Accepting Global Warming as Fact: 'It Helps That the German Media Is Less Strict about the Division between Editorials and News Than the News Media in the United States.'

By Becker, Markus | Nieman Reports, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Accepting Global Warming as Fact: 'It Helps That the German Media Is Less Strict about the Division between Editorials and News Than the News Media in the United States.'


Becker, Markus, Nieman Reports


When Ross Gelbspan spoke about the aftermath of his recent op-ed in The Boston Globe, his comments provoked deep astonishment. As he put it, his article exploded onto the scene at the end of August, sending shock waves through the U.S. media. Angry letters to the editor poured in to the Globe, while Gelbspan himself went on the talk show circuit.

When Gelbspan told this story to a group of visiting German journalists, I among them, we were perplexed. What on earth had this man written to cause such an uproar? The answer was this: In his op-ed, entitled "Katrina's Real Name," Gelbspan, author of "Boiling Point," had claimed that 1. global warming exists and 2. not only does it exist, it even has definite, tangible effects, such as more powerful hurricanes. [See article by Gelbspan on page 77.] When we heard this, confusion gave way to utter bewilderment. For the average German media consumer, this would have been about as shocking as declaring that the world is round.

Cultural differences might well be at play here. After all, Germans are known for obsessively sorting their household waste into plastics, metals, glass, paper and compost and placing it all in separate, different colored plastic bins. The glass--and most Americans think this is a joke--is further sorted by color and tossed into neighborhood containers-but no later than 7 p.m. please, to keep the noise down. Anyone who accidentally tosses regular garbage in with the recycling is asking for serious trouble with the neighbors. And when a hurricane drowns a city like New Orleans, the German environment minister blames the U.S. government for contributing to the catastrophe with its misguided environmental policies.

Anecdotes like these are not the only examples of the depth of concern in Germany about global climate issues. For almost 50 years, conservatives, social democrats, and liberals had shared power in democratic, post-war Germany. The first party to establish itself as a fourth political power in Germany since 1949 was the Green Party, which formed a governing coalition with the social democrats from 1998 to 2005 and pursues an environmental agenda mixed with left-wing and pacifist ideas.

The environmental threat posed by global warming rouses the German public's emotions far more than the political aspects of climate change. Domestic environmental protection regulations and the Kyoto Protocol have generally bored German readers and will probably continue to do so--that is, unless President George W. Bush tries to use the climate agreement to boost his popularity in Europe.

By contrast, the U.S. media pay far more attention to the domestic and foreign policy implications of climate change than its environmental consequences. This could also have to do with public sentiment. When Roland Emmerich released his disaster blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow," conservative commentator Steven Milloy labeled him an eco-extremist. "The movie's unmistakable purpose is to scare us into submitting to the Greens' agenda," Milloy wrote on the Web site for Fox News. And this agenda has but one purpose, "domination of society through control of energy resources."

Incidentally, Milloy's primary employer is the neoconservative Cato Institute, which receives much of its funding through corporate contributions. That he is even allowed to write a column on climate policy for mass media distribution under the circumstances--even for Fox News--is interesting in and of itself, but Milloy is not the only vocal skeptic of climate issues that the lobby/institute has managed to slip into the mainstream media. More on that later.

The sheer number and nature of letters to the editor that are sent to mass media publications such as Spiegel Online demonstrates how passionate the discussion of environmental conservation and climate protection is in Germany. This makes it all the more important that we use the most reliable and credible sources for our articles and that we pay attention to the majority opinion in the scientific community.

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