The Guardian – the largest newspaper website in the United Kingdom – has gone all-in on climate change as the philosophical restructuring of traditional media continues.
Climate change is so important, the publication announced, that it is willing to traffic in propaganda. The Guardian didn’t use that inflammatory word in its announcement, but there is no other word that accurately captures The Guardian plan.
“At The Guardian, we have, for years, recognised (sic) that the escalating climate and environmental crisis is the defining issue of our lifetime. Today, we’re making a pledge to ourselves and our readers – journalistically and institutionally – on how to address the climate crisis we are facing,” U.S. editor John Mulholland announced on Oct. 16.
“This pledge is particularly crucial in the US, where the so-called science presented by the fossil-fuel industry helped drive a totally false debate on the nature of the crisis.
“In the coming months, we will strengthen our climate coverage in significant ways, from being the lead partner in Covering Climate Now (an initiative to improve media coverage of climate to placing the climate crisis at the heart of our 2020 coverage). And next week, we launch ‘Our Unequal Earth’ – a year-long project on environmental justice, exploring how poor and vulnerable communities are hardest hit by the climate crisis.”
Note the repeated use of the word “crisis.” The Guardian in May announced its editorial decision to reject the words “climate change” in favor of “the preferred terms…’climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’….”
“‘Global heating’ is (also) favoured over ‘global warming,’ although the original terms are not banned,” the publication said, even if the statement on “Why The Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment” sounded a lot like a ban.
Apparently reporters can still write stories using the words “climate change,” but editors will change the phrase to “climate crisis” or “climate emergency” before the stories are published to abide by The Guardian’s preferred style.
This declaration of a crisis sparked debate among scientists with a few arguing such a shift in terms acceptable and others the opposite. One of the better science-based assessments might have come from Tim Palmer, a Royal Society Research Professor in Climate Physics at the University of Oxford.
“My view…is that one should be just as critical of those that say climate change ‘will’ be catastrophic, as those who say it will be ‘lukewarm’, or indeed say it is all a big hoax. None of these positions is scientifically sound,” he told the Science Media Centre.
“Climate prediction science is fundamentally based on probabilistic forecasts – these underpin the quantification of risk. This may not seem very sexy for a newspaper. However, it is vital that science is seen as an honest, dispassionate, disinterested broker in this debate.”
The same could be said for journalism as for science, but The Guardian is abandoning the idea of disinterested broker and thus is destined to become less than honest with its readers.
Why this destiny?
Because the world is an Ansel Adams landscape with a million grays and few blacks and whites.
And stories full of grays doesn’t sell people. Ask President Donald Trump, a master of manipulation in this post-truth world. The stories that sell feature “good” guys in white hats, and “bad” guys in black hats, and forget the all that gray, complicated garbage.
The Guardian took a big step down Trump Road when a group of scientists, some with established credentials but outside the fervent mainstream of today, sent a letter to the United Nations arguing “there is no climate emergency.”
Instead of sticking to the merits of the case, The Guardian went after the character of the petitioners alla Trump’s attacks on Democrat presidential candidate Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren for in the past over-stating her Native American heritage.
“‘CO2 is plant food’: Australian group signs international declaration denying climate science” The Guardian headlined. The quote was taken out of context from atop a paragraph that outlined the vital importance of CO2 to photosynthesis without which life on earth as we know it would not exist.
But The Guardian didn’t stop with the headline. The story below the headline mainly an attack on the signatories to the letters as climate deniers, several of whom “have high-level links to conservative politics, industry and mining” as if those are resident evils.
Facts v suspicions
Palmer, like some other scientists, clearly recognizes the threat to science in abandoning the role honest broker. Once scientists become preachers – for whatever reason – science dies. It is dragged across the threshold between rational thought based on the scientific method into a world of belief based on, well, belief.
The same holds true for journalists who know far less about anything than scientists. Once they become preachers – for whatever reason – journalism in the form it has been practiced in the U.S. for decades dies.
Religious leaders can tell us what the future holds because they communicate with their God or Gods. Scientists can only form educated guesses as to what the future holds based on often confusing and sometimes contradictory evidence.
The main evidence of the moment, before digging deeper into The Guardians misstep, is this:
- The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased significantly since the start of the industrial revolution. This is well-documented.
- The temperature of the planet appears to have gone up 1.8 degrees since 1880 due to it being wrapped in a thicker blanket of CO2, which lets in warm sunlight but acts like a number of others gases to providing an insulating effect that slows the escape of the radiant heat generated by that incoming sunlight warming the earth. The global temperature is harder to track than CO2 given the planet’s different climate zones, but scientists have managed to pull together a pretty good estimate.
- Some of the increase in atmospheric CO2 is likely due to humans burning tons upon tons of carbon stored once stored beneath the earth’s surface in the form of coal, oil and natural gas to power the industrial revolution. Combustion – no matter whether you burn wood or fossil fuels – sparks a chemical reaction that produces heat, water and CO2.
All of the data leads to the logical conclusion that if humans aren’t the cause of global warming they are certainly a contributor, possibly a major contributor. The conclusion is logical and robust even though scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), being scientists, concede that nobody knows for a fact that the warming is due to humans rather than “natural variability.”
The science here is not as concrete as Newton’s theory of gravity. It is both as good and as bad as the theoretical physics that theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has observed “is not about certainty….Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism.
“The very expression ‘scientifically proven’ is a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas; we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality, there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. It’s the most credible we have found so far; it’s mostly correct.”
Climate change would fit that “mostly correct” characterization. It is, as NASA scientists put it, a theory based on the preponderance of evidence pointing to a human fingerprint in some form on the scale of CO2.
Those in a near panic about climate change believe humans have slammed their hand down on the scale. Those skeptical about the cries of alarm generally tend to see humans as less important than we tend to think we are in the vastness of a whole-earth ecosystem.
(Yes, there are those who also believe God or Gods decide everything, and all of this science stuff, one way or the other, is just a bunch of malarky anyway, but let’s not go there.)
Let’s accept as a given what is now best indicated by the science – the planet has warmed by 1.8 degrees since 1880 – and go from there because the real issue is with the future not the here and now.
And when it comes to predicting the future, climatologists are in an arguably worse position than economists. Both work off models, but economists have a lot more history with which to judge their models. They can see where change A produced reaction B which caused response C that resulted in outcome D.
And they still regularly fumble their forecasts because the future is hard to predict.
Climatologists are working off evolving models in which not even all the variables are as yet clear. Clouds, for instance, are a wild card. They could make the planet even hotter, or they could make the planet cooler.
Alaskans who pay attention to weather got a good lesson in this phenomenon during the 2019 summer of heat and fire. Most of them already knew how clouds warm things up. When they pile over the city in winter and trap warm air beneath, the Winter Wonderland of Anchorage has a bad habit of becoming an all-too-dreary Seattle.
Just the opposite happened this summer at times when smoke from wildfires darkened dense clouds over the city and cut off sunlight as if someone pulled down the blinds. Midday temperatures sometimes fell so fast you could feel them dropping. Princeton University scientists last year concluded current climate models do a bad job at accounting for just that kind of midday cooling.
“Climate scientists have the clouds, but they miss the timing,” Princeton researcher Amilcare Porporato told SciTechDaily. “There’s a strong sensitivity between the daily cloud cycle and temperature. It’s like a person putting on a blanket at night or using a parasol during the day. If you miss that, it makes a huge difference.”
This one of many reasons the 2018 prediction from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ranges from a little warming in the next two decades to radical warming with the best guess being in-between.
Good versus bad
“We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN,” was how The Guardian headlined its story of that IPCC projection above a photo of a flaming forest fire . “Urgent changes needed to cut risk of extreme heat, drought, floods and poverty, says IPCC”
The New York Times (NYT) was more restrained. “Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040,” it reported, although the headline did run above a photo of a child next to the skeleton of a dead animal.
Continued warming could indeed bring crisis in places by 2040. But there are a lot of things that could bring crisis by 2040. In the case of climate, whether crisis comes depends not only on how much warming there is but how plants, animals and humans adapt. All are unknowns.
The fearful have in the past warned of massive crop failures if warming continues, but the research there is indicating the global warming problem isn’t that simple.
“The combination of warming and absence of adaptation leads to alarming scenarios regarding climate-induced reductions in yield,” researchers studying Midwest corn reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America last year. “However, the presumption of no adaptation seems at odds with the ingenuity of farmers, a characterization that is supported by evidence of regional adaptation to climate and patterns of insurance coverage that indicate careful apportionment of weather-related risks.”
What the University of Minnesota’s Ethan Butler and colleagues found when they looked at what has happened on the ground in the U.S. Corn Belt to date is that farmers responded to warming by adjusting their planting schedules and yields actually went up by a quarter.
They also noted, as did the Princeton cloud researchers, the small variables that can make huge differences. While the Corn Belt has warmed, they observed, “the hottest growing-season temperatures have cooled by approximately 1–C (1.8 to 3.6 over the last century.”
Fewer “killing degree days (KDDs)” due to high heat, which reduce yields, were linked to changes made by farmers.
“Increasing growing degree days is consistent with general warming driven by increasing greenhouse gases, whereas suppression of the high-temperature extremes that produce KDDs appears to be a fortuitous by-product of more productive row-crop agriculture and corresponding increases in evapotranspiration. Strong associations between increasing summer crop productivity and cooler extreme temperatures are found in the Midwest as well as other major cropping regions. Increased irrigation also cools surface air temperature, but we focus on rainfed counties because only approximately 20 percent of counties in the Midwest have at least 10 percent of their harvested acreage equipped for irrigation.”
What the researchers reported in their peer-reviewed study was that farmers were not only getting bigger yields because of global warming, but they were in the process – whether they irrigated or not – helping to reduce the summer heat spikes that can make life hell in the Midwest.
None of which was an endorsement for continued warming in a climate-change study rather obliquely titled “Peculiarly pleasant weather for US maize.”
“Whether historical patterns of adaptation will prove successful under future climate is also unclear. If droughts like those in 1988 and 2012 grow more frequent or intense, they could overwhelm the benefits,” Butler wrote.
And at the end of the day that’s the problem with any of the positive changes wrought by climate change. Global warming is an uncontrolled experiment. Nobody can truly predict the outcomes good or bad.
Given that, the wise things for humans to do – about the only thing humans can do – is minimize their influences on the picture and let natural events follow their own course. But finding alternatives to the fossil fuels producing most of our CO2 is not that easy or risk free nor is unwinding the human addiction this convenient form of energy.
Radical efforts to reduce emissions could cause problems for the global economy, and economic collapses have a bad history of forcing humans back to their most problematic and all-too-common form of interaction: war.
The last World War was sparked by economic failure in Germany and economic expansion in Japan, which in the 1930s looked a lot like the China of today but with a much greater willingness to use military force instead of just economic power to get what it wanted.
China, a country that endured its last revolution just after World War II and constantly worries about another, is now in the process of building hundreds of CO2-producing, coal-fired power plants around the world to keep Chinese workers employed and keep the Chinese economy growing because of ever-present concerns about social unrest if the economy falters.
The Chinese no doubt have another motive here, too; by helping Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines and others build those dirty coal-fired power plants instead of cleaner but more expensive natural gas facilities, China reduces the competition for the gas it wants to fuel its own power plants in an effort to clean up the smog that has made the air unbreathable in some Chinese cities.
Meanwhile, the Chinese proclaim themselves supporters of reducing CO2 emission to combat climate change as do the Russians, who appear to have a strategic interest in keeping the warming going.
“According to some projections, countries far north of the Equator, like Canada and Russia, could benefit from warming temperatures, as enormous swathes of perpetually frozen, barren territory are transformed into arable land and the extraction of mineral resources farther north of the Arctic Circle becomes possible. Russia has aggressively staked its claims in the Arctic territory in anticipation of further melting. Putin has also repeatedly alluded to projections that Russian agriculture could benefit from climate change, remarking in 2003, “Agricultural specialists say our grain production will increase, and thank God for that,”’ writes Quentin Buckholz at The Diplomat.
Buckholz goes on to list all the ways in which some analysts project climate-change-linked shifts in existing agriculture and demographics could cause problems for Russia, but there is no telling what Russia or Putin really think.
All of this is what makes climate change and what to do about it a hugely complicated problem. The Guardian’s response and that of some other Western media is to try to foster a “moral panic” in the U.S. to make it do something although what is unclear from The Guardian stories.
The best known moral panic in U.S. history resulted in passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 that began Prohibition of alcohol. It was later repealed in large part because of all the problems Prohibition caused.
Psychologists have described various other moral panics, and they all share five things in common, writes Scott Bonn at Psychology Today: “1) folk devils, 2) rule or law enforcers, 3) the media, 4) politicians, and 5) the public. ”
“Folk devils are those…alleged to be responsible for creating a threat to society,” he writes. “They are the embodiment of evil and the antagonists in a moral panic drama.”
In this case, folk devils are identified by The Guardian’s Mulholland as the nameless actors in the “fossil-fuel industry who helped drive a totally false debate,” and by a Guardian “news story” as those with “high-level links to conservative politics, industry and mining.”
The enforcers are members of the UN panel trying to save the world. The media is obvious as are the politicians and the public. The Guardians goal is to stampede them all to somehow solve the problem of rising emissions although it isn’t clear how that works.
Compared to some other countries, the U.S. hasn’t been doing so bad on the CO2 front. Emissions have been trending downward since 2007 and are now below the levels of 1993, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Canadian emissions remain significantly above those of 1993 as do those in India, where emissions are continuing to creep steadily up. China, meanwhile, has gone from number three in 1990 behind the U.S. and the European Union in that order to number one by a long shot.
Chinese emissions are now more than double those of the U.S. and emissions in India are approaching those of the European Union, one of the few entities which has actually shown progress in making serious reductions.
Part of that is by design. A lot of European cities are old and date back to when cities were built around people moving themselves from point A to point B instead of always using a motor vehicle.
And part is by government action. France began an aggressive program of nuclear power plant construction in the 1970s and now gets 75 percent of its energy from nuclear power plants with another 15 percent from hydro. It has so much juice it has become the world’s largest exporter of electricity, which helps drive down emissions all across Europe.
Germany has lowered its emissions by 30 percent since 1990, but a big part of that was tied to the collapse of East German heavy industry after German unification. Since then, Germany has instituted a big push into renewables – solar and wind – but barely held the line.
Emissions crept upward in 2016 and 2017 and a drop in 2018 was in part credited to “a warm year (that) led to lower heat consumption and thus lower emissions” and a rise in oil prices that “had a dampening effect on the transport sector’s consumption,” writes Simon Goess at Energy Central.
Carbon emissions, like climate change, are tied to a lot of complicated events with only a couple things clear:
- Nuclear power provides a lot of energy sans climate change concerns, but then you have to worry about how to dispose of nuclear waste.
- Rising prices for motor-vehicle and heating fuels push down consumption and reduce carbon emissions but only to a point.
Those are the only easy pieces of the puzzle. So who wants to pay a lot more for gas to fuel their car or truck to reduce CO2? And who wants a nuclear power plant built down the street or in your town or even in the next city over?
Renewables are a great way to hold the line on CO2 increases and urban redesign could help, too, but actually reducing emissions from what they are today is – as the hardworking Germans learned – not easy.
Instead of reporting on all this complexity and letting readers sort it out, The Guardian has decided it is just going to roll the truth of climate-change evil downhill to the masses. It is not alone.
The NYT, which seems to think global warming is threatening Alaska salmon, has also shown signs of this at times. Suffice to say, global warming has yet to threaten Alaska salmon. To date, warming has done for salmon what it did for corn.
That whole story can be told in three graphs – two from a study by scientists Greg Ruggerone and James Irvine tracking salmon abundance in the North Pacific Ocean from 1900 to the present – and one from the University of Washington (UW) charting salmon harvests.
Sockeye, chum and pinks are the most populous of the five species of Pacific salmon. Most of the sockeye are of Alaska origin with the pinks and chums largely split between Asia and the U.S. with Alaska now accounting for almost all of the U.S. production.
These are also the most-harvested salmon in Alaska annually accounting for more than 95 percent of the catch.
The UW graph dates to the early 2000s. The Alaska harvest has only continued to trend upward since then. An average annual harvest of 48.3 million salmon per year for the 1970s reached 180 million per year this decade. The annual average has increased every decade for 50 years.
Whether this will continue presents the same question for salmon as it does for corn.
Temperatures could be near the point where salmon dying from heat stress or from problems related to heat stress – as appears to have happened to some salmon during Alaska’s record heat this year – spark a net loss in production rather than a net gain.
That is the nightmare scenario some prefer to believe now. Others want to think it’s never going to happen. Either could be right. The future is a prediction not a known. But The Guardian doesn’t want you thinking about all of the complexity and making up your own mind.
It just wants you to believe its view.
“In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct,” the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum notes. “The propagandist transmits only information geared to strengthen his or her case, and consciously omits detrimental information.”
The Holocaust Museum has studied propaganda at length because of its dark history. The museum concedes not all propaganda is bad. Public health campaigns are the best example of the good. Those propaganda efforts have saved millions of lives. The campaigns also worked because people saw the health threats as real and honest.
And there comes the hard sell for climate change propaganda that could make it all backfire and move us farther away from efforts to combat global warming instead of closer to the goal.
It’s difficult for people to see the consequences of some of the change in weather linked to climate warming. In Alaska, some of the consequences might even, God forbid, look good to some:
“A sunny summer. Lots of salmon. What’s not to like?”
“Oh, KTUU.com is lamenting the melting permafrost of the ‘Endangered Frontier’ as part of The Guardian-driven Covering Climate Now initiative? Whatever. The weather is perfectly Alaska crap today.”
“Propaganda,” as the Holocaust Museum notes, “is not always successful. Its effectiveness depends upon a variety of factors, including the receptivity of an audience to the message and a favorable social context.”
Worse than being potentially unsuccessful, propaganda is by definition a threat to journalism. It is divisive and designed to bias any discussion. It reinforces believers and attacks nonbelievers. It promotes tribalism. It creates enemies because it feeds on enemies.
Ask anyone who knows their Jewish history. The Inquisition was all about doing something about those “Christ deniers.” And the first thing you have to do if you want to do something about them is hang a label around their neck as is seen today with the media climate initiative’s “new playbook” schooling journalists to label as “deniers,” “delayers,” “contrarians,” “confusionists,” and “lukewarmers,” any who question the “consensus belief” of a “climate catastrophe.”
From The Guardian’s standpoint, it is easy to understand the business model at play. It’s the same but opposite fear-based tactic Fox News used to create its successful website. This is actually very forward-looking on The Guardians part, given Pew Research Center polls showing 71 percent of those in the U.S. aged 18 to 29 believe climate change a significant threat.
If you can hook them to read you now, you can probably hang onto them for a long time.
As for democracy, which has always suffered in times like these – see the “Red Scare” where instead of climate deniers it was Communist sympathizers – who really cares if propaganda might actually be making it harder rather than eaisier to foster a national discussion on how to start weaning Americans from fossil fuels?
That’s the goal, right? Or is there some other magic method for reducing atmospheric CO2 other than proactively messing with the environment using some of the more aggressive geoengineering that has been suggested.
I’m no climate change denier. That’s impossible in Alaska where forests have moved north and higher on the mountains ever since I got here in 1973 and glaciers have retreated ever farther back into the mountains. At the start of the 1980s, I sailed off the navigational charts into areas once glaciated in Glacier Bay.
I was reporting about “global warming” later in the ’80s, too – long before it became a climate-change issue and back when scientists were a lot more willing to talk about the issue of natural variability. There are a lot of them now very nervous about saying anything that could cause them to be painted a skeptic or, God forbid, a denier of the “climate crisis.”
A lot of them are involved with research in some way supported with grants connected to climate change, and it does not help with funding to be seen questioning the status quo. Still, I know I am not alone in being a little skeptical of the alarmist views of the Alaska future.
Warming just might be a net good here. Yes, people in some coastal villages might need to relocate, but that’s life. People have been relocating for generations. It’s a sad reflection of economic realities. I know a lot of young, Alaska-born, Alaska-loving young people working Outside, including my own daughter, because the job market there is better than the job market here.
The climate-change models, meanwhile, only underline my lack of panic. They generally portray Juneau becoming more like Seattle and Anchorage more like Juneau. There’s a reason the New York Times proclaimed that “Anchorage May Be the Place to Be” in a story focused on the safest cities in a warmer world.
There’s no reason to believe that Pacific Northwest like weather is going to destroy salmon runs (nor do the returns coming back to date from a warmer ocean suggest that), and on a larger ecosystem-level, all Alaska ecosystems appear more productive when it is warmer.
That said, there is reason to fear chaos around the midsection of the globe in countries that already face major socioeconomic problems only likely to be worsened by climate change. And, unfortunately in these times, what happens in Somalia doesn’t necessarily stay in Somalia.
So, like many others, I sometimes worry about climate change. More than that, though, I worry about journalism because some foundational, believable (or even semi-believable), generally accepted source of information is important to a democracy, and I certainly don’t trust government to provide it. The history there is not good.
The Guardian has unfortunately turned its back on this belief and established a dangerous new standard.
If a news organization decides in all its wisdom that an issue is “important” enough, it is now acceptable to turn to propaganda. Maybe everyone should thank The Guardian for at least red-flagging its bias on climate change, too.
But what message does this new position send individual journalists, especially young ones, working for that publication or others? If the people leading the business think climate change important enough to slant the story, what about the things “I” think important? How much of that confusing, complicating, contradictory information can I leave out of my stories to sell my view of the world?
What happens if everything starts being covered the way The Guardian covered the European Union Declaration of a non-emergency delivered to the UN? Despite The Guardian’s declaration that the letter denied climate science, it didn’t.
What it denied was a climate emergency, and it said this:
“Climate science should be less political, while climate policies should be more scientific. Scientists should openly address the uncertainties and exaggerations in their predictions of global warming, while politicians should dispassionately count the real benefits as well as the imagined costs of adaptation to global warming, and the real costs as well as the imagined benefits of mitigation.”
Transparency? Cost-benefit analysis? Dispassionate discussions of solutions? These are now bad things?