Given his public diplomacy skills, if Bjorn Lomborg had worked for the Bush-Cheney White House, the world might still be thinking that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This is because there has never been any evidence to support Lomborg’s essential claims about global warming, yet he is still on TV and in the newspapers arguing that global warming is no catastrophe and that the world doesn’t need to prioritize the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. From a perspective that looks at the editorial policies of the major U.S. news organizations as a way to explain the success of both the WMD claims as a casus belli for invading Iraq and Lomborg’s books on global warming, the link between the Iraqi WMD campaign and Lomborg’s climate campaign isn’t far-fetched.
Lomborg in effect began his public diplomacy campaign—to a degree, a polite way of referring to disinformation—on September 10, 2001, which was the official publication date in the United States of his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. The Bush administration launched its public diplomacy about Iraqi WMD immediately after September 11, 2001. Just as the major U.S. news organizations, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, accepted the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction at face value, and uncritically relayed those claims to the U.S. public for years, the U.S. news media, including the Times and the Journal, have supported Lomborg from the beginning (though in different ways and to a different degree). Most importantly, both the Bush and Lomborg campaigns contributed heavily to the lost decade of 2001–2010, when war and not climate mitigation was the policy and press focus. In 2010, we’re still focused on fighting those wars, and still doubting the need to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Relevant to how the news media has ignored serious problems with Lomborg’s alleged scholarship, I have written extensively about how the U.S. news media ignored evidence that existed before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq indicating that Saddam Hussein was unlikely to have a nuclear weapons program.[i] This included reports issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear weapons program shortly after the first Gulf war in 1991, and the March 1999 Amorim Panel report to the UN Security Council. The Amorim Panel, a group appointed by the Council in 1998 to assess the status of Iraqi WMD, reported:
Most of the IAEA activities involving the destruction, removal and rendering harmless of the components of Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme, which to date have been revealed and destroyed, were completed by the end of 1992. In February 1994, the IAEA completed the removal from Iraq of all weapon-usable nuclear material, essentially reactor fuel. On the basis of its findings, the Agency [IAEA] is able to state that there is no indication that Iraq possesses nuclear weapons or any meaningful amounts of weapon-usable nuclear material or that Iraq has retained any practical capability (facilities or hardware) for the production of such material.[ii]
Furthermore, the IAEA itself, pursuant to Security Council resolutions 687 (1991) and 1051 (1996), issued over sixty reports from 1991 to 2003 that documented its successful effort to dismantle and destroy Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.[iii] And in a statement issued on January 27, 2003, the IAEA reaffirmed the findings of the 1999 Amorim Panel report and the IAEA’s own prior reports, and concluded that the declared status of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in 1998 as defunct had not changed during the absence of UN inspectors in Iraq from late 1998 to late 2002.[iv] The major U.S. news organizations ignored or misrepresented these reports, even while compliantly reporting and editorializing that Iraq had a nuclear-weapons program that threatened the United States.
Also on January 27, 2003, Hans Blix, who as head of UNSCOM was the UN’s chief weapons inspector in Iraq at the time, reported:
The implementation of [Security Council] resolution 687 (1991) nevertheless brought about considerable disarmament results. It has been recognized that more weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq] were destroyed under this resolution than were destroyed during the  Gulf War. Large quantities of chemical weapons were destroyed under UNSCOM supervision before 1994. While Iraq claims—with little evidence—that it destroyed all biological weapons unilaterally in 1991, it is certain that UNSCOM destroyed large biological weapons production facilities in 1996. The large nuclear infrastructure was destroyed and the fissionable material was removed from Iraq by the IAEA.
While these pre-invasion findings by the directors of the IAEA and UNSCOM were not ironclad guarantees that Iraq did not have a nascent or clandestine nuclear weapons program or any weapons of mass destruction, they described a history of close scrutiny and the destruction of known WMD programs, while uncovering no evidence that Iraq had any WMD to date. Yet the overwhelming policy and press bias, without ever providing credible evidence, was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and had to be invaded as a result.
In their coverage of the Iraqi WMD claims, the major U.S. news organizations paid little attention to the substantive statements issued by the UN-affiliated inspection teams—the IAEA and UNSCOM—while giving undue credence to the numerous statements of war proponents who argued ad nauseam that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Nor did the editorial pages even invoke the issue of whether a U.S. invasion of Iraq would violate the UN Charter’s cardinal rule prohibiting the use and threat of force by states, except in response to an “armed attack” as defined by international law. And as reward for agitating on behalf of an illegal war grounded in misleading or fabricated factual claims, the likes of William Kristol were rewarded with career promotions, including in his case an invitation from the New York Times to write a regular column on its Op-ed page.
In order to comprehend how the major new organizations in the United States cover global warming, one need only switch the basic categories from the consensus international law that prohibits the use of force to the consensus international science that reports a serious problem with man-made global warming, from the news media facilitating false neo-con claims about Iraqi WMD to conveying false climate-skeptic claims about natural causes of climate change, and from someone like William Kristol who beat the war drums the loudest to someone like Bjorn Lomborg, who insists in seemingly every possible news-media venue that global warming is no catastrophe, and is likewise rewarded with testimonials from Time magazine and the Guardian newspaper.[v]
Whether the issue is war or global warming, the editorial policies of the major news organizations—which are not grounded in standards of enlightened law or science or even in reporting facts—remain unchanged. Writing in the 1960s, the famed New York Times writer, Gay Talese, commented that even “threats to world survival seemed not to disturb the inner peace of the Times’ building.”[vi] The same is true today, at least as judged by the Times’ coverage of major wars and man-made climate change. The Times’ editorial policy?as established over the past one hundred years by its most influential publishers and editors as “impartial” (Adolph Ochs), “non-crusading” (Arthur Hays Sulzberger), and “centrist” (Abe Rosenthal)—which set the industry-wide standard for news coverage in the twentieth century, requires it to avoid taking sides, even when one side reflects an enlightened consensus on the prohibition against aggressive war or the preservation of the climate that made human civilization, as we know it, possible.
This being the case, in their coverage of global warming, many major news organizations, on an institutional level, can’t seem to tell the difference between what the scientific assessments of the UN-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have reported about man-made global warming over the past twenty years, what most of the peer-reviewed published science has reported, and what major climate scientists themselves have said, as opposed to what climate skeptics and deniers, with little evidence, insist is fact.
The New York Times itself is a case in point. In the 1990s, when the Times’ William K. Stevens was setting a high journalistic standard for covering global warming (which in my view hasn’t been matched since) the Times editorial page waffled back and forth about whether global warming was a serious issue requiring serious action, sometimes even in the same editorial, as this November 1993 editorial demonstrates:
President Clinton’s new plan to control global warming looks a lot more like something George Bush would dream up than like anything straight from the heart of Al Gore, the environmental conscience of the Administration. The plan relies heavily on voluntary actions, goes light on regulatory actions and remains silent on the enormously difficult problem of what to do to head off a big increase in greenhouse gas emissions after the turn of the century. Even so, the plan is a reasonable response to a distant crisis whose dimensions are uncertain. This is not an issue on which the President should spend much political or economic capital yet.[vii]
A decade later, with the climate science clearer, the editorial position of the Times, institutionally speaking, is still murky, with generally clear editorial-page support for the consensus climate science and an international agreement on mandatory reductions in greenhouse emissions, but excessively nuanced and muddled coverage by Steven’s successor, Andrew Revkin. Although Revkin has issued a number of important stories that have had the effect of defending climate science, his overall editorial orientation (consistent with editorial policy at the Times), has been to position himself as a climate-change centrist within a left-wing to right-wing continuum, with scientists and environmentalists on the left and climate deniers and fossil fuel industries on the right.
Given the relative predominance of this editorial framework, when Bjorn Lomborg’s 2007 book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, was published in fall 2007, Revkin placed it at the center (in effect with himself) on the left-to-right scale. In an article titled, “Challenges to Both Left and Right on Global Warming,” Revkin began as follows:
For many years, the battle over what to think and do about human-caused climate change and fossil fuels has been waged mostly as a yelling match between the political and environmental left and the right. The left says global warming is a real-time crisis requiring swift curbs on smokestack and tailpipe gases that trap heat, and that big oil, big coal and antiregulatory conservatives are trashing the planet. The right says global warming is somewhere between a hoax and a minor irritant, and argues that liberals’ thirst for top-down regulations will drive American wealth to developing countries and turn off the fossil-fueled engine powering the economy.
Within this context, and because Lomborg (barely) acknowledged man-made global warming while arguing that it wasn’t a pending catastrophe and we needn’t prioritize the reduction of greenhouse emissions, Revkin positioned Lomborg’s Cool It within the “centrist camp” in the “yelling match” between the left-wing environmentalists and the right-wing deniers:
In this same centrist camp sits Bjorn Lomborg. A Danish statistician, Mr. Lomborg has made a career out of challenging the scariest scenarios of environmentalists and argues for a practical calculus weighing problems like poverty, disease and climate against one another to determine how to invest limited resources. His first book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” put him on Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in 2004 and made him a star among conservative politicians and editorial boards. In his short new book, “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming,” Mr. Lomborg reprises his earlier argument with a tighter focus. He tries to puncture most of what he says are environmental myths, like the imminent demise of polar bears.[viii]
Given Revkin’s approach, whether Lomborg’s scholarship had any factual validity is overlooked or irrelevant; the overarching concern is how it can be positioned on an editorial-policy plane that banishes an enlightened scientific consensus to a political edge that is to the left of Lomborg’s “centrism.” The Da Vinci Code symbology here of the former Greenpeace-environmentalist turned centrist-skeptic thus trumps the twenty-year scientific assessment effort of the IPCC and decades of work by reputable environmental organizations. Due to such assessments as Revkin’s (though Revkin isn’t the only villain on this count), the “skeptical environmentalist” scam is well-positioned at the “center” in the climate “debate” between “left-wing” scientists and environmentalists and the right-wing climate deniers.
Like Kristol, who waged a high-profile disinformation campaign in a book, articles, and press appearances on behalf of a U.S. invasion of Iraq, Lomborg is given generous access to mainstream news outlets to repeat assertions about global warming from his books, where his assertions can be described as occasionally accurate, narrowly accurate but misleading, wholly inaccurate, wholly misleading, or fabricated, with the most important claims being the ones most likely to be misleading or fabricated.
To deconstruct Lomborg’s scholarship and his success as facilitated by a number of news organizations, the next four installments of this series will focus on his work as covered by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, as published in the British newspaper, the Guardian, where Lomborg is a quasi-columnist, in the New York Times, and in his response to my book, The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming (Yale University Press, March 16, 2010), that Lomborg posted to his Web site on February 23.
Howard Friel is author of The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming (YUP), and coauthor with Richard Falk of The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004), and (with Falk) of Israel-Palestine on Record: How The New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (Verso, 2007).
[i] See Howard Friel and Richard Falk, The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (New York: Verso, 2004).
[ii] See “Report of the First Panel Established Pursuant to the Note by the President of the Security Council on 30 January 19999 (S/1999/100), Concerning Disarmament and Current and Future Ongoing Monitoring and Verification Issues,” S/1999/356, 27 March 1999.
[vi] Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power (Cleveland: The New American Library, 1969), 7.
[vii] Editorial, “Warming Up to Global Warming,” New York Times, November 6, 1993.
[viii] “Challenges to Both Left and Right on Global Warming,” New York Times, November 13, 2007.