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Public understanding of climate change: Getting warmer

I think they're getting it. (Photo by B Rosen.)

Cross-posted from Climate Progress.

To go by the polls, the high point of public understanding of climate science was 2006 to 2008. That’s no surprise, since that period saw a peak in media reporting on climate science, starting in 2006 with An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary of Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation on climate science, and continuing in 2007 with the four scientific assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Disputes on the science were kept to a minimum in the 2008 election since both major candidates -- Barack Obama and John McCain -- understood and articulated both climate science and the need for action. It wasn’t until after Obama was elected with progressive majorities in both houses of Congress and the prospects for climate action became real that the anti-science disinformation campaign kicked into overdrive.

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HuffPo science editor asks readers: Is climate science true?

Science reporting: You're doing it wrong.

[SEE UPDATE AT BOTTOM]

Hey, Huffington Post: I'm not one to tell you how to do your business -- your budget for the time it takes me to write this sentence is bigger than Grist's budget for the year, so you must be doing something right -- but maybe it would be a good idea to hire a science editor who's familiar with, like, science?

By way of background: One of the favorite games of evolution and climate deniers is to round up a group of scientists (or "scientists") or members of some important-sounding organization who agree with their denialism, have them all sign on to a letter or document, and release it with great fanfare to show that "the science isn't settled." Each time the media obligingly makes a big fuss, and then later, when the public has stopped paying attention, scientists trudge along and thoroughly debunk said declaration. It's a thankless task. The famed Oregon petition alone has been debunked four gazillion times, but since deniers don't have to spend their time doing original science, they can devote themselves to stunts like this, so new declarations and petitions come along reliably about once a year. Anyone worth their salt in science media knows by now to ignore them.

(The National Center for Science Education memorably mocked these efforts with its "Project Steve," which is a letter reaffirming the science of evolution signed only by scientists named Steve. So far they have 1,200 signatories. Point being, it's not that hard to round up a group of people who believe any old thing.)

Yesterday, the latest one popped up: a letter from a bunch of ex-NASA astronauts, engineers, and assorted employees that calls on NASA to stop saying carbon dioxide causes climate change. They call this -- probably the most well-understood and firmly grounded fact in all of climate science -- an "extreme position."

Yeah, whatever. Yawn.

But then along comes David Freeman, Huffington Post's science editor, who credulously repeats the charges and then, I kid you not, finishes with this:

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April fooled? Spot the real news among made-up stories

Photo by Mykl Roventine.

Everyone knows we love a good April Fools' Day story. But in the rabbit hole of daily existence, it gets harder each year to distinguish between bizarre true stories that land on April 1 and genuine leg-pulling. Below is a sampling of some of our favorite gags from this year — plus a few legit stories. See if you can find the fakers.

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Climate change is already harshing the weather

Things are getting weird around here. (Photo by Zach Frailey.)

In a sane world, a 2011 filled with spectacularly bizarre weather followed by a winter and spring that are record-shatteringly hot -- out of control hotBiblical hot -- would have everyone in the U.S. freaking the f*ck out about climate change.

We never quite get there, though. We don't seem to be grappling with the fact that this kind of volatility is rapidly becoming the new normal -- or that we are totally unprepared.

If the public does tune in to what little media coverage there is of the climate-weather connection, they end up wading through technical discussions about attribution. Take this piece from Andrew Freedman at Climate Central. It is an excellent piece of reporting, thorough and judicious, but it is occupied almost exclusively with pinning down exactly what portion of this particular heat wave can be attributed to climate change. Some scientists say only a small portion. Some say it wouldn't have happened without climate. Freedman's lede says the heat wave "bears some of the hallmarks of global warming." It's not exactly galvanizing stuff.

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The Solyndra sideshow peters out

Time to pack up the Solyndra circus, boys. (Photo by Thomas Totz.)

No one is more invested in seeing the Solyndra investigation continue to produce "news" than Politico, so it's significant that reporter (and Solyndra devotee) Darren Samuelsohn has basically called it. After over a year, Republicans have turned up nothing, as this sad excerpt makes clear:

"Is there a criminal activity? Perhaps not," Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa told POLITICO after last Tuesday’s showdown with Energy Secretary Steven Chu. "Is there a political influence and connections? Perhaps not. Did they bend the rules for an agenda, an agenda not covered within the statute? Absolutely."

The agenda was to give innovative clean energy companies the best possible chance to survive and thrive. It’s difficult to see how that’s not “covered” in a statute establishing a loan guarantee program to give innovative clean energy companies the best possible chance to survive and thrive.

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The Washington Post speaks the truth on climate change

The Washington Post deserves enormous credit for the editorial on climate change it ran this weekend. There is usually no more reliable barometer of elite conventional opinion than the Post, but in U.S. politics, CW has been running away from climate for the last few years. In this case, the Post is standing up for a plain truth that is almost never spoken in U.S. media: that climate change is a crisis, already upon us, and every bit of delay in responding raises the eventual (and inevitable) costs of doing so. Others will rehearse the Post's past journalistic sins on climate -- they are many. I choose to hope this marks a new seriousness.

That said, I would quibble with a detail or two. (You are surprised.)

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What it means for media to take climate seriously

After I exchanged tweets with journalist and editor Wen Stephenson, now proprietor and writer for The Roost at ThoreauFarm.org, he asked me for an email interview/exchange. I happily agreed and he ran the results on his blog in three parts. I thought I'd re-run them here. For Wen's original intro, go here.

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From: Wen Stephenson

To: David Roberts

I've been a regular reader of yours for about two solid years now -- in fact, from around the time I left what you call the "Very Serious mainstream media" [most recently I was the senior producer of NPR's On Point, and before that the editor of the Sunday Boston Globe's Ideas section] and got serious -- like, seriously serious -- about climate.

To begin this exchange for The Roost, I want to pick up where we left off on Twitter the other day, and your series of tweets about climate and the media.

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Media produces, laments public ignorance on gas prices

[See update at bottom.]

Painful source: Why can't the media get gas prices right?

Media coverage of gas prices has made me want to smash my head on my desk. So it was with some amusement that I read the first paragraph of Politico's piece on how dumb voters are:

Voters are appalled at President Barack Obama's handling of gas prices, even though virtually every policy expert in both parties says there’s little a president can do to affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market.

Ha ha stupid voters! Where do they get such bad information?

As Politico says, the U.S. president has virtually no control over gas prices. Time's Bryan Walsh lays it out clearly here (in an entirely factual piece that is nonetheless labeled "viewpoint"). Gas prices are tightly linked to oil prices, which are set by forces over which the U.S. has little control.

This is something that energy experts and analysts are more or less unanimous on. The Initiative on Global Markets gathered a panel of economic experts, from across the professional and ideological spectrum, and asked them to react to this thesis: "Changes in U.S. gasoline prices over the past 10 years have predominantly been due to market factors rather than U.S. federal economic or energy policies." Some 92 percent agreed. Eight percent were "uncertain." Not a single one disagreed.

So, just to be clear: Anyone who says the president is responsible for gas prices is either lying or woefully ignorant. This category includes all of the Republican candidates for president, virtually every GOP elected official, many conservative Democrats, legions of conservative and centrist pundits, and occasionally Obama himself.

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Mike Daisey, climate, and greater truths

Mike Daisey. (Photo by Aaron Webb.)

I wasn't going to write anything about the Mike Daisey affair -- Grist's own editor Scott Rosenberg said what needed to be said -- but the tone of the subsequent coverage, the high dudgeon and hand-wringing and self-congratulation among American journalists and commentators, has rubbed me the wrong way. So, perhaps ill-advisedly, I'm jumping in.

Daisey did something as old as theater itself: manipulated facts in service of narrative. He rearranged events, put himself in scenes he never actually witnessed, and collapsed people into composite characters, all in the name of telling a gripping and meaningful story. That's all fine, of course, if you're just doing theater and the audience knows what it's getting. The problem, as Ira Glass points out in This American Life's extraordinary retraction episode (and as New York Times media critic David Carr echoes), is that the people who went to see Daisey's show, or heard it on TAL, were under the impression that they were hearing an exposé, a piece of personal journalism. They thought they were hearing about stuff that really happened to Daisey. And he let them think that, even encouraged them to. He shouldn't have done that! (As usual, James Fallows puts it best.)

The costs of what he did have been well-rehearsed by now. He sacrificed his own credibility and dinged the credibility of This American Life. For many, that seems to be the end of the story. But I don't think we can ignore the fact that he also achieved something worthwhile. He produced benefits unique to storytelling -- not just that he made thousands of Americans aware of Chinese factory conditions (conditions even his critics concede are dismal), but that he made them care about it, at least a little. He elicited an emotional investment in a way that American "objective journalism" has difficulty doing.

Do the benefits outweigh the costs? If you could go back and erase the net effects of Daisey's show, would you? The easy way to answer this dilemma is to pretend it isn't one, to assert, as Max Fisher of The Atlantic does, that "by lying, Daisey undermined the cause he purported to advance." If that's true, of course we can condemn the entire affair with a clear conscience. But it just doesn't strike me as plausible. The discussion over the plight of Chinese factory workers is now well underway, bolstered by pieces in mainstream media that appeared subsequent to Daisey's show. I doubt the kerfuffle over Daisey's personal experiences -- which is mostly of interest to media nerds -- is going to have much effect on that discussion. (At the very least, assertions to the contrary should be backed by some data or analysis, which I haven't seen.) The awkward fact remains that Chinese factory workers have a moral claim on us and Daisey did real and pioneering work making us feel it. That achievement may be tarnished now, but it has not been erased.

It's worth asking how to eliminate the costs of what Daisey did, how to tell his story without inaccuracies or better to calibrate audience expectations. But it's also worth asking how to preserve and replicate the value of what Daisey did.

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Mr. Daisey and the fact factory

Here's some facts:

  • Mike Daisey is a dramatic monologuist who traveled to Shenzhen, China, and created a successful one-man show based on the trip, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
  • The show details harsh working conditions in China at the Foxconn factories that make Apple's iPhones and iPads.
  • Daisey performed a shortened version of the show, "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," for a This American Life broadcast in January.
  • Yesterday, This American Life announced that it was retracting the show.
  • It turns out that Daisey's monologue, which seemed to document labor abuses firsthand, was full of fabrications, and that Daisey had lied to This American Life's fact-checkers in the course of preparing the show.
  • Last night, This American Life broadcast and posted an utterly fascinating self-investigation about what happened and how it screwed up.

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Stories have consequences. Today, the most effective journalists find and tell stories that make a difference in the world.

All stories are shaped by their creators. The notion that anyone can just "tell a story straight" is a delusion. I made an effort just now, above, to tell the Daisey story neutrally in a handful of bullet points. But everyone who knows the story and reads this summary will have questions about what bits I put in and which ones I left out, why I picked certain words and not others. And by the end I couldn't resist telling you how fascinating I thought the This American Life postmortem was.

So there's no such thing as a neutral story. But there is such a thing as an honest story.

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