News outlets are finally allocating resources to coverage of climate solutions, and most reporters are trying to get these complex issues right. Some, however, are repeating the same mistakes that derailed coverage of climate science itself for decades. First of a three-part series.
Steve Zwick has been covering climate issues for more than 30 years, including 15 as managing editor of Ecosystem Marketplace. He currently produces the Bionic Planet podcast, and the views expressed here are his and his alone.
1 February 2022 | Early last year, the Guardian published a story under the following headline:
Research findings that are probably wrong cited far more than robust ones, study finds
The story focused on the work of two behavioral psychologists who’d examined reams of research and concluded that bright, shiny bunk is 100 times more likely to be cited than is bland, boring truth – a ratio that triples in social sciences.
The science editor who wrote the piece dutifully reminds us that the finding “is itself not exempt from the need for scrutiny” but that, historically, “the more dramatic the results, the more likely they are to be wrong.”
Unfortunately, the piece came too late for the Guardian’s environmental team, which had already published a dramatic piece under this headline:
Carbon offsets used by major airlines based on flawed system, warn experts
The Guardian produced that story together with Greenpeace’s Unearthed unit and a nonprofit called SourceMaterial, all of which claimed to have uncovered hidden flaws in the ways carbon markets support forests – flaws that hundreds of scientists had failed to identify over 45 years of research but that a handful of intrepid reporters uncovered in a matter of months.
It’s a compelling narrative, but like those dramatic findings above, it’s also wrong – not because the system is perfect (it isn’t), but because the narrative assumes a perfect solution exists, while the”flawed” system assumes imaginary perfection is the enemy of the good.
Specifically, the system provides a framework within which the best available solutions are implemented while their imperfections are pushed into the light. It supports early action and promotes evolutionary improvement within a mosaic of solutions that the simplistic narrative above not only ignores but undermines.
Nature-based carbon markets have evolved to fill gaps in the broader response to the climate challenge, and those markets adapt as the gaps shift and new solutions emerge. The first generation of nature-based carbon markets, for example, have often served a first responder function to protect the world’s most ecologically valuable and vulnerable forests. As new approaches emerge, however, they’re shifting to a broader approach that was planned from the start but impossible to implement until recently. By ignoring this context, some reporters are generating simple but deceptive narratives that echo the sloppy coverage of climate science that got us into this mess.
Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway documented that coverage in 2010’s “The Merchants of Doubt.” They showed how a “loose-knit group of high-level scientists” driven by “the ideology of free-market fundamentalism” and “aided by a too-compliant media” (emphasis mine) turned the process of scientific discovery against itself to undermine trust in climate science and create a muddled public discourse.
Specifically, as the scientific consensus coalesced throughout the 1980s and 1990s, right-wing ideologues, many funded by ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, plucked outlier voices from choirs of debate, stripped them of their context, and framed honest inquiry as proof of something nefarious. In their narrative, bright shiny charlatans became brave prophets of revealed truth, standing up to an incestuous cabal of eggheads and bureaucrats. Conservative-minded reporters ate it up, and legitimate publications followed suit, drawing more and more outlets into the narrative until “a wide spectrum of the media…felt obligated to treat these issues as scientific controversies.” The result was a decades-long delay on climate action.
Something similar is happening in coverage of market-based Natural Climate Solutions (NCS), with decades-old ideological disputes being framed as newly-unearthed findings and legitimate areas of debate being framed as evidence of something dark and nefarious. This time, it’s not free-market fundamentalists who are contaminating public discourse but others, including ideologues from the opposite end of the spectrum: those who see the market economy as the root of all evil and carbon offsets as a tool for perpetuating that evil. In their view, markets got us into this mess and markets can never get us out.
“One must question the motive for this ongoing reliance on market-based mechanisms, the very system that has led humanity to what is now a point of systems collapse,” wrote Greenpeace last year.
“The environment, and the cultures living in harmony with it, should be the basis for human development and societies; not an item of the market economy,” declared Barzilian NGO CIMI.
I’m no free-market fundamentalist, and I’m even sympathetic to some of these views, but no one’s allowed to support their arguments with findings that are cherry-picked, decontextualized, and distorted.
If the Guardian/Greenpeace/SourceMaterial stories reveal anything, it’s that the climate challenge isn’t a puzzle book with an answer key in the back; it’s a wicked problem that makes COVID-19 look like grammar school arithmetic. As in medical treatments, climate solutions are based on probabilities instead of certainties. They are, by necessity, implemented with incomplete information, and they often work in tandem with other treatments. What’s more, their efficacy is measured against viable alternatives, and not against pet theories, miracle cures, or imagined states of perfection.
But the outlets above tell us to do exactly that with market-based NCS, encouraging us to jettison imperfect solutions that improve over time while endorsing the equivalent of magic bullets and mythical elixirs.
And idealogues aren’t the only ones putting narrative over substance. In the past year, ProPublica and the MIT Technology Review have produced similar content, as have Bloomberg, National Public Radio (NPR), and a handful of others. None of them are making stuff up, but they all present an incomplete and dangerously misleading narrative at a time when the public needs context.
My goal with this series is to provide that context – and not, as it may first appear, to convince you that carbon markets are perfect.
Instead, I hope to put these markets into perspective by showing how they evolved to their current state, how they’re continuing to evolve, and how that evolution addresses uncertainty. I won’t go into deep detail on specific methodologies, but I will provide links to pieces I and others have written. I’ll also try to offer some insight into how market solutions fit into the Jenga tower of interlocking climate solutions, and why the sum is greater than the parts.
I’m offering a broad sweep, and I apologize for not offering point-by-point rebuttals to specific articles. Those do exist. Standard-setting body Verra published this rebuttal to the Greenpeace/Guardian story, while I wrote two rebuttals to a ProPublica piece two years ago — one here and another here. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) published its correspondence with ProPublica after questionable coverage last year, and the American Carbon Registry rebutted a Bloomberg story as well, although it’s not online as far as I can tell.
If I do my job right, those rebuttals will make more sense when you finish this series than they do now, and you’ll be able to distinguish the sensationalist coverage I’m critiquing from the workhorse coverage that comprises the bulk of what’s out there. For me, this is the story of a system that’s managed to emerge imperfect but intact despite decades of neglect from the larger world. Now that the world has awakened to the enormity of the climate challenge, these markets can help accelerate our efforts to meet it, but only if a critical mass of people understand how they work and what their limited role is.
In this installment, I’ll offer my take on how media can run amok in covering complex issues like climate change, with or without ideological bias, and in part two I’ll offer a brief history of Natural Climate Solutions. In part three I’ll introduce a framework for identifying science denial and see how this coverage fits into it.
I cover a lot of territory here, and while I’ve checked a few things with friends, there’s been no formal review. This series isn’t the final word on anything, but rather the opening words to what I hope is a deeper exploration on your part, and it’s opinion, not reportage (although the opinions come from decades of reporting).
Before diving in, however, I’ll offer a brief look at what I see as the fundamental misunderstanding that fuels all muddled coverage of carbon markets.
The Great Conflation: Offsets and Internal Reductions
Most of the people who get carbon markets wrong start out by conflating two fundamentally different questions:
- Will companies use carbon markets to avoid the deep restructuring needed to meet the climate challenge?
- Do carbon markets work?
(A corollary question, which I don’t have space for here, relates to whether we should emphasize reductions or removals. I address that false dichotomy in Episode 69 of the Bionic Planet podcast.)
To the first question: some companies may think they can buy their way out of reducing emissions, but they’ll soon be disabused of that delusion – in part because the price of quality offsets will rise, but also because emerging protocols for what does and doesn’t constitute carbon neutrality emphasize internal reductions. Even if the size of the voluntary carbon market increases 15-fold, as the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets (TSVCM) argues it must, there won’t be enough offsets to decarbonize the global economy. These markets exist to accelerate decarbonization, not replace it. (For details, see “Debunked: Eight Myths About Carbon Offsetting“).
To the second question: yes, carbon markets work, but they don’t always work the way people think they do, and their impact can be subjective. This especially applies to projects that reduce emissions by financing Natural Climate Solutions (NCS), an umbrella term for a broad array of interventions that slow climate change by improving the way we manage forests, farms, and oceans. These involve science-based methodologies that incorporate varying degrees of certainty and uncertainty into their accounting. This ensures environmental integrity, but it also makes the methodologies hard to communicate and easy to distort.
In my view, most of the people trying to undermine trust in market-based NCS are doing so because they don’t trust the answer to the first question – or in some cases because they think we should use markets to punish oil companies instead of finance cost-effective mitigation. There is an argument for a high carbon price to drive change, which I’ll explore later, and I’ve also argued that we should hold purveyors of science-denial accountable for their lies, but that’s a different issue.
Many of those criticizing market-based NCS argue that fossil-fuel emissions should only be offset through industrial Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. CCS includes machines that have meters on them, which theoretically makes for simpler accounting than you get in NCS. I see the argument, and it’s a legitimate debate – one where reasonable people can disagree – but it’s not an either/or situation. It’s a how much of each situation.
I see the mechanisms I’m exploring in this series as dominoes that we’ve been lining up for 45 years, waiting for the world to finally awaken to the enormity of the challenge. With that awakening, we can tip those dominoes to trigger a global restoration of nature, and we can do it fast, but only if a critical mass of people see how this all fits together.
Bottom line: if people want to argue that certain industries should only be allowed to use certain types of offsets, that’s their prerogative. But if they lose that argument, they can’t go trying to discredit market-based NCS with cherry-picked findings and outlier opinions that run contrary to a preponderance of the evidence.
Why we need Natural Climate Solutions
Natural Climate Solutions address some of the most vexing components of the climate challenge. Deforestation, for example, generates 13 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with human activity, and it’s the epitome of a wicked problem, with multiple underlying drivers and no perfect solution.
NCS, as we’ll see, can get us roughly a third of the way to meeting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree C target, but they were garnering just 1 percent of climate-related media coverage until 2018. This changed after a seminal paper called, appropriately enough, “Natural Climate Solutions” put NCS on the map.
Coverage of Natural Climate Solutions
Media now cover NCS, but it’s sometimes a blend of exuberant, unexamined support for nature and condescending dismissal of the financing mechanisms that enable it. In 2019, for example, the Guardian was among several papers gushing over the “mind-blowing potential” of “tree planting” to slow climate change.
That’s a problem, but not because tree-planting can’t help meet the climate challenge.
It can, and it must.
The problem is that all the stories overstated the solution by making claims that are impossible if you do the math while presenting 50-year-old solutions as new and revolutionary ideas. This distracted from a half-century of methodological progress. Any one of those could have provided opening hooks into a deeper exploration of these methodologies, but few did. On top of this, the flurry came a few months after Ecosystem Marketplace published the 2019 “State of Voluntary Carbon Markets” report, wherein experts listed such naively positive coverage as one of the more dangerous developments of 2018.
Because, they feared, naïve coverage would promote naïve demand, and this would encourage fly-by-night tree-planting schemes and embolden “carbon cowboys” – a euphemism for shady operators who claim to offer carbon credits but ignore recognized standards and eschew third-party oversight.
Then the Guardian teamed up with Greenpeace to “investigate” NCS programs operating under methodologies that had evolved over decades of peer review and public consultation, and that’s where it gets weird.
Within NCS, they focused on a cluster of mechanisms and interventions called “REDD+” (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, plus fostering conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries). The term itself is enough to put people to sleep, but it describes an effective yet complex and interdependent array of financing mechanisms that are being used to counter deforestation, albeit not yet at the scale needed and not yet in a way that’s fully integrated into government policies.
Unlike simple tree-planting schemes, which offer nothing in the way of accountability, verified carbon projects follow detailed methodologies that were developed through a public process of peer review and response. Each project, as a result, has its own prepared documentation that describes the design of the carbon credit project (known as project design documents, project description templates, and other terms), that lay out the rationale for the project’s climate benefits as well as the probabilities of the project succeeding (or failing) and the risk management strategies to be undertaken based on those probabilities. This transparency is their greatest strength, but it also makes them vulnerable to cherry-picking and distortion.
Uncertainties are inevitable in carbon finance, as they are in weather forecasting and climate modeling; but while individual projections are uncertain, hundreds will average out to something predictable. Forest carbon project developers use uncertainty levels to adjust the number of credits coming from their projects and buffer pools to provide insurance against reversals from events like forest fires or incursions. Independent, third-party project validators check these uncertainty levels, and the methodologies underpinning these projects are updated as the science improves. What matters to the system is whether the risk adjustments, insurance pools, and buffers prescribed in the rules and methodologies make up for the uncertainty.
Carbon standards are in the midst of major updates right now, with new methodologies out for public consultation and new criteria for verifiers and validators, as well as new training regimes. These updates began years ago and are not, as the Guardian has implied, a response to their reporting. They’re part of the evolutionary process, as are new treatments for COVID-19 and other diseases. Improvements don’t invalidate the earlier generation of treatments, but turning the process of improvement upon itself can do a lot of damage.
Bugs in the System: Our Brains on Science
Every journalist I know agrees we blew it on climate change, and for reasons Columbia Journalism Review editor Kyle Pope elucidated in 2020:
Journalism has always been good at fast. The home team won. An old woman was shot. A president was elected. The quicker a story moves, the more compressed the drama, the better we are at reporting it.
Slow is harder. Stories that contain subtlety, that evolve, that don’t have an ending – those aren’t our strength. Racism, systemic poverty, the long-term effects of outdated policy – these are subjects that we’ve consistently failed to get our arms around. We chase the immediate, the ephemeral, and ignore the seismic, the fundamental.
If you think things were better in the golden days of journalism, check out what New York Sun editor John Bogart said more than a century earlier.
“When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often,” he said. “But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”
This is less a media failure than a bug in the human psyche. We’re drawn to novelty and clear story arcs because they’re how we learn and assimilate information. The problems come when novelty distracts us from boring reality, or when the clear arc is a false narrative.
In academia, they talk of “publication bias,” which means studies that confirm the consensus rarely get published. Scottish psychologist Stuart Ritchie recently bemoaned this phenomenon.
“Scientists [are] dependent on grants to support their research and work in an atmosphere that favors showy and ostentatious findings over workhorse studies that only add small pieces to our knowledge,” he wrote.
Marta Serra-Garcia and Uri Gneezy, who wrote the study I opened with, pointed out that such ostentation contaminates public discourse because “these [wrong] studies are also more likely to receive media coverage and become famous.”
And once they’re famous, they’re dangerous – especially when they get hard-wired into our political brains. Once that happens, they become “zombie ideas,” which Paul Krugman defines as “ideas that should have been killed by contrary evidence, but instead keep shambling along, eating people’s brains.”
Viral Bunk and the Hype Cycle
Nobel laureate Robert Shiller likened the spread of bad ideas to pandemics that erupt when viruses move from a population with high immunity (the experts of academia) to one with low immunity (us) via a vector (media) that converts them into something easily absorbed into the prevailing narrative, spawning a “contagion of oversimplified and easily transmitted variants.”
Former science reporter Ryan Mandelbaum wrote how this phenomenon plays out in bad science reporting:
It’s really not that hard to write a science news story, I promise. Some new scientific results come out, you talk to a scientist on the phone and ask them what they did, then you ask a few other people who know about the research if the results made sense. It’s a lot like, well, any other reporting.
But there’s just something about science news that makes people really, really bad at covering it. Reporters blow single papers out of proportion, publish their own assumptions that the research doesn’t actually support, or plop a super-speculative headline on top of preliminary results. Then there’s the hype cycle, where writers might opt to cover overblown, one-sided university press releases instead of the actual science.
Vox science reporter Brian Resnick wrote about the hype cycle in 2019, when he showed how an academic study on the behavior of lonely investors spawned a flurry of news stories on the perils of urban living. This viral variant emerged as the research passed from a population with high immunity (the academic world) to a vulnerable population (reporters) via a vector (the university’s press department) that had inadvertently caused a mutation in the message.
“Many journalists just follow the lead of press releases,” Wrote Resnick. “If we can’t evaluate the claims of press releases, how can we evaluate the merits of studies (which aren’t immune to shoddy methods and overhyped findings themselves)?”
As he was publishing his piece, a new hype cycle was emerging: the one in Natural Climate Solutions.
As I mentioned earlier, the term Natural Climate Solutions entered the vernacular in a 2017 paper that examined a range of interventions – from planting trees to improving fertilizer management to revitalizing soil – that can be leveraged to meet the climate challenge. The hype cycle, however, began later, when a far less rigorous paper overstated both the potential and the revolutionary nature of NCS. It provided, in other words, exactly the kind of oversimplified variant that goes viral. This is the paper the Guardian gushed over above, and they were far from alone.
To be fair, prominent climate leaders did reference the paper to amplify understanding of NCS, so a reporter on deadline can be forgiven for running with it, but a simple Google search would have led them to the full story. The fact is that afforestation/reforestation (tree planting) was already a mature mitigation approach, and it was underpinned by carbon market methodologies which, as we’ll see in the next installment, had evolved through a long and transparent process of stakeholder review. REDD+ was also mature then, and it includes afforestation/reforestation.
When the hype cycle turned to these mature approaches, the transparency that’s core to their constant improvement became a patch of raw cherries to be picked and offered, context-free, to a newly-woke public hungry for fully-baked pies. Partly as a result, the mood shifted from blind infatuation to abject scorn – with little effort to first understand, let alone explain, the dynamics.
The great tragedy in all of this is that we need informed skepticism from diverse stakeholders. That’s what drives the whole process forward. Both REDD+ and the larger suite of natural climate solutions have evolved substantially over the past 30 years, and they’ve evolved explicitly because healthy critiques drive evolutionary improvement.
But the pieces I’m addressing don’t offer healthy critique. They offer sensationalist headlines highlighting issues that either no longer exist, never existed, or are known limitations in workhorse mechanisms that are functioning in their own little way but being whipped and beaten for not managing to pull the entire load on their own. Infuriatingly, many of those doing the whipping and beating have also done the most prancing and the least pulling.
In part two, I’ll offer a brief history of REDD+ before segueing into a more focused summary of the parallels between bad science reporting and outright science denial.
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