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Clamoring for Kyoto

The Networks’ One-Sided Coverage of Global Warming

Introduction

For years, liberal environmentalists have been insisting that only strict regulations on economic activity can prevent the climate catastrophe of global warming. According to their version of the global warming story, industrial burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil is filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The build-up of these gases would then increasingly trap heat from the Sun and cause the Earth’s climate to warm dramatically, triggering drastic weather changes, including hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and severe coastal flooding, as the polar ice caps melt and raise ocean levels.

While such scary scenarios are unsettling, they are crucial to professional environmentalists’ efforts to increase government regulations on private economic activity. Global warming activists’ biggest policy success had been the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, an international agreement requiring developed countries to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases to levels five percent lower than where they stood in 1990. Because the United States is routinely branded the world’s largest polluter, we were required to cut our emissions to seven percent lower than 1990 levels, or 30 percent below where they are today.

But environmentalists have been robbed of that victory, now that President Bush has refused to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants and then to not implement the Kyoto agreement reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Limiting emissions from power plants would drive up electricity costs even as the western U.S. is wrestling with a power crisis. The Kyoto deal which Bush rejected was forecast to "push up energy prices, inflation, and interest rates and lead to lower consumption, investment and net exports," according to a 1999 study by the Center for the Study of American Business.

Such painful steps would be unnecessary if the environmentalists’ doomsday scenarios are exaggerated or wrong, and there are some good reasons to doubt their claims. Temperature data gathered by satellites and upper-atmosphere balloons have failed to show the same warming trend found by surface measurements taken over the past 20 years. The planet did warm by about 0.6° Celsius over the past 100 years, but that’s only about half as much warming as should have occurred if the models which project severe warming for the next 100 years are correct. Given the uncertainty over long-term warming projections, a wide range of scientists and free market economists argue that the riskier approach is to enact severe economic rules now in order to limit greenhouse emissions which may not be a serious problem in the future.

This debate has been going on for years, of course, but it moved to the fore this spring with Bush’s decisions against imposing new regulations on American industry. Fair and balanced reporting of these issues would have greatly aided the public’s understanding and helped obtain informed support for whatever steps are ultimately chosen by policymakers. But a review of global warming coverage shows the news networks, with the exception of the Fox News Channel, have superficially presented only the global warming arguments of liberal environmentalists, and have heavily tilted their coverage to favor critics of the two Bush decisions.

The study by the MRC’s Free Market Project (FMP) reviewed 51 stories1 on five early evening cable and broadcast news programs — ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN’s Inside Politics, the Fox News Channel’s Special Report, and NBC Nightly News — from Inauguration Day (January 20) through Earth Day (April 22). Twenty of these were lengthy field reports that focused on global warming, while an additional 11 were brief anchor-read items. The researchers analyzed another 20 stories that were not specifically focused on the global warming debate, but which contained comments about Bush’s actions on Kyoto, carbon dioxide regulations, or climate change in general.