Feb 24, 2010

Reuters' Climate Change Fiction

Is the average journalist completely clueless when it comes to climate change? Do they go out of their way to quote equally clueless "experts"? Do they ignore profoundly significant news events and instead write articles brimming with their own assumptions and prejudices? A look at the recent behaviour of Reuters - which forms part of "the world's largest international multimedia news agency" - suggests all of the above.

Remember the BBC interview with Dr. Phil Jones published 11 days ago? It was immensely newsworthy because Jones is not just the director of the Climatic Research Unit (the home of the explosive leaked/hacked Climategate e-mails), he has played a central role in the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change consensus process.

It is because of senior climate researchers like Jones that Time magazine told us last August: "the science is clear...we're boiling the planet." Except that, in the BBC interview (in which he was by no means ambushed, but was instead assisted by his university's press office), Jones made a startling admission.

He was asked: "Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming?" He responded: "Yes, but only just." He then continued on for four more sentences, arguing that the "trend is quite close to the significance level" and pointing out that statistical significance is more likely to show up when one examines longer time periods rather than shorter ones.

Some day that "Yes" may come to be regarded as the utterance that inexplicably failed to shake the world. If warming over the past 15 years has been so marginal that even people who believe firmly in human-caused global warming admit it isn't significant, what's all the fuss about? On what basis have news outlets advised us that "humanity faces a profound emergency"?

Jones' acknowledgment that things aren't nearly so dire is a HUGE story. So what has Reuters said about it? Not one word.

Check for yourself. Click on over to Reuters.com, type "Phil Jones" into the search box at the top right of your screen, scroll through the pages of results and you won't find a single mention of his name since the BBC interview.

Type "statistically significant" into that same box and you'll discover that Reuters journalists have used this term recently when discussing in vitro fertilization, pharmaceutical trials, energy efficiency, and premature births – but that it has not passed their lips in a climate change context since the Jones BBC interview appeared on February 13th until today.

What have they been writing instead? Well, yesterday Reuters published an article by journalist Ed Stoddard. Dubiously labeled an "analysis" piece, its central claim is that American climate change skepticism is at odds "with prevailing views in Europe."

Why does journalist Stoddard believe this to be the case? Partly because a Canadian pollster says so. Here's Stoddard's copy in all it's glory:
"It's a very different debate in Europe, where there is no discussion about whether climate change is occurring. But in the United States it is about whether it exists," said John Wright of pollster Ipsos.
As blogger/aggregator Tom Nelson pointed out almost immediately, however, Ipsos employees in different parts of the world apparently don't read each other's polling results. It so happens that a headline in yesterday's Guardian smartly contradicts Wright: "Sharp decline in public's belief in climate threat, British poll reveals." Here are a few snippets from the article:
The proportion of adults who believe climate change is "definitely" a reality dropped by 30% over the last year, from 44% to 31%, in the latest survey by Ipsos Mori.

… Another finding…is a significant drop in those who said climate change was caused by human activities. One year ago this number was one in three, but this year just one in five people believes global warming to be man-made, according to Edward Langley, Ipsos Mori's head of environment research. [bold added]
So while Langley of Ipsos Mori tells a newspaper that only 1 in 3 UK adults believe climate change is real and only one in five believe humans are responsible for it, Wright of Ipsos Reid gets quoted by Reuters declaring that, in Europe, "there is no discussion about whether climate change is occurring."

Anyone remotely familiar with the climate change debate knows that skepticism is alive and well in many nations around the world, including European ones. That a Canadian pollster would be so misinformed is disturbing. That a Reuters journalist would write down and distribute such fiction is inexcusable.

If climate skepticism is purely an American phenomenon:
  • why did the largest daily paper in The Netherlands run a story recently vindicating a prominent climate skeptic? ("He was right after all" declared the headline)
  • why did the weekly left-leaning, one-million-circulation German news magazine Der Spiegel recently run a two-part series titled "Can Climate Forecasts Still be Trusted?"
  • why did Harris poll results released last October find that, when you total them up, the exact same number of Germans as Americans believe climate change poses either "no threat" or only a minor one? (see the first blurb of red text on page 2 of this PDF)
  • why does every last one of the top 10 conservative blogs in the UK embrace climate skepticism - even though the British Conservative Party says man-made climate change is real?
  • why did 6,000 Australians attend the sold-out public speaking engagements of British climate skeptic Christopher Monckton recently? (on at least one occasion he went out into the parking lot to deliver a short version to the overflow audience)
  • why did Australia's federal minister for Climate Change and Water devote so much time in a speech last week to bad-mouthing skeptics?
  • why did Open Magazine, an English-language publication in India, splash "The Climate Change Fraud" in large text across its front cover on January 30th, followed by a story inside titled "The Hottest Hoax in the World"?
I could continue, but we all get the picture.

So what's going on at Reuters? In the Stoddard piece US climate skepticism is linked to some of the same old bogeymen: "the influence of U.S. talk radio" and the "oil lobby." Despite the fact that America has long been the source of many of the world's most significant technological innovations, Reuters implies that it's home to anti-scientific bumpkins who fail to show academics sufficient respect:
Science can be controversial in a country where evangelical Christians make up a quarter of the adult population. Many, for example, doubt the theory of evolution..."In other countries academics hold a more revered position...And so some of these Europeans look at America and say there is all this evidence, why don't you believe?..." said Michael Lindsay, a political sociologist at Rice University in Houston.
A quote from the Sierra Club adds insult to injury by suggesting the American public is easily befuddled:
"I don't think it's that Americans are confused about global warming, it's that they're being confused," said the incoming executive director of conservation group Sierra Club, Michael Brune, who blames big spending by oil, coal and other energy industries.
Curiously, the only European poll numbers Reuters bothers to quote involve France (in addition to non-European Brazil and Japan). This is hardly convincing support for the claim that the American situation is dramatically different from the one in Europe.

In short, Reuters has published utter rubbish. It should hang its head in shame.


[Full disclosure. In my earlier life as a journalist I, too, have interviewed Canadian pollster John Wright. Moreover, my husband was employed by Ipsos between 2000 and 2005.]

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