Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Saving Our Fisheries

Within five minutes of opening my new issue of National Geographic over the weekend, I was thoroughly depressed. The April issue features a series of stories on the global fish crisis. Most depressing were the stunning photos and the online multimedia content documenting the ever-mounting slaughter of fish — and subsequent waste of huge quantities of unwanted fish, or "bycatch" — along with practices that decimate marine ecosystems.

Then I started reading a a new report from Environmental Defense, titled "Sustaining America's Fisheries." In line with the National Geographic stories, it notes that worldwide, as many as 90 percent of large predatory fish species are gone. In the U.S., the report states that 54 fish stocks are overfished, and many others are in decline. By Environmental Defense's calculation, 72,000 fishing jobs have been lost just in the Pacific Northwest. "Despite decades of management," the report states, "fisheries and fishing communities are still suffering. Something is wrong and must be changed.

According to Environmental Defense, allocating a specific percentage of a fishery's total catch to individual fisherman (so-called "catch-shares") can dramatically improve the situation. From the report: "This study shows that we can simultaneously protect the environment; increase profits; provide higher quality fish; create more full-time jobs; and save lives."

It sounds too good to be true. But after seeing just how dire the situation has become worldwide, thanks to National Geographic's incredible coverage, I'll let myself hope that it's not.

-- Tom Yulsman

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Holy War Over the Environment

“I believe the purpose of life is to glorify God, and we can’t do that if we’re heaping contempt on the creation.” So said Al Gore in his testimony last week before Congress.

On NPR this past Sunday, Richard Cizik, the vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, had this to say: “Supposing we allow coal burning utility plants to emit mercury into our air that’s then absorbed by fishes, and taken in by women, pregnant, who then transmit that, let’s call it that toxin, to their unborn babies. Isn’t that a sanctity of human life issue? Absolutely. Evangelicals know this. And thus we have to be speaking out about the impacts of our environmental degradation, as much as we need to be speaking out about the degradation of the taking of human unborn life.”

Is the ‘global warming: yes or no?’ debate, played out for decades in a debate over science, giving way to a holy war over the environment?

For many years, environmental debates in this country have been framed predominantly in scientific terms. Are humans responsible for ozone depletion? How much of a threat does mercury from coal-fired power plants pose? Is global warming happening and are we to blame? That’s not to say that other concerns, such as morality, fairness, and intergenerational equity, have not played a role. But science has dominated the terms of the debate. Now we may be witnessing the beginnings of shift toward values-based debate on these issues at the expense of science-based debate.

To the extent that environmentalists succumb to feelings of rapture over this turn of events — and their new-found evangelical allies in particular — they may be doing so at their peril. A values debate, particularly one focused on religious values, is likely to be much more caustic than a scientific one. So don't be lulled by the nice nice now being made between environmentalists and evangelicals.

Witness the well-reported split over global warming between the National Association of Evangelicals, and conservative evangelicals such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family. On the surface, it has centered on the usual question: ‘global warming: yes or no?’ But it has really been a more fundamental argument over religious values. This argument has in turn brought to the surface ideas that environmentalists — and environmental journalists in their coverage — could find much more difficult to deal with.

For Dobson and his contingent, global warming is just one battle in a larger holy war they are fighting against both the materialist philosophy of science (the idea that everything we observe is the result of material interactions), and New Age environmental spiritualism that worships nature itself. In both cases, they see themselves as waging a battle against the idea that humans are nothing special and responsible for the degradation of creation.

"I am today raising a flag of opposition to this alarmism about global warming and urging all believers to refuse to be duped by these 'earthism' worshippers," Jerry Falwell told his congregants in a sermon on Feb. 25 at his Lynchburg, Va., church.

Environmentalists who claim that humans are responsible for environmental degradation are advancing a “one-sided and unbiblical view of human nature,” states a joint paper of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. “Humans are seen merely as consumers and polluters of the Earth. The Bible describes human
beings as fallen along with the rest of creation, yes; but it still describes us as image-bearers of God, who can exercise dominion, produce wealth, and cultivate creation. The Bible claims that the Earth was shaped by a benevolent Creator to be the habitat that sustains and enriches human life even as humans sustain and enrich the Earth through our creativity and industry.”

The position paper acknowledges that humans cannot be fruitful and multiply forever, because the surface of the Earth is finite. But it says that we’ve not come even close to reaching those limits, and that God, through the bible, commands us to expand our numbers, and in this way improve his creation. This is what stewardship is really about — resisting abortion and expanding our population so as to exert our dominion over the Earth.

In the end, these folks believe that evangelicals like Richard Cizik have thrown in with the enemy. They are unwittingly helping to advance a Godless, materialist philosophy that demotes human beings to a status no greater than bacteria, and as a result sees no problem with killing the unborn in the name of population control. And all this, they believe, to preserve the environmentalists’ Gaian god.

Actually, there is something to the idea that environmentalism often takes on qualities of religion. As much as I hate to admit it, Michael Crichton made a convincing case for this in a speech he gave in 2003. “Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism . . . There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.”

That judgment day has been dramatically articulated by folks like James Howard Kunstler, author of the ”The Long Emergency”. No religionist is he. But in his scathing, puritanical language (see his bloglike diary: ”The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle”) he demonstrates that he is as convinced of the coming Apocalypse as Jerry Falwell.

On the other side of the holy war, those who see the quasi-religion of environmentalism as a direct threat to their own spiritual beliefs are girded for battle. Go to and you will find this: “Environmentalism is not about a desire to have cleaner water and air. It is now a full-fledged religion, and its main tenet is ‘raw nature’ as god-like, and Mankind as a plague infecting it. If you support environmentalism, the fact is that you're supporting an idealogy [sic] that promotes the destruction of Mankind - and concretely, that includes yourself and everyone you care about.”

Sometimes, the rage positively boils over. Last year, University of Texas ecologist Eric Pianka received death threats after he delivered a speech to the Texas Academy of Sciences, where he received the TAS 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist award. In his speech, Pianka made his long-standing case that humans have overpopulated the earth, and that sooner or later our population is going to crash, reducing our numbers by 90 percent, possibly because of a virulent contagion such as airborne Ebola. Forrest M. Mims III, a well-known anti-evolutionist, wrote an account of the speech in which he said that Pianka had actually issued a “call for mass death” — that, in fact, the ecologist actually advocates deliberate genocide through biological warfare.

Pianka says he did no such thing — that he simply was describing what he believes will happen if we do not control our population.

I would like to hope that thoughtful secularists and creation-care evangelicals will continue to find common cause and prevent extremists from recasting the issue as a holy war over the environment. But I don’t have my hopes up. And if you have enjoyed the debate over evolution versus creationism and intelligent design, you’re going to love this new holy war over the environment.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Goracle's Plan

I'm waiting for the second-day stories delving into Al Gore's policy prescriptions to tame global warming. I'm hoping they'll come Friday, or on the weekend, but I haven't got my hopes up . Gore made a radical proposal on Wednesday — enact a carbon tax and offset that revenue by eliminating payroll taxes. The sniggering classes in Washington no doubt dismissed the proposal as stillborn. But given the fact that this country will almost certainly commit to a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system as soon as Bush skulks back to Texas, I reckon it's worth a look by journalists.

For the record, David Roberts at Grist posted Gore's 10-point plan. But I doubt Washington correspondents will cover it in any detail, if at all. They're more interested in political theater. As glorified drama critics, that's what they do. Analyzing science and technology policy is just too complex and boring. Too much bother. Whereas the Goracle pinning the clown from Oklahoma to the mat is much more fun, and much easier to write.

According to Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post, Gore "was trailed by hordes of reporters" during his visit to the Hill. The New York Times gushed that he is "a heartbreak loser turned Oscar boasting Nobel hopeful globe trotting pop culture eminence." And as Kurtz noted, "Boy, coverage like that could have gotten him those last three electoral votes last time."

Of course, coverage like that is not how the Times usually treats Gore, as William Broad's piece last week demonstrates. And the Washington press corp's current love affair with Gore won't last long. As Kurtz notes, " . . . let's get real--it's the mere possibility that he might run for president again that is tantalizing the same media establishment that was long dismissive of Gore. In fact, many reporters seem to be rooting for Gore to jump in and ignoring his repeated denials that he has any such intention. But if he did take the leap, the honeymoon would end within nanoseconds."

I doubt that a second-day story examining Gore's policy ideas — or any other proposals for grappling with global warming — can compete with that political theater. The closest we'll get, perhaps, is yet more stories examining whether Gore got the science right in "An Inconvenient Truth."

We already got one on Wednesday. Hewing to it's usual pattern, NPR slavishly followed the lead of the New York Times with a report from Richard Harris on that subject. Harris reported that "a couple" of scientists approached him after Gore got a standing ovation at December's American Geophysical Union conference to say that "he didn't exactly get the science right." (THE HORROR!) Does any one else find it bothersome that not one of those scientists is actually named in Harris's report? In fact, not a single interview is referenced at all.

To be fair, it must be said that Harris treated Gore much better than Broad did. Overall, the report concluded that Gore did a pretty good job in "An Inconvenient Truth," and that scientists generally are grateful to have such an effective popularizer out there talking about climate change. Also, I'm guessing that Harris's editors twisted his arm to do this report — as a studio interview with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne.

Let's hear it for NPR's original and in-depth reporting!

-- Tom Yulsman

Monday, March 19, 2007

Today a Teardrop, Tomorrow Weasels at the UN

What's the difference between these two cover pages? The one in the New York Post is much less of an outrage than the bogus image used on Time magazine's cover this week.

That tear on Reagan's cheek was added electronically. Reagan wasn't actually crying when the photo was taken.

I had to come back to this issue because it astounds me that it is not generating outrage — among both journalists and the public. I wrote about this in an earlier post. In a comment to that posting, Barbara Woike, a picture editor at the Associated Press, notes that we are indeed heading down a slippery slope. (Credit goes to her for digging up the Post cover.) In fact, some publications, like the Post, long ago ended up at the bottom. If that cover photo is not enough for you, check out the lede: "Weasel so-called allies France and Germany will hear fresh evidence today of Iraqi stonewalling, at an 11th-hour showdown with the United States in the U.N. Security Council."

This is no joke. (It's not April 1 yet.) The Post really did run that photo, and that lede. But what they did is less egregious than what Time magazine did. Most folks know that the Post is a screaming tabloid and generally is not to be taken too seriously. And no one who saw the cover photo was misled into thinking that the French and German ambassadors to the U.N. really are weasels. By contrast, hardly any readers are likely to realize that Ronald Reagan really was not crying when that photo of him was taken. Hardly any will know that the tear was added electronically. And very few indeed will understand that the editors of Time intended for the cover to be taken symbolically, not literally. The N.Y. Post did not try to hide what it was it doing. Time hid it very well.

Where are we headed if journalists shrug their shoulders when confronted with the doctoring of a photo in the way Time magazine did? I won't reiterate the arguments I made in my last post. But I submit that mainstream journalism will be headed to a much worse place than the Post — a place where facts are optional and the truth is malleable.

Does anyone out there care about this? Where is your sense of indignant outrage?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Large Majority of Americans are Worried About Global Warming

A new poll by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy finds that 83 percent of Americans consider global warming to be a “serious problem” —up from 70 percent in 2004. Eighty-one percent agree with the following statement: “It is my responsibility to help reduce the impacts of global warming.” And nearly two thirds say that new laws are needed to increase energy efficiency.

Some bad news for environmental journalism here: Just 45 percent of Americans say they trust newspapers as a source of environmental information — down from two-thirds in 2004. Twenty-seven percent say they don't trust major newspapers one iota. Nightly television news also has declined significantly in its perceived trustworthiness on environmental news.

Why is journalism taking such a hit in audience confidence? This week's cover in Time magazine suggests part of the answer. In a reprise of the O.J. Simpson cover debacle (in which Simpson's photo was electronically doctored to make him look more sinister), Time's editors decided to run a bogus picture of Ronald Reagan crying. The problem is that Reagan wasn't crying; the tear on his cheek is a Photoshop facsimile. Check it out in the posting below.

-- Tom Yulsman

Saturday, March 17, 2007

There They Go Again

I know this doesn't have anything to do with the environment, but it is reflective of how low we've sunk in journalism. I'm talking about The March 26 cover of Time magazine, which features a photograph of Ronald Reagan with the cover line, "How the Right Went Wrong. What would Ronnie do? And why the Republican candidates need to reclaim the Reagan legacy." What's most arresting about the photo is a tear running down from his right eye and over his rosy cheek. After the OJ Simpson cover debacle, you'd think they would have learned their lesson. But no. You have to look in the small print — the cover photo credits — to learn that the photograph is by David Hume Kennerly, and the "tear by Tim O'Brien." I take this to mean that the tear was added by Tim O'Brien, electronically.

Tear by anyone is an outrage. Time is a bloody news magazine, so presumably they should be dedicated to telling the truth. Well apparently, the truth is that Reagan wasn't crying when the photo was shot. The photo is a lie. Most readers will see the photo and think Reagan really was crying when it was taken. That was my first reaction. How many people will look like I did to see whether it was Photoshopped? Not many.

And this is the first cover of a redesigned magazine. In a one-page note to reader, managing editor Richard Stengel goes on piously about the redesign. "Every issue of Time tells a larger story about the world we live in, and we wanted to create a design that would best present that story," he wrote. Lower down he says, "We offer clarity in a confusing world, explaining not only what happened but why it matters." That tear on Ronnie's cheek shows up with stunning clarity. It's looks hyper-real, in fact. And that's because it's not plainly real. It's a fake. What does this suggest to readers? That their journalism is fake as well? That wouldn't be such an unreasonable conclusion.

You could argue that it doesn't much matter. Reagan did cry from time to time (on demand, like an actor, some say), and that the image is symbolic, not meant to be taken literally. Such nonsense. Where do we stop? Why not doctor all news photos to increase their symbolic power? In fact, why not doctor all stories to suit our purposes? What matters is a higher truth, right?

Wrong. We tell the truth. That's our job. And when some of us don't, the credibility of journalism overall is eroded.

If one of the world's leading news organizations doesn't see what an outrage this is, what does that say about the future of journalism?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

More Drought News

John Fleck at Inkstain reports today on some drought news from around the world, including camels mad with thirst in Austalia. Well, no mad cows to report here in Colorado, but on the University of Colorado campus, abnormal warmth has ushered in flip flop season. So I thought it would be interesting to describe the details of a developing drought in the West that has some people worried.

Sixty percent of the region is now abnormally dry — or worse — according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. About 27 percent of the West is either in severe or exceptional drought, including nearly the entire state of Wyoming. The National Resources Conservation Service predicts that streamflows in a large swath of the West will be significantly below normal in spring and summer. Some flows are expected to be less than 50 percent of normal.

In the Upper Colorado River Basin, drought conditions from 2000 through 2004 had reduced the water level in Lake Powell so much that storage in the reservoir reached a low of 33 percent of capacity. Wetter conditions in 2005 improved the situation a bit, but drier conditions returned to the upper basin in 2006 — and things aren't looking any better now, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Precipitation in the basin was below average from November through January, and inflows into the lake from April through July are forecast to be just 71 percent of average.

That situation could turn around If spring precipitation turns out to be much above average. But that seems unlikely, now that the fall's moderate El Niño has rapidly dissapated, and conditions are becoming favorable for a La Niña to develop. (See the El Niño/Southern Oscillation Diagnostic Discussion issued by the National Weather Service's Climate Prediciton Center.) Some forecast models are predicting a rapid onset of La Niña conditions between March and May.

"With the potential for a rapid transition to La Niña conditions in the next few months, the odds of a wet spring are certainly not improving," says Klaus Wolter, of NOAA's Climate Diagnostics Center. A rapid demise of El Niño like we've seen does not favor wet springs in the West. "If we were to see the emergence of La Niña conditions later this spring, the threat of renewed drought conditions would increase even more."

Now, a paper by Mark Serreze, a senior researcher at the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center, suggests new reasons why the future may bring even more frequent and prolonged droughts. According to Serreze's paper in the March 16 issue of Science (abstract here , and press release here), declines in Arctic sea ice, which may have already reached a "tipping point," could trigger changes in weather patterns that would favor reduced rainfall in the West. "Just how things will pan out is unclear, but the bottom line is that Arctic sea ice matters globally," Serreze says.

Snow, ice and cold temperatures have given way quickly to abnormal warmth and mostly dry conditions here in the Front Range of Colorado. My precious silver maple in the back yard is already flowering. A bit early, I think.

-- Tom Yulsman

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Post-normal science," global warming, and the implications for journalism

After William Broad's silly and unsophisticated "hit" on Al Gore in Tuesday's Times, it's refreshing to read something really thought-provoking about climate change — and the very nature of science itself: this column in the Guardian by Mike Hulme. A professor in the school of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, Hulme is the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK.

Hulme comments on a new book by Fred Singer, a well known global warming skeptic, and Dennis Avery. The authors argue that a 1,500-year cycle in Earth's climate, driven by changes in solar energy, are largely responsible for the warming of the last 100 years. But Hulme does not take on the science offered in the book per se. Instead, he uses it as a jumping off point to discuss what has been called "post-normal" science.

Scientists traditionally are supposed to separate their work from values and cultural context. They work in tightly circumscribed disciplines, with little or no interaction with outsiders, most especially non-scientists. And the entire enterprise is "binary" in nature: With enough investigation, it can be determined whether a scientific claim is right or wrong. When enough research is done to whittle away the uncertainties, the answer can be found. If policy makers want to do something with this information, fine. That's their business. But ultimately, the purpose of the exercise is not to produce policy-relevant knowledge. It is to create new knowledge for knowledge's sake.

But with complex global issues such as climate change, Hulme and others argue that a different approach — post-normal science — is necessary. With these issues, uncertainties are great, values are absolutely relevant and in dispute, and the stakes are very high.

As a briefing paper from the Tyndall Centre puts it, action on complex, multi-dimensional issues such as climate change depends "on many value-driven decisions made in the face of uncertainty. It moves beyond traditional research, where 'truthful output' is everything to a method where the quality of the process of research is paramount." With issues like this, action has to be taken before a full understanding is gained. Research must be directed not simply at creating new knowledge but expressly to guide action. Consequently, the research must be conducted jointly by scientists and those who will have to carry out the actions. This means both experts and stakeholders work together.

The IPCC is a classic example of post-normal science. Although much of the heavy lifting is done by scientists, experts from government, business, and the policy world become involved in the process too, and ultimately the assessment reports are handed off to government officials for comment and amendment before the final drafts are published.

Singer and Avery clearly believe in the normal science paradigm. If only policy makers would pay attention to the correct science, then the proper descisions would be made — meaning policy makers would not waste time and precious resources trying to stop climate change. They, along with their opponents on the other side of the issue, frame it in this simplistic way. Pure Enlightenment science has provided an answer to the "global warming: yes or no?" question. The problem, of course, is that they have reached opposite conclusions.

William Broad's story naively fit this mold — from the journalistic perspective. Give readers enough information about the science on both sides of the debate, and they will eventually reach the right conclusion. Broad's story was an attempt to correct the scientific record by bringing to light the alleged distortions made by a politician.

Yet the debate is not driven simply by scientific facts and observations. Most important are the underlying values of the debaters. Hulme writes: "Too often with climate change, genuine and necessary debates about these wider social values - do we have confidence in technology; do we believe in collective action over private enterprise; do we believe we carry obligations to people invisible to us in geography and time? - masquerade as disputes about scientific truth and error."

A more fruitful public discourse about climate change would focus on these issues, not just the data. And when appropriate, I think journalists should take every opportunity to reframe climate change in these terms.

Hulme says that "in order to make progress about how we manage climate change we have to take science off centre stage." And "if scientists want to remain listened to, to bear influence on policy, they must recognise the social limits of their truth seeking and reveal fully the values and beliefs they bring to their scientific activity."

Journalists should push them to reveal those underlying factors. But that's exactly the opposite of what William Broad did in his story this week — no doubt because of his own undisclosed values and beliefs.

-- Tom Yulsman

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Bill Broad to Al Gore: "cool the hype"

The blogosphere has been afire with criticism of William Broad’s story in Tuesday’s New York Times. ("From a Rapt Audience, a Call to Cool the Hype.") The story tried (and failed) to make the point that many scientists believe Al Gore not only exaggerated impacts of global warming but also got many aspects of the science wrong.

The blogofire started Monday with an item in the Drudge Report on a planned New York Times “hit on Gore.” After publication of the Times story, David Roberts at Grist weighed in, saying, “This may be the worst, sloppiest, most dishonest piece of reporting I’ve ever seen in the NYT. It’s got all the hallmarks of a vintage Gore hit piece: half-truths, outright falsehoods, unsubstantiated quotes, and a heaping dose of innuendo.”

At Deltoid, Tim Lambert wrote wrote that Broad’s article “gives global warming skeptics (who are ‘centrist’ according to Broad) free rein to say anything they want, without checking the accuracy of their claims. Worse he adds his own statement on the science that seriously misrepresent scientific reports.”

And over at Realclimate, Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt eviscerated the scientific criticism leveled at Gore in Broad’s article. “The first rule when criticizing popular science presentations for inaccuracies should be to double check any 'facts' you use,” they wrote. “It is rather ironic then that William Broad's latest piece on Al Gore plays just as loose with them as he accuses Gore of doing.”

Not surprisingly, some bloggers are reaching exactly the opposite conclusions. Andrew Bolt, for example, writes this in his blog at the Herald Sun (an Australian newspaper):

“Far, far too late, but some journalists of the corporate left may at last be asking Al Gore some questions about his astonishing scaremongering . . . Yes, the New York Times piece airs many criticisms of Gore, but without painstakingly fact-checking each of his mendacious claims, as he deserves. But bottom line: even alarmists think he’s an alarmist.”

Don’t you just love that line! The trouble is that the people Broad quoted to suggest that Al Gore has misrepresented the science are anything but “climate alarmists.” Some actually don’t agree that human emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the planet. And at least one says there is no evidence that humans are causing climate change.

Broad writes that “geologists have documented age upon age of climate swings, and some charge Mr. Gore with ignoring such rhythms.” Then he quotes Robert Carter, a marine geologist at Australia’s James Cook University, as saying this:

“Nowhere does Mr. Gore tell his audience that all of the phenomena that he describes fall within the natural range of environmental change on our planet. Nor does he present any evidence that climate during the 20th century departed discernibly from its historical pattern of constant change.”

Well, nowhere does Broad tell his readers that Carter is a prominent skeptic of the role of carbon dioxide in global warming. He does not believe that atmospheric CO2 is a primary forcing agent of climate change. Nor does he believe that any signal of human impact on the climate has emerged from the noise of natural variability. Who knows? Maybe Carter is right and the vast majority of other climate scientists are wrong. But Broad’s readers certainly deserved to know that Carter is by no means a centrist on global warming.

Because other blogs have done a thorough job dissecting the scientific claims made in Broad’s article, I’ll say only one more thing about that — because I haven’t seen it mentioned elsewhere and it is so ridiculous that it can’t be passed over. Broad quotes this from a blog posting by Roy Spencer, a climatologist at the University of Alabama: the IPCC report shows “that all we really know is that we are warmer now than we were during the last 400 years.”

Oh really? That’s the only solid conclusion to be drawn from all 8,488 words and 21 pages of the IPCC report? Not that “paleoclimate information supports the interpretation that the warmth of the last half century is unusual in at least the previous 1300 years,” as stated in the IPCC? Or that “the last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 metres of sea level rise”?

Both of these findings, two of many described in the IPCC report, support points made by Gore — points that Broad’s sources say have no scientific backing.

What possible justification could there be for printing something so patently untrue and profoundly absurd? I can only conclude that Broad has a mission when writing about climate change: To correct what he perceives to be errors in the record and restore a sense of balance to journalistic coverage that he thinks has tilted too far in the direction of climate alarmism. Nothing wrong with trying to correct the record, maintaining journalistic skepticism, etc. But as Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt point out in their Realclimate posting, if you’re going to do it, you’d better get your facts straight.

In the end, none of this is really about science per se. As Roger Pielke, Jr., my colleague here at the University of Colorado, told me today, “The debates about the science in the movie are yet another way to scientize political debates.”

It’s really all about politics, not science. And if some scientists are indeed uneasy about Al Gore — and I have no doubt that this is true, although not nearly to the degree that Broad claims — it’s not really because he has exaggerated the science and gotten some of it wrong. What uneasiness exists probably stems from a sense that they’ve lost control of their own science to a politician, that in the process much of the nuance and hedginess of what they do has been lost, and lastly, that Gore has cherry picked the data to make a strong case for action.

The HORROR! A political advocate is ADVOCATING!

-- Tom Yulsman

Monday, March 12, 2007

The End of Journalism as We Know It?

The Project for Excellence in Journalism has just released its much anticipated "State of the News Media 2007" report, and while the findings probably won't surprise anyone in the business, they nonetheless make for disquieting reading. Both the business and practice of journalism are undergoing a radical transformation — some might say an unraveling. The alarming part is that it's still not entirely clear what the future holds, although the report makes the point that a picture is beginning to resolve out of the static.

According to the report, "the transformation facing journalism is epochal, as momentous as the invention of television or the telegraph, perhaps on the order of the printing press itself." It is being driven by technology, but "the effect is more than just audiences migrating to new delivery systems." New technology is giving consumers of news more control over how they consume information. One consequence is that audiences are "splintering across ever more platforms." And "every media sector except for two is now losing popularity."

The splintering is driving many media outlets to specialize. "Increasingly outlets are looking for 'brand' or 'franchise' areas of coverage to build audience around," the report states. In some cases, this is "hyper-localism." In others, it's opinion. "In a sense all news organizations are becoming more niche players, basing their appeal less on how they cover the news and more on what they cover."

One interesting factoid: It looks as if the number of people who get their news online stabilized in 2006 at about 92 million people. Why should this be? The report suggests that the conventional idea of going online — meaning using a standard computer — is outmoded, since many people are now getting news and other information on mobile devices.

Other factoids: Network evening news lost another million viewers in 2006; morning network news declined as well; the audience for local television news declined even more rapidly; even as MSNBC registered some gains, Fox began to see its audience decline; magazine readership was flat, as was the radio audience. And what of newspapers? Daily circulation in 2006 dropped 3% and Sunday circ almost 4%. Meanwhile, the ethnic press continues to grow (although some analysts say it is topping out).

In one of its most unsettling conclusions, the report calls into question whether advertising will be able to continue supporting the journalistic endeavor. "On Madison Avenue," it states, "talk has turned to whether the business model that has financed the news for more than a century — product advertising — still fits the way people consume media."

As many of us are well aware, journalism has yet to come up with alternative business model. If one isn't found soon, would it be too extreme to say that journalism as we have known is terminal?

-- Tom Yulsman

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Believe in global warming? You've been duped by Satan!

Now the truth is finally out, thanks to a recent sermon by Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell. It turns out that it's Satan who is fomenting all the debate over global warming, because it distracts Christians from their true calling: winning over souls for Christ.

So, first he invented the Internet, and now he's leading Christians like Jim Wallis, a leading "creation care" advocate, down a path of evil...

The debate, Falwell said in a sermon at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, "is Satan's attempt to redict the church's primary focus . . . The idea is to divert your energies from the message and the mission and the vision of the church to something less . . . If I decide here as the pastor and our deacons decide that we're going to get caught up in the global warming thing, we're not going to be able to reach the masses of souls for Christ, because our attention will be elsewhere."

Falwell's attack comes as millions of evangelical Christians are getting the message from preachers like Wallis that preserving creation is a moral imperative. In his blog last week, Wallis stood up to Falwell and other bullies on the religious right who are trying to torpedo the creation care movement to cover up their own hypocrisy. "Once again, the hard-core Religious Right has gone on the attack, orchestrating a new campaign to advance their Far Right political views," Wallis wrote. "In a letter to the chairman of the National Evangelical Association Board, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and their cohorts claim that 'The existence of global warming and its implications for mankind is a subject of heated controversy throughout the world.'”

Wallis goes on to show just how silly that statement is. And he got some powerful support from Bill McKibben, author of the new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, in a guest blog a few days ago:

"Dobson, Falwell, and their ilk are the voice of a Christianity so deeply compromised by its embrace of American materialism that it needs to treat as a threat our brothers and sisters in Christ who come bearing the news of physics and chemistry. Rich Cizik [vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals] has been faithful in reading the signs of the times, and so it is unsurprising he is under attack. But one way or another, his moral clarity will prevail."

The moral and religious debate over global warming has clearly become quite political — and nasty. In his sermon, Falwell says "naive Christian leaders are . . . being duped. It should be expected that liberal clergymen and theologians would join in concert with Hollywood and liberal politicans on every radical and hurtful issue that arises." He goes on to refer to "extremist ecologists" who are seeking to advance a Godless agenda. They are, he says, "obnoxious radicals." And not surprisingly, he even resorts to red-baiting, referring to "good evangelical scientists" who are doing God's work by reubutting "those other green and maybe red scientists and politicians."

Isn't it fun now that we no longer have to cover global warming as a simplistic "yes or no?" debate? Thank you Jerry Falwell for helping to open up a rich new field of coverage!

Friday, March 9, 2007

There they go again

Once again, the Bush administration apparently is trying to muzzle government scientists from talking about climate change. It's yet another example of a clumsy and ill-advised attempt to control speech — and once again, it has backfired, thanks to vigilant reporters.

The news came from two stories, one posted Wednesday on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Web site and the other by Andy Revkin of the New York Times yesterday. The stories reported on memorandums from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that seem to ban government biologists travelling to meetings in Norway, Russia, Canada, and "any northern country," from discussing how global warming and melting Arctic sea ice are affecting polar bears.

According to the Post-Intelligencer story, the memorandums were prompted by upcoming trips to Norway and Russia by two biologists. The first, Janet Hohn, was scheduled to travel to Norway in a group led by Julia Gourley of the State Department to participate in a meeting on conserving Arctic animals and plants — which are under pressure from a changing climate. The second biologist, Craig Perham was going to Russia to advise villagers along the Siberian coast on how to avoid dangerous encounters with polar bears — which are on the rise because melting sea ice has forced them to shift their migrations.

One of the memorandums requires that an official spokesperson be named when a group of fish and wildlife biologists undertakes foreign travel — and that no one else can speak about issues related to climate change, polar bears and sea ice. My guess is that Gourley would be that spokesperson, since the state department official presumably can be trusted not to engage in any discourse that might cast administration policy in a negative light.

But the memos go even further. From Revkin's story: "The sample memorandums, described as to be used in writing travel requests, indicate that the employee seeking permission to travel 'understands the administration’s position on climate change, polar bears, and sea ice and will not be speaking on or responding to these issues.' This would appear to prevent both Hohn and Perham from saying anything about climate change, melting sea ice and polar bears — an absurd requirement, since the issues at the heart of the meetings in Norway and Russia relate directly to climate change.

In a story in today's Times, Tina Kreisher, a spokesperson of the Department of the Interior, was quoted as saying that the requirements simply indicated that climate change was not part of the agenda for the meeting in Norway, but that they would not ban Hohn from talking about global warming "over a beer." And the director of the wildlife service, H. Dale Hall, said the requirements simply would insure that Perham would stick to the agenda for his meetings in Russia. But the World Wildlife Fund, which is participating in the Siberia trip, says no set agenda had been negotiated.

This is just the latest attempt to control what government scientists say about climate change. News reports by Andy Revkin of the Times and others have documented other instances involving scientists from NASA and NOAA. The administration and its supporters have responded by saying that individual instances were handled poorly, but that controlling what government employees say about policy, as opposed to science, is wholly appropriate.

I was born in Brooklyn, so I know this bridge just ain't for sale. A single case of an inappropriately worded memo would be one thing. But this keeps coming up over and over again. So either this is yet another example of breathtaking incompetence. Or higher ups in agencies across the government are getting the message that scientists must be censored from talking about scientific issues they're qualified to discuss, lest Americans conclude that U.S. policy on climate change is ill-advised.

Or both.

-- Tom Yulsman

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

La Nina may arrive soon, NOAA says

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that La Nina conditions may be developing the Pacific. The changing conditions are depicted In the image at left, in which cooler ocean surface temperatures are in blue and warmer in yellow and orange. During La Nina conditions, the east-central equatorial Pacific becomes cooler than normal, influencing rainfall and temperature patterns around the world.

A La Nina sometimes follows on the heels of an El Nino. According to NOAA it tends to be associated with a greater-than-normal number of hurricanes in the Atlantic, but fewer hurricanes in the eastern Pacific. La Nina conditions tend to develop between March and June and then reach peak intensity from December to February. NOAA says a lengthy La Nina between 1998 and 2001 contributed to serious drought in the West.

So after this year's epic snow in parts of Colorado, we may see a return to the dry conditions that have seemed ever more common in recent years.

-- Tom Yulsman

Monday, March 5, 2007

Creating a Climate for Change on Global Warming

What role has communication about global warming played in delaying action on this issue? And how might scientists, journalists and others do a better job of communicating about it to bridge the gap between a high degree of public awareness and a low degree of concern?

That's the subject of "Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change" edited by Lisa Diling and Susanne C. Moser, and published last month by Cambridge University Press. I haven't read the entire book yet, but I've read the introduction. And my sense is that any journalist who covers any aspect of this issue — and any scientist who may have to interact with a journalist on the subject — simply must read this book.

"Society at large does not appear to be deeply concerned with global warming, and as a result, is not yet acting on the ever-more urgent warnings emanating from the science and advocacy communities," Dilling and Moser write. Scientists tend to ascribe the problem to a lack of knowledge about the issue. "The familiar refrain goes something like this: 'If only they understood how severe the problem is … If only we could explain the science more clearly, train to be better communicators, become more media-savvy, get better press coverage … Why are they not listening? Why is no one doing anything?'"

Dilling and Moser cite research showing that while Americans are very well aware of global warming, only about a third are concerned or worried about it. "The disparity between these two findings — high awareness but low personal concern — shows that if creating urgency were just a matter of understanding the 'facts,' we would not be in the current conundrum," they write.

The way we communicate about climate change, they conclude, is not leading to action. And they identify a number of factors that make it difficult to communicate in an effective way. Among them are these: The issue has a lack of immediacy; the impacts are remote from most of our every day lives; the climate system is responding very slowly to greenhouse gases; people are skeptical that small actions such as driving less or changing light bulbs can have an appreciable impact. This is an incomplete list. Suffice it to say that Dilling and Moser identify a host of factors that make it terribly difficult for both scientists and journalists alike to communicate the urgent need for action.

And then news media, abetted by scientists, often make things worse. The authors point out that journalists have largely followed the lead of scientists in portraying the issue of climate change as primarily a scientific debate — global warming: yes or no? Scientists by nature emphasize uncertainty in their communication about issues, because this is what their research is often designed to narrow. Consequently, they tend to emphasize the things that are not known. And we've obliged the scientists in our coverage, discussing the issue in the same terms.

This has allowed opponents of action to "disproportionately" highlight the remaining unknowns. And to make sure we are being fair and balanced, we have often presented the issue as a debate between two equally ranked opponents, rather than accurately reporting on the consensus among the vast majority of scientists that humans are indeed responsible for global warming, and our impact is growing year by year. Making matters worse, Dilling and Moser point out that while there are more science stories than ever before, there are fewer reporters covering the science beat — fewer journalists with the knowledge to do the subject justice.

And then there is the issue of alarmism. In a letter in the Feb. 22 issue of Nature, Mike Hulme of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia in the UK, decries the alarmism he saw in British coverage of climate change following the release of the IPCC report. "The four UK 'quality' newspapers all ran front-page headlines conveying a message of rising anxiety," he writes. Adjectives like "catastrophic," "shocking," "terrifying," and "devastating" appeared in all nine newspapers whose coverage of the IPCC report he analyzed.

Dilling and Moser point out in their book that appealing to fear is "unreliable at best in prompting behavior change. Frequently, this technique leads to the exact opposite from the desired response," including denial, apathy, and actions that can create greater risks.

There is some good news for American journalists — at least I think it's good news. In his letter to Nature, Hulme of the Tyndall center said his analysis of media coverage in the United States showed that it generally adopted "a tone that facilitates a less loaded or frenzied debate about options for action."

But the less alarmist, more neutral coverage here in the United States has not yet bridged the gap between high awarness and low concern. So while we may be doing some things right, particularly lately, we've still got a long way to go. All the more reason to read Dilling and Moser's book.

-- Tom Yulsman

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Global warming hits Mt. Everest

Ice cores drilled at an elevation of 21,300 feet on Mt. Everest's East Rongbuk Glacier reveal that summer temperatures on the shoulder of the highest mountain on Earth have likely been warmer during the 20th century than during the previous 2,000 years. "Our reconstruction points to an unprecedented warming trend in the 20th Century," the researchers wrote in the Feb. 7, 2007 issue of the European journal "Climate of the Past."

In other news, fresh evidence has emerged that global warming may be causing Atlantic hurricanes to intensify. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the National Climatic Data Center say they aligned new and old satellite records dating back as far as 1983 to chart the trend in Atlantic hurricanes. "The data says that the Atlantic has been trending upwards in hurricane intensity quite a bit," says lead author James Kossin, a research scientist at UW-Madison's Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite StudiesKossin. "But the trends appear to be inflated or spurious everywhere else, meaning that we still can't make any global statements."

-- Tom Yulsman

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Is it time for a Society of Environmental Journalists weblog?

As journalists, we vigorously advocate for transparency in public institutions and many other areas of society. We argue that it’s good for democracy — that the people have a right to know how decisions are made.

But as journalists, we are generally shy of public attention to how we do our jobs, let alone to what we think and believe. That’s partly because our job is to report the story, not become part of the story. In the old days, of course, one would never, ever utter the “I” word in a news story. If it was absolutely necessary to bring yourself into the story, you did it awkwardly in third person: “A reporter who witnessed the event . . .”

I think we’re also shy of public attention because we worry that people might see that beneath the public front of an unbiased, objective journalist lies a human being with biases, emotions, and personal strengths and weakness.

And so blogging about how we do our work may seem risky. But at a time when newspaper readership is declining, young people are getting their news from sources such as “The Daily Show,” and the public is increasingly distrustful and even cynical about what they’re getting from news media, is it time to swallow our discomfort and get on with it?

I think many of us would probably agree that how we do our work, and how we think, are not well appreciated by our audiences. So is there a way to do a public blog — by environmental journalists about environmental journalism — that would help us do our jobs better while also giving our audiences a glimpse of the incredible care most of us take in doing those jobs?

What would we write about in such a blog? Certainly, some, but not all, of the conversation now taking place in the SEJ listserve could migrate over to a blog. It could be a place to talk about ethics, how to cover stories, the scientific status of important issues like climate change, and attempts to hinder what we do as journalists. It could also be a place to call attention to particularly noteworthy achievements, such as awards and important stories that have made a real difference. And if we're brave, we could use the blog to call attention to examples of environmental coverage we don't like.

As Amy Gahran said last year to our Ted Scripps Fellows in Environmental Journalism, young people “are more interested in conversation than lectures . . . They expect direct interaction as a basic aspect of their media experience. They expect their perspective to matter.” Similarly, “There’s a growing need/demand for greater audience participation and a remaining need for quality news content.”

I think she’s right. Many of the young people I encounter as a professor here at the University of Colorado are pretty cynical about us journalists. They feel that we’ve been bought and sold just as surely as the politicians, and that what we write and broadcast needs to be taken with a shaker full of salt. If done right, could a bit more transparency in what we do as journalists, and some interactivity with our audiences, actually help counteract this distrust and cynicism?

A Society of Environmental Journalism blog could serve other purposes as well. Look at the success of RealClimate. It is produced by climate scientists, mostly for climate scientists. But many journalists go there to see what scientists are saying outside of peer reviewed journals. If you want to see how climate scientists think — because it might help you cover them better — this is a good blog to go to. Similarly, if you were an environmental scientist, an environmental journalism blog might be useful if you wanted to learn how to deal with journalists more effectively. In other words, it’s possible that a blog like this could improve communication between scientists and journalists. (Perish the thought — we could even ask them to do guest blogs!)

We would obviously have to put our best foot forward in such a blog. That may be difficult, since emotion rules in the blogosphere. It is without question a place for uninhibited and often unrevealing bloviation. Perhaps the content would have to be moderated to some extent, because one intemperate remark from a journalist who hits the return key too quickly could become fodder for the likes of James Inhofe. That would hurt more than it would help. On the other hand, many journalists already are too keen to give fodder to those folks — and without the agency of a weblog. For example, some of us haven’t hesitated to publicly compare skeptics of global warming to Holocaust deniers. That’s been done in good, old fashioned print.

SEJ members already engage in daily conversation through the SEJ members’ listserve. It’s like a private club. A blog is more like a coffee house — a public place to come for some spirited conversation. Maybe it’s time that we open the door and let other people in to join the conversation.

If transparency in the institutions we cover is good for the sake of democracy, wouldn't transparency in the institution of environmental journalism be good for the same reason?

-- Tom Yulsman

How to manage the Colorado River until 2026? Bureau of Reclamation issues an EIS on proposed guidelines

The Bureau of Reclamation has issued a draft environmental impact statement on proposed guidelines for managing the flow of the Colorado River through Lake Powell and Lake Mead, particularly under drought conditions. The guidelines, once adopted, would be in force until the year 2026.

As last week's report from the National Research Council showed (see our earlier posting), we should expect drought conditions to be common, especially as global warming intensifies. So this is a big deal. How the bureau chooses to manage water in the Colorado will impact many millions of people in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and throughout the parts of the interior West that depend on the river for water.

The EIS considers five alternatives. The first is a "no action alternative." Here are the others:

Basin States Alternative: Under this plan, the bureau would operate Lake Powell and Lake Mead in a coordinated manner to minimize shortages in the Lower Basin states (Arizon, California and Nevada) "and avoid risk of curtailments of use in the Upper Basin" (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming).

Conservation Before Shortage Alternative: Developed by a coalition of environmental groups and other NGOs, this alternative would include "voluntary, compensated reductions in water use to minimize involuntary shortages in the Lower Basin and avoid risk of curtailments of use in the Upper Basin."

Water Supply Alternative: This plan would maximize delivery of water at the expense of keeping water in the reservoirs for future use.

Reservoir Storage Alternative: This plan was developed in coordination with Western agencies, the Naitonal Park Service and other stakeholders. It would "keep more water in storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead by reducing water deliveries and increasing shortages to benefit power and recreational interests."

The draft EIS was released for public review and comment on Wednesday, Feb. 28.

Al Gore: Mainstream Media Still Don't Get It

If you read this posting earlier, there's a bit of an update based in part on the excellent analysis by John Fleck:

The mainstream media still reject the scientific consensus on global warming, Al Gore told a media ethics conference earlier this week, The Tennessean reports.

Speaking of the conclusions of the IPCC, Gore said the media "have failed to report that it is the consensus and instead have chosen … balance as bias." Citing a study showing that 53 percent of newspaper articles on global warming offer false balance on the issue, he said, "I don't think that any of the editors or reporters responsible for one of these stories saying, 'It may be real, it may not be real,' is unethical. But I think they made the wrong choice, and I think the consequences are severe." The consequence, he argues, has been political gridlock on the issue.

I suspect Gore is referring to the study by Maxwell and Jules Boykoff examining "prestige press" converage of global warming between 1988 and 2002. ("Balance as Bias: global warming and the U.S. prestige press," Global Environmental Change, 14 (2004) 125–136.) Included in the survey were the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. The researchers found that "the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action."

After the release of the Boykoff study, John Fleck posted an an excellent critique, noting that the researchers conflated the scientific consensus on science with the policy response. (Also see his comment below.) "While they may be correct that there are cases where stories about the science are marred by a bias created by false balance, their conflation of scientific understanding of the issue and policy responses renders their argument fundamentally flawed."

According to the Boykoff paper, "the scientific community has reached general consensus that immediate and mandatory actions are necessary to combat global warming." It may well be that most climate scientists agree with this statement. But that certainly doesn't mean most other people do. This is just pointing out the obvious — scientific consensus by no means equals political consensus. And as we all know, we're not even close to a political consensus yet. So journalists providing balanced coverage of the policy side of the issue are only doing their jobs. Gore is just flat wrong. They are not guilty of false balance.

I suspect Gore was reacting to the hyper-bloviation on global warming that's prevalent on cable news (much of it directed at him this week), and to the low quality of news coverage in broadcast media. In this case, false balance on global warming is probably the least of our problems.

-- T.Y.