Michael Lemonick is a science journalist who has spent the last several years focusing on climate change, writing over fifty cover stories for Time magazine as well as six books, the most recent of which is Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet’s Twin (2012). He is currently a writer-at-large for Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists that researches and reports on climate change and its consequences. A few weeks before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the second part of its landmark Fifth Assessment report, The Point had a chance to ask Lemonick how journalists can tell compelling but accurate stories about climate change in an era when Google thinks people are more likely to search “climate change hoax” than “climate change effects.”
The Point: So tell us about Climate Central.
Michael Lemonick: The ambition of Climate Central is to make climate change something that people think about and take seriously. We do climate journalism but we also do some basic climate research—not quite science, more like data mining and processing to put climate information into a context that people understand, with the hope that other news organizations will pick up and discuss the reports we issue. We also try to convince TV meteorologists to use our graphics and to talk about climate change in their weather reports.
The Point: Do you think that Climate Central’s structure could be incorporated into a normal news organization, such that on their science stories they have both a journalist and a scientist?
ML: I think it would be very difficult. It would be very difficult because, whereas a public television station or a nonprofit company like Climate Central doesn’t have to earn money and is not really competing in a financial sense with other media outlets, if you go to a real newspaper or TV station, while they would like to have accurate stories, what they must have are stories that beat the competition and raise their profile. And they need to be able to do things fast. The idea of writing a story for a magazine and saying, “OK, well, now we’ll go to the scientists and negotiate back and forth for several hours”… If I said that to an editor, he or she would look at me as though I’d lost my mind.
The Point: But let’s say you had unlimited time to do a story, would there still be a problem? Would the accuracy—the total accuracy—demanded by a scientist be a problem?
ML: Yes, it could be a problem because the only way that a story in a newspaper or a magazine could legitimately be considered completely accurate would be for you to reprint the relevant scientific paper in its entirety. Anything that you do that changes the paper in any way, that leaves anything out, already starts to make it false at some level. But since no ordinary person would ever want to read a scientific paper, you can’t be accurate to that degree. After that, it’s all a question of compromises, how precise you have to be and how many references and charts and methods you need to have.
The Point: Has the institution as a whole succeeded given its original end?
ML: I don’t know for certain that it has raised the public’s awareness about climate. My theory is that nothing that any journalist or scientist has done since I started writing about this topic in 1987 has significantly raised the public consciousness about climate change. Al Gore did with the movie in 2006, briefly, but basically nothing has worked—except for the natural world having given us a few years of very clearly extreme weather, which may or may not be attributable to climate change but which has people thinking about climate change and has them open to reading stories about climate change. It’s something that we’re now taking advantage of. The profile of the organization is higher and people in the organization have higher profiles as a result. We had our lead writer poached by another website and there was a story on one of the journalism review sites or somewhere, maybe it was on Gawker, which talked about the fact that all of a sudden having a climate-slash-weather journalist on your payroll is really important. And it’s not because the quality of climate journalism has suddenly gotten really good. It’s that people are suddenly interested, for reasons that might or might not be specious.
The Point: Does that worry you? Is there a conflation of climate and weather?
ML: It worries me to a degree. I mean, the question is obviously: Is it OK to gloss over the difference between climate and weather if that results in more people being aware about climate change? Ethically, probably not entirely. But does it matter? It disserves me but I’m not sure I would rail against it, if you see what I mean.
The Point: Why do you think it has been so hard for people to absorb the information about climate change? I was taught about climate change and global warming when I was maybe nine or ten, at school. At the same time it was taught in Germany and they just went and did stuff about it. You see wind farms all over and if you go to a city like Freiburg, much of the energy is now renewable. They just acted on it. Why is it that we in the U.S. and the U.K. have been much slower to even believe it, or to act on it?
ML: Local culture, I think that’s what it is. The idea that making sacrifices for the collective good is antithetical to American values. You know, “We went out on the frontier and conquered the continent and killed off the people who lived there and we’re self-reliant and built our own log cabins…” That’s part of the American identity: individual liberties, don’t tell me what to do, keep the government out of my business. I think that’s a big part of it.
The Point: Do you think it will ever change?
ML: That is a sociological question that I am unqualified to answer. Let me put it this way, however: When I was growing up in the 1960s there was a sense that it was changing in a big way. In the Thirties, the government had instituted Social Security and in the Sixties the government instituted the Medicare program and the EPA was founded to help protect us against pollution and environmental harm. So there was a sense that the culture was moving in a direction of greater appreciation for the collective good and for the rights of minorities of various kinds. And we now look fifty years later and that’s proved to be largely a sham, a veneer placed over these basic assumptions that haven’t really changed at all.
The Point: Maybe the current situation is even worse than you’re suggesting. In the Sixties the question was how we could come together for the collective good, where the collective good was basically American. Whereas now it’s the global collective and so Americans have to act not only for the good of the country but for the good of the world. And it might be the case, might it not, that Americans wouldn’t suffer from climate change as much as people elsewhere?
ML: Certainly not as much as people from countries with a lot fewer resources. So yes, I think that’s absolutely right. It’s also true that climate change is remote in time. There are many things I have to worry about more immediate than whether my furnace is highly efficient, so it feels like something remote. That’s why extreme weather has made people stop and think, “It’s not so remote. I lost power for a week in Hurricane Sandy.” All we can do is allow extreme weather events to continue happening and allow people to keep reacting to them in dismay, until they’re so beaten up by economic losses from the drought in California or whatever—
The Point: Then it’s your job to stand back and let misinformation perpetuate.
ML: What misinformation?
The Point: That extreme weather…
ML: Well, one extreme storm means nothing; one drought means nothing. But if over ten years eight of them are drought years, that starts to mean something. If over 30 years, 28 of them are drought years, that really starts to mean something.
The Point: Well, how much time do we have? Perhaps we don’t have thirty years to prove the point.
ML: We may or may not have time to wait, but the public consciousness is not obliged to your sense of what there’s time for. I remember when, in 1964, the Surgeon General of the U.S. declared that smoking causes cancer—and smoking does cause cancer, no question about it. It’s similar to climate in that whether you do something today or tomorrow really means nothing; it has to be over the long term. If in 1964 some politician had stood up and said, “I’m ordering that smoking be banned in all federal buildings, and in restaurants, and on airplanes, and on trains, and if you want to smoke in an office building you need to go huddle outside in the driving rain like a pariah”—if you’d said all those things in 1964, people would have thought you were crazy. People would have been outraged, despite the fact that this had been objectively shown to be true. It took many, many years.
The Point: And what accounted for that long-term change in consciousness?
ML: I don’t know exactly what it was, but I think it had to do with the fact that it was undeniable. The science was much clearer to people than the science of climate change is. Another difference is that action on climate change does seem to involve what appears to be economic sacrifice in the short run. If we require that all cars be efficient, how are we going to compete with countries that don’t have those rules?
The Point: I just want to push you a little bit about extreme weather. I’m not a scientist by any means, but I guess intuitively it makes sense to me why droughts might be on the increase with global warming. It doesn’t make sense to me why hurricanes should be.
ML: Well, I’ll tell you why they should. The reason they should is that hurricanes get their energy from the heat in seawater. And so the higher the sea surface temperature the more energy is available to turn a tropical depression into a tropical storm and turn a tropical storm into a hurricane. So that’s the reasoning. And that’s why in 2005 people were saying we should expect hurricanes to increase. More research, more looking at historical records and so on, caused a modification of that idea, because it turns out that sea surface temperature is not the only factor in making hurricanes. Another is atmospheric wind shear. The conventional wisdom now, although it is not completely accepted, is that hurricanes are likely to become less frequent, but when they do form they’ll be more powerful.
The Point: That kind of case will be hard to translate into action on climate change.
ML: But ordinary people make that connection anyway: “Climate change is gonna make the weather crazy, and look, the weather’s crazy!”
The Point: People also make it in the bad way. “Have you noticed how cold it’s been in Chicago? Global warming, whatever.”
ML: They can try to do that. We’re there to show them a map of the world during this winter that shows the entire world in red, and then this little piece of the U.S. in blue. It’s not a perfect system that I’m talking about, but I think that if you don’t work too strenuously to discourage people from drawing conclusions that aren’t valid, but are in your favor, and you do work very hard to discourage them from drawing false conclusions that are not in your favor…
The Point: So is there a danger of falling into the kind of trap that caused the East Anglia scandal, where emails seemed to reveal that researchers were a little too politically committed? What’s your view on what happened there?
ML: Well, I think that people who are actively hostile to climate science harassed that East Anglia group mercilessly, and the researchers responded by emailing each other, saying, “I wish I could beat these people up,” as any normal human would do. And then when that stuff was revealed, the perpetrators could be indignant: “I’m shocked that people would talk about us this way; it shows us how bankrupt the whole system is.” I thought it was completely sleazy.
The Point: But you must agree there’s a general possibility of thinking that one should deceive for the sake of the truth. We do it often, with children for example, and one could imagine a doctor doing it: “This won’t hurt, don’t worry.”
ML: So what does it mean to deceive? Does it mean to actively say things that are not true?
The Point: Or just being economical with the truth. It does seem like that is implicitly happening. You’ve pointed out the rise of the weather nerds and how climate stories are becoming more and more desirable to report. But it wouldn’t be a news story to say this year has actually been quite mild. It might be one news story, but it wouldn’t be a news splash. There’s not a story in the way Hurricane Sandy is a story.
ML: Right, and I think that there is a danger in hitching your wagon to some of these stories. Because if next winter is just a perfectly average winter, people who are trying to cast doubt on climate science might well say, “See, you guys were talking about how it’s getting warmer.”
The Point: Even when the news is in your favor, you should still emphasize that even if it hadn’t happened, we would still, roughly speaking, be in the same position about climate change.
ML: And we do talk about that. People talk about the pause in global warming after 1998. When I write a story about it, I talk very openly about the fact that some people claim there is evidence that global warming has stopped. But 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record and the long-term trend over the twentieth century is clear. There are other places where it has slowed down, but overall the trend has always been upward. It’s not surprising that natural climate variation would have an effect when superimposed on human-induced climate variation. Sometimes the combination would accelerate warming; sometimes it would slow it down. These sort of slowdowns show up in climate models, contrary to what people assume. It’s not that the models fail to predict—they may have failed to predict this particular incident at this particular time, but they predict such things all the time. So the argument that global warming has stopped is not something to be taken seriously.
The Point: Do you think that the public just has a problem with probabilistic reasoning?
ML: Oh yeah. Absolutely. It is hard to grasp.
The Point: People say that with medical stories in particular, the uptake of statistical information is extraordinarily poor.
ML: That’s right. And yet journalists want to tell a good story. If some study shows some disease can be cured in a mouse, the reality is that it probably will not lead to a human cure. So if I started my story by saying, “In a development that is most likely going to have no effect on human health whatever, scientists announce today that they have done such and such,” nobody would read past that sentence. If I said, “In a development that could someday lead to a human cure,” which is technically true, they’ll keep reading. Another problem with medical stories is that statistics about changes in prognosis are often expressed in relative risk. If you eat more cheese, you are twice as likely to get a heart attack. But if you have a one percent chance beforehand, now you’re at 2 percent, so you’re still 98 percent certain you won’t have a heart attack. We often put things in terms of relative risk because it seems more significant. It’s a better story.
The Point: Suppose the world just got colder in the next twenty years, it seems fair to say that that wouldn’t actually disprove the current theories, in that those theories are probabilistic and therefore do allow a very small probability that things will go the other way.
ML: The theory comes in several levels. First, we’re putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That could be falsified if we measured it and we weren’t, but we have measured it and we are. Second, that all other things being equal, that will tend to warm the planet. But all other things are not equal. And so an outside natural change, such as a change in the brightness of the sun, could overwhelm the effect from human emissions. Another point is that there are many feedback mechanisms in the climate system, some of which could speed things up, some of which could slow things down. Thirty years ago, it was much less clear how those would play out. Now it looks as though the feedbacks that make the climate warm even faster are more robustly understood than the feedbacks that cool it off. That’s where the 99 percent comes in, but it’s only that part of the theory that would be falsified anyway, not the basic premise.
The Point: A big topic nowadays is how we use science in political debate. What’s your general assessment of that?
ML: See, the problem is that politics is carried out by politicians. And politicians do not have a strong incentive to tell the truth. They have a strong incentive to avoid the truth because it might get somebody annoyed. I consider politicians a necessary evil. Somebody called me about political ads during some election and my response was, “I consider all political ads to be a blanket of lies wrapped around a kernel of truth.” I am very cynical about politics and I don’t have anything constructive to say. I don’t think highly enough of politicians to think that they will ever get it together in this country.
The Point: Now, do you think that’s a problem which journalism could theoretically ameliorate, in that if you educate the public enough, then politicians will simply not be able to make this kind of—
ML: [Incredulously] What planet do you live on? I don’t believe that for a minute. I don’t think the public wants to be educated. The public is interested in reinforcing their own preexisting beliefs.
The Point: But theoretically—
ML: Well, oh, theoretically, yes.
The Point: But even beyond theoretically, it’s an information-purveying—
ML: Yeah, well, was it H. L. Mencken who said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public?”
The Point: Yeah, Mencken. You say you despise politicians. In a way, you sound like you wish there weren’t—
ML: Oh, I don’t have any better solution, if that’s what you’re going to ask me.
The Point: Well it sounds a bit like you have a technocratic—
ML: Oh! Benevolent dictatorship. Sure! Let me be the dictator and everything will be fine.
The Point: Or rule by experts. Isn’t that the approach Obama is taking by saying, “We can’t get Congress to pass any laws regarding climate change, so what I’m going to do is go directly to the EPA and impose regulations”? What do you make of that strategy? Is that also a necessary evil?
ML: See, I like that strategy. I think climate change is serious, so I favor many of the policies he advocates and I am more than happy for him to do what he needs to get around the intransigence of his opposition.
The Point: In Max Weber you have the idea that there’s a real problem when experts get in the way of politics because politics is the realm of setting ends, and expertise can only tell us about means. It can tell us about the facts, and it can tell us how we can get somewhere, should we want to go. What science cannot do is tell us where we want to go. It seems to me that on the Left in the U.S., with respect to climate change, there is just a thought that we’ll leave it up to the scientists rather than making normative arguments ourselves.
ML: But do we really leave it up to the scientists to say what path we should follow? There are people on the Left who are vehemently against nuclear power and then there are people who say we must have nuclear power because of climate change. So I endorse the thought that we should leave it to the experts to tell us what the facts are about the case, leave it to the experts to tell us what the most effective ways are of achieving goals, and then we’ll decide what to do.
The Point: Now what would you say if someone said, “OK, taking into account all the facts, I don’t think we should do anything about climate change”?
ML: Well, that is, in fact, pretty much the situation. And I think it’s extremely frustrating.
The Point: But isn’t that a possible reasonable position? The argument would be that we should spend our money on other things.
ML: It is possible. I mean, to take it to an extreme, if I’m a Jehovah’s Witness and I’m told, “You must have a blood transfusion or you will die tomorrow,” I don’t think it’s reasonable to say, “It’s against my beliefs so I won’t take the transfusion,” but I do think it is my right to do that. Of course, that just involves one person.
The Point: But hasn’t it become fairly normal to demonize someone who makes that argument? Imagine someone who said, “Yeah, there is climate change, but, given the various difficulties of acting on it—we don’t have a world government, that kind of thing—we’re never going to be able to change this, so let’s try to find some ways of ameliorating the effects.” Someone who said that, I think, would be demonized. It’s out of the mainstream.
ML: But they would be less demonized than somebody who says it is not happening at all. There’s a guy in Denmark, Bjørn Lomborg, who does take that approach and he is demonized by a lot of … maybe leftists, maybe not, but certainly a lot of climate scientists. I’ve never quite understood why he upsets them so much.
The Point: I was actually thinking about him in particular. I saw him talk in maybe 2003 and he was just reviled for his views. Really what he was claiming was just that although climate change is indeed happening, “I’ve done some cost-benefit analyses and it’s not that it is not a real problem, nor is it that we couldn’t do anything about it, but given the costs of doing something about it, we’d be better off spending that money doing something like, say, building wells in Africa. If you’re worried about the effect of climate change on Africans because it will make a difference on their day-to-day lives, well, what would make a much bigger difference is having drinking water. An extra one or two degrees isn’t going to matter to them as much as drinking water, lack of productive agriculture and so on, so that’s where we should be spending our money.” And he was vilified.
ML: I think there’s certainly a resistance in many quarters to acknowledging (a) that there might be better ways to spend our money and (b) that we should begin to figure out how to adapt to climate change, because people think that takes away from the public’s concern to prevent it.
The Point: This ties into some of what we were talking about earlier in the sense of being economical with the truth and trying to shape people. The best-case scenario is that everyone’s opinions change such that climate change doesn’t happen because we make changes to our way of life so that it doesn’t happen. The next best scenario is that climate change happens and we’re prepared for it. The worst-case scenario is that climate change happens and we’re not prepared for it. And there’s a danger that in aiming for number one we might end up at number three.
ML: I think that’s already changing, though: I think climate scientists and climate advocacy groups are much more willing to talk about adaptation than they used to be. The IPCC issued a short interim report in maybe 2011 that talked about adaptation, that talked about resiliency of communities, that talked about the fact that the impact of climate depends not just on what the climate does in and of itself but also on what the local infrastructure is and so on.
The Point: Why do you think the Right isn’t more willing to make that kind of case about climate change? What is it about denying? I mean, it seems to be a very American thing, this denial of the truth of climate change. I think it’s fair to say that in the U.K. it would be more of this Lomborg-type argument, e.g. “Yes, we admit that this is happening but we can’t sacrifice good British jobs,” but here you deny the premise.
ML: Well, these scientists that are deniers would get no attention at all if it weren’t that it played into a political agenda on the Right, where people come from districts where the idea of government mandates is rejected outright.
The Point: It’s not just the Right. It’s important to point out that John Dingell, for example—who’s just retiring as a Democratic congressman for the Detroit suburbs—is extremely against this. The same with the West Virginia senators, who are both Democrats. There’s this very close tie to your district’s economic interests. So it’s too simple to say it’s the Right. But the basic point is that in America people who don’t want us to act on climate change are more willing to insist it’s just not happening. Do they really believe that it’s not happening?
ML: Well, it’s what I was saying before: they will avoid the truth if it hurts them politically.
The Point: So they too could make the case that they are being economical with the truth for the sake of the truth. That people couldn’t handle it. Were I to make the complex argument that there is climate change but there’s nothing we can do about it—people can’t handle that, so I just won’t tell them.
ML: It’s not that the people can’t handle it; it’s just that the politician’s opponents would beat him over the head and he would be turned out in the next primary for wavering from absolute rejection of climate change. There’s also this mistrust of authority more generally, a mistrust of experts, a mistrust of scientists.
The Point: This brings us to the question of the institutions of journalism, the practice of journalism in the United States. Because when you say that these climate change deniers wouldn’t get a hearing elsewhere, I think there’s some truth in that. It strikes me that the notion of objectivity at work in American journalism, the notion of being fair and balanced, is that wherever a question is considered to be controversial at all you should have one view on one side, and one view on the other. Whereas in science it’s not the case that every argument has two equally weighted sides. There’s the extremely marginal weirdo and then there’s the dominant view. And the American approach gives a voice at the table to the marginal person. Would you agree with that?
ML: I would. And that’s something that journalists have been thinking about for a while and that scientists have been complaining about for a while. But most major news outlets don’t do it anymore. I think it comes from political journalism, where it’s much harder to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong, and you have to let both sides speak.
Art credit: Jason Padgett, Doppler Effect Parallel Universes, 2006.