Who determines the set of ideas the public is exposed to — and how they are framed? The national media.

The media’s choices are especially important in a decade when the Executive Branch — the principal force for setting the national agenda — was run by two oil men who actively devoted major resources to denying the reality of climate science, ignoring the impacts, and muzzling U.S. climate scientists.

Yet the national media remains exceedingly lame on the climate issue, as a searing critique by a leading U.S. journalist details (see “How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics“). The media downplay the threat of global warming (and hence the cost of inaction). And they still hedge on attributing climate impacts to human action.

This criticism extends to our premier reporters, such as the New York Times‘ Andy Revkin. Indeed, I (and dozens of other people) have an email from last week that Andy sent to Mark Morano (denier extraordinaire staffer for Senate denier extraordinaire James Inhofe). Andy asserts:

I’ve been the most prominent communicator out there saying the most established aspects of the issue of human-driven climate change lie between the poles of catastrophe and hoax.

Following that shockingly un-scientific statement, he includes the link to his 2007 piece, “A New Middle Stance Emerges in Debate over Climate,” that touts the views of Roger A. Pielke Jr., of all people! The “middle stance” is apparently just the old denier do-nothing stance with a smile, a token nod to science, and a $5 a ton CO2 tax — which is why I call them denier-eq’s.

Now if the top NYT reporter is pushing the mushy middle — if he writes things like “Even with the increasing summer retreats of sea ice, which many polar scientists say probably are being driven in part by global warming caused by humans, if his stories have online headlines like Arctic Ice Hints at Warming, Specialists Say — why on Earth would it be news that the public is itself stuck in the mushy middle?

And yet in both the NYT article and his blog, Revkin makes a huge deal of a poll that, if anything, merely reveals how bad the media’s coverage of the issue is. His blog post, “Obama Urgent on Warming, Public Cool” and his article, “Environmental Issues Slide in Poll of Public’s Concerns,” completely misframe the issue. Let’s start with the blog:

The latest in an annual series of polls from the Pew Research Center on people’s top priorities for their elected leaders shows that America and President Obama are completely out of sync on human-caused global warming. Mr. Obama stressed the issue throughout his campaign and several times in his inaugural speech, mentioning stabilizing climate in the same breath as preventing nuclear conflict at one point.

Uhh, Andy, you’re the science reporter, not the political reporter. The news, if there is any here, is that the public is out of sync with the science. Obama’s been President just a few days, so he’s not had bloody much time to undo the unsynching the last Administration (and the media) have done. Yes, Obama stressed the issue in his campaign, but the media largely ignored it, for instance asking just a handful of questions on the subject during the primary out of thousands of questions asked (see here).

The poll shows the failing of the media (among others, see below). But again, in your news story, it’s about Obama:

A new poll suggests that Americans, preoccupied with the economy, are less worried about rising global temperatures than they were a year ago but remain concerned with solving the nation’s energy problems.

The findings are somewhat at odds with President Obama, who has put a high priority on staving off global warming and vowed Tuesday in his Inaugural Address to “roll back the specter of a warming planet.”

In the poll, released Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, global warming came in last among 20 voter concerns; it trailed issues like addressing moral decline and decreasing the influence of lobbyists. Only 30 percent of the voters deemed global warming to be “a top priority,” compared with 35 percent in 2008.

I also find your explanation somewhat ironic:

The declining interest in global warming and other environmental issues might be unsurprising at a time when Americans face far more imminent threats to their jobs and homes. “Strengthening the nation’s economy” was the top-ranked concern of voters in the Pew poll. A relatively cool year and a harsh winter in North America and Europe have not helped, inspiring some commentators and a small cluster of scientists to make skeptical remarks about “global cooling.”

Uhh, you yourself helped enabled the disinformers pushing the absurd global cooling meme with your article titled, “Climate Skeptics Seize on Cold Spell,” (see here).

The year was only “relatively cool” if by “cool” you in fact mean incredibly warm from a historical perspective. To repeat, 2008 was nearly 0.2°F warmer than the entire decade of the 1990s, which, at the time, was the warmest decade in the historical record (see here).

As for a harsh winter (actually, a chilly month or two) in North America and Europe (a small fraction of the globe), what does that have to do with the increasingly strong observational and scientific evidence you yourself are aware of that human actions are warming the planet and dangerously so?

I thought it was the job of science journalists to debunk disinformation and intentionally misleading spin, not to repeat it like a stenographer, the very charge Pooley makes against the whole media (see here).

Again, if some fraction of the public has been swayed by misstatements or irrelevant information on “global cooling,” then you — the media — share a large part of the blame.

Your blog post then reprints some results from an unscientific poll that mostly shows the deniers are winning, especially with the GOP or the Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP.

Then you ask in your piece, “what do you think is going on?”

I think it’s kinda obvious why global warming isn’t a top priority for more voters. After all, we have a large number of journalists downplaying the threat. And we have mainstream economists doing the same things (as I am detailing in my series on Voodoo economists, see, for instance, Part 2). And, of course, we have deniers denying the threat.

We should certainly point the finger at a certain politician — but it isn’t Barack Obama. A 2007 report by the House Oversight and Governmen
t Reform Committee concluded

The Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.

As Pooley notes in his recent study, “There is ample evidence to support this conclusion.” And, I might add, “as you yourself know” — see, for instance, your 2005 story “Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming.”

No single institution drives more of the media coverage and framing of the major national issue than the White House and the executive branch experts on a subject — if the traditional media acts mostly as a stenographer, that is.

(I do think climate action advocates bear some blame for misframing the issue, but that will be the subject of a later post.)

Let me end by clarifying what I mean by labeling as unscientific this statement of yours:

I’ve been the most prominent communicator out there saying the most established aspects of the issue of human-driven climate change lie between the poles of catastrophe and hoax.

This is a common framing by you, puting yourself between these two supposed poles — see “Yelling Fire on a Hot Planet“? and “New Middle Stance” piece.

Why is this unscientific? Well, there is a 0.00 percent chance that the issue of human-driven climate change is a hoax, as you well know.

The “hoax” frame is anti-scientific in that it accuses the scientific community broadly defined of deliberate fraud — not just the community of climate scientists, but the leading National Academies of Science around the world (including ours) and the American Geophysical Union, an organization of geophysicists that consists of more than 45,000 members and the American Meteorological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The “hoax” frame accuses all of the member governments of the IPCC, including ours, of participating in that fraud, since they all sign off on the Assessment Reports word for word. And, of course, it accuses all of the leading scientific journals of being in on this fraud, since the IPCC reports are primarily a review and synthesis of the published scientific literature (see “Diagnosing a an ASS victim.”)

On the other hand, there is a greater than 95 percent chance that on our business as usual emissions path, global warming will be a catastrophe, quite literally an unmitigated catastrophe.

This is not a fringe view. It is, for instance, the explicit view of the U.K.’s Hadley Center, one of the most respected climate analysis and prediction institutions in the world (see here). It is the view of the traditionally staid and conservative International Energy Agency, which noted in its most recent World Energy, “Without a change in policy, the world is on a path for a rise in global temperature of up to 6°C.”

It is the view of James Hansen and many other leading scientists in the published literature (see here.) Over 200 leading climate scientists seem to believe the 2007 IPCC report itself is warning of catastrophe on our current emissions path (see “Must Read Bali Climate Declaration by Scientists“). And we have individual articles like Startling new sea-level rise research: “Most likely” 0.8 to 2.0 meters by 2100 — unless a mid-range prediction of 5 feet of sea-level rise (and along with some 10+ inches a decade of sea-level rise) on our current emissions path doesn’t qualify as a catastrophe to you. If so, drop that one (but then write a column explaining to the public why it isn’t a catastrophe to destroy the world’s great coastal cities and wetlands, while creating 100 million environmental refugees).

Heck, it was your interview with F. Sherwood Rowland in which one of the world’s foremost authorities on atmospheric chemistry said we are headed to 1,000 ppm. I think you would agree that 1,000 ppm would be beyond catastrophe — and yet a close reading of the 2007 IPCC report makes clear that absent a very strong and immediate emissions reduction effort, we are aiming right at 1,000 ppm or higher, as I explained in my recent Nature online article.

And at the end of your “New Middle Stance” piece, you quote the scientist who Obama has named as science adviser:

Some experts, though, argue that moderation in a message is likely to be misread as satisfaction with the pace of change.

John P. Holdren, an energy and environment expert at Harvard and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, defended the more strident calls for limits on carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

“I am one of those who believes that any reasonably comprehensive and up-to-date look at the evidence makes clear that civilization has already generated dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system,” Dr. Holdren said. “What keeps me going is my belief that there is still a chance of avoiding catastrophe.”

Note the formulation of the man picked to be America’s science-explainer-in-chief: We are headed toward certain catastrophe on our current emissions path, but maybe there is a serious chance we could avert catastrophe if we take aggressive action now. This would be almost the exact opposite of your framing of the issue.

Your formulation gives the impression that you think “hoax” and “catastrophe” are equally probable scientific outcomes, when that is in fact absurd. It is unscientific.

The last few years have changed our scientific understanding of what we face if we keep doing what we’re doing, as the links above clearly show. As I said to you in a long interview you published recently, “Doing nothing or doing little eliminates the uncertainty.

So catastrophe is all but certain on our current path — and the word “catastrophe” does not even do justice to scientifically very plausible outcomes, like 1,000 ppm or 6°C warming.

If the public doesn’t understand that — and they clearly don’t — who really bears the responsibility?

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.