From then on, the battle was all about dominance of the media. The media are often accused of giving climate-change skeptics too much attention. Indeed theories that cast doubt over global warming with little scientific backing regularly appeared in the press. These included so-called "information brochures" sent to journalists by oil industry lobbyists.
This is partly because the US media, in particular, are extremely keen to ensure what they see as balanced reporting -- in other words, giving both sides in a debate a chance to air their views. This has meant that even more outlandish theories by climate-change skeptics have been given just as much airtime as the findings of established experts.
Media researchers believe the phenomenon of newsworthiness is another reason why anti-climate-change theories are reported so widely. The more unambiguous the warnings about an impending disaster, the more interesting critical viewpoints become. The media debate about the issue also focused on the potentially scandalous question of whether climatologists had speculated about nightmare scenarios simply in order to obtain access to research grants.
Renowned climate researcher Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology rebuffed these accusations in a much-quoted article in the German newspaper Die Zeit in 1997. Hasselmann pointed out that scientific findings suggest that there is an extremely high likelihood that man was indeed responsible for climate change. "If we wait until the very last doubts have been overcome, it will be too late to do anything about it," he wrote.
'Climatologists Tend Not to Mention their More Extreme Suspicions'
Hasselmann blamed the media for all the hype. In fact, sociologists have identified "one-up debates" in the media in which darker and darker pictures were painted of the possible consequences of global warming. "Many journalists don't want to hear about uncertainty in the research findings," Max Planck Institute researcher Martin Claussen complains. Sociologist Peter Weingart criticizes not just journalists but also scientists. "Climatologists tend not to mention their more extreme suspicions," he bemoans.
Whereas the debate flared up time and again in the US, "the skeptics in Germany were quickly marginalized again," recalls sociologist Hans Peter Peters of the Forschungszentrum Jülich research center, who analyzed climate-related reporting in Germany. Peters believes that the communication strategy of leading researchers has proven successful in the long run. "The announced climate problem has been taken seriously by the media," he says. He even sees signs of a "strong alignment of scientists and journalists in reporting about climate change."
Nonetheless, scientists have tried to apply pressure on the media if they disagreed with the way stories were reported. Editorial offices have been inundated with protest letters whenever news stories said that the dangers of runaway climate change appeared to be diminishing. E-mails show that climate researchers coordinated their protests, targeting specific journalists to vent their fury on. For instance, when an article entitled " What Happened to Global Warming?" appeared on the BBC website in October 2009, British scientists first discussed the matter among themselves by e-mail before demanding that an apparently balanced editor explain what was going on.
Social scientists are well aware that good press can do wonders for a person's career. David Philips, a sociologist at the University of San Diego, suggests that the battle for supremacy in the mass media is not only a means to mobilize public support, but also a great way to gain kudos within the scientific community.
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