kriSten Flint ‘14
The Hottest Debate of the Decade
lobal warming has been a point of contention in our society for years, and the extreme views from both sides of the argument have transformed the subject of global warming from a factual theory into a mythical idea. At one extreme, those who consider themselves “green” bemoan the tragedy that man is causing our planet’s climate to heat up while the other side of the debate refuses to believe any part of the global warming theory. Behind both opinions, there is often confusion, misunderstanding, and a general lack of knowledge. The theory that global warming has anthropogenic causes has existed for over a century, and scientists have collected evidence on global warming for over fifty years. In spite of the evidence, the public generally lives in the dark, constantly wondering if global warming is fact or fiction. Global warming is the increase in the Earth’s temperature caused by increased emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (1). The greenhouse
gases, including CO2, form a blanket in the Earth’s atmosphere that traps heat and causes global temperatures to increase (1). This theory of global warming was first offered by a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius in 1896 (2). Arrhenius estimated that “doubling the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise the mean global temperature by several degrees” (2). Even then, his audience was skeptical as many other factors could also affect global temperature. Since Arrhenius’ paper, the global warming discussion has grown convoluted as both scientists and the media have addressed the subject. Scientists track climate change and publish their evidence, but then the media hypes it up in its articles to the public. To add to the confusion, the public tends to avoid thinking much about the topic unless extreme weather occurs unexpectedly. However, despite overwhelming opinions, there are facts to support both sides of the debate.
Media vs. Science
The greatest source of confusion about global warming comes from the media. During periods of natural disaster—earthquakes, floods, hurricanes— the media reports more heavily about the existence of global warming. At other times, and in certain regions, the media stops discussing global warming completely. When global warming first came to the forefront of science, politics, and our culture, scientists were the main sources of information for the media (3). More recently, the sources have changed to interest groups and politicians rather than those directly researching the topic (3). For example, in 2006, Al Gore created the well-known documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” to relay certain facts and predictions about global warming. His documentary made over $49 million, reaching millions of people and starting more conversations about global warming (4). Its success outweighs the success of most
Image courtesy of Robert Simmon/NASA.
During the decade between 2000 and 2009, average surface temperatures increased by as much as two degrees Celsius in certain locations over benchmarks recorded between 1951 and 1980. FALL 2011 15
papers published in scientific magazines because it reached such a vast audience (4). The politician replaced the scientists as the informer of the public. This mixing of sources from scientists and politicians has caused the media to convey a greater sense of uncertainty about global warming. PhD student Jessica Durfee and associate professor Julia Corbett from the University of Utah department of communication studied the public’s response to articles about global warming that used conflicting sources. Durfee and Corbett made up four versions of a news story based on a scientific article that suggested some uncertainty about global warming. Several people read each version, which differed in the amount of controversy and context they included, and then took a survey about their certainty of global...