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Balancing the Climate Debate

Journalists are taught to always provide a balanced story. It’s not our job to tell you how to think, but to provide information that you can use to decide for yourself.

With that in mind, I tend to give dissenting opinions equal footing when writing about the need for climate change, wildlife conservation, etc. But an article due June 2 in Environmental Politics, "The organization of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental skepticism," has led me to rethink the concept of “balance.”

The article’s key finding is really pretty startling: More than 92% of 141 books published in the U.S. between 1972 and 2005 that were deemed “environmentally skeptical” – those that deny the authenticity of environmental problems – are linked to conservative think tanks.

What are conservative think tanks (or CTTs, as the article refers to them), and why is their relationship to environmental skepticism alarming? The article explains: CTTs are nonprofit research groups that study conservative ideals such as free enterprise and national defense (the good ol’ military-industrial complex). The problem with CTTs having sway in environmental policy is that they generally are made up of economists and political scientists, not natural scientists.

Just look at two of the best known CTTs: The Heritage Foundation and The American Enterprise Institute. Of the 11 people these two CTTs identify as their environmental scholars, just two have natural science backgrounds. As the article states, CTTs’ concerns stem primarily from interest groups. The concerns of the scientific community, on the other hand, stem primarily from the search for truth.

As the article’s lead author, Peter J. Jacques from the University of Central Florida, explained to me, the question a person should ask when deciding what information to believe is, “Who is the source responsible to?” In the case of global warming, there are essentially two sources: scientists, who are responsible to what are known as the “good faith witnesses” of fellow professors, scientists, and governmental agencies and are subject to vigorous peer-review, and conservative think tanks, which are insulated and devoid of peer review and are responsible to … themselves.

So you’ve got a veritable syndicate with neither the expertise nor the inclination to hold true dialogue on environmental issues flooding us with papers, books, editorials, interviews and everything else, muddying the facts.

Another of the article’s authors – Riley E. Dunlap, Regents Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University (and known by some as the world's leading authority on environmental attitudes) – explained it to me in numbers. According to Dunlap, there are no more than 20 publishing, public-view environmental skeptics in the U.S., while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the pre-eminent organization studying climate change) conducts a thousand or more peer reviews on a single study. So, OK, now we know what is going on. Now the question is, “why?”

The article asserts this counter-movement began because environmentalism suggests that industrial practices of modern societies are not sustainable, since they lead to loss of biodiversity and climate change. In other words, we can’t keep going as we have been. Conservatives see this belief as an attack against our way of life, see environmentalism as a threat to American progress.

And so they combat it. And they give me article upon article of dissenting opinion to consider. So I reference these papers as often as I reference the peer-reviewed stuff, and suddenly in the name of balance I’ve ironically tipped the scales.

Both Jacques and Dunlap agreed that it’s important to acknowledge the full realm of propositions, but stressed that minority dissenting opinions need to be defined as such and not given equal time as views that are backed by mainstream science.

Gregg Easterbrook, identified in the article as the only “liberal” (he’s a visiting fellow with liberal think tank Brookings Institution) to have written one of the 141 environmentally skeptical books studied, responded to my request for comment with this: “People ought to be skeptical of all extreme claims, whether from the left or right. Specifically as regards enviornmental politics, it is way too ideological -- liberals refuse to admit that most trends are positive, conservatives refuse to admit that most regulations worked. Meanwhile there's no middle ground in environmental politics because no one will fund one.”

But there is a middle ground in environmental politics.

If I’m doing my job, it’s right here.

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“Balancing the Climate Debate”

  1. Blogger  Says:

    Yeah, "journalist".

    Nevermind that you don't bother to analyize how Soros, etc. groups fund the other side.

    I can't believe Captivate would waste my time with your horrible blog.

  2. Anonymous Wm. R. Freudenburg Says:

    I'd reply directly to the person who left the cranky comment it he had left actual information on how to do so. Since his post seems to have been anonymous, I'm sending this note to everyone.
    It's too bad he didn't bother to check out the actual research before deciding he didn't like it. The GreeenAmongGrey story was a fine one, in the best traditions of journalism, accurately discussing the new research findings. Those findings, in turn -- unlike almost all of the attacks that have been put forth by the think tanks -- needed to go through rigorous peer review before being accepted for publication in a well-resepected scientific journal. The authors took pains to be balanced. Their key finding -- for practical purposes, there really wouldn't BE a literature of so-called "environmental skepticism" if it hadn't been financed by conservative think tanks that are more concerned about pushing an ideology than finding the truth -- is backed up by all the specifics anyone could ever ask for. And it speaks for itself. It won't appeal to those whose minds are made up, and who thus don't want to be bothered by the facts. For the rest of us, it's a fine piece of work.