Lois Henry

Tuesday, May 13 2014 06:13 PM

LOIS HENRY: Let's at least keep climate change debate honest

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By Lois Henry

This is probably not worth the amount of work and annoyance it has caused me. But, well, that's kinda my schtick.

I read a Fresno Bee article about a journalism symposium in early April at my alma mater, Fresno State, and nearly went apoplectic.

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The symposium is given every year in the name of the late journalist Roger Tatarian, a Fresno native who reported on the world for the old UPI wire service.

This year's symposium focused on climate change.

Now, I would think if you're going to talk to a bunch of college kids about climate change and the role of journalism, you'd want to show them how such far-reaching, complicated stories have nuances, different sides and ways of viewing them.

Nooooooooooooo.

This was an out-and-out inculcation.

It was a recruitment drive.

The speakers admonished the students not to give equal weight to people on the opposing side of climate change. The "deniers" have no scientific background, said one speaker (not a scientist). Besides, climate change is a crisis and should be treated as such by journalists.

One professor used charts and graphics that I believe were misleading to try and prove his point that the other side uses misleading information to try and debunk climate change theories. Ugh.

I'm embarrassed and outraged that what once was a solid journalism program focused on getting kids to think critically and question everything has become a hot, stinking pile of political goo.

"In some ways we need to discard some of the practices that have been associated with objectivity if we are actually going to do productive journalism," said the main speaker, Robert Hackett, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Oh, boy.

Hackett was followed by Tom Yulsman, a professor at the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism, who showed students charts and news clips that supposedly proved climate change opponents basically have no business being quoted.

Really?

OK, so I don't know what these two fellas consider "productive journalism," but to me it's asking questions, checking information and not advocating for one side or another. (I'm a columnist, so I do have to take a stand, but we're talking about fledgling journalists here.)

I emailed and left a voice mail for the profs, but it was too late to get their comments -- other than Yulsman telling me I'm "despicable" for not talking to him before I wrote my column. (Though he didn't respond to any of the concerns I laid out in my long email to him.)

I suppose that would be despicable, except I obtained a video of the entire symposium. So I saw exactly what was presented to the students.

It was worse than I had orignally feared.

Hackett was more out front in his "call to arms" than Yulsman, repeatedly labeling climate change a crisis and even saying that we need to rethink our approach to democracy and "move beyond the idea that democracy is only about enhancing individual freedom" in order to support "the kinds of limitations and sacrifices we will all have to make to live on a sustainable planet in the future."

Uhhh. What?

While Yulsman didn't tell students how to frame their future climate change stories, as Hackett did, he presented information that I believe was flat-out wrong.

In keeping with the theme that only one side of the climate change debate is worthwhile, Yulsman presented a chart by James Powell that purports to show only two of 10,885 scientific studies done in 2013 cast doubt on the idea that human activities are causing global warming. The implication is that 10,883 studies agree humans are the global warming culprits.

Except when you look up a random sample of the studies in Powell's chart, which I did, you find that the vast majority of them did not study whether humans are causing global warming.

They accept global warming as a fact then look at how said global warming might affect coral growth off the Florida coast, the predictability of African monsoons, possible habitat changes for some animals, whether certain diseases will re-emerge, etc.

What all of that means is that the chart Yulsman showed students doesn't mean bupkis. You'd have to go through every study yourself to see what they actually focused on.

Next, Yulsman showed an article by the Daily Mail about an increase in the Arctic polar ice cap last year. Then he showed a chart that plotted many ups and downs in the size of the ice cap but an overall downward trend since 1978.

"The author cherry-picked data to make a better argument, not to inform you," he told students. "Journalists should give the full picture."

Speaking of the full picture, I found data going back to 1900 on the ice caps which included a warming trend in the 1920s and 1930s, which then reserved and things cooled off again. If you added that more complete data to Yulsman's chart, I wonder what the trend line would look like?

My point isn't to argue that the climate isn't changing. It probably is. And maybe human-spewed carbon dioxide is adding to the trend. I don't know. My point is that no one should shut down one side of a debate on such an important issue.

We will be relying on some of those young journalists to keep us informed in the future. I want to know they know how to ask tough questions, think for themselves and not take information at face value -- even from their professors.

I would also mention, though the two professors did not, that well-known climate scientist Judith Curry, who absolutely believes in climate change, told Congress in January that the science is not "settled" and there are far more questions to be asked at this point.

Well, at least someone has the right idea.

Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 395-7373 or lhenry@bakersfield.com. Her work appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.

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