Science and Media

Science and MediaFrom a paper by : Alex Evans and David Steven, 2007
The London Accord and Centre of International Cooperation, 
Climate change: the state of the debate

 

“A huge experiment”: science and media from the 1950s to the 1980sBy mid way through the 20th century then, there had been a marked shift in the way that people thought about risk. As Anthony Giddens argues, “we started worrying less about what nature can do to us, and more about what we have done to nature.”ix

In this context, man made climate change seemed increasingly plausible. In 1955, the head of the US Weather Bureau said in a news conference that a general rise in average temperatures of two degrees Celsius had taken place over the previous fifty years.x In 1957, the respected oceanographer Roger Revelle said that humanity was – inadvertently – conducting a huge ‘experiment’ on the Earth’s atmosphere.xi And then in 1961, there came a milestone in climate change science: CD Keeling announced that from 1959 onwards, he had detected an annual increase of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. The increase was tracked throughout the following decade and beyond.xii

Again, mass communication emphasized these messages, as Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s seminal broadside against pollution, hit the bookstores in 1962. The book popularised critical messages that were already beginning to percolate through the public mind. The environment was no longer pure; pollution could cross-borders; and the ‘invisible dangers’ were to be especially feared.xiii Four years later, another milestone was passed with the first photograph of the Earth from space; four years after that, in 1972, came the publication of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report, which introduced global systems analysis to the world and popularised the idea of “global carrying capacity”, initiating a debate between ‘neo-Malthusians’ and ‘cornucopians’ that continues to this day.xiv

1972 also marked the first year in the twentieth century when widespread climate disasters, all over the world, burst into public and media consciousness. A serious drought hit crops in both the Soviet Union and the Midwestern United States; Peruvian fisheries collapsed during an El Niño event; the Indian monsoon failed; a multi-year drought in the Sahel peaked and threatened millions with starvation. Suddenly, global food security was on the agenda. Worries about scarcity only grew the following year, with the first OPEC oil shock: a shock that led to highly visible shortages and controversial policy responses, such as the year-round daylight saving time in the US, implemented only a few months after the crisis began.xv

‘Energy independence’ was also forced into the policy mainstream by the crisis, with President Nixon setting a goal for achieving self-sufficiency by 1980. “From its beginning 200 years ago, throughout its history, America has made great sacrifices of blood and also of treasure to achieve and maintain its independence,” he told the nation. “In the last third of this century, our independence will depend on maintaining and achieving self-sufficiency in energy.” xvi

Throughout the 1970s, the science and media coverage of scientific findings continued to fuel concerns about the climate’s stability.

By the mid-1970s, scientists were increasingly convinced that the climate could change due to human action, but were less certain in which direction, to what extent, or how quickly. Global temperatures had been falling for thirty years or so, with airborne pollution the cause. Perhaps a new ice age was on its way. ‘Global cooling’ – the term is a later coinage – was taken seriously enough to prompt some research, though few if any peer-reviewed papers predicted an imminent and dramatic cooling trend.xviiIt was widely recognised that, while airborne particulates would tend to decrease temperatures, carbon dioxide would increase them.xviii Paul Ehrlich, the neo-Malthusian doomsayer on population, neatly summarised this battle between clean and dirty pollution, and the uncertainty that the interplay of two factors caused. “At the moment,” he wrote in 1968, “we cannot predict what the overall climatic results will be of our using the atmosphere as a garbage dump.”xix

It was a single news article that gave global cooling its big break, taking the story well beyond the published science, and ensuring it would remain a factor in popular debates about climate change for years to come.  Newsweek’s 1975 cover story remains a fascinating read. It claimed ‘ominous signs’ that cooling was already taking place, with a new ice age a distinct possibility. However, it claimed, the impact was not evenly distributed, with equatorial areas experiencing a warming trend. Extreme weather events, such as tornadoes, were also said to be on the increase. The consequences of adapting to a changing climate were vividly painted. Although urgent action was needed, politicians were thought to lack the will to do what was necessary. Big technological fixes, such as ‘melting the Arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot’, were considered, only to be dismissed as potentially creating more problems than they would solve. “The longer the planners delay, the more difficult will they find it to cope with climatic change once the results become grim reality,” the article concluded.

But cooling did not stay on the agenda for long. As the 1980s got underway, climate science continued to improve, with computer models producing findings that were then replicated by ice cores drilled in Greenland and Antarctica. Awareness also continued to build. By 1981, a third of Americans had heard of the greenhouse effect, proving that the issue had broken out of purely scientific circles. Scientists found themselves having to become fluent in a new language: of TV interviews, newspaper deadlines and soundbites. As Spencer Weart writes, “A Senator might brush off an academic who came to speak with him or his staff, but the Senator paid attention if he saw the scientist on television. Scientists were generally uncomfortable talking with the media. Experience showed how journalists might grab a simple phrase, ignoring the details and qualifications that were inseparable from an accurate scientific account.”xxi

But for scientists that could navigate this unfamiliar terrain, there were opportunities to take their findings to a much wider audience. Professional science writers became increasingly indispensable in explaining climate change to the public. At times, specific relationships proved decisive in setting off a ‘domino effect’ of coverage. Weart recounts: “When it came to deciding what scientific developments were news, American journalists tended to take their cues from the New York Times. The editors of the Times followed the advice of their veteran science writer, Walter Sullivan [who had] cultivated a set of trusted advisers in many fields. On the subject of climate, he began listening to scientists like [Stephen] Schneider and, in particular, James Hansen, conveniently located at a NASA institute in New York City. In 1981, Sullivan persuaded his editors to feature a story about climate change, based on a scientific article that Hansen sent the reporter a few days ahead of its publication in Science magazine. For the first time the greenhouse effect made page one of the New York Times.” xxii  science and media

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ix Giddens, Anthony (1999). Runaway World: Risk. BBC Reith lecture; transcript at http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/events/reith_99/week2/week2.htm
x F.W. Reichelderfer at WMO Congress, New York Times, May 18, 1955
xi Quoted in Weart (2003).
xii New York Times, Sept. 11, 1961; subsequent dataset at http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/co2/sio-mlo.htm
xiii Carson, Rachel (1964). Silent Spring. New York: Fawcett Crest.
xiv Meadows, Donella (1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Signet Books.
xv Gurevitz, Mark. Daylight Saving Time: CRS Report for Congress, 2006, available at http://www.opencrs.com/getfile.php?rid=51410
xvi Bailey, Ronald. Energy Independence: the ever-receding mirage, reason online, 21 July 2004, available at http://www.reason.com/news/show/34845.html. Also Failure of American Policies to Achieve Energy Independent, chapter from America, Oil & National Security: what government and industry data really show, National Environmental Trust, 2006, available at http://www.net.org/proactive/newsroom/release.vtml?id=27583
xvii Full sources: William Michael Connelly, Was an imminent Ice Age predicted in the ‘70s? No, available at http://www.wmconnolley.org.uk/sci/iceage/. Also a good discussion at: The Global Cooling Myth, Real Climate, available at http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=94
xviii This is the conclusion of: Rasool and Schneider, Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols: Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate, Science, July 1971, p 138.
xix Ehrlich, Paul (1970). The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.
xx The Cooling World (archived Newsweek article warning about “global cooling”), Newsweek, 28 April 1975, available here http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/993807/posts
xxi Weart (2003).
xxii Ibid.