Polls commissioned by groups as diverse as Greenpeace and Citizens for a Sound Economy show that most climate scientists are nowhere near a consensus that human activity is causing a disastrous warming of the planet. Yet climate scientists skeptical of global warming were almost completely left out of the news this week as the delegates to an international conference on climate change in Kyoto, Japan agreed to drastic cuts in American energy use.
On the three major network evening news shows (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News), there were 19 stories about the conference from December 1 to 11. Only three included a soundbite from a climate scientist unsure of global warming theories. The rest simply assumed that science supports such theories.
On the December 8 NBC Nightly News, for instance, Tom Brokaw told viewers: "At the global warming talks in Japan today, almost unanimous opinion that human beings, in fact, do influence the earth's temperature, but there was agreement on little else." Peter Jennings reported, on the December 10 World News Tonight, that "negotiators from 160 countries struggled to the end for an agreement to control man-made gases that many scientists say are making the world dangerously warmer." The night before Jennings had said "most scientists" warn of dangerous warming. And on the December 1 CBS Evening News, correspondent Barry Petersen, announced that "environmentalists see catastrophes of biblical proportions, from droughts to melting ice caps that send sea levels rising."
A rare attempt at balance was an "In Their Own Words" segment on the December 1 NBC Nightly News. "The truth is," said Dr. Richard Lindzen, professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "we know so little about it, that we don't have a clue whether increasing carbon dioxide will make the climate more stable or less stable." But this was only after Brokaw had undermined his credibility, introducing him as someone whose "views are not exactly in the mainstream."
The absence of scientific debate in the media on global warming isn't new to Kyoto coverage. A Free Market Project Special Report found that in the 48 global warming stories between January 1993 and October 1997, only seven stories mentioned that some scientists are skeptical of warming theories; only two went on to mention their arguments.
The networks did allow debate, however, on the economic impact of the treaty. On December 11, ABC's Jack Smith ran soundbites from both those who predicted economic pain (Jonathan Adler of the Competitive Enterprise Institute) and those who said it would be painless. Smith said "energy costs could rise 20-30 percent, it's said, making U.S. industry uncompetitive and sending millions of jobs overseas."
CBS reporter Scott Pelley also was balanced. "Imagine cutting by nearly one-third the emissions of vehicles, power plants, and industry. It would require a new generation of engines, the virtual end of coal power, and a revolution in efficiency," Pelley said before going to treaty supporters who argue that "the need for change will launch new industries."
At NBC, correspondent Robert Hager included the economic arguments of both sides, but ended on a doomsaying note: "Treaty makers say the threat to the climate is such that we have no choice, but it's not clear yet the American public is ready to pay the bill." - Timothy Lamer, Director, Free Market Project