TCS Daily

"Climate Risk to Million Headlines"

By Louis James - January 12, 2004 12:00 AM

The usually staid BBC ran a rather sensational (if somewhat grammatically challenged) headline, "Climate risk 'to million species'," on January 7, 2004, announcing a global warming "study" in the journal Nature. The lack of words like "possible" or "may" might be excusable if the headline were in a print publication, where ink costs money, but it would still make the headline wrong. Such inaccuracy is inexcusable in a broadcast/web publication, no less so because many other news sources showed the same lack of objectivity covering the same story.

Even the enviro-alarmists in question do not say a million species are at risk of extinction, just that their study suggests that they could be in the next half-century. Their study also suggests that it could be only half as many species. No mention is made at all that the study is based on certain assumptions, such as those that underlie the "minimum expected climate change" by 2050.

Expected by whom? And why?

As much as global warming fear-mongers wish it were otherwise, there is a debate about whether or not global warming is a genuine phenomenon, how much, if any can be expected, and what its causes might be. The Union of Concerned Scientists says, "Global warming is real and under way." But their membership includes anyone who wants to join, so it's hard to say how many of their 100,000 current members are actually scientists. Letters and declarations against hastily enacted laws and treaties to combat global warming are numerous, and at least one was signed by 17,000 U.S. scientists (the 1998 "Oregon Petition"). That certainly counts as debate.

This is not to say that the earth's climate doesn't change, nor even that many species of plants and animals may not be in danger of extinction. What is important to make clear, however, is that climate change is not yet well understood, and it is far from certain that man's activities have much to do with any current trends. There are even theories suggesting that man's activities are softening the impact of current trends.

What about the theories of the Nature study authors? According to Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) Senior Fellow Iain Murray, "...the theory upon which the entire article rests has been itself thoroughly disproved. The authors used a theory from 1859 that the absolute area of animal habitat controls the number of possible species, despite ample proof in recent years that that simply isn't true. Without that connection, any predictions about actual extinction rates are hogwash."

Now, the BBC may not want to take CEI's word for it on this, but surely they should refrain from reporting the suggestions found in controversial scientific studies as though they were facts. Granted, the BBC did open their actual column with: "Climate change could drive a million of the world's species to extinction as soon as 2050, a scientific study says." [Emphasis added.] This is less scary than the headline, though still painting a speculation with the authority of "science," and doesn't undo any of the harm caused by the misinformation passed on in the headline to people who don't bother reading the body of the article.

That body is fairly straightforward, reporting on what the study covered, how it was conducted, examples of the species that might be affected, etc. The article's conclusion, however, returns to tabloid scare tactics:

Dr Klaus Toepfer, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme, said: "If one million species become extinct... it is not just the plant and animal kingdoms and the beauty of the planet that will suffer.

"Billions of people, especially in the developing world, will suffer too as they rely on nature for such essential goods and services as food, shelter and medicines."

The idea that billions of people (that is a minimum of 2 billion, or one third of the planet's current population) will be subsisting on "nature," like primordial hunter-gatherers transported through time half-way through the 21st century, seems more than a little improbable. That such people would prefer to live that way than shopping in grocery stores seems implied, and that it is wrong for them to have to adapt to new circumstances seems to be the message between the lines.

Perhaps, if the article were an editorial, closing with such gloomy thoughts -- based on the worst case scenario, just like the headline -- would be understandable. In that context, it is understood that the author is trying to present a certain perspective. In a news report, however, closing on the most overblown prophesies of doom is downright irresponsible.

Louis James is CEO of Free-Market.Net and Senior Vice President of, an educational organization focused on teaching young people about liberty.


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