Winter 2005

Disinformation, Financial Pressures, and Misplaced Balance

A reporter describes the systemic forces that work against the story of climate change being accurately told.

By Ross Gelbspan
One central fact—as simple as it is overwhelming—informs the current understanding of global climate change: To allow our inflamed climate to stabilize requires worldwide cuts in our use of coal and oil of about 70 percent. This is the 10-year-old consensus finding of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the largest, most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

To act on climate stabilization in the way that science guides us threatens the survival of the coal and oil industries that constitute one of the biggest commercial enterprises in history. Conversely, the findings of most scientists who study this issue indicate that a failure to address this issue rapidly and comprehensively threatens the continuity of a coherent civilization. (Already visible are some financial stresses that show up in the escalating losses by some of the world’s property insurers.) Yet despite its scope and potential consequences, global climate change is probably the most underreported story.

Instead, stories about aspects of global climate change should be in newspapers at least three times a week and on radio and TV newscasts more frequently, too. In addition to reporting about its science, the climate issue involves the emergence of extreme weather events (debates about increasing strength of hurricanes is just one example), technology developments, oil industry movements, terrorism and national security, economic stability, diplomatic tensions, and significant policy differences between many state governments and the administration in Washington.

Why Climate Change Isn’t Covered Well

Looking at how the news business works, however, there are several reasons why this is happening.

At one level, environment reporters usually focus their energies on mastering intricacies of the science and the mechanisms of ecological interactions. Were they to compliment this reporting with some investigative training, their treatment of the climate crisis might broaden significantly. The reason is that most reporting about the environment involves tracking conflicts about money, and these conflicts generally pit a specific environmental vulnerability against an industry, a business, or a developer. If reporters approached these stories through a wider investigative lens—and had the training necessary to know how to follow the money—they’d be bringing better tools with them to evaluate the responses they receive from corporate interests and likely be better equipped to sniff out the use of front groups, dubious economic claims, disguised or concealed lobbying strategies, and pressure tactics that are not readily apparent.

On the level of institutional culture, one barrier to comprehensive reporting about climate change can be seen in the career path to the top at news outlets. Normally the path follows the track of political reporting, as top editors tend to see nearly all issues through a political lens. While there have been predictable feature stories about climate change from Alaska and small, buried reports of scientific findings, global warming gains news prominence only when it plays a role in the country’s politics. During the 1992 elections, for instance, the first President Bush slapped the label of “ozone man” on Al Gore because of his book, “Earth in the Balance.” It is likely not coincidental that Gore ran away from the climate issue during the 2000 presidential campaign. The issue was prominently covered in 1997 when the Senate voted overwhelmingly not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. These stories spoke not to the substance of the scientific debate but to the political setback the Clinton administration experienced at the hands of a rebellious Senate. News coverage resurfaced when President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto process and again focused on resulting diplomatic tensions between the United States and the European Union and not on the climate change impacts.

Prior to his withdrawal from Kyoto, President Bush declared he would not accept the findings of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) because they represented “foreign science” (even though about half of the 2,000 scientists who contribute to the IPCC are from the United States). Instead, Bush called on the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to provide “American science.” In reporting this story, few members of the Washington press corps bothered to check the position of the NAS. Had they done so—while publishing and broadcasting the President’s words—they would have been able to inform the public that as early as 1992, three years before the IPCC determined that humans are changing the climate, the NAS urged strong action to minimize the impacts of human-induced global warming.

When we look at reporting that comes from international correspondents, we find that foreign editors and reporters have not shared with the public information about the major divide on this issue that exists between the United States and much of the rest of the world. At the time when the Clinton and Bush administrations have refused to impose mandatory emissions reduction goals in the United States, Holland has begun the work of cutting emissions by 80 percent in 40 years. The United Kingdom has pledged to cut its use of carbon fuel by 60 percent in 50 years. Germany has committed itself to 50 percent cuts in 50 years. Several months ago, French President Jacques Chirac called on the entire industrial world to reduce emissions by 75 percent in the next 45 years.

Each of these policies adheres to the dictates of the science. But other than fleeting coverage of large demonstrations in Europe that followed the U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto process, these differences in policy and practice have been barely explored in the mainstream press. Unfortunately, the culture of journalism is generally a political culture that is often institutionally arrogant toward nonpolitical areas of coverage.

A second reason for the failure of the press to adequately cover the climate crisis lies in an extremely effective campaign of disinformation by the fossil fuel lobby. For the longest time, this industry’s well-funded disinformation campaigns have duped reporters into practicing a profoundly distorted form of journalistic balance. In the early 1990’s, the coal industry paid a tiny handful of dissenting scientists (with little or no standing in the mainstream scientific community) under the table to deny the reality of climate change. Just three of these “greenhouse skeptics” received about a million dollars from coal interests in the mid-1990’s in undisclosed payments. More recently ExxonMobil has emerged as the major funder of the “climate-change skeptics” and their institutions.

The campaign’s success can be measured by how effective it has been in keeping the issue of global warming off the public radar screen. Its effectiveness is underscored by two polls done by Newsweek. As early as 1991, 35 percent of respondents (in the United States) said they thought global warming was a very serious problem. Five years later, in 1996, even though the scientific evidence had become far more robust and the IPCC declared that it had found the human influence on the climate, the 35 percent had shrunk to 22 percent. This is striking testimony to the impact of the industry public relations campaign. (With recent visibility of this issue and the escalating pace of change, public awareness has almost certainly increased during the last few years.)

A key ingredient of this success has been the insistence by the public relations specialists of the fossil fuel lobby that reporters adhere to a balanced presentation of views about an issue. And the press did this when they accorded the same weight to this tiny handful of skeptics that it did to the views and findings of peer-reviewed scientists. But this is a misapplication of the ethic of journalistic balance. When balance should come into play is when the content of a story revolves largely around opinion: Should society recognize gay marriage? Should abortion be legal? Should our schools provide bilingual education or English immersion? In such coverage, a journalist is ethically obligated to provide roughly equivalent space to the most articulate presentation of major competing views.

… if journalists want their coverage to be balanced, their stories should reflect the relative weight of opinion in the scientific community. If that happened, the views of mainstream climate scientists would be the focus of 95 percent of the story, while the dissenters’ views would be mentioned less prominently and less often.When the story focused on an issue in which various facts are known, it is the reporter’s responsibility to find out what those facts are. During the past 15 years our understanding of climate changes and its likely causes have been informed by an unprecedented accumulation of peer-reviewed science from throughout the world. This is about as close to truth as we can get. As one co-chair of the IPCC said, “There is no debate among any credentialed scientists who are working on this issue about the larger trends of what is happening to the climate.” Regrettably, that is something you would never know from the U.S. press coverage.

Of course, a few credentialed scientists who dismiss climate change as relatively inconsequential have published their findings in the refereed literature. Given this other perspective, if journalists want their coverage to be balanced, their stories should reflect the relative weight of opinion in the scientific community. If that happened, the views of mainstream climate scientists would be the focus of 95 percent of the story, while the dissenters’ views would be mentioned less prominently and less often. This is beginning to happen—though very belatedly.

Finally, journalists seem to have gone out of their way to ignore some of the more visible manifestations of a warming atmosphere. One of the first impacts of climatic instability is an increase in weather extremes—longer droughts, more heat waves, more severe storms, and the fact that more of our rain and snow falls in intense, severe downpours. Increases such as these have been documented by numerous sources, including the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization.

Not surprisingly, extreme events also occupy a much larger portion of news budgets than 20 years ago. With the convergence of more coverage and information, one might assume that journalists working on these stories would include the line, “Scientists associate this pattern of violent weather with global warming.” But they don’t. A few years ago a news editor at a major broadcast outlet was asked why this connection wasn’t made between the escalating incidence of natural disasters and climate change. “We did that,” he said. “Once.” The story involved a major flood in Mozambique in 2000. The editor explained that when the network suggested a possible link to global warming, several auto and gasoline industry representatives threatened to withdraw all their advertising if the outlet persisted in making that connection.

Apart from the fear of industry pressure, the climate issue exposes a deeper betrayal of trust by journalists. By now most reporters and editors have heard enough to know that global warming could, at least, have potentially catastrophic consequences. Given this, it seems profoundly irresponsible for them to pass along a story that is “balanced” with opposing quotes without doing the necessary digging to reach an informed judgment about the gravity of the situation. To treat this story in this way seems a violation of the trust that readers, viewers and listeners put in those on whom they count to provide an informed interpretation as conveyors of the news.

Ultimately, the urgency and magnitude of this issue should keep this story at the top of news budgets. It pits the future of our highly complex and vulnerable civilization against the profit and survival of an industry that generates more than one trillion dollars a year in commerce worldwide. This is an immense drama with an uncertain outcome, which means it is a terrific news story with many legs. From the point of view of pure professional gratification, it is hard to imagine a more consequential or compelling story for any journalist to report. The challenge will be to report it well.

Ross Gelbspan is a retired 30-year journalist with the Philadelphia Bulletin, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, where he shared a Pulitzer Prize for a series he conceived and edited. He is the author of “The Heat Is On: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth’s Threatened Climate” (1997), and “Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis—and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster” (2004). He maintains a Web site at

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