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Environment

Why Was U.S. Science Scared to Challenge ExxonMobil?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyNovember 19, 2007 11:26 PM

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[Note: I had originally planned to publish this post last week, but Cyclone Sidr soon began to consume all of our attention--and rightly so. We will continue to track the storm and its consequences; but starting now, I'm also going to leaven things a bit with blogging on other issues. So, here goes...] My latest Science Progress piece is up--it's about the intriguing new study (PDF) by Max Boykoff showing that the U.S. media is no longer engaging in phony media balance on global warming. Or as I put it, summarizing Boykoff's findings:

The years 2005 and 2006, in particular, saw not only a huge surge in U.S. media attention to climate change at these same papers, but also a decrease in "balanced" (as in biased) coverage, to the point that the papers were no longer significantly out of whack with scientific consensus. One focusing event that seemed instrumental here? The May 2006 release of Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

That's good news, but the Boykoff paper itself unfolds as a kind of compare-and-contrast between U.S. and UK media patterns of global warming coverage--and the U.S. media really come off looking bad as a result of the comparison. As I again summarize:

Consider, for example, that even though Boykoff studied the five aforementioned U.S. papers but only three U.K. ones--The Guardian, The Independent, and the Times of London--he found that the U.K. papers not only never suffered from the "balance" problem, but they wrote more than twice as many total stories as the U.S. ones (although total coverage increased markedly in both nations over the course of the four-year period studied). That's a staggering gap, and it suggests that U.S. news outlets have served us poorly indeed.

But who else has served us poorly? Well, how about the major institutions of the U.S. scientific community? As I note:

When stories were "balanced" in the United States, who tended to get quoted providing the "other side"? Well, a small number of contrarian scientists, many of them tied to conservative think tanks that were, in turn, partly funded by ExxonMobil. This has all been documented exhaustively by now, but for far too long, our media seemed oblivious to the relationship between fossil fuel interest and global warming skepticism. By contrast, the U.K. media got pretty uppity about "Esso's" role. Granted, it helped that the Royal Society, Britain's top scientific organization, sent the oil giant an explicit letter in 2006 challenging its support of viewpoints outside the scientific mainstream. Where was the U.S. National Academy of Sciences or the American Association for the Advancement of Science on this front? We had a much more influential denial machine, but also a scientific establishment that failed to take it on. If the U.S. media got rolled on this story, it's partly because U.S. scientists, as a group (despite stellar individual exceptions), didn't help matters.

Note: I should probably have included the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society here. Great organizations, both--but not equipped to fight in the trenches I guess. In any event, considering what the UK Royal Society was willing to do, I think all of these scientific institutions need to ask themselves: Couldn't that have been us?

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