I participated in today’s live chat with PBS Frontline producer Catherine Upin and host John Hockenberry. Below are the questions I asked, a couple of them more than once. I didn’t want to be a pest, but I think most of these very important questions about the “Climate of Doubt” program require answers.
[Note: A Heartland tweet that I sent out while watching the program Tuesday night popped up in the chat window — eliciting a sharp response from Hockenberry. I have no idea how or why that tweet ended up in the chat window. I wasn’t logged in to Heartland’s account at the time of the chat. But I did write it — at 10:47 p.m. Tuesday. I regret its tone, impugning the professional honor of Hockenberry, and I apologized — here and on Twitter.]
First, my questions:
Why didn’t you point out that the “97 percent of climate scientists” stat comes from a survey of just 79 scientists by a professor and a grad student?
Why did you ask Fred Singer about the science of second-hand smoke, but then let one of his critics answer instead of Dr. Singer, who was beginning to answer your question?
Why didn’t you ask if the sponsors of Heartland’s climate conference, which you showed on screen, contributed any money to the conference? Only one contributed money — $500 from a small coal industry association.
Why didn’t you ask Heartland if Exxon really was “at one time one of Heartland’s most generous donors.” That is not true. And they haven’t given a gift to Heartland since 2006 — two years before we held our first conference.
Why did your report not explore who funds the environment groups that push climate alarmism, such as Greenpeace as the Center for American Progress? Is it only relevant who funds the skeptics?
You asked the skeptics, “What if you’re wrong?” Why didn’t you ask that to the interview subjects who believe human activity must be re-ordered to save the planet?
CHAT TRANSCRIPT [Answers moved directly under questions even if some chatter separated them.]:
Q: Elizabeth Kolbert: There was just an article posted on the New York Times’ website pointing out that none of the moderators in this year’s presidential (or vice presidential) debates asked about climate change. Many others have pointed out that the whole topic has been ignored in the race. To what extent do you think the sorts of tactics that you looked at in “Climate of Doubt” are responsible for this silence?
A: John Hockenberry: The story that we told is about how a whole series of circumstances slowed the momentum for policy change and then the opportunities created by the recession allowed the skeptics to push their case. In the end by debate time there was enough uncertainty about the profile of this issue to push it below the radar for the debate moderators and questioners. But I can’t speak for the moderators, obviously.
Q: Elizabeth Kolbert: What about the candidates, though? They seem to feel there’s no cost to avoiding the issue, and only a price to be paid for discussing it.
A: John Hockenberry: I think that is precisely the consequence of fear on the part of some GOP lawmakers and a sense of no upside by Democrats. All of that engendered by these political message experts.
Q: Comment From Ron Pate: Do you not know that the 97% claim of the warmists is the result of an ambiguous survey by a MSc student that whittled 3000+ reponses down to 77. 75 of the 77 gave the politically correct answer leading to 75/77 = 97%. Hardly a reassuring endorsement, even if science were to be done by a show of hands.
A: John Hockenberry: It seemed to us that the burden of proof that there is a sizable scientific movement to say that climate change is not worthy of action or that it is not human caused is on the skeptics and they did not meet that burden by a longshot. The peer-reviewed study you cite is only one of the sources on scientific consensus that we offerred.
A: Catherine Upin: The study we cited in the film on the 97% is a peer reviewed study that was published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and we will provide a link to that study. We will link to that study but will let it speak for itself. But our reporting for the film goes beyond that one study. We cite the National Academy of Sciences report, the IPCC 2007 report – and what is known as the scientific consensus goes beyond one particular study. A whole host of scientific organizations have weighed in on this and there are a number of resources we provide on our web pages.
Q: Elizabeth Kolbert: You mention in the program that scientists received Freedom of Information requests for emails they had sent the producers of Frontline. I wonder if you felt any hesitancy on their part to deal with you, for fear of just this sort of thing.
A: John Hockenberry: Elizabeth, we only found hesitancy among some skeptics for dealing with us. One environmentalist had other projects going that conflicted with our schedule. We heard from most of the scientists a sense that speaking out holds unique risks for climate scientists.
Q: Comment From Sean White: What role do you think the internet played in our “Climate of Doubt”? Also, what role do you think the MSM should play in this debate? Have they failed society in covering it?
A: John Hockenberry: The internet clearly helped in distributing all of these messages. Al Gore’s movie benefited from its viral interest on the Internet as did the skeptics. I would say the skill of the skeptics was more responsible than the mere presence of the Internet in spreading the message. As for the media being to blame….. that is always an easy charge but rarely useful in figuring out how to move forward.
Q: Elizabeth Kolbert: Did you get the sense that the constant having to defend themselves was wearing scientists down, or perhaps strengthening their resolve?
A: John Hockenberry: Elizabeth, I am not comfortable characterizing the mood or morale of scientists but we did hear from multiple sources that young students and grad students were openly expressing doubts about their choice to go into climate science based on the events of the past 4 years.
Q: Comment From Tom Barney: Why did you obscure the signature of a very prominent scientist on the Oregon petition while at the same time implying few credentials were necessary?
A: Catherine Upin: Tom, this was a late stage production decision that was not made on the basis of any one individual signature or to make an editorial point. Our focus was on the requirements for signing the petition. In retrospect however we believe that obscuring the signature was a mistake.
Q: Comment From Terry Fife : John Hockenberry, if I understood you correctly, you said there are connections between the Tobacco Industry’s campaign to hide the truth about cigarettes and the Climate Doubters. Did you mean literally, or in the similar style of the campaigns? Thanks.
A: John Hockenberry: I would say that tactics, style, and personell from the tobacco initiatives to influence science and public opinion were all found among these skeptics. It was something laid out for us by Steve Coll of the New Yorker and confirmed by our reporting.
Elizabeth Kolbert: A very interesting look at the connections between the tobacco industry and the climate “skeptic” industry can be found in the book “Merchants of Doubt.”
Q: [A tweet suddenly showed up]: Heartland Institute @HeartlandInst Hey, @JHockenberry. Why didn’t you even call us to ask us about our funding? Isn’t that what honorable journalists do? #ClimateOfDoubt [NOTE: I apologized to Hockenberry for the tone of this tweet — though I don’t know how it got in there since, as noted above, I wasn’t using Heartland’s account at the time. But I stand by the content. And, as you can see below, he grudgingly admitted that omitting the “nuanced” fact that Exxon stopped funding Heartland two years before our first climate conference was a “worthy” criticism.]
A: John Hockenberry: Oh for heaven’s sake, folks at Heartland, that is absurd. I did not personally call you. Our team reached out twice for an interview with your head Joe Bast and was refused. We spoke extensively about funding sources with your colleague James Taylor who appeared in our film. We went to your conference and spoke with your participants. Would you like to discuss whether I am an honorable journalist or who is funding you? I’m confused. We made numerous contacts at Heartland. Say hello to Mr. Taylor for me and thank him once again for his candor.
Q: Elizabeth Kolbert: I was very interested in that group you mentioned Donors’ Trust. I am wondering if you have any sense at all of who’s behind it?
A: John Hockenberry: Elizabeth, Donor’s Trust is like a lot of institutions, they have adopted a private equity model of aggregation of money and privacy of contributions. It is a tactic that is proliferating widely in non-profit fundraising and didn’t begin with Donor’s Trust. What is means to ask: Who is behind them, is a difficult question to answer… and even formulate the ways the laws are structured today.
Q: Comment From Jim Lakely (Heartland): John, I’m guessing James Taylor told you Exxon is not a big funder, stopped giving gifts in 2006 — two years before we held our first climate conference. If not, now you know.
A: John Hockenberry: Mr. Lakely That’s exactly what we got from Taylor and reported it in our film. I guess the nuanced point that the money cut off more than 5 years ago preceded your conference but not your institute is worthy. But I dont’t think you are saying that “Heartland decided to refuse money from the fossile fuel industry after 2006.” If Exxon had offerred I wonder what you might have done? Taylor made it seem as though Heartland had no problem with its Exxon connection and would be happy if they were funders again.
Q: Comment From Julie Fanselow: Please talk about how people of faith (like Katharine Hayhoe, in the program) might be able to transcend the divide we find ourselves in on this issue.
A: Catherine Upin: As Katharine Hayhoe told us in our interview, she convinced her husband, a pastor after they talked and listened to one another.
Q: Comment From Richard Miller, Ph.D. : Dear Frontline, Your journalism is some of the best out there. Your statement, however, — “in the past four years public opinion on the climate issue has cooled”— is inaccurate. Let us look at the best polling by John Krosnick at Stanford University. In November 2010, 75% of US respondents agreed with the statement “World’s temperature has been going up in the past 100 years” and in September 2011 82% agreed with this statement.
Q: Comment From Julie Fanselow: How *do* we move forward from here given the deep divide and the politicization of the issue?
A: John Hockenberry: Julie, I think the planet will answer that question. In many ways “Climate of Doubt” is the story of how difficult it is for a democracy to act in a crisis until the fire is in the stairwell. Coll says it well at the end of our story. Circumstances will move us forward if people on their own, can’t.
Q: Comment From Greg Goodknight: Did any of the climate scientists you chatted with express any doubt?
A: John Hockenberry: Greg, The saddest thing about this story is that we heard mostly absolute certainty and dismissive confidence among our skeptic friends while it was our scientist friends were quick to say that doubt is how science is conducted, people questioning each other’s work all the time. The doubt of the scientists was always real but was always about how much we know about the planet and need to know not about the trend of global warming. Their search for truth and quest to challenge each other’s findings was exploited as “debate” and “uncertainty” by people in the political world. In some ways the scientists didn’t have a chance in this battle… but that is my personal opinion and some of our scientists would not have agreed with me.
A: John Hockenberry: Guys…. I don’t think we should wait but our story is about those mechanisms in our society that would allow us to move forward and they are stymied right now.
A: Elizabeth Kolbert: I think one of the things that’s important to note is that scientists have understood the relationship between greenhouse gases and climate since the 1850’s. Svante Arrhenius, a Nobel Prize winning chemist, did the first calculations of what increasing CO2 levels would do to the climate in the 1890’s. The idea that this is new or untested science is basically ludicrous. The only sense in which there is uncertainty is that the earth is a complicated place and so the effects of warming will be complex. But that the planet will warm — and already has — is really not debatable at this point.
A: Catherine Upin: Richard, there are a number of different polls that ask different questions over different time frames. We relied on polls such as Pew and Yale that tracked the same questions from 2006 to present or 2008 to present. In that time, those polls show a drop-off in both agreement on global warming and agreement on human caused global warming – particularly into 2009 and 2010. The most recent ones from this year have shown some uptick – perhaps as Americans have seen more extreme weather. It will be interesting to see if that starts to change the political discussions.
Q: Comment From Jay Currie: Perhaps, Julie, we wait until the uncertainties which are typical of a very young science are resolved before spending trillions of dollars on “solutions” which may do nothing to actually help (assuming help is needed).
A: John Hockenberry: Jay what would you do besides another study?
Q: Comment From Gary Anderson: What is your opinion about the United States being the only country that has an organized effort to deny global warming?
A: John Hockenberry: USA not the only one. China has an institutional push-back on global warming related to the perception that it is a ruse for the industrialized world to hold China back.
A: John Hockenberry: Thanks everyone, I’ve got to go interview someone about the sensitivity of language in electoral politics. see you next time