Global warming: To deny or not, that is the question
By James Luidl
RMC Communications Team
As January’s arctic vortex spread icicles across the country, social
media and cable news indulged in their usual genuflect over whatthis weather phenomenon tells us about global warming. Invariably a cold snap of this magnitude brings out the climate deniers and right-wing pundits, claiming a single weekend's cold weather trumps a century’s worth of empirical data and decades of peer-reviewed scientific study.
It was, of course, no surprise to see the crack news team on Fox and Friends doing their best to uncover the truth of what a weekend of cold weather in North America means to the long term health of the planet. It was a “hard-hitting expose” over coffee and donuts, topped off by a discussion with one of the paragons of the scientific community—Donald Trump.
Okay, I can forgive Fox News for this, just as easily as I can ignore them... because I expect no less. They're singing to the choir, and no amount of food I throw at my TV will change that. Of more concern is how local media outlets in my Denver community cover this important issue. Also, how can I, as a consumer of these media outlets, guarantee they are providing the public service we rely on? Additionally, how can the Sierra Club influence the narrative?
Recently, I received a forwarded request to sign a petition distributed by MoveOn.org and Forecast the Facts requesting that the Denver Post no longer publish climate denial letters in their opinion section. The petition's origins go back to October 2013, when the Los Angeles Times announced the newspaper would no longer publish op-ed letters denying climate change as a hoax or liberal conspiracy. According to the Times, the scientific community has provided “ample evidence that human activity is indeed linked to climate change.”
“Simply put,” letters editor Paul Thorton said, “I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying there's no sign humans have caused climate change, is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.”
Our Peak & Prairie Communications Team had a conversation about what, if anything, we should do with this information related to our own hometown newspaper, the Denver Post. Do we send out an action alert... or is it something Sierra Club's ExCom would have to vote on? Is it really our place to categorically tell a media outlet what to print? Do we have other more pressing concerns? In the end, as I pointed out, it was unlikely the Denver Post would react to such a petition. As a former news director myself, I can attest to that reaction. It's one thing to suggest we journalists do our jobs, it's another to tell us how to do it.
Changing the paradigm
On the other hand, what can environmental organizations do to change the paradigm? It's one thing to take the position of MoveOn. Taking intransigent and sometimes unrealistic stances is their bread and butter. It's just as much about generating media traction on a wider scale as it is getting anyone to actually sign the petition.
Organizations, including Sierra Club, are about spurring people to real action, not necessarily as a member of the Club, but as private citizens who wish to hold fire to the feet of government and media about the issues we care about. We act as an organizational body to allow single voices to have a larger impact as part of a whole. Our members join us because they agree with our message, not to be given marching orders when we feel like it. Properly channeling the concerns of our members is our power—a bully pulpit of the masses if you will.
The Denver Post's position on the L.A. Times policy was made quite clear by Post editorial page editor Vincent Carroll. He points out in a piece posted shortly after the Times article that they receive many letters saying climate change is a hoax or liberal scheme, “and when we do, the prospects for publication are indeed slim. But not always. What if the letter is from someone whose views are in the public interest?” Indeed, what if? Is that a statement of fairness or just a way of allowing a media outlet to keep the controversy alive by arguing it?
Carroll questions the scientific certainty of the last report issued by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, using the same tired tactics of the right-wing echo chamber... claiming they show a “demonstrated bias in favor of alarmist interpretation.” He even quotes climatologist Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama, who says in his blog, “Evidence from my group's government-funded research... suggests global warming is mostly natural, and climate change is quite insensitive to humanity's greenhouse gas emissions and aerosol pollutions.”
What Carroll failed to point out is that Spencer is also on the board of directors of the George C. Marshal Institute, a right-wing conservative think tank on scientific issues and public policy. The Heartland Institute, a libertarian public policy think tank also lists Spencer as one of its experts... a position he also holds with the International Climate and Environmental Change Assessment Project, a global warming skeptic organization. Unbiased indeed!
So what are environmental groups to do when local media has drank the Koolaid? My answer is: Do what we do best and fight fire with fire. If you want to outshout the vocal minority, you have to get the silent majority—and I do hate using a Nixon term—to stand up and make some noise. Keep in mind that disbelief in climate change is foisted on the public by a very vocal minority. The number of people who actually write and email media outlets or participate on their blogs represents an even smaller number.
According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication Report, “Public Support For Climate And Energy Policies In April 2013,” 87 percent of Americans say the President and Congress should make developing sources of clean energy a “very high” priority. Seventy percent say global warming should be a “very high” priority, while 59 percent believe the U.S. should reduce its own greenhouse emissions regardless of what other countries do. Granted, these numbers had dropped a bit from the previous year... but is that a surprise considering the media narrative? If a vocal minority controls the message of a media-indulgent public with a short attention space, what do you think the outcome will be?
Sierra Club’s mission
The Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have the mission and means to inform and educate its members and encourage them to act, not as a mindless army of automatons, but to encourage them to speak their mind.
I'm a bit skeptical about automated petitions. I sign quite a few of them... and as one colleague of mine mentioned the other day, she signs up to four a day. But that begs the question, “When is it too much of a good thing?” Sure, the wonders of automation and computing give us the ability to deliver a single message en masse... but in a very impersonal manner. Editors and news directors certainly look at these types of petitions with a skeptical eye, wondering if they are just hearing the cry of the chorus... especially if they receive a dozen a day.
It's another thing altogether to have hundreds, or even thousands, of responses from individuals, who do not necessarily affiliate themselves with a particular group or organization... whether they belong to one or not. Who watches the watchdog? We do of course. We need to demand that our local news outlets provide the news we need, not just what they think we want.
Newspapers and television are living in tough times. They are fighting for a shrinking ad dollar being drained away more and more by social media. In an effort to stop the hemorrhaging, they are increasingly using social media to get us to watch and read their editorial content, as well as also using the latter to get us to click on their websites. But it also leads to those same media outlets encouraging the argument for arguments sake.
No matter how privatized these companies are, they are still required to provide a public service. Your individual voice can change the narrative if it's delivered en masse and convincingly. No doubt, the Los Angeles Times and several other newspapers aren't just taking an intellectual stance... but are feeling the heat from readership, who may or may not continue their subscription if they have to keep reading mindless claptrap from one side.
There's nothing wrong with signing the types of petitions MoveOn organizes. But if you want to affect the narrative where it lives—within the columns of the newspaper itself, write your local newspaper editors and tell them what you expect out of your newspaper.
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