As a scientist, I have long been troubled by the way the mainstream media covers science in general and the environment in particular. Long before "global warming" became a watchword and Al Gore started burning tens of thousands of gallons in aviation fuel to lecture people around the world about their profligate energy use, journalists routinely butchered scientifically-focused stories so badly that it would make a high school physics teacher cringe. While many people have been shocked to learn how close the ties between leading global warming alarmists and some environmental reporters are, the only surprise for many of us in the scientific community is that it has taken this long to reveal those connections. For the truth is that global warming coverage in the mainstream media is merely a symptom of a larger disease.
The latest boil to burst forth upon the body of environmental journalism began to fester on Thursday, January 7, when the USEPA announced that it was proposing the latest, greatest and most-badly- needed-ever smog standard. (Officially the pollutant is "ground-level ozone", but we'll stick with "smog" for convenience). Mainstream media outlets everywhere fell over themselves to heap praise on the EPA for imposing a standard that administrator Lisa Jackson described as "long overdue." This lead, from the Chicago Tribune's lead environmental reporter/head Sierra Club cheerleader Michael Hawthorne's January 8 story, was typical:
"Chicago and other urban areas across the U.S. would need to clamp down harder on air pollution under tough smog limits proposed Thursday by the Obama administration, which scrapped a George W. Bush-era rule that ignored the latest scientific advice."
"Latest scientific advice" is, of course, code for "scientific consensus", a phrase that has become all the rage. A funny thing this "consensus"; when it comes to global warming, or the new smog standard, or a host of other environmental topics, consensus: a) doesn't matter, and b) doesn't exist.
Jackson's EPA wants to lower the smog standard for the fourth time since the agency was created. The original Clean Air Act set a standard of 120 parts per billion. It was lowered under the Clinton administration to 80 parts per billion and again, under President Bush, to 75 parts per billion. These Clinton and Bush reductions share a couple of common characteristics: EPA did not pick the lowest proposed number in either case, and the costs associated with each of these new standards played a role in the agency's final decision. Where these two actions differed was in the reaction of the mainstream media. The Clinton-era reduction was hailed as an environmental triumph. The Bush-era reduction, notwithstanding the fact that it was more stringent than the Clinton-era standard, was decried as an environmental disaster.