Global Warming: Perfect Storm of Media Sensationalism

Published May 1, 2006

There it was, the perfect storm of misinformation, and I had called it all down upon my own head.

I had just finished reading State of Fear, by Michael Crichton. I was watching the movie The Day After Tomorrow (love Dennis Quaid!), all while doing research for a book about meteorology. Surrounded by a surfeit of truth, half-truth, convoluted half-truth, conjecture, assumption, and outright artifice, I needed a little academic triage to maintain my sanity.

The movie, of course, can be dismissed as mere entertainment. There were lots of the usual personalities, predictable bad guys and endearing good guys, the appropriate number of which die bravely. Still, it is a movie. It is supposed to be entertaining, and we who watch it recognize that our “willing suspension of disbelief” applies to the facts as well as the plot.

Sterner Stuff

State of Fear does not escape the intellectual problems of a work of fiction, but it is still made of sterner stuff. Crichton presents global warming as the faulty creation of environmental extremists, funded by people with marginal understanding of science and promoted by entertainment-oriented media. The book offers footnotes, charts, and references to bolster the conflicting dialog of the characters.

Crichton uses actual, if controversial, data to make his point. The overarching concern in State of Fear is that the current “green” bias toward belief in a manmade environmental catastrophe colors how information on global warming is presented. Here, Crichton and I are in total agreement. Due diligence, on the part of those who present environmental information, is either inadequate or missing entirely. Still, State of Fear is fiction, and its science is flawed for the sake of the story.

There is ample evidence of global warming. There is ample evidence that manmade pollutants, in the form of carbon dioxide and sulfuric and nitric oxides, have and are influencing global warming. However, the belief that fossil fuel emissions are the major component in some looming environmental holocaust is unfounded and deliberately hysterical nonsense.

Politics, Fundraising vs. Science

Environmentalism is a cause that collects money and power only if there is a sense of impending disaster. Too many environmental groups don’t seem to be averse to altering or exaggerating data to create that sense of doom. Activists cite the frequent and devastating hurricanes that hit the United States last year. A scientist will point out that hurricanes, worldwide, have decreased, not increased.

Paranoia and political zeal are no substitute for empirical data.

Consider the following facts from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site. Our global surface temperature has increased by less than 1 degree Celsius since the late 1800s. We don’t know how much of this 0.6 degree increase is due to human activity. We live in the Holocene epoch, in the middle of a warming trend between ice ages.

Glaciers, by definition, have been melting since the end of the last ice age. That melting would naturally accelerate as the centuries of warming continued. We have no way of knowing if accelerated glacial loss is appropriate to this inter-glacial period or not.

While there is a slight trend toward less sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere, the sea ice in Antarctica may have actually increased. We know that the Earth has been through periods when sea levels were much higher than they are now, yet current increases are only two millimeters per decade.

Sun Is Strongest Factor

The sun will always be the primary mover in our climate, yet solar output was considered to be constant until we began satellite study of the sun in the late 1970s. Now we know that solar radiation production is variable to the point of affecting our climate.

What we are calling a manmade disaster may be part of the grand rhythm of global climate change. Our mean global temperature has been greater than it is today, glaciers have come and gone, ocean levels have risen and fallen, and all of this happened before mankind was present or contributing anything to the atmosphere beyond flatulence.

Horror stories of global warming seldom present these facts.

Hubris Inhibits Understanding

The hard, complex, and thoroughly non-theatrical science of meteorology is given inadequate coverage in the media because of hubris. Humans understand much, so we like to think we can control much. We like simple solutions that follow the same pattern as the movies, television programs, and books that we enjoy.

We want a villain who is big and powerful. We want a hero who is the underdog. We want a solution that empowers us all. We like the meteorological story to be easily understood and capable of completion within our two-hour attention, popcorn, and bladder span. Simple solutions work only for simple problems or simple minds, and we have neither.

We need more hard news about weather, climate, and meteorological history. We need to know what it is and what it isn’t. We need to know that computer models can’t show us reality and they will be skewed according to the data given. Socially, we need to understand that money spent on an environmental issue that doesn’t exist is money that can’t be spent on problems that do. I would like to see serious research written in useable form in our best papers and newsmagazines.

Far from being a done deal, the causes, extent, and prevention of global warming are still evolving science and need broader, unfettered examination. This cannot happen if the media presume perfect knowledge on the side of militant environmentalists and deception on the part of those who seek hard data and real solutions.

Louise Butler ([email protected]) has written science curriculum, co-authored a science text for Glenco-McGraw Hill, and received fellowships to study at Harvard University’s Center for Astrophysics and the University of Missouri-Rolla’s Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Institute. This article was first published in the Mensa Bulletin and is reprinted with permission.

For more information …

The paperback edition of Michael Crichton’s State of Fear is available for $7.99 through