded catastrophic claims are NOT the scientific consensus. whether there is anthropomorphic global warming is separate from the question of whether it has any significance for humans at levels commensurate with the economy destroying costs of the typical Democrat sponsored “reactions to the crisis”.

To Kenneth and others… Isn’t not taking sides actually just another way of taking sides—and the precisely the one which the candidates who reject scientific consensus want? Why is option 3, or 4, advocating anything but the facts? They are more adversarial, yes, and they may alienate politicians—but they simply ask candidates to state their opinions and compare to the known situation, and we should be questioning whether a politician who cannot or will not answer these questions is fit for office.

Where do you draw the line on when to assume that a question becomes non-debatable? Evolution? Gravity? The shape of the Earth? Where is anthropogenic climate change on that spectrum?

I am interested in how the threads around climate change get separated from the other threads in the culture war (if they can). Because ultimately it is in absolutely nobody’s interest to treat climate change as yet another meaningless policy stance; allowing it to run it alongside religiosity or late-capitalist views has catastrophic consequences.

(To be honest I’d much prefer the press to assume the position that there are no meaningless policy stances)

“If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice” – Rush, “Free Will”

Neil Peart may have been a Randian when he wrote that, but it’s still spot on.

given a choice to make you will likely make the wrong one.

Marxists everwhere

Wesley Rolley says:

Jay, thank you for this clear outline of the alternative paths for journalists. I have a great admiration for Chris Mooney (now WaPo) but doubt that he will be given any opportunity to talk to any candidate. I remember when he helped organize an effort to hold a “Science Debates” between McCain and Obama. We all know how far that got. I have a great fear that both major parties will nominate Dodgers, that journalists will take your option 1 or 2 and that the rest of us will lose because the subject will not be mentioned at all unless there is a catastrophic weather event that forces this to happen.

Kelly Anspaugh says:

Willing to bet, Wes, that, as the primary season gets into full swing, all the GOP Dodgers will transmogrify into Flat Earthers, just as last time.

Peter MUllen says:

This is not journalism. It has devolved into a cult. Some of the comments in this thread are mind boggling. A ‘science debate’ between McCain and Obama, two self-serving politicians?? What a joke. How about a science debate between sicentists? But no, you want to shut down all meaningful dialogue that would help cut through all the media-fed hysteria. Join the cult of clmate change or else is not journalism. Or perhaps it is and I have missed something. You lefty extremists are prtty smug in your strategy of labeling the opposition and then bring in the liberal media air cover to strafe and shame anyone who you label the enemy. America is on to your shenanigans and this is why Dems have gotten shellacked in the last severl elections (except for the bought and paid for presidency). Get real Jay. You used to be relevant. This post pretty much seals your legacy as a propagandist.

Better to remain silent and have men wonder if you’re a raving, ignorant lunatic, than to rant uncontrollably thereby removing all doubt.

Peter MUllen says:

Impressive, very impressive. Are you even capable of an original thought?

It’s perfectly reasonable to “deny” the catastrophic predictions of the Democratic mainstream. There’s absolutely no widespread conviction in the scientific community that there will be either catastrophic economic or human consequences for even the worst case carbon emission projections for the next 200 years. Meanwhile, the contradictions of those who oppose modern, clean, safe, fission based nuclear energy — zero carbon emission energy production at high volumes at low cost — are utterly unscientific.

Just one example, in 300 years, “a likely near-halving of habitable land” is pretty catastrophic, this in PNAS (Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences), one of the most reputable journals; author from MIT, one of the most reputable universities. Yes you said 200 years, but time doesn’t stop there. The authors pick 300 years for the burning of all available fossil fuels, burning faster will take a shorter time. Remnant human populations in Siberia and Antarctica will not be kind, better solve those fission problems fast. –

In partial reply to many….

I have limited myself in this post to three claims, supported by 90+ percent of climate scientists. 1.) the earth is getting warmer; 2.) human activity is the primary cause; 3.) we need to do something about it or eventually (“eventually” implies not right away) there will be serious consequences for human life on this planet.

I concede that there is no consensus on what to do about it, or how to pay the costs, or which costs are worth the benefits, or whether any benefits can be had. I think that many ideas have to be considered, and that no one — no party, no interest group — has a monopoly on wisdom, and that until we have a free, open and sustained debate the political community cannot possibly arrive at a decision on such murky and yet important matters.

Therefore, when I speak of denialism I do not intend to reference “politicians who reject cap and trade.” That’s not denialism. I do not mean “the Republican Party’s refusal to go along with the Democratic Party’s solutions.” That’s not denialism, either.

Denialism means rejecting the evidence for, or denying there ever was any evidence of, these specific claims, which are supported by the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists: 1.) the earth is getting warmer; 2.) human activity is the primary cause; 3.) we need to do something about it or eventually there will be serious consequences for human life on this planet.

Almost all — if not all — the Republican’s Party’s candidates for president reject one or more of those claims. Most reject two or all three. In that rejection they are turning their back on modern science. They are encouraging the worst instincts among their supporters, especially the tendency to believe that the world can be redrawn, and history will surely bend, according to our wishes.

There is nothing “conservative” about that cave-in. In fact it is the opposite of what conservatives at their best stand for, which includes a healthy respect for limits and a wariness about unintended consequences.

Climate change denialism says there are no limits. There are no inescapable facts. There is only the contest for power, the game. The world can be what we say it is because we say so in numbers large enough to make it so. If we vote for the candidate who says climate change isn’t happening, if we tune in the news that supports that view, then our wishes make it so.

Some day political historians wiser than ourselves will have to explain to our grandchildren how a position like that ever became associated with the “conservative” movement in this country. It is bizarre. I don’t think any of us is smart enough to understand how that disaster could have happened.

In the meantime, I am trying to figure out what journalists of honest intent should do when confronted with presidential candidates who are trapped in denialism. To me this is a hard problem. To many of my readers it is not that at all. It is easy. They don’t trust the Democrats, so denialism must be okay. They don’t trust the Republicans, so denialism is just business as usual.

To me it’s not okay, and it is not business as usual. It’s a bizarre deformation, a kind of illness. Climate change denialism is the Republican party’s position but at the same time it is anti-business, hostile to any future that capitalism can have on this planet, the opposite of a conservative temper. Climate change denialism is a long term wrecking crew the right wing has loosed upon itself, thinking it was hurting its enemies only. To me that is a political mystery worth exploring, and I wish our campaign journalists were up to the task. They aren’t. So I will settle for what I said in this post. Look the phenomenon in the face and decide what to do.

John Midgley says:

You are correct to call it a form of mass illness. That’s what is so disturbing and makes it so difficult to respond to. A very large number of people in the US deny the reality of evolution as well. (Commenters above say evolution is more solidly proven than climate change, but so what? Scads of people still don’t believe in evolution.) What do you say when someone denies that kind of thing?
I appreciate your questions. I suggest option 3 as it is truthful and avoids the problem with option 4, which is that 4 is the easiest for people to dismiss as too partisan.

Sam Gunsch says:

re: It is bizarre. I don’t think any of us is smart enough to understand how that disaster could have happened.

Some or maybe a lot of the ‘how’ can be understood using Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition research.


Dan Kahan, excerpt:

What you “believe” about climate change doesn’t reflect what you know; it expresses *who you are*

Posted April 23, 2014

More or less the remarks I delivered yesterday at Earthday “Climate teach in/out” at Yale University:

I study risk perception and science communication.

I’m going to tell you what I regard as the single most consequential insight you can learn from empirical research in these fields if your goal is to promote constructive public engagement with climate science in American society.

It’s this:

What people “believe” about global warming doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are.

Accordingly, if you want to promote constructive public engagement with the best available evidence, you have to change the meaning of the climate change.

You have to disentangle positions on it from opposing cultural identities, so that people aren’t put to a choice between freely appraising the evidence and being loyal to their defining commitments.

I dispute your reference to the overwhelming consensus. If you are referring to the Queensland study it is a very flawed study, and produced by a very strident global warming activist. It took 12,000 papers, found 4000 that had some opinion on global warming and determined that 97% of those 4,000 acknowledged man had some part in it. In reality this is about 32% of the papers. It does not break down what the papers felt was the Quantitative effect. In other words belief in global warming is not a yes or no question, you can believe man is 5% responsible or 100% responsible. The study lumps them all together. It is not a good study if you want to rely on science. Furthermore the author of the study has refused to let critics evaluate his data. This is not transparent or Scientific

If you are to make a claim to science you must realize none of this is proven. All you have until you can prove something is a religion.

Temperatures have not risen in the past 18 years this is proven fact. The models did not predict this nor can they explain this, also a fact.

Pray, Scream or Fail yourself in front of what ever god you choose, consensus does not proof or fact and is not science.

Climate change alarmism is also a POWER game, to pretend otherwise is dishonest, as is to pretend that any current projections of future temperatures are accurate or based on anything other than SWAGs, Scientific wild ass guesses.

YOUR, children or grandchildren may not feel any adverse consequences of policies to mitigate Global warming, but it is again dishonest imply with certainty the positive aspects of your favored policies will outweigh their ill effects or that your vision of the future is accurate.

Reality does not care about concensus says:

Hi Jay.

As has been mentioned earlier in the comments thread, all of the predictive temperature models have turned out to be wrong.

All of the predicted disastrous effects have also failed to materialize (end of snow, increased hurricanes, sinking islands, etc.).

In short, observable reality has repeatedly denied the claims of the “science is settled!” consensus crowd that you want to defend.

That is something people should keep in mind while reading your call for journalists to abandon neutrally reporting information in favor of joining some kind of Lysenkoist Praetorian guard.

Reality does not care about consensus says:

You’re welcome, Jay. I’m not sure why you added that link in your post, though. From it:

Over the 2014 to 2015 winter season, sea ice extent grew 9.91 million square kilometers (3.83 million square miles). This was substantially less ice growth than last year, which saw record growth over the winter. Part of the explanation for the record low maximum lies with recent weather patterns. As discussed in our previous post, February was characterized by an unusual configuration of the jet stream, leading to warm conditions over the Pacific side of the Arctic that maintained low sea ice extent in the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. Furthermore, since the last half of February through the middle of March, the Arctic Oscillation was in a strongly positive phase, with index values exceeding 5.0 for several days in the first week of March. This has been expressed as a strong Icelandic Low, a semi-permanent area of low atmospheric pressure found between Iceland and southern Greenland and extending into the Barents Sea. The strong Icelandic Low led to a pattern of surface winds over the Barents and Kara seas with an unusually strong component from the south.

Please tell me you are not stupid or dishonest enough to try to offer up an effect caused by recent weather patterns as some sort of proof of global warming.

This would be an especially stupid and dishonest tactic given that the article you linked explicitly points out that the previous year saw record growth over the winter. (Perhaps global warming just took last winter off?)

Are you hoping that people don’t actually read the material you link, or did you not read and understand it yourself?

LogicalSC says:


That doesn’t exist any longer…why Albert Gore declared that winter ended in 2012….

Snow ended in 2010….

What is this winter to which you refer?


More seriously this points out how unproductive it is to conduct scientific arguments by headline or sound bite.

LogicalSC says:

Yeah… you nuts go with this Don Quixote fable… it has been working wonderfully…

At showing that the Democrat Party truly is a party of loons, nuts and out-of-touch fools.

No wonder the Congressional representation of the Democrats is at its lowest level since 1929…

Your Democrat fools could not build a working website for under 1 BILLION dollars but you are going to control the climate..

… do you not realize how STUPID you sound?

I don’t think all four choices are mutually exclusive and a mix of 2 & 3 would work.

“Cruz has said global warming is not supported by data, despite scientific consensus to the contrary.”

Kenneth Fingerman says:

Interesting article but the science proves it is real

I’m sorry but in what way does science prove it is real? temperatures have been flat for the past 18 years and over 25% of all carbon produced by man has been poured into our atmosphere during this time.

I mean prove it to me, slap me down. Explain why the IPCC, a political body not a scientific body mind you, lowered the projections of temperature rise. explain why historical temps from the thirties need to be adjusted down while current temps need adjusting up. Otherwise the 30’s become the warmest decade. explain why the medieval warm period was local when it extended from Iceland to Asia. You seem alike a smart guy, I’ll be waiting.

Rich hosier says:

Please read any article by Dr Patrick Moore, PHD. He was co founder of Greenpeace and debunks all the myths put forward by the climate change community.

He especially takes issue with the references that the debate is over. He points out the earth has been warming slightly over the last 300 years long before fossil fuels were introduced. Climate change is a powerful political force because it breeds fear and guilt.

Look behind the climate change groups and follow the money, it’s very rewarding money wish to believe in global warming, just ask all the universities gathering up our tac monies in grants.

And please debate and quit name calling.

I think it’s fascinating that you think this is in any way a rebuttal to what Jay wrote: “Yes, for the last 25 years almost every climatologist in the world has agreed that the world is getting warmer and human activity is the primary cause, but there’s a lobbyist for polluters who disagrees, so I win.” That just shows you have no idea how science works, especially since Moore has published no peer-reviewed papers.

And your suggestion to “follow the money” shows a spectacular level of cluelessness: oil companies and polluters have much more money than grant agencies.

Name-callling is entirely appropriate here.

Really I am not sure that is the case. The Queensland study often referred to, including Prof Rosen in this post, looked at 12,000 papers on global warming. of those 12,000 they found 4,000 that expressed some sort of an opinion on global warming. of those 4,000 papers, 97.1 % expressed some sort of support for man made global warming. this would include all responses from yes there is an defect but it is minimum, to all the warming is due to man.

In other words it is not a real good study.

throw in other confounders like prejudiced peer review and the chilling effect being a “Denier” a political not scientific, term and the study is practically worthless.

Dr. Cook in the finest traditions of science, academics, and even news reporting has chosen not to show his work.
when skeptics attempted to access his data to rebut his findings he made it unavailable and has deleted his profile from Queensland college.

A phrase like “prejudiced peer review” is a pretty clear indication that you reject the most basic premises of science. Perhaps you think we should use a more neutral forum, like internet comment sections, to assess scientific validity.

The earth has gotten warmer and for the last 25 years the vast majority of climatologists have agreed that humans are the primary cause. Those are indisputable facts. It’s bizarre that so many people — and the majority of conservatives — reject those facts.

We just need to go back 40 years or so to the scientific consensus that we were entering a new Ice Age to show the idiocy of this article.

In describing climate change denialism, Professor Rosen asserts that it is “the opposite of what conservatives at their best stand for, which includes a healthy respect for limits and a wariness about unintended consequences.”

This suggests a further option for journalists in covering this issue, a truth-in-labeling option. Currently, it is common usage to label most Republican Party platform positions as “conservative.” Instead, when those positions are potentially disruptive and recklessly unwary of unintended consequences, a label such as “radical” would be more accurate.

As the primary season gets going, we already hear factions in the Republican Party coalition labeled along sociological lines as “establishment” versus “populist.” Let’s hear some ideological distinctions as well: “conservatives” versus “radicals.”

This depends on how you are looking at things. Loosing ones job mining coal is destructive, as well as paying more, I believe 30% on average during Obama’s reign, for basic services like electricity.

The science is really not settled, temperature rise projections were revised downward by 50% by the last IPCC. In what sane world is that settled. Even the 97% figure loved by our host is as much smoke and mirrors as reality.

Biofuels are disrupting normal market demands for farming and driving increased food prices and destruction of the rain forests.

Wind and solar power are killing millions of birds and insects a year.

So your use of radical implies much more certainty than currently exists. I would argue the position the most disruptive and recklessly unwary of unintended consequences currently is the alarmists.

Concerning the “Confrontation” option, you say using it will be “Easily politicized, certain to trigger culture war attacks. Plus the backfire effect is likely to be even stronger.” and call that concept somehow a problem and that, of the 4 approaches to delivering the news, it “4.) is the riskiest but might be a worth a try. “.

Sir, I submit that, if a “news” organization is going to try to live up to that moniker,”Confrontation” is the ONLY way to approach the news.

There’s no reason to, between reasonable people at least, try to wax prolix on such obvious concepts as the data supporting the idea that the world is flat or that the sky is blue because it’s god’s favorite color when a cursory review of the facts and data shows, details and explains the reality. If a real candidate spouted those bits of Luna Lovegood-ities, Confrontation would always be used by, probably, even Fox. Well, maybe not the sky color thingy.

But, in my view, some of Confrontation’s drawbacks (as I think you see them) are its most important reasons for using it.

Confrontation, and its concomitant “drawbacks” of politicization, culture war and strong backfire effects, are the things that the press MUST promote because (and I hope that I get the quote correct) “War is nothing more than politics by other means.”. And, without trying to take or show sides here, we are pretty close to making that particular leap, I’m afraid. If we can’t solve these culture wars politically by calling out the Luddites of ideas and making those, hmmmm…less curious, lets say, aware of the weakness of both those ideas and those who spout them. Then, into the abyss of 1861we are liable to fall.

And, I think all will agree, is worth a try.

what about journalist that promote a global tax scam, based on beliefs.

rollotomasi says:

Reading through Prof. Rosen’s post and the comments, I see much commonality with his 3/2 Pressthink post regarding “resentment news.”

It seems to me that climate change denialism has attained such great traction over the years through the years largely through non-stop usage of various forms of Prof. Rosen’s Confrontation Option #4. A major tactic has been to take the science out of the discussion and put in the Liberals/The Left/Elites. The reality for many denialists is not the science, but that Liberals (aka Al Gore) are pushing it.

This ties right back in to the 3/2 Pressthink , quoting from it: “In resentment news there are different stories every day, but the narrative never changes. A corrupt elite is trying to put one over on the decent, hard-working people of this country, and to destroy the simple virtues that made America great.”

As I recall, climate change was rarely brought up at all in the 2012 presidential debates, so getting the candidates to talk about it in any way, shape or form would be an improvement.

Past that, Confrontation Option 4 seems the logical way to deal with those who have been practitioners and/or beneficiaries of this option for years. The confrontation must deal not with just the scientific facts, but with the manipulations and political/financial mechanisms at work here.

How about this way:
-Change, yes, but how much?
-0.85+/-0.15 in 100 years.
-Who could be really really certain that a further rise of , say, 0.25 in the next 20 years is a catastrophe? What is really the error span in such measurements?…

Jay, I’d go with Option 4 — with the possible omission of “The position you have taken on this seems to suggest that you have better evidence than they do. Will you be making that evidence public?” Me, I love that kind of snark and I think it’s appropriate when a candidate is baldly stating that down is up. But every editor I ever worked for, most of whom were very smart people and more emotionally intelligent than I, probably would say that snark is out of place here.

The question about science advisors, on the other hand, is right on target. One of the main jobs of a president is picking smart people who know more than he/she does to advise him/her on subject on which he/she is not an expert. The public is entitled to know about the qualifications and policy positions of the people each candidate will be relying on for that advice. More attention to Bush 43’s foreign-policy team might’ve prevented the Iraq debacle, for example.

…and Geithner, Summers, and Emanuel

The problem is that both side stalk past each other. Denialist is not a scientific term it is a political term good to employ when reality is not going your way. Our understanding of sea ice patterns, climate, ocean currents, even day to day weather is still in its infancy. To imply otherwise is pure hubris, not science.

The problem is that politically to disrupt peoples lives to the extent desired by global warming, or is that global climate change advocates requires certainty. And when a movement has to change from global warming to global climate change because reality is not cooperating, how certain is it? Better question, how smart are the elite experts forming the consensus.

Retuning to my original intent, ices amounts have increased or decreased depending on where one wants to look.

Big changes in climate would require big changes, on the magnitude of something like our sun, which is funny because in models our sun is considered a constant.

The thing that pisses me off most about stances like professor Rosen’s is that science is a process. We don’t know what we don’t know. Consensus does not equal fact. Scientific certainty is elusive to nonexistent. The earth may turn into a smoking ball, but the alarmists have done a very poor job of proving it.

In the final analyst when folks inform Kansas to New England are buried in snow up to their necks. Global warming is a case of what are you going to believe, “scientific consensus, or your own lying eyes. Climate denialist in the present climate is a tough sell.

I figured this might happen. Re-litigating the science that has led to the conclusion that climate change is happening and human activity is the primary cause, hand-to-hand combat over any kind of study cited, shouting “just politics” at evidence no matter how dry or technical it is— this is a pointless exercise at a press criticism blog.

I am not allowing my site to become a forum for the denialism I am writing about. Nor am I surprised that it became that.

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