Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/10/06/climate_change_articles_survey/

US trounces UK in climate scepticism jibber-jabber

Surprise! Conservative opinion pieces less balanced than liberal ones

By Rik Myslewski

Posted in Science, 6th October 2012 01:24 GMT

A pair of UK researchers have surveyed international coverage of climate scepticism, both during the months following the IPCC's 2007 Fourth Assessment Report and during the late-2009 "Climategate" contretemps, and have discovered that among the six countries' publications they examined, the UK and US had by far the most "articles containing sceptical voices."

The survey results are discussed in an article presented in IOPscience's Environmental Research Letters entitled "Cross-national comparison of the presence of climate scepticism in the print media in six countries, 2007–10" by UK researchers James Painter and Teresa Ashe, of the Universities of Oxford and London, respectively.

Painter and Ashe concluded that "news coverage of scepticism is mostly limited to the USA and the UK; that there is a strong correspondence between the political leaning of a newspaper and its willingness to quote or use uncontested sceptical voices in opinion pieces; and that the type of sceptics who question whether global temperatures are warming are almost exclusively found in the US and UK newspapers."

The pair define "climate scepticism" and "climate denial" as "discourse [that] challenges the views of mainstream climate scientists and environmental policy advocates, contending that parts, or all, of the scientific treatment and political interpretation of climate change are unreliable."

As examples of this discourse, Painter and Ashe cite mathemetician and mining consultant Steve McIntyre's Climate Audit and meteorologist Anthony Watts' Watts Up With That? websites, along with three books by UK authors: accountant Andrew Montford's The Hockey Stick Illusion, journalist Christopher Booker's The Real Global Warming Disaster, and former energy secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson's An Appeal to Reason. They also note the seminal climate-scepticism book by the American reporter Ross Gelbspan, The Heat Is On.

The article details the increasing efforts by researchers to determine the patterns of "uncontested scepticism" in the media. One such study, Painter and Ashe report, determined that "of the three main [US] cable channels (CNN, MSNBC and Fox News), Fox was the most likely to be dismissive of climate change science."

The authors also note that although there have been a number of studies of the "organizational links between climate scepticism and conservative think tanks/business communities" that have "resulted in a tendency to view it as a discourse with conservative affinities," those studies' conclusion have not been tested outside the US.

To begin their research on climate scepticism outside the US, Painter and Ashe first defined three type of sceptics:

To survey coverage outside the US, Painter and Ashe chose both a left-leaning and right-leaning newspaper in six countries: the UK, US, France, India, Brazil, and China – although the left-right balance broke down in that last country. "For obvious reasons," they write, "this was not possible in the case of China."

They then combed through these papers for climate coverage during two periods, the first being mid-November 2009 through mid-February 2010, during which the University of East Anglia "Climategate" story broke, the Copenhagen climate summit took place, errors were alleged in the IPPC's Fourth Assessment, the UK's sceptical lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation was formed, and there was "a cold winter in many parts of the northern hemisphere."

Chart displaying finding from 'Cross-national comparison of the presence of climate scepticism in the print media in six countries, 2007'

Articles containing sceptical voices as a percentage of the all articles covering climate change or global warming,
mid-November 2009 through mid-February 2010

The second – although earlier – period included the months of February through April 2007, which saw the launch of two IPCC reports. This time frame was chosen, Painter and Ashe write, to provide "a sense of whether climate change stories generally involved the reporting of sceptical voices, even when scepticism was not at the centre of the story."

Chart displaying finding from 'Cross-national comparison of the presence of climate scepticism in the print media in six countries, 2007'

Articles containing sceptical voices as a percentage of the all articles covering climate change or global warming,
February through April 2007

Due to the different sizes of the space each newspaper devoted to news-coverage, Painter and Ashe reasoned, the most accurate way to compare country coverage was to determine the percentage of articles that contained any of the three types of scepticism among all articles found that focused on climate change or global warming.

When the data was reviewed in this way, the US carried a far higher percentage of climate-change articles that contained a sceptical voice than did any other country studied during the 2009-to-2010 period. The UK's percentage was also markedly higher than that of any of the other four countries surveyed – understandable due the regional interest in "Climategate" and the series of what Painter and Ashe characterized as the "in-depth features" in the Guardian written by Fred Pearce and covering that controversy.

But what about that IPCC report?

Results were different in the 2007 IPCC report period. Fewer articles in total covered climate change, with the US articles again containing the most sceptical voices, but with China taking second place. Painter and Ashe, however, caution that the Chinese percentage is to be taken with a grain of salt due to the low number of climate change articles found in the two sammple newspapers, People's Daily and Beijing Evening News.

"So again," the researchers write, "we can conclude that even in a period when sceptical voices are not the central media story, as they were for 'Climategate', the USA print media included in this sample contained nearly twice as many such voices as the next country, expressed in percentage terms, suggesting that there is a significant difference between the habits of US climate change reporting and the other countries examined."

Painter and Ashe also note the increase in skeptical voices between the two periods in the US and the UK, rising from 18 to 34 per cent in the US, and from 7 to 19 per cent in the UK.

Interestingly, the study found that sceptical voices were found slightly more often in what Painter and Ashe defined as left-leaning newspapers than they were in right-leaning papers. This distinction, however, is turned on its head when the type of article is part of the analysis: in left-leaning newspapers, more news stories contained sceptical voices than did opinion pieces, and this weighting was reversed in right-leaning papers, where more opinion pieces contained sceptical voices than did news stories.

Also of interest is the fact that the liberal-leaning New York Times ran 14 opinion pieces that included sceptical voices, but all of them also included arguments from non-sceptics. The conservative Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, ran 17 opinion pieces – but "all but one of which was left uncontested," Painter and Ashe report. The WSJ provided not balanced argument, but single-sided certainty.

Finally, the two researchers analyzed the types of sceptical voices as quoted in articles, country by country. "The country variations are notable," they understatedly state, with the US articles far and away more commonly using quotes from Type 1 sceptics – "those who deny the global warming trend" – than do other countries. Painter and Ashe do note, however, that this imbalance is partly due to quotes attributed to US Senator James Inhofe, the author of what can arguably be described as a massively self-aggrandizing book, The Greatest Hoax.

Chart displaying finding from 'Cross-national comparison of the presence of climate scepticism in the print media in six countries, 2007'

Types of individual sceptics quoted in articles, by country

Also of interest is that Type 3 sceptics – "those who accept human causation" but aren't terribly worried about it, don't think climate models are suffiencient, or believe that climate change requires strong intervention – are essentially absent in France, India, Brazil, and China, but are prevalent in the US and the US.

In addition, the study concluded that the UK has an exceptionally high number of quoted Type 2 skeptics: those who do not concur with the thesis that global warming is anthropogenic.

In Painter and Ashe's conclusion – as is common in research work – the authors call for more study, "including the study of other countries such as Australia, Canada, Norway and Eastern Europe, where climate scepticism is known to be prevalent."

From this Reg reporter's point of view, Painter and Ashe's work indicates a number of things – but I'll stick to three. First, the US and the UK are more adept at thrashing out the climate-change debate in public than are other countries, perhaps due to their traditions of printed, public arguments.

Second, the clear difference between the inclusion of both pro and con arguments in opinion pieces published by liberal US newspapers versus the lack of same in conservative newspapers is a reflection of the soft left's tendency to seek balanced arguments even when the current consensus belief among the large majority of the climate-science community points toward the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

And finally, when the IPCC releases the four volumes of its Fifth Assessment Report, with the first volume scheduled to appear in September 2013 and the fourth in October 2014, the debate will heat up again, many more articles will be published in newspapers around the world, and your humble reporter will have an awful lot of reading to do. ®