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The Hard Sell on Climate Change
Media outlets continue to push a crisis scenario, and the public isn’t buying.

(Images: Dreamstime)

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John Fund

Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, was very forthright about his media priorities at a Society of Professional Journalists dinner in New York City on Monday.

He told Bill Carter of the New York Times: “Climate change is one of those stories that deserves more attention, that we all talk about. But we haven’t figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way. When we do do those stories, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience’s part.”

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Americans hold views on climate change that at first are encouraging to environmentalists: In a Pew poll last year, 69 percent believed the earth was warming. But only 33 percent said it was a “very” serious problem, and when Pew asked respondents what issues should be a “top priority” for the federal government, dealing with global warming came in dead last, with only 28 percent holding that view. There is a real basis for such a stance: Global temperatures haven’t risen appreciably in about 15 years.

More and more people in the middle of America — both geographically and culturally — have come to believe either that global warming is manageable or that extraordinary efforts to slow the economy to combat it aren’t worth the cost. But that “doesn’t faze the bicoastal urban media elite,” says Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. These elites, he adds, “have become more hysterical in their treatment of the issue, blaming everything from drought to wildfires to hurricanes on climate change.” It doesn’t matter that there is clear evidence such phenomena are cyclical, and that — for instance — while California is experiencing a severe drought, Florida residents have recently experienced some of the quietest hurricane seasons in decades.

So even as public concern about climate change declines, the media continue to give airtime and space to global-warming alarmists. Everyone from Al Gore to Joe Biden touts the “fact” that 97 percent of all scientists are part of a consensus on the serious nature of climate change.

But that number hides some important facts. Anyone who dissents from the climate-change orthodoxy is dealt with ruthlessly.

Consider the case of Lennart Bengtsson, a leading Swedish meteorologist affiliated with Britain’s Reading University. In April, he announced he was joining the skeptical Global Warming Policy Foundation think tank because he felt it important to analyze “why the warming of the Earth has been much weaker than what climate models show.” 

His affiliation didn’t last long. Three weeks later he resigned, writing:

I have been put under such an enormous group pressure in recent days from all over the world that it has become virtually unbearable to me. If this is going to continue I will be unable to conduct my normal work and will even start to worry about my health and safety. . . . Colleagues are withdrawing their support, other colleagues are withdrawing from joint authorship etc. I see no limit and end to what will happen. It is a situation that reminds me of the time of McCarthy.

The Institute of Physics, which had declined to publish a paper by Professor Bengtsson, insisted that their decision was based solely on his paper’s not meeting their high editorial standards. David Gee, an emeritus professor at Sweden’s Uppsala University, said the pressure placed on his friend “simply confirms the worst elements of politicized science.” 

It is ironic that as witch hunts for climate-change skeptics have been intensifying, the public’s interest in climate change has been declining steadily. Researchers William Anderegg from Princeton University and Gregory Goldsmith from Oxford University analyzed Google Trends data for search terms such as “global warming” and “climate change” and concluded that “overall public interest in the topic has steadily waned since 2007.”

“Global-warming alarmists have turned off the public by hyping their claims, and people over time have seen through it,” Ebell told me. “Now that the disasters that were predicted for the time period we’re in haven’t materialized, the alarmists have started to say that every climate change is part of an unfolding disaster.” The problem is that people understand weather has long been variable and has had extremes. So the environmentalist message isn’t selling.

But don’t expect that to stop the Jeff Zuckers of the world. The lame-stream media will continue to hype climate change with little or no nuance in their reporting. But over time the cumulative effect of the media hype will be a continuing decline in the public’s credulity. When media outlets blindly join a cause that has the air of a secular crusade, truth is the first casualty; ratings are the second casualty. Just look at CNN’s numbers: Its ratings continue to plunge in part because it insists on running stories — like those on climate change — that audiences just aren’t buying.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.



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