Climate-Change Skeptics In Europe? Mostly Missing In Action

July 15, 2006


Where are the global warming skeptics in Europe?

If you canvas a wide variety of news (what journalist doesn't?) and read some newspapers in Europe, you'll notice something about their coverage of global warming: no skeptics. That's right. The media coverage of high-profile global warming skeptics is pretty much an American phenomenon, according to some noted journalists who cover the issue outside the United States.

The SEJournal discussed the differences in global climate change coverage in the United States and Europe with two journalists who have extensive experience on both continents.

Mark Hertsgaard is an independent journalist and author of two books that have spirited him around the globe. In his 1998 book "Earth Odyssey," he traveled to 19 countries documenting the planet's environmental problems. Mark recently wrote Vanity Fair's cover story on climate change titled "While Washington Slept." In the article, Hertsgaard detailed the career of one of America's most respected scientists, Fred Seitz, as he evolved from a former president of Rockefeller University to a denier of the negative health effects of second-hand smokE and, finally global warming skeptic at the Marshall Institute.

Fiona Harvey is the environmental correspondent with the Financial Times, Europe's paper of record for the business community and government officials. For the last two years she has covered everything from chemical regulation to new low-carbon technologies and, of course, to climate change. In her travels for the uniquely pink broadsheet, she has also made numerous trips to Washington, D.C., and New York, and she has journeyed to Canada and across Latin America. Her work regularly appears in the Financial Times' U.S. edition. Before taking on the environment beat, she spent four years on the newspaper's science team writing about new technologies. Here's our discussion:

SEJ: There seems to be a difference in how the press covers the environment in the United States and how it's covered in Europe. And it seems that the biggest divide can be seen in coverage of global warming.

Hertsgaard: I think it's absolutely true that the discussion in the U.S. media is very different on global warming compared, not only to Europe, but overseas in general – though in the last six to eight weeks we have finally begun to turn full attention to the subject. We've seen Time Magazine's cover story and ABC World News Tonight did five nights in a row, 60 Minutes did an important profile of Jim Hansen at NASA. Even Fox News…which traditionally reflects the right-wing opinion that global warming is a hoax….even Fox News has done a fairly straight documentary on the subject. So it's changing, but I still think we're years behind what's done in Europe.

Harvey: Well, I agree with Mark. We have seen a bit more coverage lately in the U.S. And I wanted to ask Mark if he felt that was largely the result of Hurricane Katrina. I think that has brought the issue a bit more into focus.

Hertsgaard: Yes, I think that's about right. SEJ: You know, it's funny. I was talking on the phone with my mom and she said that she started paying attention to global warming because of Hurricane Katrina. And I told her, "Mom, you can't really say that global warming caused Hurricane Katrina." People are starting to get the message, but probably for the wrong reasons.

Hertsgaard: Yes, I would say there is a dichotomy here. When Katrina hit there was almost no mention of the potential role of global warming in that regards. Certainly not on television. But I think that Fiona is right that Katrina has led to some new coverage. Maybe before, reporters were too nervous or couldn't sell their editors on it. Of course you can't say that any single weather event is because of global warming, but you can fairly and responsibly point out that it fits the pattern of what we will expect in the future. I suspect that editors and executive producers looked at Katrina and thought, "Oh well, maybe there is something going on with this global warming stuff. Maybe we'd better look into it." And once you do look into it, and you're an honest reporter, you realize that 99 percent of the scientists find that global warming is real and very serious.

SEJ: Fiona, when you see how our press consistently amplifies the uncertainties, what happens amongst you? Are you guys wondering, "What is going on with American journalists?"

Harvey: [laughs] Well, the coverage in Europe…For starters, there has been a lot of more it. There is a lot more written and that's been going on for years. It's not seen as some new thing that has just come to people's attention, although the amount of coverage has been getting bigger and bigger. This issue is understood, so it's quite rare to get pieces questioning the science of global warming. The science is so overwhelming. So these fringe voices who still manage to get themselves heard in the U.S. press are not quoted in the mainstream stories in Europe. You will see them occasionally, but usually they just write angry letters saying, "You're all wrong." They are regarded here as what they are: fringe voices without a great deal of substantial scientific backing.

SEJ: The thing I noticed after looking at your coverage is that you don't quote any of these people. In the United States you would probably have some editor asking, "Now, where's the balance?"

Harvey: Well, that's the thing, and this is a key point. The reason we don't have these voices in Europe is not because we aren't balanced. We do try to be balanced. But most journalists and media outlets in Europe have taken the view that putting in a voice that is right out on the wildest extremes does not represent mainstream science. And by putting them in the story and giving them equal space and giving them equal validity, you're suggesting that they're equivalent. And they're not.

SEJ: What's odd is that you two are saying the same thing. Here's Mark who writes for The Nation, which is considered on the left in America, and you write for the Financial Times which is written for the business community. This doesn't mean it has a conservative slant, but it probably has a conservative sort of focus. That strikes me as very odd. [laughs]

Harvey: [laughs]

Hertsgaard: I don't think it's odd. I think it's because we're both honest reporters looking at the same body of evidence. And I don't mean to flatter either myself or Fiona. We're just average reporters doing our job conscientiously. The reason it seems odd is only…only because of this propaganda campaign that has been mounted by special interests in the United States. Secondly, I have to say, it's because our…media outlets are too sensitive to that stuff. We have been essentially taken in by this nonsense for fifteen years. Had we listened to the scientists such as Jim Hansen, instead of the scientists like Fred Seitz who I call the $45 million man, we wouldn't be in this situation. Had we just let journalists do their jobs, look at the facts, interview the scientists, and report it honestly, we wouldn't be having this conversation today.

SEJ: There was a situation about a year ago when one of these skeptics named Myron Ebell came over to the UK and then there was a move to censure him, I believe, by some members of your Parliament?

Harvey: That's right. I've met Mr. Ebell a number of times both here and in the United States. But to go back to what you were saying, I have written about the skeptics. I did this long piece last summer where I examined some of the skeptics and I did a number of interviews with Ebell and others. That piece delved into their arguments and then came out the other side. It was "that's what they say, but then mainstream scientists say something different." So we haven't completely ignored them. We've given them the time. We've done that and we don't need to put these fringe people into mainstream articles anymore. Back to Ebell, he said that Sir David King, Britain's leading scientist, didn't know anything about climate change. It came across very rudely and there were a small number of (members of Parliament) who put a move in the House of Commons to censure him. But then I think that is Mr. Ebell's tactic, is it not, to go around saying very provocative things? That's what he's paid to do.

SEJ: Myron comes out of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Steve Milloy used to be at Cato, and I've noticed that these free-market think tanks seem to be attempting to create an alternate forum for science. Mark, do you find this in Europe and Fiona, what have you found? Do they exist in Europe?

Harvey: Yes, they do. I get their communications quite regularly and many of them have strong ties to the same think tanks back in Washington. But they don't tend to have much effect because they're running so far contrary to not only scientific opinion but public opinion. That's a very interesting question, actually, because it came to light last year that a number of lobbyists from these groups had come to Europe in an effort to drum up support for their views. I believe that the Competitive Enterprise Institute had met with a number of power companies.

Hertsgaard: That's correct. It was Chris Horner who was behind that initiative. [Note: The story on the Competitive Enterprise Institute's strategy to bring together think tanks, companies and journalists to defeat EU support for Kyoto ran on Dec. 8 in The Independent (London)]

Harvey: But it didn't really work, though, did it? Because the power companies themselves came out and said, "No, what they're saying isn't true. It's all a bunch of rubbish."

Hertsgaard: Well actually, I do know about this, if I could jump in. Chris Horner, he later said that the only reason this was discovered was because people went into his trash. But he admitted that it happened and he was only sorry that the companies didn't agree with him. What he was trying to do was set up the same propaganda campaign that has been used in the United States to rebut the science. Here's something that the SEJ readership should know about. Greenpeace was the group that got the information, and I think they gave it to the London Independent.

Harvey: Yes, they did give it to us as well, but we didn't view it as much of a story that a group like that would try to come over to Europe with the same tactics as they've been using in the U.S. For us, it would have been much more of a story if they had actually achieved something. But they didn't, did they? The companies they approached were far too sensible, I suppose, to take on some folks like that who would be viewed as cranks, really, in Europe.

Hertsgaard: Now Greenpeace tried to give that story to major U.S. outlets, including I believe, The New York Times and The Washington Post, but it ran over in the United Kingdom.

SEJ: A producer for "NOVA" said that he had to release a slightly different version of his documentary on climate change for the United States because so many here reject the science. He thinks this is partly because of the "particular understanding of prosperity and freedom." Do you think there might be an underlying difference between how we Americans approach the issue of science and the environment?

Hertsgaard: I have to say I don't share that view. It's plausible except for the fact that there's a much more immediate explanation for why there is a lack of understanding on global warming in the U.S. – the deniers have been putting out their message through the mainstream media for the last fifteen years and then you've seen that message amplified in the last six years in Washington thanks to the ruling party. So you've got leading members of Congress such as Senator James Inhofe calling glob- 17 Feature (Continued al warming a liberal hoax. And when you've got the media reinforcing that message it's not surprising that there's confusion in the American public. So perhaps this documentary maker sees the effects but doesn't understand the political dynamics and proffers this philosophical explanation.

Harvey: I think the difference here in Europe is that the issue is much less politicized. In the U.S. there is this tendency to divide along party lines and that isn't the case in Europe. Some of the more conservative members were the first to recognize climate change. Margaret Thatcher, who was leader of the conservative party, spoke up very strongly about climate change. We've also seen that in conservative leaders in places like Germany, France and Spain. In a sense, a lot of the heat was taken out of the debate because it never became a tenet of a belief system of a political party. It was simply regarded as a scientific matter. That's been a key difference.

SEJ: So why do you think that it's been politicized here in America?

Harvey: It's very difficult to know. I suppose an obvious answer is that companies seem to have more political power in the United States. But I'm not sure if that's true. Maybe people in the U.S. are just generally more optimistic and unwilling to believe in something so grim.

SEJ: Even if we move away from global warming and go into other issues like REACH, which is legislation in Europe to further regulate chemicals, we see that America is moving in a different direction.

Harvey: Yes, that's true. Global warming is widely accepted, but REACH is still highly controversial. Some politicians recently spoke out against it. So there isn't some sort of blanket approval of environmental issues.

Hertsgaard: I would offer one thought. I think that part of the reason is the takeover of the Republican party by the far-right. There was a recent talk by six former directors of the Environmental Protection Agency. All six said that global warming is a real issue that needs to dealt with. Five of the six were Republicans; not one of them would have been appointed as head of EPA under George W. Bush. I think that's a good part of the reason why the debate has gotten so political.

SEJ: So you think, Fiona. that this is an issue that is just focused on global warming?

Harvey: Well, there is a lot of support for environmental issues in Europe. But it's not universal. For instance the new leader of the Tory party just started a new campaign, "Vote Blue" the color of the political party. And the slogan is "Vote Blue. Go Green." And he's hanging all the local elections on environmental issues, and that's unheard of.

Hertsgaard: That's pretty stunning.

Harvey: Yes, and even in the rest of Europe where environmental issues are important, but this is still an astonishing thing to do. It's happening this May.

Hertsgaard: I think it also gets to how America and Europe look at the role of government. First, it's no longer just a collection of countries, but the E.U. Look at antitrust. General Electric and Microsoft, both powerful multinationals based in America were stopped by antitrust rulings in Europe. And they were not only shocked, but downright indignant. For the last 25 years, also during the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, there have been no real restrictions on corporate power. And part of that, I think, goes back to Europe's much stronger tradition of social democracy and the welfare state. While in the U.S. we have a very strong strain of individualism. And then in recent history, there is the role of the Green Party in Germany. Germany is the largest economy in Europe and the Green Party has a strong influence on its politics. Now even conservatives in Germany are pretty green.

SEJ: I recently spoke with an expert on science policy who believes that the adversarial system of government we have here, the two-party system, inevitably causes science to get distorted as the two sides pick at facts.

Harvey: Well, that's a difficult one. In some countries there are adversarial forms of government. I think it comes down to how it was presented to people. When people first heard about global warming, it wasn't from politicians; it was from scientists through the media. So we got the scientific view before any politics got attached to it.

Hertsgaard: I think that's critical. Right on point.

Paul D. Thacker writes for Environmental Science & Technology and is a member of the SEJournal editorial board.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer, 2006 issue


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