BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In his four years at the helm of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Republican James Inhofe has held four hearings on global warming. The fourth was on Wednesday and focused not on the science or policy implications of climate change but on the media coverage of it. Suffice it to say, Inhofe is not a fan.
JAMES INHOFE: Much of the mainstream media has subverted its role as an objective source of information on climate change into a role of an advocate. We've seen examples of this overwhelmingly one-sided reporting by 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley, ABC's Bill Blakemore, CNN's Miles O'Brien, which I believe is here with us today, or will be, Time Magazine, Associated Press, Reuters – just to name a few.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Inhofe called on two scientists and a media watchdog, who testified that catastrophic predictions are entirely overblown and that humans' role in global warming is still up for debate.
Two witnesses invited by Democrats argued that scientific consensus suggested the opposite. One reporter, whose name was frequently invoked by both sides, was Andrew Revkin, science correspondent for The New York Times. Here's Senator Inhofe in his opening statement.
JAMES INHOFE: We know from an April 23, 2006, article in The New York Times by Andrew Revkin that, quote, "Few scientists agree with the idea that the recent spate of potential hurricanes, European heat waves, African droughts and other weather extremes are, in essence, our fault, a result of manmade emissions.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The author of those words wasn't at the hearing, and if he were, he might have finished the quote himself, because the original article went on to say that -
ANDREW REVKIN: Between the poles of real-time catastrophe and non-event lies the prevailing scientific view. Without big changes in emissions rates, global warming from the buildup of greenhouse gases is likely to lead to substantial and largely irreversible transformations of climate, ecosystems and coastlines later this century.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andy Revkin, thanks for correcting the record.
ANDREW REVKIN: Completing the record, I guess.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a few weeks, of course, Senator Inhofe will be stepping down as chairman of this committee. Now, this is the man who famously called the threat of catastrophic global warming, quote, "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." But have the media always been such a target of his criticism?
ANDREW REVKIN: This year he really kind of took on the media. And the reason is early this year there was a spate of coverage that really took this issue into a sort of high gear. Time Magazine had its "Be Worried, Be Very Worried" cover about global warming, and Inhofe saw an opportunity here.
The problem with global warming has been and remains, and was the case at this hearing, that there's always enough information out there for anybody to build a case on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the fundamental problem here then that Inhofe really believes that there isn't a scientific consensus or even discounts the idea of a scientific consensus on this issue; that climate science, like any other issue, has two sides and needs to be reported that way?
ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah, I think that is very much what he and many other people believe. Many people in America, I think, not just hardened partisans, have trouble understanding that science is a trajectory toward understanding, and what you have along the way is a lot of punctuation marks, which are particular papers, some particular scientist’s work. And those papers will take a position that could be a little bit off from the actual trajectory of knowledge, and so you end up always having just enough science in the room to suit everybody.
But when you get back to the bedrock on this issue, there isn't any scientist working in this field who would disagree that more carbon dioxide will make the world a warmer place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even Inhofe believes that.
ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah. He acknowledges the world is warming. He just feels, based on his review of the evidence, that there's no evidence of a human component.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He seems to discount the whole discussion as a kind of journalistic fad following in the footsteps of past fads over the last century – some warning of impending warming, others warning of a looming Ice Age just around the corner.
Now, what do you make of that critique?
ANDREW REVKIN: Well, the media, we love to grab onto the front-page thought and whatever the news is. And back in the early '70s, the world was actually cooling a bit, and science detected that.
You know, we've been in a warm period between Ice Ages for a long time, and some scientists at that point were positing that we were heading back into the next one. And that's a pretty sexy kind of front-page thought right there.
And there were cover stories in magazines and in newspapers saying that – implications, we're heading into the cold. But that didn't last. There's a long sense now of how that little temporary cooling fits into the pattern of general warming. In fact, it probably was a result of other kinds of pollution that, after World War II, got up in the atmosphere and blocked sunlight, making the world a little cooler for the '40s through the '70s. And now, that's all gone. The Clean Air Act actually worked, here in this country, at any rate, and so you have – the warming trend resumed.
And if we were still talking about a coming Ice Age, then you could say the media were locked into it. But it was a very temporary blip in the coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The CJR blog, Columbia Journalism Review blog, talked about how journalists who report on this issue nowadays don't feel as constrained as they used to about reporting on both sides of the issue, because the scientific consensus is so strong on one side.
In your view, is there anything wrong with reporting on climate change one-sidedly?
ANDREW REVKIN: We've been getting this story wrong in three different ways over time. We got it wrong for too long by saying on the one hand/on the other hand, even as the scientific consensus powerfully built around the basic idea, more CO-2, warmer world.
The other way we got it wrong is when you have a story that's breaking news but on a century timescale, that doesn't fit our journalistic norms for what's news. There's no news peg – [BROOKE you know, the hook. So wait a minute. Didn't we already write about global warming back in 1988?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
ANDREW REVKIN: Didn't we do that story? The third mistake, I think, is now that we got over the hurdle of understanding that there really is a consensus on the main idea, many of my colleagues seem to feel that means that there's a consensus on every aspect of the global warming problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
ANDREW REVKIN: Unfortunately, the things that matter most to people, like how is this going to affect Chicago, or what's going to happen with Greenland's ice - how fast are sea levels going to rise – there's a lot of uncertainty on those aspects of it. And there you really do have legitimate kind of on the one hand/on the other hand arguments.
And the biggest one of all, recently, was hurricanes. There were two new peer-reviewed studies earlier this year that said they found that hurricanes were already getting stronger because of human-warmed oceans. A lot of my colleagues seem to think that meant there's a consensus now on hurricanes, but there is no such thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of media critics see a sort of clash of civilization between science and journalism, in that journalism seems to call for a narrative. There's usually a beginning and an end. And since science is all process, the end of the story rarely stays the same, and that lies at the heart of the problem of reporting on science. Is that how you see it?
ANDREW REVKIN: It's certainly a big part of it. And, by the way, scientists you know, they're eager to get funding for their next study, so they often end their papers with kind of an exclamation point. And the whole process is set up to amplify that this is the new knowledge. This new study has advanced things. And, of course, we've had so many false steps through that.
I guess what it takes in the journalists who are covering this is just an extra bit of skepticism, but not to then use the skepticism as a way to shape the story cynically, but just to make sure that you frame what we know today as a step on a journey that could have twists and turns.
So there is progress. There are things we understand. There are things we understand powerfully about a human influence on the global thermostat. Absolutely. But when someone says something that's particularly powerful, particularly conclusive, that's all the more reason to just ask one or two more questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andy, thank you very much.
ANDREW REVKIN: It's always a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrew Revkin covers climate change for The New York Times, and he's the author of the book, The North Pole Was Here.