Warming will be worse, scientists warn, but Americans wait for the movie  
Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 2:54 PM
Deborah Shapley in Boykoff, Brulle, Climate, Corell, Florida, Greenland, MacCracken, UNEP, antarctica, public opinon, sea level rise

October 2009

Does new evidence of warming count as news?

Figure 1 What does Greenland melt mean for Florida?This just in.

Global warming is causing Earth’s systems to change faster than the most sobering predictions of a few years ago. Drastic changes that had been expected over long periods, such as the melting of Greenland’s glaciers, are occurring sooner.

And a respected model forecasts that, by 2100, average global temperature may rise by 4 °C (6.3° F) even if all nations carry out the cuts in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions they’ve pledged. A 4°C rise by 2100 would be twice the 2°C increase over preindustrial levels that world leaders declared in L’Aguila, Italy as the acceptable maximum.

These messages came through loud and clear at a press event simulcast in Washington and Nairobi September 24 to release an authoritative United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report. Two US scientists who had reviewed the report were on hand to explain it to the crowd present and abroad via audio.

But Americans hardly got the news, based on US media coverage. Though the Senate is considering legislation to cap US emissions—and, in light of the House’s cap-and-trade bill, it must pass something to bend the curve of US emissions down—a misty indifference seems to have settled over our land.

UNEP’s Climate Change Science Compendium 2009 is a lucid, 53-page text with graphics that draws on hundreds of peer-reviewed articles. It updates scientists’ findings since the 2006 cutoff for papers for the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report  in 2007. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP who introduced the report, said it would be updated online with new peer-reviewed findings before the next IPCC report due in 2014. (1) Highlights of the press event were:

Greenland ice melt and sea level rise

Greenland’s  “glaciers are receding and calving three to four times faster than they were in 1980,” said Robert Corell, head of the Climate Action Initiative and an authority on the Arctic. For the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment In 2006 “the IPCC didn’t have a defense of faster glacier melts” in Greenland. But now faster movement of ice from Greenland and Antarctica into the ocean, other glacier melt, plus the ocean’s thermal expansion, may raise sea level “in excess of one meter, or roughly a foot a foot per generation.”

The Arctic

“Temperature change in the Arctic is running two-and-a-half times the norm in the rest of the world,” said Corell. “Back in 2004 … we had projected … ice-free summer by 2100.” Now,  “we don’t know if it will be 2030, 2020, or 2040. But somewhere in that [time] we’ll likely have open ocean in the Arctic.” (2)


“Around twenty to thirty percent of the world’s ecosystems will experience fundamental change in their weather systems in the coming 100 years,” Steiner told the crowd. “But where do habitats shift? We are on a planet with 6.5 billion people and 9 billion people in next 40 years.”  Hundreds of millions of people including 20 million Bangladeshis “will have to adapt to a new hydrological cycle.”

Curb non-CO2 emissions for early benefit

The other scientist present, Michael MacCracken of the Climate Institute, noted that half the greenhouse gas emissions we send up are not CO2. We need to start reducing these “short lived species.” Reducing black soot, for example, would lower the temperature rise relatively soon and improve the health of millions in poor regions where people get sick and die due to stoves and other burning.

In sum, the action is speeding up. Humanity is in a race between rising emissions, actions we could take, and the responses of Nature, "including tipping points we do not understand well," Steiner added.

Corell showed a graph, Figure 2 below, which prompted many questions. It shows future temperature rising to 4°C even if current proposals are carried out.  It is based on a simulation known as C-ROADS, which is updated as a “scoreboard” when new national proposals change the projected emissions rise. (3) Figure 2 shows the  “Scoreboard” as of September 2009.

Figure 2 C-ROADS chart shows rise by 3.9 o C in 2100.

But if UNEP and the scientists aimed to inform and arouse Americans, they failed, on this story. Rather, US media failed them.

Exceptions were Juliet Eilperin’s fine short piece in the Washington Post.  Seth Borenstein did an excellent long one for Associated Press. Reuters also ran an article, according to a list the UNEP press office kindly supplied me.  A Lexis-Nexis search a few weeks later found 52 references to the Compendium by title and to Robert Corell and Michael MacCracken in English-language press. So US newspapers were not silent, exactly. But the amount of coverage in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, India and South Africa was striking.

US gives more space to denialists?

The relative scarcity of US stories is part of a pattern, I learned, by speaking with Maxwell T. Boycoff, a leading researcher of media coverage of climate change. Boykoff’s 2007 study of a sample of 9,465 articles found that from 2003 to 2006 the three leading British papers had more coverage of climate change than the five leading US papers. (4)

He found that US articles had more quotes doubting the warming was under way and denying it was human-caused.Figure 3 US and UK coverage (Boykoff, 2007)

His paper attributed the US skeptical coverage to oft-reported quotes from President George W. Bush, Michael Crichton and others. To me Boykoff stressed US-British differences.

 “The United States has carbon-based industries that are more vocal in our infrastructure and culture. Our car culture is stronger than in Britain. The British press cover global warming a lot, and Britons show very high level of concern,” he said. (Boykoff recently moved from the UK to the University of Colorado.)

Rang true to me, as a regular reader of the Economist, New Scientist, Nature, and the Financial Times. I’ve noticed that by contrast, US media have seemed loathe to treat human-caused global warming as an established fact.

Others have studied the peculiarities of US coverage. Much of this work is summarized in the report of an expert panel held during a climate meeting in Poznan, Poland last March. (5) There William Freudenburg of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Naomi Oreskes of the University of California at San Diego argued Americans are subject to “deliberate disinformation campaigns” by “contrarians,” “denialists,” and “inactivists.” Riley E. Dunlap of Oklahoma State University reported how conservative think tanks (which he calls CTTs) use the media to question global warming and dampen calls for a US response. The deniers follow the strategy the tobacco industry used to “manufacture uncertainty” about scientific consensus smoking caused lung cancer with the motto  “doubt is our product.” (6)

I’m now wiser—though a bit rattled—about the zillion reasons why our press didn’t cover the UNEP report compared to Canada’s, Britain’s, et al. Besides the big reasons above, I admit the crass journalistic ones. Newspaper and TV science staffs have been cut, so the “hole” for science coverage has shrunk.  A publication can’t report, without some background and space, that Earth may get twice as warm as expected, Greenland ice may melt faster, and 20 million people in Bangladesh will be in jeopardy sooner than expected, unless they have reporters who understand this, at least a bit. 

Also, the UNEP event only released a report—gasp! Editors find reports boring. They also demand a local angle. An editor who had any science reporters left pitching an article Greenland glacier-calving, could shrug: (a) Greenland isn’t in our circulation area and (b) elk don’t advertise.

The real story, as many including our finest journalists have noted, is this: Reputable, peer-reviewed info, sent out to the media, saying that we're emitting more than earlier projections, the warming could be by 4°C and happen sooner—means that earlier scientific estimates have been too conservative. (7)

A reasonable observer could conclude that Americans, who emit one-fourth of global human-caused CO2 emissions, need more news and stronger warnings, not near-silence.

 Public Opinion and the Press

”It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak, and another to hear,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

The “two” in this case are, on one hand, US media’s reporting of new conditions on Earth, and, on the other hand, the US public. How urgent is the climate change threat? How should we respond?

Evidently, what got Americans aroused about global warming was The Movie.

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth hit US theaters in May 2006. It earned $49 million at the box office worldwide, becoming the fifth-highest-grossing US documentary film to date. In a July 2007 internet survey, 66 per cent of viewers in 47 countries who claimed to have seen it said the film had “changed their mind” about global warming; 89 per cent said watching it made them more aware of the problem, according to Wikipedia.

The Movie made Americans learn the seriousness of global warming from celebrity magazines, arts and film coverage.  Of course it was effective: movie coverage has grown, while space for science  has shrunk. 

Newspaper and TV mentions of “global warming” and “climate change” rose in the summer of 2006. They stayed high that fall, when California became the first state to cap greenhouse gas emissions. Then a British report by Sir Nicholas Stern stirred debate (it said the economic benefits of early action were greater than the costs of delay). Congressional elections in November put into leadership posts Democrats saying Congress should act to curb emissions. Mentions stayed high in early 2007 when the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report said humanity’s role in the warming was “unequivocal.”

Evidence of the rise in coverage is Figure 4, published by Boykoff and Maria Mansfield of Oxford University. They charted references to “global warming” and “climate change” in newspapers around the world from 2004 through August 2009.   The relevant line is the green one tracking mentions in nine North American newspapers including six US ones. (8)

Figure 4 North American newspaper coverage is green line. See (8) for updates.

Figure 5 is the number of minutes given to stories mentioning “global warming”  or “climate change” on the half-hour nightly news on ABC, NBC, and CBS. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University has tracked these back to 1990, and found  a spike in airtime with release of The Movie and subsequent events. (9)

Figure 5 TV news time referencing "global warming" or "climate change."

But the Movie Effect waned. In 2009,US media mentions of global warming and climate change went down, though staying higher than before 2006.  You can see this in  the Boykoff-Mansfield green line for newspaper coverage.

There’s been less coverage in 2009, though President Obama has promoted US action on global warming. Nor did coverage rise much last June, though the House debated and passed the historic Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill.  

Why not more coverage? Professor Brulle told me: “First, there’s competition from the health care bill, the war in Afghanistan, [and] last year the election.  

“Second, the media are not going to cover global climate change unless there’s something different or new happening. The continuous trend of climate change—these reports—have been variations on a theme. They are not a smoking gun.

“So this [UNEP] study says it’s going to be a lot worse. But for trying to sell papers, editors think: If it bleeds, it leads,” Brulle said.

 So much for Thoreau’s speaker, the media. What about Thoreau’s listener, the public?  Americans’ concerns rose between 2003 and 2006, according to polls. But their concerns changed little between 2007 and 2009. Americans’ concern about global warming has leveled, as news reporting has declined. trend prompted Andrew Revkin to ask on his New York Times blog Dot Earth on November 25  whether Americans are in a “trance” on global warming, due to the recession, wars, and the national health care debate.

 Are Americans really in a trance?

But Americans are not indifferent about the threat of climate change, according  to Steve Kull of Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the University of Maryland. Kull told me that polls show large majorities say the problem is serious and the United States should be part of the solution. (10)  

When people have more information on the issue, they're more likely to favor action.

The President, or anyone who wants early US action, face two huge struggles. First against media  indifference (few movies on the topic, a smaller science news hole). Second against the deniers’ overplayed harping on scientific uncertainty.

A majority or 62 per cent of American respondents agree “there is a lot of disagreement” among scientists on the threat of global warming. Just 33 per cent said most scientists agree on this, according to a July 2008, ABC/Stanford poll.

What speakers—the media—say does impact the views of listeners—the public. Americans who have heard more about climate change are more likely to support action. (11)

When will Americans get really concerned? Will we wait for spectacular tipping points? Actual disappearance of Arctic ice? Large species  extinct instead of only threatened? Greenland ice to crash—not just slide slowly—into the sea?

“The minute the public … are convinced, that even if half of this could happen … politicians develop … wings,”  UNEP’s Achim Steiner said  at the press event.

That minute better come soon. The clock is ticking.

Postscript: Greenland and Florida  

Anyone who has suffered my shpeel this far deserves thanks. Thanks! Also my take on what splashy story the US media could write based on reports like UNEP’s,

For example, why should our media cover the Greenland glacier melt?

Narrowly, because we care about where we’ll play golf.  Broadly, because we care about New Orleans, Manhattan and maybe 20 million Bangladeshis.

“A block of ice the size of Libya” stands between the present and 20 feet of sea level rise,”  MacCracken told reporters at the UNEP press event. He was referring to Greenland, which is smaller than shown on the old Mercator maps—closer to Libya in area. Yet it supports 12 per cent of Earth’s ice. (See Figure 6 below.)

If all Greenland’s ice drained into the sea, most of south Florida would be swamped, not to mention New Orleans and low-lying coasts like Bangladesh’s. Maps posted by Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona Department of Geosciences show that a rise of 6 meters (20 feet) would  “submerge a large part of Florida.” (This and other maps of US regional impacts of sea level rise are on the DGES site.)

Any press story must acknowledge that warming air and oceans will speed the melt of other glaciers and ice caps. The UNEP report explains that, though these are just 1 per cent of the world’s ice, they’ll be a big cause of sea level rise between now and 2200.  After that, besides Greenland’s, the huge Antarctic ice sheets will be  big factors. Antarctica has 87 per cent of the world’s ice, so just a bit of melt  is a big deal.  [Excerpts from my book on Antarctica, The Seventh Continent, can be accessed from my Books page here.]

Scientists have been debating whether Greenland’s glaciers are feeding more inland ice-turned-water into the ocean.  A news story could describe the debate over glacier dynamics compared to the long-term future of Florida. (See Figure 6.)

Glaciers are slow. They rarely offer thrilling action. (But check out “Patagonia glaciers” on YouTube.) Generally, Greenland’s glaciers have not been found to be slumping into the sea at the rates one might expect from ice melt in the interior.

Scientists stumbled on a shocking spectacle in 2007 when an inland lake on top of a glacier suddenly began pouring through the ice openings (called “moulins”), dropping more than one kilometer to the glacier’s base. They saw the lake on the top drain entirely in 1.5 hours, a rate faster than Niagara Falls.

But the Niagara-speed waterfall did not mean the glacier poured lots more water into the sea. Ian Joughin et. al. wrote in Science: "Meltwater does indeed cause substantial speedup" inland on the ice sheet "but it has a small effect on outlet glaciers."(12)  [Italics added.] Though “faster than Niagara” sounded like a great headline, a careful National Geographic video report  explained the calmer truth.

New evidence shows that Jakobshavn, the glacier that drains 7 per cent of Greenland’s ice sheet, is being destabilized at its ocean end by warmer water.  The UNEP report says: “Understanding of the ... controls on … glacier and ice sheet contributions to sea-level is now among the most urgently pursued goals in glaciology and sea-level investigations.” (13)

Corell told reporters that a golf course owner had phoned him and asked how climate change would impact his business in Florida. Corell told the man that, due to sea level rise, his golf courses would be very hard to sustain. Also that, due to higher temperatures, the Southwest will be drier. The man exclaimed, but “that’s my future market!”

Figure 6 Greenland and Florida compared.


(1) Climate Change Science Compendium 2009. UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya and http://www.unep.org/geo/compendium.

(2)  Audio of press event is at http://www.pewglobalwarming.org/newsroom/release_24sep2009.html.

(3)  C-ROADS model was presented by Elizabeth R. Swain et al.,  “Current emissions reductions proposals in the lead-up to COP-15,” at University of Copenhagen, March 2009. Scoreboard widget is at http://climateinteractive.org/scoreboard.

(4) Maxwell T. Boykoff, “Flogging a dead norm? Newspaper coverage of anthropogenic climate change in the United States and United Kingdom from 2003 to 2006,” Area. “Signals and noise: Mass-media coverage of climate change in the USA and the UK” Maxwell T. Boykoff  and  S. Ravi Rajan, EMBO Reports, Vol. 8 No. 3 2007, pp.207-211.

Maxwell Boycoff, and Jules Boykoff. “Balance as bias; global warming and the US prestige press.” Global Environmental Change, Vol. 14, 2004, pp. 125-136.

(5)  “A discernible human influence on the COP 15? Considering the role of the media in shaping ongoing climate science, climate policy and politics,” Summary of Session 53, Theme 6, at Copenhagen Climate Congress, Poznan, Poland.

(6) Peter J. Jacques, Riley E. Dunlap, Mark Freeman, “The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental skepticism,” Environmental Politics, Vol. 17 No. 3, 2008, pp. 349-385. Routledge, London. Also on Ohio State University web site. See this study of the tobacco industry's pioneering use of the tactic: “Manufacturing Uncertainty,:” D. Michaels and C. Monforton, American Journal of Public Health, Sept. 1, 2005, Vol. 95 No S1.

(7) Andrew Revkin, "Nobel Halo Fades Fast for Panel on Climate," New York Times, August 4, 2009.

(8) Links to this work are on Boykoff's publication page http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/people/boykoffmax.php.

Figure 4 shows chart “World newspaper coverage of climate change or global warming” through August 2009. A January 2010 update is at  http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/media_coverage/.

(9) R. J. Brulle's  home page http://www.pages.drexel.edu/~brullerj/.

(10)  Polls cited in bullets. First bullet: “74 per cent” from Pew. Increase from 2003-2006  from GlobeScan. Second bullet: “81 per cent,” “44 per cent,”  “18 per cent” from Chicago Council on Government Affairs, 2008. Third bullet: “71 per cent” from  BBC/GlobeScan/PIPA, 2007.

(11) BBC/GlobeScan/PIPA in 2007.

(12)  Columbia Journalism Review March 13, 2009 post: http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/gallup_many_americans_think_me.php. Reports critics saying USpress underplays the global warming threat,while others say alarmism in media reports dulls public concerns, as a new Gallup poll found record-high fraction of respondents (41%) say the media exaggerate the global warming threat. Respondents over age 30 were more likely to day the media exaggerate the threat.

(13)  Compendium p. 20.

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