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Global warming and the failure of the US media

Howard Friel

1st July, 2005

If a majority of US citizens support action on climate change, how does their government get away with ignoring them?

The New York Times is the most important newspaper in the US. Does this make it the most important newspaper in the world? If one measures the importance of a news organisation by the scale of its influence, then you could argue that the Times is both the world’s most important newspaper and its most appalling journalistic failure.

The intellectual establishment in the US views The New York Times as the gold standard of  American journalism. ‘The Times remains the most important and, on balance, the best newspaper in the world,’ wrote The New Yorker’s prominent political commentator, Hendrik Hertzberg, in May 2003. Actually, Hertzberg went even further. ‘The Times’ authority… isn’t just journalistic,’ he said. ‘It’s downright ontological. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the Times defines public reality [in the US].’

A month later, another commentator in The New Yorker described the influence of the Times this way: ‘It is almost impossible to exaggerate the paper’s significance. An event it doesn’t cover might… just as well not have happened.’ Which, for our purposes, prompts the question: ‘If the earth is warming due to man-made greenhouse-gas emissions, and the Times doesn’t cover the story, will the earth still grow warmer?’ Institutionally speaking, the Times doesn’t care one way or the other.

The acquisition of this much journalistic credibility did not result from a rigorous devotion to facts, a fearless resolve to challenge imperial presidencies or a principled devotion to the US constitution, the UN charter or the rule of law. Rather, the source of this authority is a sophisticated marketing approach to editorial policy, whereby the Times pitches its editorial products to high-end government, academic and corporate consumers the way that other big corporations pitch their high-end products to affluent customers. The New York Times is basically a Fortune 500 company that ‘positions’ its news stories and editorials to have broad appeal within the halls of power in government and corporate boardrooms in the US. In doing so, it is endlessly prioritising, protecting, and defending the New York Times corporate brand, rather than unselfconsciously reporting the essential facts, law or science of a given issue. This, in turn, supports its business model, which is to sell as much corporate advertising as its pages can hold, and to deliver that advertising to as many high-end readers as possible. When it comes down to it, the production of news and information at the Times is more about the Times itself and less about an enlightened democracy and a globally responsible nation.

The editorial policy that perpetuates the business interests of the Times has been articulated by an unbroken succession of publishers and top editors, each of whom have described the paper as an ‘impartial’, ‘centrist’, ‘non-crusading’ newspaper. In practice, this means telling its readers a little bit but not too much about the vital issues of the day. Better to under-report an issue than be perceived as having a political or environmental agenda, since this would ruffle core customers and alienate corporate advertisers. This explains why there is some but not much coverage of global warming in the Times. It also explains why the most important newspaper in the world’s most powerful and polluting country has utterly failed to exercise effective journalistic oversight of US global-warming policy, and why the rest of the world’s citizens are merely passive witnesses of warming events and conditions they have little power to stop.

Contrary perhaps to European opinion, the much-maligned US public is less culpable with respect to global warming than the highly acclaimed New York Times is. In two public opinion polls in recent years, Americans were asked the following question: ‘An international treaty calls on the US and other industrialised nations to cut back on their emissions from power plants and cars in order to reduce global warming, also known as the greenhouse effect. Some people say this would hurt the US economy and is based on uncertain science. Others say that this is needed to protect the environment and could create new business opportunities. What’s your view? Do you think the US should or should not join this treaty requiring less emissions from US power plants or cars?’ In its poll asking this question, ABC News reported in April 2001 that 61 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of such a treaty and only 26 per cent opposed. When the independent think-tank the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations asked the same question in a June 2002 poll, 70 per cent supported a treaty and 25 per cent were opposed. Other polls have consistently showed similar results.

In addition, at least 132 US cities, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, New Orleans, Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Denver and Salt Lake City, as well as the conservative Texas towns of Denton, Hurst, and Laredo and other small US towns, have endorsed the US Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement. By doing so, these cities have agreed: to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol emission targets through actions ranging from anti-sprawl land-use policies to urban forest-restoration projects and public-information campaigns; to urge state and federal governments to enact policies to meet or beat the protocol’s suggested greenhouse-gas emission reduction target for the US (which is a 7 per cent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012); and to urge the US Congress to pass the bipartisan Climate Stewardship Act, which would establish a national emission-trading system in the US. Other cities are expected to join this effort. Overall, a majority of the US public opposes the Bush administration’s rejection of the scientific and political consensus on warming.

Persuading the US to join the international consensus on global warming would mean identifying the segments of American society that have kept it from joining it to date. Obviously, president George W Bush, his administration and Congress are directly responsible for the US refusal to accept the scientific evidence and ratify the political accords on global warming. But if a majority of the American people are opposed to current US policy, how can elected US government officials continue to disregard them without political consequences? The answer to this question lies to a great extent with the power of The New York Times, the paper’s indifference about the seriousness of global warming, and its unwillingness to cover the story and motivate the US electorate to pressure its government to change its policies.

Without any journalistic leadership from the Times, the inattention to global warming among major US news organisations will continue. And the American people, though unimpressed with the administration’s policies on the issue, have not prioritised climate change in their hierarchy of political and economic concerns. This permits Bush and co to continue coddling their bigenergy supporters without sustaining political damage, which virtually guarantees no effective international action.

When climate scientists from around the world gathered in Exeter earlier this year for the Met Office’s Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change conference, it was one of the most important scientific events with respect to global warming since the 2001 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Papers given at the conference indicated that the earth’s climate was changing more rapidly with more dramatic effects than had been previously predicted.

One such paper, according to the Independent, reported that ‘researchers from the Cambridgebased British Antarctic Survey have discovered that a massive Antarctic ice sheet previously assumed to be stable may be starting to disintegrate’; and that the ice sheet’s ‘collapse would raise sea levels around the earth by more than 16 feet’, which would put ‘enormous chunks of low-lying, desperately poor countries such as Bangladesh under water – not to mention much of southern England’. The Independent reported that the conference ‘heard several alarming new warnings of possible climate-related atastrophic events, including the failure of the Gulf Stream, which keeps the British Isles warm, and the melting of the ice sheet covering Greenland.’

Two days later, The Independent reported a claim from the Exeter conference that ‘gigantic changes to the oceans, leading to the extinction of marine life from cod to coral reefs, are likely because of’ carbon dioxide emissions; that high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are ‘rapidly turning the world’s oceans [into] acid as [the carbon] is dissolved in seawater, putting an enormous array of marine life at risk’; and that ‘ocean acidification may wipe out much of the microscopic plankton at the base of the marine food web’ and is already endangering the future of coral reefs. Despite the highest professional standing of the climate scientists present, The New York Times ignored the conference and the dramatic research findings that were announced there.

Two weeks later, reporting from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The Independent said that scientists from the US Department of Energy, the US government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research ‘have found the first unequivocal link between man-made greenhouse gases and a dramatic heating of the earth’s oceans’. The scientists had discovered ‘a “stunning” correlation between a rise in ocean temperature over the past 40 years and pollution of the atmosphere’. The Independent said they had ‘destroy[ed] a central argument of global warming sceptics within the Bush administration that climate change could be a natural phenomenon’, and thus ‘should The New York Times sporadically and inadequately reports global-warming news, does little to enlighten its readers about the extent of global warming, and makes few demands on the Bush administration to join the international consensus and agree to mandatory emissions reductions convince Bush to drop his objections to the Kyoto treaty’. But Bush wasn’t likely to be persuaded by such evidence, in part because The New York Times and most other major US news organisations ignored it.

One exception was the Knight Ridder news organisation, which reported ‘new measurements from the world’s oceans… [giving] the most compelling evidence yet that man-made global warming is under way, and [which] hint at a more dramatic and sudden climate change in the future’. The organisation reported that Ruth Curry, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, found that ‘between 1965 and 1995 about 4,800 cubic miles of fresh water… melted from the Arctic region and poured into the normally salty northern Atlantic’. Curry claimed that if the melting continued, ‘the increased influx of fresh water could shut down the great ocean conveyor belt, which helps regulate air and water temperatures, abruptly changing the climate around the Atlantic and elsewhere’. Curry also estimated that ‘if the thaw continues at current rates, the shutdown scenario would occur in about two decades’. Also highly worrisome, Curry said, is the fact that the ice of Greenland has also started to thaw.

But The New York Times has imposed an almost complete blackout on the steady flow of worrisome scientific reports this year that have predicted worst-case global-warming scenarios. In January, a joint international effort that included scientists from the US, the UK, China, Germany, France, Australia, Switzerland, India, and Malaysia issued a report that summarised the scientific consensus on global warming as follows: ‘The vast majority of international scientists and peer reviewed reports affirm that climate change is a serious and growing threat, leaving no country, however wealthy, immune from the extreme weather events and rising sea levels that scientists predict will occur unless action is taken.’ Though the Bush administration still holds that global warming science is uncertain, and still refuses to participate in international efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the Times ignored this report. The Times also paid no attention in May, when the UN Environment Programme convened ‘an unprecedented grouping of pension funds, foundations, European investors and US state treasurers… to back a new call for urgent action by the global investment community to tackle the threat of climate change’.

Even when the paper covers an important global-warming story, it often treats it as a business or science story, not as a policy issue for which political leaders are responsible. For example, when the Kyoto Protocol finally went into effect – without US ratification – in February, the Times reported the story in its business pages, and the paper’s editorial page, reluctant to criticise the White House, had no comment. Likewise, on 30 March, the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) issued its synthesis report of four earlier studies on the state of the earth’s ecosystems. As the synthesis report noted, this huge effort ‘was carried out between 2001 and 2005 to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human wellbeing and to establish the scientific basis for actions needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems and their contributions to human wellbeing’.

The MEA, which represents the most authoritative and comprehensive assessment ever of the earth’s ecosystems, issued a number of dramatic findings. ‘Sixty per cent of the ecosystem services examined are being degraded or used unsustainably… There is established but incomplete evidence that changes being made in ecosystems are increasing the likelihood of nonlinear changes in ecosystems… [including] disease emergence, abrupt alterations in water quality, the creation of “dead zones” in coastal waters, the collapse of fisheries and shifts in regional climate… Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on earth.’ Despite the clear relevance of these findings for everyone on earth, and their enormous political implications, the Times covered the MEA’s report on page two of its science section, while its editorial page once again had nothing to say.

 In short, the New York Times sporadically and inadequately reports global-warming news, does little to enlighten its readers about the extent of global warming, and makes few demands on the Bush administration to join the international consensus and agree to
mandatory emissions reductions.

The 1990s may have been the last best chance to do what was necessary to check global warming. In 1990, the first report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that unless emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were reduced immediately by 60 per cent, global temperatures would rise sharply in the 21st century. This report should have convinced the political leadership in the US, which emits more greenhouse gases than any other country, to integrate mandatory emissions reductions into its economic and environmental future.

The fact that the political leadership, with the support of The New York Times, did the opposite, was a fateful if not fatal turning point in US globalwarming policy.
Two major attempts were made in the 1990s to codify mandatory emissions reductions within the context of the UN framework convention on global warming: at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, and at its Kyoto conference in Japan in December 1997. In each instance, the US government almost single-handedly weakened these efforts in advance of an agreement, essentially guaranteeing that they would have little capability to forestall the global environmental disaster now foreseen in study after study. And the New York Times played an important supporting role in Washington’s neglect of global warming throughout the decade.

Just before the 1992 Rio summit convened, the Times’ editorial page supported George Bush senior’s rejection of mandatory emissions reductions. In a 24 May editorial, the Times commented: ‘The Bush administration has drawn sharp criticism for weakening the global-warming treaty that will be signed at the UN environmental conference next month in Brazil… The administration’s opposition to mandatory limits was on solid ground – the need is not yet proved and the cost could be high.’ The editorial noted that major climate change, though conceivable, was “unlikely’.

One month later, on 12 June, the day the climate treaty at the Rio Earth Summit was signed, the Times editorial page commented: ‘Is president Bush an environmental pariah doing his best to scuttle important treaties at the Earth Summit? Or is he the only world leader with the courage to stand firm against a flood of environmental extremism? The answer is, a little of both. On specific issues, like global warming, biodiversity and forest preservation, the Bush administration has taken reasonable, even principled positions.’ The Bush administration’s ‘principled position’ on global warming included the fact that ‘almost single-handedly the US forced other industrial nations to abandon a firm commitment to stabilise the emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000’.

And finally, when George Bush senior’s successor, Bill Clinton, announced in late 1993 that he would not pursue mandatory emissions reductions, the Times backed him, observing that Clinton’s alternative plan ‘relies heavily on voluntary actions [and] goes light on regulatory actions’ and is thus ‘a reasonable response to a distant crisis whose dimensions are uncertain’. The paper said that global warming ‘is not an issue on which the president should spend much political or economic capital just yet’. When Clinton, with reluctance, agreed in late 1997 to sign the Kyoto Protocol that he had helped weaken, the Times applauded the president for imposing his ‘political will’ on the treaty process and outcome. (Clinton’s aboutturn was fairly irrelevant, anyway, because in July 1997 the US Senate had voted 95-0 that ‘the US should not be a signatory to any protocol or other agreement regarding the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992.’ This vote virtually guaranteed that the senate would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and that the US would never lead the world in a timely or effective way in its response to global warming.)

Surely, there can be no more important role for the US news media than preventing the most powerful country in history from leading the world to ruination. With global warming, however, the New York Times has miserably shirked this responsibility. By doing so, the newspaper may have served its bottom line well, but it has also implicated itself in imminent environmental disasters. This is an epic failure of US journalism.

Howard Friel is co-author with Richard Falk of The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2005


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