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Climate Change Deniers Have No Place in Business Reporting
Veteran financial scribes react to CNBC voices denying climate change
Climate change deniers should not be given a place in business coverage at a time when industries from agriculture to insurance are making real financial decisions dealing with its impact, according to some of the nation's top business journalists.
Last month Media Matters reported that more than half of the climate change segments on CNBC this year cast doubt on man-made climate change. That network's coverage drew criticism from top business journalists who said such coverage does not serve their viewers.
"It doesn't seem to me at this point to be a point of serious controversy within the corporate establishment," said Paul Barrett a Bloomberg BusinessWeek reporter (Bloomberg BusinessWeek's sister company Bloomberg News is a CNBC competitor). "The insurance industry, which is a key barometer of these things, has reached the conclusion that whatever your politics are on this, the costs of extreme weather are so great and the patterns over the last couple of decades are so distinct that the corporate establishment absolutely must recognize these risks."
Barrett added, "It's past the point of letting ideology shape the dollars-and-cents calculations that businesses are already making, it is not a question of whether business should do this, business is doing this."
Michael Hiltzik, a veteran Los Angeles Times business columnist, agreed.
"I accept the evidence of climate change," he said. "I don't think I've ever run into a legitimate business leader or business owner in the course of my reporting who doesn't. I think, for the most part, it is settled science and the debate is really over what to do about it."
Hiltzik and others stressed that in business reporting, information is so vital to those running large and small companies that facts have to be on point and disregard political calculations.
"There is no percentage in denying it, there's no point. You can't hold back the tide," Hiltzik said. "It seems to me that denial is basically a political position, it's not a practical position, especially for a business that is in an industry that is going to be impacted by climate change."
With climate scientists in agreement that climate change is occurring and being triggered by human activity, major companies are acknowledging and evaluating the impact of that change on their businesses. Top consulting groups have pointed out that climate change is a major risk to insurance companies, and a 2011 survey found that most investors now consider climate change consequences across their organization's entire investment portfolio.
In spite of this emerging consensus among business leaders that climate change is a real concern for their companies, Media Matters found that 24 of the 47 substantial mentions or segments on climate change in 2013 on CNBC, or about 51 percent, cast doubt on whether man-made climate change even existed. Prominent CNBC figures have claimed that climate change is simple "a scam analysis" by "high priests." More than 14,000 people have signed Forecast The Facts' petition calling urging CNBC's executives to stop their network from promoting climate change denial.
Kevin Hall, McClatchy national economics correspondent and president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, said that CNBC's promotion of climate denial is unusual.
"I don't see a lot of evidence that deniers get a lot of ink," he said. "I think it is in the broader political debate. The insurance industry hasn't waited to see if this is going to be correct or not, they are making certain assumptions, they are acting accordingly, they are not doubting it, their livelihood depends on it."
Keith Johnson, who covers business for The Wall Street Journal, said many companies are looking at "out-year risks" because of the real threat.
"Other than some oil companies that are probably less convinced, by and large whether its coal burning utilities or energy storage companies, or the U.S. Navy, pretty much everyone I talk to is on the same page," he said, adding that reporting "should reflect the real consensus if you have a 97% or 98% of scientists who are of the view that [climate change] is real, it is not a 50-50 split."
Chris Nicholson, who has covered the issue for Bloomberg News, said the evidence is overwhelming and financial reporting must reflect that.
"Most of our reporting shows there's a scientific consensus that climate change is real," he said. "There are dozens of authorities, including NASA, which back that up. Some news outlets may not consider climate change a fact, and if they report an opinion, they believe they need to balance that opinion with an opposing viewpoint. There are outlets that report climate change as a fact and others that report it as though it's an opinion."
He added that, "The more a business is affected by climate, the more its profit gets hit. We didn't find many climate change deniers in the insurance industry. They probably have a commercial interest in taking the risks seriously."
Felicity Barringer, a New York Times reporter who has covered both business and the environment, said bringing in a climate change denier to a business story on climate change serves no purpose when so much evidence is in the other direction: "If there's nobody in the business transaction, no analyst, no banker, no insurance agent who's questioning the basic facts of climate change and the business risks this might entail, I don't see why you need to pull someone else in to question it, it seems kind of irrelevant."
Jack Robinson, Sacramento Business Journal editor and a former Los Angeles Times assistant business editor, said he sees little denying in California business.
"I think that battle's over, I don't see any serious attention paid to climate change deniers," he said about most business reporting. Robinson said questioning climate change is "a very unsophisticated way to practice journalism. If you treat every position no matter how little credibility it may have as though it has an equal voice, you are not serving your audience."
James Madore, a business reporter at Newsday on Long Island, N.Y., has reported on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy as a resident of a town hit severely by the storm. He said it has made denying climate change unacceptable among small businesses he has covered.
"Like a lot of places, climate change is something people think about in the back of their mind, they have read about it," he said. "But then you have a disaster happen, events like this, show there is something to global warming, it is not an isolated incident."