May 21, 2013
Sarah Stillman, a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the recipient of their inaugural Reporting Award. The Award took her to Iraq and Afghanistan to report an investigative story for The New Yorker. She recently taught a course on the Iraq war at Yale, where she...
A Coalition of the Unwilling
A Tale of Two Medias: The Strand of the Denial Industry
Not all citizens were created equal when it comes to scientific acumen. While a handful of NASA nerds operate $22-million climate simulations as if they were simply playing Zelda, the rest of us struggle to fix the toaster or memorize 10 digits of pi. As a result, we—and by we I mean the vast majority of Western laypeople—have become largely reliant upon the mass media to serve as our interlocutors, those intellectual chefs who whip raw scientific data into easily digestible nibblets. Before we can influence our elected representatives on a scientific issue, we must first undergo pressures of our own: attention-grabbing headlines, popularized reports, educational documentaries and even tabloid spreads that carry scientific truths out of the lab and into the collective imagination.
In Britain, these pressure points are almost impossible to avoid. When the Stern Review was released last October, The Independent offered a huge headline touting “The Day that Changed the Climate,” while The New York Times buried Stern’s predictions about coastal flooding, species extinction and global food shortages on Page A15. More recently, when American journalists met Bush’s SOTU address with hopeful headlines like “Has Bush Gone Green?,” The Guardian offered a front-page jab instead: “U.S. Answer to Global Warming: Smoke and Giant Space Mirrors.” Even Britain’s famously smutty tabloids have caught on, promising juicy gossip like “Low-carbon Diets of the Stars” and “Secret Pics of Celebrity Eco-footprints” to compete with the traditional papers’ advice columns on reducing personal carbon emissions. Mike Hulme, director of Britain’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, calls it “climate porn,” and he warned me that it’s already causing many Britons to develop “climate fatigue.”
Things look quite different on U.S. soil. “Americans don’t have enough direct, solid information that is not couched in terms of ‘debate,’ ” according to Lynne Carter of the U.S. Climate Change Research Program and the Adaptation Network. “The media keep giving equal measure to the 0.1 percent naysayers that they give to the 99.9 percent scientific community information.” An empirical study of 636 U.S. media stories between 1988 and 2002 shows that a whopping 53 percent of coverage offered equal attention to unequal views: that humans contribute to global warming, on the one hand, and that climate change is a strictly natural phenomenon, on the other. Even in the wake of the unequivocal report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Fox News continues to showcase deniers like Steve Milloy as evidence of “fair and balanced” coverage, despite his reckless claims that global warming is “the mother of all junk science controversies.”
Although pundits have exposed the U.S. media’s illusion of scientific dissent ad nauseam in recent weeks, most have failed to address its highly relevant philosophical roots. Enter the epistemic dilemma of “objectivity.” Americans often think about media balance as an issue of surface representation: the journalist’s golden rule of hearing “both sides.” Conversely, a substantial number of Brits—born and bred with the publicly funded BBC—tend to grant their newsmakers a greater degree of discretion in the name of public stewardship. As conservative British columnist Peter Hitchens told me with an irritated twitch, “The British press believe that the state has the answer to all our problems and that they [the press] have the duty to deliver it. And most citizens agree.” This paternalistic view of fairness privileges veracity over “he said/she said” diversity.
These two conflicting models of the “fair” reflect a simmering culture war over the role of the press, as well as the government, in people’s everyday lives. While the British media often fancy themselves to be guardians of the moral good, much of the U.S. media—at least the big shots like Fox and Time—believe in giving people what they paid for. Both approaches have their mine fields. But the widespread American faith in 24/7 free-market journalism is proving particularly hazardous of late. Increasingly, it means that coverage of climate “science” goes to the highest bidder, with ExxonMobil leading the public relations blitz.
Since the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, ExxonMobil has become the big tobacco of our day, coughing up more than $19 million to finance an elaborate network of over 75 industry front groups in a massive global warming denial campaign. Making good on the laissez faire commitment to buying science, the American Enterprise Institute—an ExxonMobil-supported think tank—recently offered scientists and economists $10,000 each to undermine the IPCC’s consensus report. Similar projects have been launched by business coalitions like the Global Climate Information Project, which allegedly budgeted $13 million to flood the media with claims that reducing fossil fuel consumption would cause economic collapse.
I could continue about the denial industry’s remarkable efficiency at purchasing a “scientific” voice, but the eerie details of such media buyouts have been scrupulously documented elsewhere. I could also pontificate on why Britain lacks a formidable movement of organized unbelievers: fewer bankrolled “junk scientists” like Steve Milloy, fewer “let’s blame dinosaur farts” politicians like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and certainly fewer cultural spokesmen like Michael Crichton and Rush Limbaugh to spread the misinformation gospel. But instead, I trust it would be more useful to attempt what far too few environmentalists and journalists have done in recent times: to examine the ontological web where the climate divide’s three strands—addiction, failed leadership and manufactured denial—converge.
What I’ve found at the web’s center is a potent combination of free-market fundamentalism and moral individualism in opposition to environmental regulation. When it comes to the Addiction Strand, this echoes in the belief that we Americans deserve our gasoline as quickly as we can pump it; within a self-regulatory framework, caps on carbon emissions look like repugnant attempts at moral coercion. Britons’ parallel enthusiasm for the free market is tempered by their general faith in state-imposed ethics; the invisible hand is not without loose cuffs, as seen in the new central London congestion tax. But without a moralizing intervention in U.S. consumption patterns, the crisis of externalities will only continue to grow. As the Stern report explains, ” ... Our emissions affect the lives of others. When people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. This is the greatest market failure the world has seen.”
When it comes to the Political Leadership Strand, laissez faire zeal without ethical checks and balances translates into a blind hope in corporate innovation. Some policy experts call it “the Technology Trap.” Whereas Tony Blair proposes a two-prong strategy, cutting carbon emissions in the present while investing in low-carbon energy innovations for the future, Bush hitches his hopes to technological advances alone. As White House science adviser John Marburger III explained: “It’s important not to get distracted by chasing short-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The real payoff is in long-term technological breakthroughs.” Translation? We’ll send for our spaceship when the world combusts.
The Denial Industry Strand, our third and final consideration, offers a perfect complement to Marburger’s logic. In the marketplace of ideas, morality is reduced to a matter of individual will, allowing pollution-heavy industries to dodge short-term responsibilities through carbon-trading schemes and massive propaganda campaigns. Squint hard enough and climate science starts to resemble eugenics and Soviet biology under Trofim Lysenko. This may be the key wedge between the U.S. and the UK: While ExxonMobil’s media deluge has tilted American consciousness in the wait-and-see direction, the Brits boast a very different brand of corporate philanthropy with a much stronger streak of environmental stewardship. Consider Virgin mogul Sir Richard Branson, who recently promised $25 million to any scientists who discovers a way to stop global warming.
The three strands of the climate divide may look simple enough, but their alacrity—their capacity to bend and shift and evade philosophical intervention—can’t be underestimated. This is precisely why we must start exposing the worldviews that support each strand, particularly the merger of unregulated markets and moral individualism. Skeptics should consider the words of George Kennan in 1950: “History does not forgive us our national mistakes because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics.”
Next Page: Climbing Out of the Climate Web
Dig last updated on Mar. 6, 2007