Balance is not bias -- Fox News critics mislead public on climate change


Published October 16, 2013


In George Orwell’s novel, "1984," the totalitarian state (“Big Brother”) demands blind belief in falsehoods that literally stand the truth on its head: War Is Peace, Ignorance Is Strength, and Freedom Is Slavery. 

If Orwell were alive and could observe today’s climate debate, he might have to add another inversion to the litany of deception: Balance Is Bias.

In a recent column in The Guardian, climate activists John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli claim that Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and other conservative media provide “false balance” by featuring climate contrarians. 

By “disproportionately representing” climate skeptics in their global warming coverage, Abraham and Nuccitelli argue, conservative media foster the illusion of scientific controversy and hide from the public a near-universal scientific consensus.

This criticism is a big fat empty suit. It is Abraham and Nuccitelli who mislead the public by misrepresenting what the climate debate is about.

Abraham and Nuccitelli site Cook et al (2013), a study co-authored by Nuccitelli, which allegedly finds that 97% of climate scientists agree with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that most of the 0.7°C of global warming since 1951 is due to man-made greenhouse gases. Skeptics, they suggest, are a fringe element, unworthy of media attention.

But the Cook study does not really prove what it claims to prove.

The authors examined 11,944 abstracts of climate papers published between 1991-2011. They found that nearly two-thirds of the abstracts expressed no opinion on the supposed “consensus” position. So their headline – 97% of scientists agree – is inaccurate and misleading. IN 1984-speak, they are claiming Silence is Affirmation.  

Of the abstracts that expressed an opinion, Cook et al. claim that 97.1% (less than one-third of the original total) agree with the IPCC consensus position. But that too is a stretcher.

University of Delaware Prof. David Legates and three colleagues examined the Cook team’s database, and found that less than 1% of the 11,944 abstracts explicitly endorse the so-called consensus.

Is the 97% figure made up out of whole cloth? Not quite. It turns out that 97% of about one-third of the abstracts affirms or implies that humans are responsible for some portion of global warming since 1951.

And guess what? Just about every prominent skeptic  agrees with that as well. As an attempt to discredit contrarians, the Cook study is a bust.

The key science question for climate researchers today is not whether greenhouse gas emissions warm the planet but whether state-of-the-art computer models are accurate enough to forecast climate change and inform policy decisions. As it turns out, the IPCC’s latest ensemble of climate models produce estimates that overshoot the warming of the past 20 years by 100% and of the last 15 years by 300%.

Skeptics have been pointing out the growing mismatch between models and observations for years. But if not for contrarian blogs like Watts Up With That and conservative outlets like Fox News, how would the general public ever know?

The key science question for citizens and their representatives is not whether most recent warming is man-made but whether climate change, as Al Gore HAS put it, is a “planetary emergency . . . that threatens the survival of civilization and the habitability of the Earth.” As I showed on this site last week, the latest IPCC report – the Bible of consensus climatology – implicitly disavows Gore’s doomsday scenarios.

Finally, the key issue for policymakers is not whether climate change poses risks but whether the proposed “solutions” – carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and other schemes to rig the market against plentiful, affordable, reliable fossil fuels – would do more harm than good.

Many scientists think green pressure groups and the IPCC exaggerate the perils of climate change, and many experts regard cap-and-trade and the like as a cure worse than the alleged disease. Thus, contrary to Abraham and Nuccitelli, the “division amongst climate experts” is real and substantial.

Perhaps Abraham and Nuccitelli are frustrated by the inability of 20 years of climate treaty negotiations to slow the growth in global carbon dioxide emissions. But that failure is due to economic and technological realities, not faulty “perceptions” of climatology.

For decades the climate alarm movement has been pushing “solutions” that would handicap fossil fuels rather than make alternative energy more competitive – that is, cheaper without costly subsidies. With global energy demand rapidly increasing, especially in developing countries where millions still live in poverty, the green agenda has been a dead end from day one.

What amazes is that Abraham and Nuccitelli still pin their hopes on the cult of consensus. Forging an inter-governmental consensus has been the IPCC’s mission for 25 years, unavoidably politicizing climate science in the process. It has long since begun to backfire. People get suspicious when government-appointed experts define “the science” for the purpose of advancing an agenda that just happens to increase government control of energy markets.

Abraham and Nuccitelli have learned nothing if they think that demanding even greater fealty to groupthink will do anything except energize skeptics and increase their popularity.

The good news is that conservative media are not going to take their advice, because doing so would allow one faction of experts to monopolize the discussion. Scores of government agencies, hundreds of mainstream media outlets, and thousands of Web sites serve up daily diets of climate alarm. Presenting contrarian analysis and commentary is balance, not bias.