Tag Archives: environment

The Media is Failing Us on Climate Change

What you’ve heard about the new IPCC report is highly misleading.

A week ago, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report “Global Warming of 1.5o C” came out, we got more than a lesson on climate change. We also got a lesson in what’s wrong with mainstream media coverage of climate change.

CNN’s headline was typical: “Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change, experts warn“. The corresponding article had all the standard elements of climate-change coverage: a collection of threats (hotter heat waves, more extreme rainfall, more intense droughts, coral reefs dying off), a date when they’ll come due (2030), and a list of things the experts want done to avoid them (move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and develop technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere).

The problem with that article isn’t that it misstated any facts. But framing the situation in that way makes scientists sound like comic-book terrorists: “Do what we want by our deadline or the Earth is finished.”

The usual coverage invites the usual responses from those committed to denial, like this one from National Review:

Those working to raise awareness about climate change have a problem. While most Americans believe global warming is occurring and think human activities are causing it, fewer than half think it will pose a serious threat to the planet in their lifetimes.

So what do those seeking drastic change do? They publish predictions of imminent catastrophe based on computer models, threatening doom and gloom unless dramatic measures are taken immediately. When that fails, they change the deadline and try again. … Now the IPCC tells us we have until 2030, but the longer period to take action is accompanied by heightened predictions of calamities.

How the report comes to be. When you tell the story of the report from the beginning, though, it actually isn’t anything like that.

The story starts in Paris in December, 2015, when 195 nations made commitments to take action against climate change. (The US was one of the 195, but President Trump renounced the agreement in June, 2017.) The Paris Agreement recognized that global warming of 2o C above pre-industrial levels would have unacceptable consequences, and instead set a goal of trying to keep the increase down to 1.5o C. The report’s FAQ says:

With the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] invited the IPCC to provide a Special Report in 2018 on ‘the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emissions pathways’. The request was that the report, known as SR1.5, should not only assess what a 1.5°C warmer world would look like but also the different pathways by which global temperature rise could be limited to 1.5°C.

This report addresses that goal from two sides: What would the world have to do to meet the goal? And how much damage will the climate and the biosphere suffer even if we do?

Global warming is not a bomb. The biggest problem with the usual climate-change media coverage is that our standard metaphor for a future crisis — a ticking bomb — is completely wrong. Climate change is not something that will happen all at once at some point in the future; its negative effects won’t “go off” when some timer ticks down to zero. Instead, climate change is a process we are already in the middle of; negative effects — like this week’s devastation of the Florida panhandle — are already happening.

A better analogy might be smoking. Imagine you’re a heavy-smoking 25-year-old. You’re probably already seeing some effects: You get winded more easily, climbing stairs is harder, and so on. But you can live with that. Then your doctor tells you that if you keep smoking, your odds of dying before you’re 60 go up by X per cent. It might be a heart attack or lung cancer or something else, but your odds of dying go up.

Notice what he didn’t say: He didn’t say that you have until you’re 60 to change your ways. Age 60 is a somewhat arbitrary reference point that makes the situation quantifiable. The direst consequences of your smoking may hit when you’re 60, or sometime before or after that. In the meantime, the lesser effects you’ve already been seeing will get worse. And there’s a time lag: The cigarette you smoke tomorrow might (or might not) be the one that gives you cancer when you’re 57. Quitting before the cancer hits doesn’t mean it won’t hit.

On the other hand, if you quit now and exercise to get your wind back, your heart will likely regain its strength and your lungs might clear themselves out before anything happens that is significantly worse than the effects you can already see.

Climate change is like that; there are time lags all over the place. Every time a new investment is made in fossil fuel infrastructure — a new coal mine, a new oil well, a new pipeline — that’s an economic commitment to keep burning fossil fuels far into the future. And once a molecule of CO2 (or some other greenhouse gas) gets into the atmosphere, it’s likely to stay there for a long time. Yale Climate Connections reports on what would happen to the CO2 in the atmosphere if we went cold turkey on fossil fuels.

Using a combination of various methods, researchers have estimated that about 50 percent of the net anthropogenic pulse would be absorbed in the first 50 years, and about 70 percent in the first 100 years. Absorption by sinks slows dramatically after that, with an additional 10 percent or so being removed after 300 years and the remaining 20 percent lasting tens if not hundreds of thousands of years before being removed.

Putting that another way, emissions from the Model T’s of the 1920s are still affecting the climate today. About half of the CO2 I produced while driving to the grocery yesterday will still be warming the planet in 2068.

Some effects have longer time lags than others. If we manage to stabilize the climate at some level, for example, the heat waves and droughts might stabilize as well, and the world could adjust to a new normal in that regard. But if that stabilizing point is too high, the melting of the world’s ice might continue for some while and sea levels would keep rising.

So we don’t have until 2030 to change our ways. The whole notion that we have until the Year Y to take action completely misses the point.

Where we are in the process. The first thing the IPCC had to do was define its reference points. Like: What does “pre-industrial levels” mean? It settled on 1850-1900, which may seem a little late, given how much coal-burning industry already existed in 1850. The FAQ explains that the reference point had to be an era with temperature measurements from all over the world. (Picking an earlier period, like the 1750s, would mean using mainly European data. The results might get biased by purely local effects.) The FAQ picks up the story there:

In the decade 2006–2015, warming reached 0.87°C (±0.12°C) relative to 1850–1900, predominantly due to human activity increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Given that global temperature is currently rising by 0.2°C (±0.1°C) per decade, human-induced warming reached 1°C above pre-industrial levels around 2017 and, if this pace of warming continues, would reach 1.5°C around 2040.

But don’t forget Paris. Every major nation in the world (but the US) has made a commitment to emit less carbon than it otherwise would have. Those commitments were voluntary, based more on what the local politics could sustain rather than what the problem required. (Apparently, US politics can’t sustain any action at all, so Trump pulled out of the agreement rather than revise our commitments under it.)

Different groups of researchers around the world have analysed the combined effect of adding up all the NDCs [nationally defined contributions under the Paris Agreement]. Such analyses show that current pledges are not on track to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. If current pledges for 2030 are achieved but no more, researchers find very few (if any) ways to reduce emissions after 2030 sufficiently quickly to limit warming to 1.5°C. This, in turn, suggests that with the national pledges as they stand, warming would exceed 1.5°C, at least for a period of time, and practices and technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere at a global scale would be required to return warming to 1.5°C at a later date.

Plans to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, the report notes, have not scaled up well so far. (It’s easier to plant a tree than to regrow a forest.) So relying on them is speculative; maybe something practical will develop and maybe it won’t.

One example of a [carbon dioxide removal] method in the demonstration phase is a process known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), in which atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by plants and trees as they grow, and then the plant material (biomass) is burned to produce bioenergy. The CO2 released in the production of bioenergy is captured before it reaches the atmosphere and stored in geological formations deep underground on very long timescales. Since the plants absorb CO2 as they grow and the process does not emit CO2, the overall effect can be to reduce atmospheric CO2.

Given the time lags involved in reducing CO2 through natural means, though, if we blow through the 1.5°C mark the only practical way to get back to it in any reasonable length of time involves some kind of CO2 removal process, or “negative emissions”, as they put it. That speculative technology, then, is what we’ll have to count on if nations don’t make more aggressive commitments than the ones in the Paris Agreement.

How bad is 1.5°C? Much of the report compares 1.5°C warming to 2°C, and unsurprisingly finds that 1.5°C is better. But, to return to the smoking analogy, it’s like comparing quitting smoking at 45 with quitting at 60. The statistics of the risk change, but the kinds of things at risk mostly don’t. Sea levels will rise, but not as far. Weather will get more violent, but not as much. Species will go extinct, but not as many.

Much of what is at risk depends on processes we don’t fully understand. So, for example, higher global temperatures will change weather patterns. But nobody can pinpoint a temperature at which, say, Kansas becomes a desert. National Post reports on the “climate apocalypse” talk:

A lot of the press coverage on the new report has liberally employed terms like “nightmare,” “apocalypse,” or “a world on fire.” The IPCC report contains plenty of dire scenarios of a 2 degree world: Death of the world’s coral reefs, an extra 300 million exposed to crop failures, deadly heat waves becoming an annual occurrence in South Asia. Climate change could undo decades of progress on improving human welfare, but it’s not an existential threat to the species. Even unchecked climate change is not on the scale of a nuclear holocaust; its costs are more akin to a couple world wars and global pandemics. The most dire images come from a section where report authors imagine a world in which humanity has made almost no attempt to curb emissions. By the year 2100 the world “is no longer recognizable, with decreasing life expectancy, reduced outdoor labour productivity, and lower quality of life in many regions because of too frequent heatwaves and other climate extremes.”

Where does 2030 come from? We’re on pace to breech 1.5°C in 2040, so why is everybody talking about 2030? Time lags.

If current pledges for 2030 are achieved but no more, researchers find very few (if any) ways to reduce emissions after 2030 sufficiently quickly to limit warming to 1.5°C. …

A world that is consistent with holding warming to 1.5°C would see greenhouse gas emissions rapidly decline in the coming decade, with strong international cooperation and a scaling up of countries’ combined ambition beyond current NDCs. In contrast, delayed action, limited international cooperation, and weak or fragmented policies that lead to stagnating or increasing greenhouse gas emissions would put the possibility of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels out of reach.

Should we believe the IPCC? In a word: Yes. They’re not infallible prophets, but they do represent the consensus of the world scientific community.

Climate-change skeptics try to paint the argument as he-said/she-said, with vested interests lining up on both sides. But in fact, the overwhelming vested interest is on the climate-change-denial side: Fossil fuels in the ground represent literally trillions of dollars on the books of fossil-fuel corporations. If that coal and oil and natural gas can’t be burned, some of the world’s largest corporations — not to mention governments like Saudi Arabia or Russia — are insolvent.

Within the scientific community, motives are split. Some scientists have staked their reputations on climate change, but no one really wants to believe their grandchildren face some hellish future. A climate scientist who could make a genuinely persuasive case in the other direction would be celebrated. Fossil fuel companies would create institutes from thin air, if necessary, to fund his or her research.

That’s why, when you push hard on the question of climate-change-believing vested interests, denialists eventually resort to some version of the Global Socialist Conspiracy.

Global warming is not about science, but about politics — that is, about expanding the power of elites using the coercive instruments of government to control the lives of people everywhere. Just as the governing class embraces ineffective Keynesian stimulus spending to justify expansion of government, they now extol [anthropogenic global warming] as the basis for increasing their power to rule over the rest of us.

Why scientists around the world are more committed to expanding the coercive power of elites than to finding scientific truth is never fully explained. What’s more, promoters of this theory deny the obvious: If you have a genuine scientific case that global warming isn’t happening (or is going to level off on its own, without any changes in public policy), trillions of dollars in otherwise stranded assets are waiting to support you.

Techniques of denial. If you’re a fossil-fuel company and you want to keep selling your product, you don’t have to convince people that climate change isn’t happening, you just have to spread doubt and rely on the human tendency to resist change.

And here’s where our smoking metaphor does double duty: The techniques for spreading doubt about science go back to the tobacco companies, who wanted to create just enough doubt about the cigarette/cancer link that people who wanted to keep smoking could talk themselves out of quitting. (A lot of those doubtful people, I will point out, died. But they bought a lot of cigarettes before they did.) You can see echoes in that National Review quote above.

For example, back in the 60s and 70s, tobacco-company-funded groups like the Tobacco Institute would say that the cigarette/cancer link was just “statistical”, implying that statistics was some kind of voodoo science not worth your notice. National Review is repeating a similar fossil-fuel industry talking point when it refers contemptuously to “computer models”.

Like statistics, computer modeling is something the average person doesn’t understand, and so it is a good target for unscrupulous people who want to sow doubt. But computer modeling is how we predict almost anything complicated these days. Predictions of hurricane tracks, for example, are based on computer models.

And yes, a dishonest programmer can make a computer spit out anything he or she wants. But that’s why the scientific community has processes for assessing claims. Something like the IPCC report doesn’t come from just one guy with an iMac. Each claim has been examined by dozens, sometimes hundreds or thousands, of scientists who are trained to look for mistakes or fraud in this particular area. They come from countless institutions in 195 countries. No vested interest ties them all together. The vested interest, recall, lies with the trillions of dollars at risk for the fossil-fuel industry.

What’s the overall message of the report? The commitments nations made in the Paris Agreement are steps in the right direction, but they aren’t adequate. If that’s all the world does, 1.5°C will be locked in by 2030, even if it won’t show up until 2040 or so. To avoid 1.5°C, we have to phase out fossil fuels far more quickly.

What you won’t find in the report is a safe zone, a line in the sand that tells us how far we can go. Where we are now isn’t “safe”, it’s just less risky than where we’re headed.

Three Misunderstood Things 7-24-2017

This week: census, environmental regulations, coal jobs

I. The census

What’s misunderstood about it: How can counting people be a partisan issue?

What more people should know: A lot rides on the census. The Census Bureau knows it gets the answers wrong, but Republicans have a partisan interest in not letting it do better. In 2020, it’s being set up to fail.


When the Founders wrote the Constitution, they knew the country was changing fast. New people were pouring into America — some coming by choice and others by force. If Congress was going to represent these people into the distant future, it would have to change as the country changed. So somebody would have to keep track of how the country was changing. That’s why Article I, Section 2 says:

The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

Congress has implemented that clause by setting up the Census Bureau, which tries to count everyone in America in each year that ends in a zero. You can look at this as a rolling peaceful revolution: Via the census, states like Virginia and Massachusetts have gradually surrendered their founding-era power to new states like California and Texas.

No doubt you learned in grade school that counting is an objective process that produces a correct answer — the same one for everybody who knows how to count. But in practice, when a bunch of people count to 325 million, agreement starts to break down. Now imagine that you’re counting a field full of 325 million cats, most running around and jumping over each other, and a few actively hiding from you. How do you come up with an answer you have faith in?

That’s the Census Bureau’s fundamental problem: Americans won’t stand still long enough to be counted, and some are actively suspicious of anybody from the government who comes around asking questions. Inevitably, then, not everybody gets counted, and some people get counted more than once. This is not a secret; the Census Bureau admits that it gets the wrong answer.

That might not be so bad if the errors were random, but they’re not. Basically, the more stable your life is, the more likely you are to be counted correctly. If, for example, you’re still living in the same house with the same people that a census worker counted ten years ago, they’re going to count you again. But if you’re sleeping on your friend’s couch for a few weeks while you’re waiting for a job to turn up, and thinking about moving back in with Mom if you can’t find one, then you might get missed.

Stability isn’t a randomly distributed quality. The LA Times spells it out:

The last census was considered successful — that is, the 2010 results were considered to be within an acceptable margin of error. But by the Census Bureau’s own estimates, it omitted 2.1% of African Americans, 1.5% of Latinos and nearly 5% of reservation-dwelling American Indians, while non-Latino whites were overcounted by almost 1%. The census missed about 7% of African American and Latino children 4 or younger, a rate twice as high as the overall average for young children.

But that raises an epistemological question: How do you know your count is wrong if you don’t have a correct count to compare it to? And if you have that correct count, why not just use it?

The answer to the first question is statistics. Imagine, for example, that you’re trying to count all the species that live in your back yard. You go out one day and count 50. Then you go out longer with a bigger magnifying glass and find 10 more. Then the next couple of times you don’t find anything new. But then you find two. Are you confident that’s all of them now? What’s your best guess about how many are really out there?

Now extend that to every yard in the neighborhood. Imagine that after each household does its own count, you all converge on one yard for a more intensive search than you’d be willing to do on every yard. That search finds even more new species. Now how many do you think you missed in the other yards?

Statisticians have thought long and hard about questions like that, and have a variety of well-tested ways to estimate the number of things that haven’t been found yet. If you apply those techniques to the census, you get more accurate estimates of the total.

So why not just use those estimates? Two reasons:

  • It sounds bad: Ivory-tower eggheads are using a bunch of mumbo-jumbo Real Americans can’t understand to invent a bunch of blacks and Hispanics that nobody has ever seen.
  • Republicans have a partisan interest in keeping the count the way it is.

The Census determines two very important things: how many representatives (and electoral votes) each state gets, and how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal money for programs like Medicaid and highway-building get distributed among the states. The miscount gives more power and money to mostly white (and Republican) states like Wyoming and Kansas, and less to a majority non-white (and Democratic) state like California. Within a state, Republican gerrymandering works by crowding Democratic-leaning urban minorities into a few districts, leaving a bunch of safely Republican rural and suburban districts. That minority-packing is even easier to do if a chunk of those people were never counted to begin with.

The 2020 census is already headed for trouble. The Census Bureau is being underfunded, taking no account of the fact that it has more people to count than last time. Plans to modernize its technology went badly. And it is currently leaderless: The bureau chief resigned at the end of June, and Trump has nominated no one to replace him.

So we’re set up for an even bigger uncount of minorities this year. And that’s got to make Paul Ryan happy.

II. Environmental regulations

What’s misunderstand about it: Many people believe that a clean environment is a costly luxury.

What more people should understand: Externalities. That’s how well-designed environmental regulations can save more money than they cost.


Nobody should come out of Econ 101 without an understanding externalities — real economic costs that the market doesn’t see because they aren’t borne by either the buyer or the seller.

Pollution is the classic example: Suppose I run a paper mill, and I use large quantities of chlorine to make my paper nice and white. At the end of the process I dump the chlorine into my local river, because that’s the cheapest way for me to get rid of it. Because I use such an inexpensive (for me) disposal process, I can keep my prices low. That makes me happy and my customers happy, so the market is happy too. Any of my competitors who doesn’t dump his chlorine in the river is going to be at a disadvantage.

The problems in this process only accrue to people who live downstream, especially fishermen and anybody who wants to swim or eat fish. They suffer real economic losses — losses that are probably much bigger than what I save. But since their loss is invisible to the paper market, nothing will change without the some outside-the-market action — like a government regulation, a court order, or a mob of fishermen coming to burn down my mill.

Now suppose the government tells me I have to stop dumping chlorine. I have to find either some environmentally friendly paper-whitening technique or a way to treat my chlorine-tainted wastewater until it’s safe to put back into the river. Either solution will cost me money, and I will have no trouble calculating exactly how much. So you can bet there will be an article in my local newspaper (which now has to pay more for the newsprint it buys from me) about how many millions of dollars these new regulations cost. The corresponding gains by fishermen, riverfront resort owners whose properties no longer stink, and downstream towns that don’t have to get the chlorine out of their drinking water — that’s all much more diffuse and hard to quantify. So the newspaper won’t have any precise number to weigh my cost against. Chances are its readers will see the issue as money vs. quality of life. They won’t realize that the regulations also make sense in purely economic terms.

That’s an abstract and somewhat dated example, but similar issues — and similar news stories — appear all the time. The costs of new regulations are borne by specific industries who can calculate them exactly, while the benefits — though very real — are more diffuse, and may accrue to people who don’t even realize they’re benefiting. (Companies are very aware of what they’ll have to spend to take carcinogens out of their products, but nobody ever knows about the cancers they don’t get.) But that doesn’t mean that the benefits aren’t bigger than the costs, even in dollar terms.

The best example from my lifetime is getting the lead out of gasoline. If you were alive at the time, you probably remember that the new unleaded gasoline cost a few cents more per gallon. Spread over the whole economy, that amounted to billions and billions. What we got out of that, though, was far more than just the vague satisfaction of breathing cleaner air. Without so much lead in their bloodstreams, our children are smarter, less violent, and less impulsive. The gains — even in purely material terms — have been overwhelmingly positive.

III. Coal jobs.

What’s misunderstood about it: What happened to them? Environmentalists are often blamed for destroying these jobs.

What more people should know: No doubt environmentalists would kill the coal industry if they could. But the real destroyers of coal jobs are automation and competition from other fuels.


Coal miners are the heroes of one of the classic success stories of the 20th century. Mining was originally a job for the desperate and expendable, but miners were among the first American workers to see the benefits of unionization. Year after year, coal mining became safer [1], less debilitating, and better paying, until by the 1960s a miner no longer “owed his soul to the company store“, but could be the breadwinner of a middle-class family, owning a home, driving a nice car or truck, and even sending his children to college. Sons and daughters of miners could become doctors, lawyers, or business executives. Or if they wanted to follow their fathers into the mines, that promised to be a good life too.

However, the total number of coal-mining jobs in the United States peaked in 1923.

Was that because Americans stopped using coal? Not at all. Coal production kept going up for the next 85 years.

The difference was automation. Mines employed three-quarters of a million men in the pick-and-shovel days, but better tools allow 21st-century mines to produce more coal with far fewer workers.

If you take a closer look at that employment graph, you’ll notice a hump in the 1970s, when coal employment staged a brief comeback. That corresponded to the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 and the increased oil prices of the OPEC era. For decades after that, coal was the cheaper, more reliable energy source. Americans who dreamed of energy independence dreamed of coal. In a 1980 presidential debate, candidate Ronald Reagan said:

This nation has been portrayed for too long a time to the people as being energy-poor, when it is energy-rich. The coal that the President [Carter] mentioned — yes, we have it, and yet 1/8th of our total coal resources is not being utilized at all right now. The mines are closed down. There are 22,000 miners out of work. Most of this is due to regulation.

However, all that changed with the fracking boom. Depending on market fluctuations, natural gas can be the cheaper fuel. Meanwhile, the price-per-watt of renewable energy is falling fast, and is now competitive with coal for some applications. So if a utility started building a new coal-fueled plant now, by the time it came on line a renewable source might be more economical — even without considering possible carbon taxes or environmental regulations.

The dirtiness of coal is a huge externality (see misunderstanding II, above), so regulations disadvantaging it make good economic sense. Looking at the full cost to society, coal is the most expensive fuel we have, and should be phased out as soon as possible.

Statements like that make good fodder for politicians (like Trump or Reagan) who want to scapegoat environmental regulations for killing the coal industry. However, dirty coal is like the obnoxious murder victim in an Agatha Christie novel: Environmentalists are only one of the many who wanted it dead, and other suspects actually killed it.

[1] The number of coal-mining deaths peaked at 3,242 in 1907. In 2016 that number was down to 8. As a comment below notes, though, that doesn’t count deaths from black lung disease, which are on the rise again.

Food-eaters are not a special interest group

You probably don’t think much about government as you push your shopping cart down the aisle of your local supermarket. But nothing the government does affects your life more often and more directly than food policy. What food is available, what it costs, what’s in it, what you can find out about it, and whether it’s safe — the government has a hand in all of that.

Naively, you might expect a democratic government’s food policy to work out one of two ways: Either food would be hotly debated in every election, or our common interest as eaters would produce a completely non-partisan pro-consumer consensus.

Strangely, though, our government has a pro-food-industry policy which is often anti-consumer, and that policy is hardly ever a major issue. Candidates constantly try to make hay out of invisible threats like Iran’s nuclear weapons program or even completely imaginary ones like the death panels of Obamacare. But when was the last time you heard a politician pledge to do something about the growing rate of salmonella infections?

Obesity and policy. Everybody knows that America has a obesity problem. Because of it, we spend more on healthcare and die younger anyway. But to the extent this issue gets public attention at all, it is framed as an individual character problem — we don’t have the discipline to eat carrots instead of carrot cake — rather than as a problem with the way our food is produced and marketed.

But isn’t it strange how the American character degraded so suddenly since the mid-1970s (when the average American was 18 pounds lighter)? Shouldn’t a major cultural change take longer than that?

The media inundates us with stories about how to diet, but seldom touches the government’s role in subsidizing fats and sugars over healthier fruits and vegetables. Here’s the exception that proves the rule: Peter Jennings’ “How to Get Fat Without Really Trying” from 2003. (Here are the ad-free links for parts 1234, and 5.) Would I have to go back to 2003 to find a major-network piece about dieting?

Free enterprise? Any threat to our current food system is quickly labeled as an attack on free enterprise: If industry produces something and people want to buy it, what’s the problem? If it’s bad for them, that’s their own fault. They should eat something else.

But the current food system has little to do with free enterprise. Michael Pollan explains:

So much of our food system is the result of policy choices made in Washington. The reason we’re eating from these huge monocultures of corn and soybeans is that that’s the kind of farming that the government has supported, in the form of subsidies, in the form of agricultural research. All the work is going to produce more of  those so-called commodity crops that are the building blocks of fast food.

GMOs. As an example, ask yourself: When did you decide to start eating genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)?  Probably you didn’t. Probably you ate products made from genetically modified corn and soybeans for a long time before you realized that you were eating them at all. Maybe you still don’t realize you eat GMOs; but unless you’re totally obsessive about where your food comes from, you do eat them.

That also is due to government policy: Kellogg’s doesn’t have to tell you whether their corn flakes have GMOs. They like it that way, whether you like it or not.

The basic research behind GMOs was funded by governments; the profit goes to corporations like Monsanto. The risks have been passed on to the consumer without anyone asking the consumer. That’s not how free enterprise is supposed to work.

And who knows? Maybe there are no risks. Maybe eating GMOs is as harmless as Monsanto claims. Maybe GMOs aren’t responsible for systemic effects like the collapse of bee colonies.

None of the claims against GMOs have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Nor will they be, most likely, because neither government nor industry has much interest in funding that research. (You can bet the research being done at Beeologics won’t implicate Monsanto, because Monsanto just bought them.)

The Farm Bill is a Food Bill. Your power as a consumer is not going to change the food system until your power as a voter makes it changeable. To change food policy, Pollan says, we need to change the Farm Bill that goes through Congress every five years.

But it isn’t really just a bill for farmers. It really should be called the Food Bill, because it is the rules for the system we all eat by. And those rules are really lousy right now, and they need to be changed.

That 5-year process is almost complete now, so the positive changes that are still possible are minimal. Absent a vocal popular movement, food is a perfect issue for lobbyists: The affected industries have a lot of money to spend, and the general public isn’t paying attention.

We’re not going to raise a vocal popular movement in the next few weeks. Most people don’t care and don’t know why anyone thinks they should care. And that’s what needs to change between now and 2017.

I’m still in the process of raising my own consciousness about this stuff, so I can just point in a general direction. (If you’ve got better advice, make a comment.) I’ve just added Food Politics to the list of blogs I cruise regularly. (Worthwhile recent posts pointed me to the report How Washington went soft on childhood obesity and explained where that supermarket sushi comes from.) Suggestions of other blogs/authors/websites are welcome.

Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation

One of those facts “everybody knows” is that journalists are liberal. It’s even true up to a point. (Actually, it’s more accurate to say that very few journalists identify as conservatives. 53% call themselves moderates, so the typical journalistic duo is not exactly Marx and Engels.)

But in spite of Sarah Palin’s fantasies of persecution by the “lamestream media”, coverage often tilts in the opposite direction. When conservatives want something like ClimateGate or the ACORN pimp video to become a national story, it usually does, whether it deserves to or not. When public opinion differs radically from the facts — believing, say, that climate scientists are more-or-less evenly divided on global warming, that Saddam was involved in 9-11, or that Al Gore claimed he invented the internet — the error is usually in the direction pushed by conservatives.

It’s hard to see how that could happen unless actual coverage slanted to the right.

Just last week, I gave numerous examples of right-slanted coverage: Unprovoked police attacks on nonviolent Occupy protesters have been covered “even-handedly” (police and protesters “clashed” like mismatched colors) or passively (“mayhem broke out”).

So how does that work? How do left-leaning journalists regularly produce coverage that leans right? Recently, Grist’s David Roberts has written some excellent posts documenting how media bias works against environmentalists. But before we get into that, let’s back up a little: What does it even mean for coverage to slant one way or the other?

The Hallin Sphere Model. “Media bias” usually makes liberals think of the everyday trickery on Fox News. (Recently, Fox labelled  would-be Obama-assassin Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez “the Occupy shooter” even after police said he had no connection to the Occupy protests.)

I don’t want to minimize the impact of such in-your-face propaganda. (For example, repetition has inured us to hearing President Obama described as “socialist” or even a “Marxist”. It doesn’t raise the kind of ire conservatives felt when President Bush was called a “fascist”.) But the more serious damage is done subtly in mainstream outlets like CNN or the New York Times — news sources that allegedly form “the liberal media”.

A useful way to think about news coverage in general comes from Daniel Hallin’s 1986 Vietnam book The Uncensored War. Hallin says that a factual claim can be reported in one of three ways: as the consensus of knowledgable people, as a controversy that reasonable people might disagree about, or as a deviant claim believed only by a lunatic fringe. Schematically, it looks like this:

A claim in the Sphere of Consensus can be reported as a simple fact, in the journalist’s own voice, without offering a contrary view. So a news story would say “Water runs downhill”, not “According to many scientists, water runs downhill” — balanced later by a quote from an anti-water-runs-downhill spokesman.

But claims in the Sphere of Controversy call for that kind of balance; the reporter should not take sides. So a news story should not say that Obamacare’s individual mandate either is or isn’t constitutional. The reporter should describe arguments made on each side and say that the Supreme Court will rule by June.

Finally, claims in the Sphere of Deviance can be rejected outright in the reporter’s own voice, or just ignored. So an American news story about Al Qaeda will probably not consider that the jihadists might be the good guys. Some people actually hold that view, but they are deviant; they can be ignored.

The boundaries. Politically, it’s very important what claims end up in what spheres.

For example, former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer is running for the Republican nomination for president. He’s the only candidate in either party making a serious attack on the dominance of money in politics. But only true political junkies know that, because Roemer’s whole campaign is happening in the Sphere of Deviance. He gets no mainstream coverage and doesn’t appear in televised debates. It’s self-justifying: He gets no coverage because “he can’t win”, and he certainly can’t win if he gets no coverage.

During the health care debate in Congress, no congressperson had to explain why his/her plan was better than a single-payer system, because single-payer was in the Sphere of Deviance.

On its merits, the claim that the planet is getting hotter should be in the Sphere of Consensus and the claim that it isn’t in the Sphere of Deviance. It’s a measurement, not an opinion. But somehow both usually wind up in the Sphere of Controversy.

In short, if you want to bias your coverage, outright lying and distortion is a ham-handed way to do it. It’s much cleaner and more effective to slot claims into the spheres that serve your interests.

Process. Who makes these decisions and how? Journalism professor Jay Rosen believes that it’s an unconscious group process among journalists. They just “know” what is news, what isn’t, and what kind of news it is. Sphere placement is

an intrinsic part of what [journalists] do, but not a natural part of how they think or talk about their job. Which means they often do it badly. Their “sphere placement” decisions … are often invisible to the people making them, and so we cannot argue with those people. It’s like trying to complain to your kid’s teacher about the values the child is learning in school when the teacher insists that the school does not teach values.

No Curia or Politburo holds hearings or announces its rulings. The press makes these decisions collectively, as “an unthinking actor, which is not good”.

Manipulation. As advertisers have long known, people who make unconscious decisions are open to outside manipulation. Maybe “we cannot argue with those people”, but that doesn’t mean that they’re beyond influence by other means.

A year and a half ago I told you about a Kennedy School study documenting that the claim “waterboarding is torture” abruptly moved from the Sphere of Consensus to the Sphere of Controversy in 2004. In 2003, a reporter could have blithely written “Waterboarding is torture.” But a 2004 reporter could only say “Critics claim waterboarding is torture.”

How did that happen? I summarized several sources:

Waterboarding-as-torture didn’t become “contentious” because some new information threw previous judgments into doubt. It became contentious because an interested party — the U.S. government — started contending against it in defiance of all previous objective standards.

In short, journalists didn’t change their ideology or even rethink the specific issue of waterboarding. Instead, outside pressure manipulated their unconscious groupthink about what is controversial.

David Roberts vs. the mainstream press. In recent months, Grist’s David Roberts has been contrasting mainstream reporting of two environmental stories:

  • The Solyndra bankruptcy, which is being widely covered as a “scandal” in spite of the fact that nothing actually scandalous has yet been uncovered. Also, the loss to the public is purely financial and fairly small by U.S. government standards — a half billion dollars.
  • The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which promotes the use of tar sands (the most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels) and endangers ground water sources in our agricultural heartland. Environmentalists have been using everything from blogs to civil disobedience to get this story out, but it hasn’t really taken off.

Roberts comments:

Solyndra and Keystone XL are real things in [a real world], not just dueling narratives. And by any conceivable metric — energy, money, pollution, corruption — Keystone XL is a much more significant phenomenon. Solyndra was a bum loan that will be forgotten within a year as the solar industry continues its explosive growth. Keystone XL is a huge, dirty, expensive pipeline that would run down the middle of the country; it’s being pushed through via a rigged process; and its consequences for our energy system and our climate will last for decades.

Zeroing in specifically on Politico’s handling of the stories, he observed:

Republican talking points are delivered as first-order news. Liberal talking points are wrapped in meta-news about liberals and their talking points.

A few weeks later Roberts isolated a classic example of this pattern from a New York Times story about the EPA’s thwarted attempt to implement higher smog standards:

Environmental and public health groups challenged the Bush standard in court, saying it would endanger human health and had been tainted by political interference. Smog levels have declined sharply over the last 40 years, but each incremental improvement comes at a significant cost to business and government.

So the NYT presents the claim that smog endangers human health as something environmental groups say (Sphere of Controversy), and the claim that decreasing smog involves significant costs as a simple fact (Sphere of Consensus).

But the merits of the two claims are exactly reversed: It’s a provable fact that smog endangers public health, while the net economic impact of higher smog standards is debatable. (Increased costs at the smokestack are balanced by fewer sick days and higher productivity, not to mention that everything in our cities corrodes more slowly.)

That’s media bias in action. But does it happen because Politico and NYT reporters are ideologically anti-green? I suspect not.

Money buys controversy. Like the waterboarding example, environmental issues become “contentious” not because new information throws them into doubt, but because powerful actors contend against them.

In some sense this is not new: Public relations is the science of manipulating the press, and it is at least a century old. But reporters have long known to take official PR releases with a grain of salt. So when American Tobacco insisted that Lucky Strikes didn’t cause cancer, that by itself didn’t make the claim controversial.

Tobacco-causes-cancer, though, was the end of one era and the beginning of another. As outlined in the books Doubt Is Their Product and Merchants of Doubt, the Tobacco Institute and the academic research it funded was the beginning of whole new layer of corporate PR infrastructure.

Today, when you read a “balanced” story about climate change, you are probably hearing the voice of Exxon-Mobil, disguised as an “independent” researcher for an “independent” institute at some university. The economics professor quoted in an article about the deficit might have been hired directly by the Koch brothers or the bank holding company BB&T. The article will not tell you this, and the reporter may not even know. (In an era of massive newsroom lay-offs, who has time to trace the funding of everyone he quotes?)

Simultaneously, corporations and the billionaires who own them have been creating a unified pro-capitalist information infrastructure — Chamber of Commerce, American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, etc. — as envisioned by the famous Powell Memo of 1971. They have also achieved a vastly higher degree of message discipline within the Republican Party’s elected officials, and established an ideological media empire around Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other outlets.

The result is what conservative-in-exile David Frum calls “an alternate reality”.

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.

And so blatant absurdities are now “controversial” simply because the conservative power structure chooses to assert them: Tax cuts raise revenue. Budget cuts that lay off teachers and cancel public works projects create jobs. White Christian Americans are the real victims of discrimination. Poor people and government regulators created the economic collapse. The Founders intended the Bill of Rights to apply to corporations.

Conversely, if the threat of unlimited corporate campaign spending and smearing by the conservative media empire can cow Democratic leaders into silence, the Sphere of Consensus can be expanded to include any number of shaky ideas, and their alternatives can be consigned to the Sphere of Deviance: Taxing the rich is politically impossible. Social Security is going bankrupt. The EPA costs jobs. Everyone (except the wealthy) needs to sacrifice. We can’t afford a social safety net any more (but we could afford a new war with Iran). And so on.

These ideas move from one sphere to another not because reporters have become more conservative, but because external power has changed their perceptions of which claims will be contested and which won’t.

What can liberals do to counter? Although we don’t dare abandon any battlefields completely, we can’t hope to beat the corporations financially and institutionally. And that’s why we have to be in the streets (and conversely why the Powers That Be smear and intimidate the people who are). When reporters are told that “everybody knows” one thing and “nobody really believes” something else, large numbers of ordinary people have to make it obvious that those claims are wrong.

Blowing Smoke About Clouds

Last week an International Business Times article stopped me short: “Alarmists Got it Wrong, Humans Not Responsible for Climate Change: CERN“.

“Wow,” I thought. “CERN. Not some Exxon/Koch-funded stooge. CERN, where the real scientists are. There’s the CERN logo right in the article. I’d better read this and rethink my opinion on climate change.”

I read the article and I learned a lot. But not about science, about propaganda.

Occasionally you need to know some science to spot the BS in a newspaper science article, but most of the time you just need some common sense. Start with: Does the content of the article justify the headline?

Not this time. The article discusses new research about cloud formation that CERN scientists recently published in Nature (another one of the biggest names in science). But nobody at CERN is quoted saying, “Humans aren’t responsible for climate change.”

In fact, the article doesn’t quote anybody from CERN (or Nature). Who are their sources, then? Lawrence Solomon, David Whitehouse, and Nigel Calder. If you’re just skimming, you might assume at least one of them represents CERN, but they don’t.

Who are they? In the Age of Google, that’s an easy question.

So a more accurate headline would be: “Global-Warming Skeptics Claim New CERN Research Vindicates Them”.

Well, of course they claim that. But then any real journalist would have to ask: Does it?

Journalism — even journalism about rocket science — is not rocket science: Punch “CERN cloud experiment results” into Google, and in seconds you’ll be looking at the CERN press release and its supporting press briefing. Spend a few minutes chasing links, and you’ll see the lead author of the Nature article (Jasper Kirkby) quoted in Scientific ComputingLive Science, and — oh, look at this! — Nature News, which is put out by the same people who publish Nature.

So it isn’t hard to find sources closer to the action than Solomon, Whitehouse, and Calder. Do any of them say “Humans are not responsible for climate change”?


So what is this experiment and what does it really show?

CERN made a cloud chamber that simulates Earth’s atmosphere, and tried to figure out where atmospheric aerosols — tiny particles that cloud droplets form around — come from. They discovered that previous theories only accounted for a small fraction of the aerosols observed in the atmosphere. They could account for more when they added cosmic rays to their simulation, but they still couldn’t form a complete theory.

The CERN press release quotes Kirkby:

It was a big surprise to find that aerosol formation in the lower atmosphere isn’t due to sulphuric acid, water and ammonia alone. Now it’s vitally important to discover which additional vapours are involved, whether they are largely natural or of human origin, and how they influence clouds.

The press briefing concludes:

that cosmic
the additional 
been confirmed.

Nothing in the press release quantifies this possibility. Kirkby told Nature News: “At the moment, [our research] actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it’s a very important first step.”

Live Science also talked to Kirkby:

The research doesn’t call into question the basic science of greenhouse gas warming, Kirkby emphasized, but rather refines one facet of the research. … “It’s part of the jigsaw puzzle, and you could say it adds to the understanding of the big picture,” he said. “But it in no way disproves the other pieces.”

None of that stops Solomon from claiming (in the Financial Post — again published with no comment from the actual researchers) that

The science is now all-but-settled on global warming, convincing new evidence demonstrates, but Al Gore, the IPCC and other global warming doomsayers won’t be celebrating. The new findings point to cosmic rays and the sun — not human activities — as the dominant controller of climate on Earth.

Discover’s Bad Astronomy blog responds:

There’s only one problem: that’s completely wrong. In reality the study shows nothing of the sort.

BA goes on to explain why you shouldn’t expect any future research to support Solomon either:

The problem here is two fold: there doesn’t appear to be a large variation in Earth’s temperatures with solar activity, and also that temperatures are rising extremely rapidly in the past 100 years, when solar activity has been relatively normal.

So, who do you think the conservative media outlets go with: science publications that have done the legwork and talked to the CERN researchers, or a long-time global-warming denier who makes unsupported claims in an opinion piece in a financial newspaper?

Do you have to ask?

Fox Business Channel’s Tobin Smith:

We can report tonight the science of climate change is now all but settled. Yes friends and neighbors, and the global warming alarmists have been dealt a wee bit of a blow, right? CERN, C-E-R-N, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious centers for scientific research, has concluded that it’s the sun’s rays, not human activity, which controls the earth’s climate. Now, that, of course, is horrible news for the greenies who’ve used, you know, for years questionable science to justify more and more regulations against fossil fuels like coal and oil, all the while arguing for more and more for the renewable energy sources they just love so dearly. So are the greens prepared to back down now that the science has proved them wrong?

Media Matters collects similar statements from CBN, the Washington Times, and Investor’s Business Daily — all clearly repeating Solomon’s interpretation rather than CERN’s.

So this is what you need to hijack the well-deserved prestige of a research organization like CERN and a journal like Nature:

  • three zero-credibility cranks to “interpret” the research by making stuff up,
  • two newspapers willing to ignore anybody connected to the research, and instead source their articles to the cranks,
  • an echo chamber of news outlets willing to accept the first two papers as reliable sources, do no independent checking, and instead let false claims grow in the telling,
  • opinion leaders in the echo chamber who shift the onus away from the cranks onto their opponents: What’s wrong with those greenies, that they still hold out now that they’ve been proven wrong?

Result? Rank-and-file conservatives hear the same message from multiple directions. When they confidently tell their friends and  co-workers that CERN has proved Al Gore wrong, people who get their news from the New York Times know nothing about it — because an accurate assessment of these tentative results was not deemed sufficiently newsworthy.

And the conservative nods knowingly: It’s that liberal media, constantly suppressing anything that doesn’t fit its biased worldview.