Science Fact or Science Fiction?

Science Fact or Science Fiction?

Climate change is real, and its impact is potentially devastating to our way of life. So why do the news media have such a hard time telling the straight story?


It’s bad enough that science has taken a back seat to politics under the Bush Administration, but even more disturbing is the way some GOP lawmakers are trying to make science out of fiction.

Senate Environmental Committee chair James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who famously described global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” turned to science fiction writer Michael Crichton for expert opinion during a set of hearings on climate change in late 2005.

Then, as the New York Times recently learned, President Bush invited Crichton to speak to a private audience at the White House last year about his techno-thriller State of Fear, in which a group of eco-terrorists undertake a phony global warming scheme to earn government grants. Someone who attended the event said President Bush and his guest “talked for an hour and were in near-total agreement.”

If that wasn’t enough to prove Crichton’s science is sketchy at best, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists saw fit to give Crichton its 2006 Journalism Award, despite the book’s appearance on the New York Times list of best fiction sellers. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration tries to muzzle real scientists, like James Hansen of NASA, who have spent their lives researching the threat of climate change and are telling us that earth is approaching a point of no return.

Politicians, however, can’t be given all of the blame. In his new book The Winds of Change, journalist and author Eugene Linden describes the media’s coverage of climate change as “timid and fitful,” focusing too much of its effort on the dissenting opinion, despite the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community.

Linden has written about global environmental issues for nearly thirty years, observing and often compensating for the complacency of mass media reporting. He described a recent segment about Crichton on ABC’s newsmagazine 20/20 in which correspondent John Stossel said, “He’s concluded [that global warming] is just another media-hyped foolish scare. And many scientists agree with him.” Yet the segment failed to note some actual news on the subject, the scientific consensus on climate change that was publised in that week’s issue of Science magazine.

That’s not to say scientists are particularly great at getting the word out in mass media. With well-founded and documented research, many scientists cultivate a naturally cautious public persona where the news media are involved.

“It’s so easy to be alarmist in this thing,” Linden pointed out, “but alarm actually understates the threat.”

Two of the greatest wake-up calls occurred less than a year apart. The tsunami in eastern Asia in December 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in September 2005 exemplified the dangers posed by extreme weather. Yet it is still a common belief that climate change occurs gradually and is far off in the future.

“What has become clear, as Penn State geochemist Richard Alley puts it, is that while we’ve tended to comfort ourselves by thinking that climate change is like turning a dial, the reality is that shifts in climate are more like flicking a switch,” Linden writes in the beginning of his book.

This is a myth we’re all complicit in perpetuating. “It’s a conspiracy of everybody, of human nature, to try and not represent the stakes of [climate change] in any sort of way the public can grasp,” he said.

The Winds of Change aims to set the record straight by depicting climate change as a serial killer, a force that has proved costly if not fatal for past civilizations, but is now being pushed to new extremes by humans.

The book is structured much like a legal case, opening with the prosecution’s argument that climate change has exterminated past civilizations or at least contributed to their downfall. Among the victims are the Akkadians of early Mesopotamia, who abandoned their empire during a time of dramatic drying and cooling; the Vikings of Greenland, frozen out of their agrarian settlements in the fourteenth century during the Little Ice Age; and the Mayans of Mesoamerica, perhaps done in by their inability to prepare for extended droughts.

Linden also presents a cross-examination of these victims, offering alternative views of their demise. History tends to name political unrest, warfare and invasion as precursors to a civilization’s collapse. However, Linden ultimately asserts that the proxies used by paleoclimatologists to reconstruct past weather are as credible as established theories. “We disregard the role of climate in history at our peril,” he says.

Linden returns to the present and discusses the idiosyncrasies of climate change since it was first identified as a threat in the late 1970s. The issue is framed in two narratives: the theoretically balanced news story presented to the general public and formal discourse in the scientific community.

In the summer of 1988, when more than 2,000 daily high temperature records were broken, James Hansen testified before the Senate Energy Committee in Washington, describing global warming as part of a cause-and-effect relationship with the greenhouse effect. At the time, as Linden recalls, “rapid climate change was regarded as little more than a radical hypothesis in the imagination of a couple oceanographers.”

Industry-financed groups like the Global Climate Coalition and the Western Fuels Association were quick to send out press releases, giving the impression that there was an active debate within the scientific community about the threat of climate change. They either asserted global warming was a myth or lampooned the outcome, envisioning once-arid lands irrigated by rising seas.

Mainstream media’s notion of journalistic balance resulted in stories that gave the naysayers equal time to dispute the notion of catatsrophic climate change, setting the standard for all future climate change narratives.

“I’ve read scores of these stories, and the takeaway message is that climate change is a complex problem with many unknowns and expensive solutions, a problem that won’t impact our lives for many years if at all,” Linden says.

But awareness is growing about the urgency of the threat. Corporations like General Electric, DuPont and the oil and gas giant Cinergy defected from the Bush Administration’s anti-environmental stance because Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto treaty on climate change has been bad for international business. And just last month, a group of influential evangelical Christians began an advertising campaign that stresses the importance of saving “God’s green earth” for future generations.

This dramatic shift among members of Bush’s traditional base is significant, but public awareness will remain largely unchanged as long as the media continues to tell the same old “on the one hand, on the other” narrative on climate change.

“It speaks volumes that I was on The Daily Show,” Linden said. “To get the message out, I go on a Comedy Central fake news show with a fake news anchor in order to talk about real things. It’s kind of sad, but it’s true.”

But The Daily Show is a place for those serious about climate change to connect with the crucial demographic of 25- to 34-year-olds, who are tuned in to the realities of climate change.

The Winds of Change includes in its appendices a chronology that tracks the accelerating pace of climate change, culminating with the record-breaking number of hurricanes. Linden said he could fill a few more pages with events like: 2005 was the warmest year in history; January 2006 was the warmest in US history; a winter hurricane in the North Atlantic; fierce wind storms in the Northeast; the wasting of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets; and an emerging La Niña that could cause catastrophic droughts.

“Every week there is some new surprise relating to weather, and you really can’t ignore it anymore,” Linden said. “I don’t think it’s going to go away. Climate may go quiet for a while, but it’s an incredibly complex system, probably the most complex system on earth. So we’re never going to have perfect knowledge of how it works.”

If the history of climate change can teach us one thing it’s that the cost of fictionalizing potential threats far outweighs the risks of erring on the side of caution. It would be a fatal mistake to assume that good weather is going to continue.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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