Opposing Viewpoints on Climate Change

When Neil Kagan, adjunct professor in law at the University of Michigan and senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, spoke to our environmental journalism class on October 31st, he brought up a point that really struck me as important and overlooked. Though he was discussing the topic of environmental litigation, he referenced climate change when he said that it in no other area would journalists be covering so much of the minority viewpoint when 99% of experts agree with one another than global warming and climate change are occurring. Hearing this made me really interested in searching for articles that might over-emphasize the viewpoint of a very small minority of experts, or even non-experts in the study of climate change. Not that all of the articles treats all sides equally, but even the mention of a thought that is held by less than 1% of experts, according to Kagan, should raise the eyebrows of curious and informed readers.

One very troubling, and almost comical article is from Popular Science about an unemployed man in Florida who spent hours upon hours editing Hurricane Sandy’s Wikipedia page to continually erase mentions of climate change as an explanation for the disaster that were added by other Wikipedians. Plenty of questions arise from this–should it make us rethink where we get our news? Wikipedia is becoming more of a credible source, with university professors now accepting Wikipedia citations in research papers (in my own experience), yet the information we are getting could be sharply biased by a 56-year old unemployed man? Another interesting issue is that Popular Science chose to interview and write about this seemingly unimportant man in a lengthy article, which gives his radical viewpoint and actions instead of an article about what actual experts in the field are thinking on the issue. Is the value of page views for this story worth the sacrifice of real, important scientific news? How should journalists be covering issues like this, if at all, especially if their employer is pushing them to get more reads?

This Los Angeles Times article discusses how Obama will be addressing climate change more after the recent elections. It’s an important and positive move in politics, yet the way the journalist chose to end the article was unfortunate. The article ends referencing a tweet by Donald Trump, a climate change denier and the kicker sentence is simply Trump’s tweet, which  says climate change was made up by the Chinese to hurt American competition. Is this the way an article like this should end? Is it important to acknowledge opposing viewpoints like these, and does the fact that he is a politician (somewhat) make it more relevant? Why are there not more climate experts being quoted?

What do you think? What is the trade-off between journalists getting marketable articles, with big names, and having valid sources in their articles? How should journalists acknowledge opposing viewpoints with such a strong expert majority?

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6 Responses to “Opposing Viewpoints on Climate Change”

  1. Hey Peter,

    Great post. I’ve been thinking about this particular issue a lot, and I have similar questions to yours. But another big question I think this issue raises besides giving credence to a certain set of blatantly false ideas, is why climate change/the environment is the one main issue that this disparity occurs in? Why is it that certain people perpetuate these lies and people believe them, as opposed to some other partisan issue? Granted, there are huge disconnects on both sides on pretty much every issue – but why is it that climate change is so easily singled out, and why do people still so willfully believe the information that has been proved incorrect over and over? I’m just wondering if the environmental groups are easy targets, or what is it about climate change that makes for such an easy target?

  2. Peter,

    Great post on a great topic full of uncertainty and clashing opinions. The Popular Science article was indeed comical to me. I think this man is just another reminder of the times we live in, and that we as informed citizens need to be careful where we get our information, and fact check it as best as possible. It is one of the sad downsides that the World Wide Web based news brings with it, but one that journalists and the public will have to deal with forever. I think simply looking for credible sources is a good way to journalists to avoid reporting info from someone who has no credentials in the field. The choice to interview a PhD or someone off the street should be a clear one when choosing who to interview as a source. That doesn’t go to say that people on the street aren’t entitled to have their opinions voiced to the public though. That is one of the beauties of journalism – a piece can incorporate both the scientific opinion of an expert and the opinion of a concerned citizen(s). I think as long as both sides are given their fair time on the soapbox, journalists can avoid a lot of the scandalous biased pieces. The topic of climate change accentuates this void since the people on each side seem to be sticking to their respective views, and have no intentions of changing them. From what I have seen, however, I think Mr. Kagan may have been exaggerating his point a little bit when he says that 99% of experts believe climate change and global warming is real. I definitely wouldn’t put that in a story I was writing without asking around to quite a few more people.

  3. Hi peter,

    As said before, great post! I have to agree with Adam when he talks about the beauty of journalism being that journalists have the ability to incorporate both the scientific opinion of an expert and the opinion of concerned citizens. The article you posted from Popular Science was comical, from my stance. However, I believe that no matter how ridiculous or ludicrous we might consider a minority opinion to be, there is still validity in incorporating and representing that opinion in journalistic discourse. Without it, I’d argue that we lose perspective and we run the risk of homogenizing an ideal of what opinions should be included in journalism.

    That said, Journalists always have the choice to make that decision of who to include in their piece. I’d just say that there is valid reason to include multiple perspectives—regardless of what those perspectives are!

  4. I find it especially interesting that Ken Mambel found it necessary to include unsolicited information about his political thoughts and affiliations as they relate to climate change. Climate change ignited intimate emotions and cause people to be defensive, as evident by Mambel.

    Climate change has become quite a personal issue. Maybe because climate change is dependent on political involvement. I understand that policy is viewed as a crucial step in order to enact positive constructive change in the climate. With public policy comes political attention and partisan interests defend one side or another. But the real question, and a good one Peter, comes in when the representation is manipulated through rhetorical devices. Is there really any solution? It is quite interesting that such a small portion of the public and their opinions have such a great scale of attention in the media. I know balanced sources are a very important part of journalism but I almost wish that it was more pluralist and expressed what portion of the population’s views they were representing.

  5. Peter,
    I love that you posted about Mr. Mampel! What an incredible example of needing credible sources. It’s amazing to think that one person, whatever his status, can completely change a credible news source because of his own opinions. I’ve never been a huge fan of Wikipedia as a credible source, and especially after hearing examples such as this! I think this further proves, as Adam said, the need for credible sources as a journalist because everyone has their own agenda. Whether it’s something like climate change or any hot-button issue, people have opinions and we as journalists must be aware of their motives.

  6. Nice post. As discussed before, people have the ability to be journalists and it is becoming harder to distinguish who are credible authors. There are certain scientists out there who have done extensive research and know a lot about climate change, yet they have not shared this knowledge with the greater community. I think journalists should push themselves a little further and talk to these scientists, rather than looking for names that will simply sell. People need new information and scientists have it. As mentioned before that is the role of journalists–to be mediators between the public and experts in different fields.

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