Global Warming, Koch and NOVA

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

Two brief letters in my mailbox last week from viewers in Iowa framed an issue for me on a crucial subject—coverage of climate change and global warming and the human contribution to both—that has bothered me for some time but is hard to address with any strong sense of certainty.

Here are the letters:

BRAVO! Your 12/2 report [on the PBS NewsHour] of climate change was clear, concise, accurate, positive and upbeat, but realistic in defining the dangers we face. I hope you will continue to report on this most critical issue. A segment each night would be appropriate.

Beth Simon, Mt. Vernon, IA

~ ~ ~

I am writing to you to express my disappointment that the premiere science show on television, NOVA, does so little to cover the number one science challenge to humanity, global climate change. I am sure you will say that it has been covered (twice in the last two years by my count), and that David Koch's sponsorship has nothing to do with this lack of coverage. I cannot prove that there is any connection, but the continued lack of coverage of this important subject is proof enough that the insidious influence of big money has had the desired effect, much to the detriment of me and all the other members and viewers of PBS. Thank you for your consideration.

Carl Homstad, Decorah, IA

My Thoughts

First, I agree with the writer of the first email above. The Dec. 2 NewsHour segment, reported by correspondent William Brangham, about “why 2 degrees Celsius is climate change’s magic number,” was, I thought, well-done, straight-forward, informative and very timely, coming as it did as more than 150 countries were meeting in Paris to try to reach agreement to “limit the carbon emissions that the vast majority of scientists say drive global climate change,” as co-anchor Gwen Ifill put it in introducing the segment.

That’s the easy part. The second letter isand has been for me for many years nowthe hard part; trying to assess NOVA’s coverage of this issue. Global warming, and man’s contribution to it, is arguably the most important of our time, and perhaps for all time. Nobody can be sure of what will happen, or when, or what and how much various factors will have played. But it could be catastrophic. So it is a preeminent issue for mankind. And the award-winning PBS science series NOVA is, arguably, the preeminent, most important and most popular science program on television, and has been for many years.

But I get a handful of letters every year like the one above questioning NOVA’s coverage and my gut tells me this remains a continuing, perplexing but legitimate issue. I have written about this a couple of times before, most recently in June of last year.

At that time, it was a letter from a viewer in Minnesota who wrote, in part: “If there is a discussion on CLIMATE CHANGE, I must have missed it. It is without doubt the most important issue of the day and humanity's continued existence depends on our — quickly addressing it…I suspect DAVID KOCH's fingerprints are all over this failure…I'd be interested in reading why you have so little on climate change when life on our planet is in such peril.”

I responded this way: (Ombudsman's Note: The PBS science series NOVA did a good program called "Extreme Ice" about the Greenland ice sheet. But that was five years ago. It has aired a couple of times since then, most recently last December. There have been some other efforts to address climate change elsewhere on PBS, including the NewsHour and Frontline. But NOVA is PBS's premier science program and it appears to me that there has not been a strong, timely, in-depth television presentation that goes right to the heart of this crucial issue—climate change and the contribution of human activity to global warming—despite its importance and the intense political divisions and high stakes surrounding it. A memorable and authoritative program is needed, it seems to me, that does not pull any punches, reports what the science shows, identifies the forces who deny such outcomes and analyzes those arguments.)

I still feel that way and so I forwarded the current email from the viewer in Iowa to NOVA for a response.

NOVA’s Senior Executive Producer, Paula Apsell, Responds

NOVA’s long record of reporting on this issue began with one of the very first documentaries on global warming, The Climate Crisis, in 1983. In 2000, NOVA collaborated on a landmark two-hour co-production with Frontline, What’s Up With the Weather?; since then, NOVA has produced a dozen shows that focus on climate change or sustainable energy use.

Among the dozen, Dimming the Sun won the prestigious Grantham Foundation Prize for Environmental Journalism in 2006, while Extreme Ice took a particularly dramatic look at the rapid acceleration of melting ice caps and glaciers in the Arctic; both of these shows were among the highest-rated, most watched NOVAs in the seasons in which they aired. Saving the SunBeating the Heat, and The Big Energy Gamble all looked at new strategies for energy use in an era of warming climate. Secrets Beneath the Ice investigated the long-term climate history of that continent specifically to predict and assess the impact of future global warming. NOVA also produced four shows on natural disasters in which substantial attention was paid to how climate change is increasing the risk of future severe events, ranging from landslides in the Himalayas to extreme storms such as Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. This summer, NOVA aired Lethal Seas on ocean acidification, a topic that has been relatively neglected by the media, while in January we are presenting Mystery Beneath the Ice, an investigation of why climate change is leading to a steep drop in the population of krill—a cornerstone of the oceanic food chain.

Finally, we are currently preparing a funding proposal for a major four-part series on climate change that will explain the basics of climate science and explore the technology and policy choices that may help lead us to a more sustainable future.

In addition, over the last couple of years, NOVA Online’s blog NOVAnext has published twelve major feature pieces on climate change and eight news posts that draw attention to news and breaking research related to climate change. NOVAnext recently gathered its coverage into a special web page dedicated to the topic called The Changing Climate. See: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/storyline/changing-climate/

Please note that NOVA’s funding from the David H. Koch Foundation involves no consultation whatsoever between officers of the Foundation and NOVA’s producers about either the choice of shows that we decide to commission or the content of individual programs.

The total list of climate change NOVAs is as follows: The Climate Crisis (1983), Hot Enough For You? (1989), Warnings From The Ice (1998), What¹s Up With The Weather? (2000), World In The Balance: China Revs Up (2004), Dimming The Sun (2006), Saved By The Sun (2007), The Big Energy Gamble (2009), Extreme Ice (2009), Secrets Beneath the Ice (2010), Power Surge (2011), Inside the Megastorm (2012), Megastorm Aftermath (2013), Killer Typhoon (2013), Killer Landslides (2014), Lethal Seas (2015)

Further Thoughts

That is a helpful and detailed response. But I wrote back saying, in part: “I have seen most, maybe even all, of these programs [of the past five years or so]. They are all of high quality and they deal, in part and contextually, with climate change as a factor in whatever the main subject is. But my sense [remains] that Nova, certainly in the past several years, has not done a single, comprehensive, focused broadcast devoted to the crucial issue of man-made global warming/climate change, the science surrounding and supporting it, the challenges to it, and the debates that have been raging over this for these many years. If I'm wrong, please give me your response.”

Not surprisingly, NOVA thinks I'm wrong, and Apsell's second response is included at the end of this posting.

In my part of this exchange, I emphasize “broadcast” because it is the television program, rather than online content, that is my focus and the focus of those many viewers who, over the years, have written to me about one thing or another on NOVA.

The Koch Factor

As for David Koch, that, too, is complicated, in my opinion, and not so easy to draw clear-cut conclusions. But thinking about Koch is unavoidable when trying to think about NOVA and man-made climate change. I’ve written a number of times about Koch and this combination.

The David H. Koch Fund for Science is a major funder of NOVA. He has been a member of the Board of Trustees of WGBH in Boston, NOVA’s presenting station and top PBS producer, since 1997 and has been a supporter of the station since 1982. According to a report last year in Current, the public broadcasting news organization, he has donated $18.6 million to the station, more than half of which has gone to NOVA. Koch is a graduate of MIT with a longtime interest in science and engineering and he and his brother, Charles, are among the country’s leading philanthropists.

As NOVA’s Apsell states above, there is no consultation with or by Koch on NOVA choices and programs, and there is no evidence, at least that I have knowledge of, that he has sought to interfere or influence coverage. PBS and the station also argue that it is important to have a diverse spectrum of “pursuits and viewpoints” on their boards, as in their viewership, which seems reasonable.

On the other hand, David Koch is not your average mega-billionaire. He is politically active and a major funder of those who “dispute the scientific consensus on climate change,” as Bloomberg reported last month. The report said: “A loose network of 4,556 individuals with overlapping ties to 164 organizations do the most to dispute climate change in the U.S., according to a paper published today in Nature Climate Change. ExxonMobil and the family foundations controlled by Charles and David Koch emerge as the most significant sources of funding for these skeptics. As a two-week United Nations climate summit begins today in Paris, it's striking to notice that a similarly vast infrastructure of denial isn't found in any other nation.”

So, as I’ve speculated before, that leaves the possibility that some internal self-censorship is at work somewhere along the producing chain, given the well-known views of David Koch and the dimensions of his support for those views and for NOVA.

Or it may be that the sense that some viewers have—and that still troubles me as well—that the human link to climate change and global warming has not really been confronted head-on by NOVA in recent years, when the political debate has been intense, is simply incorrect, and therefore the Koch funding is not a factor.

I yield the last words in this rather lengthy exchange and column to the additional response of NOVA's Apsell:

A Further Response from NOVA

The record of NOVA programs unequivocally demonstrates our commitment to covering the impact of climate change in every broadcast season since 2009 and in seven shows before that. As a science series, it has long been our approach not to wade into the highly politicized and polarized policy debates around global warming but to stick to the science. Over the past few years, we have made a deliberate choice to focus our programs on the consequences of climate change — ranging from intensifying storms to sea level rise, landslides, ocean acidification, and more. We’ve done this because our experience tells us this is the most effective strategy of communicating environmental issues to the broadest possible audience and making viewers care about them. You may disagree with our judgment on this approach, but it’s simply untrue to say that NOVA has avoided tackling the subject of climate change.

Having said this, over the last year we have decided the time is ripe for a broader approach. Public awareness and concern have grown to the point where we now believe a multi-part series on the science of climate change will resonate with a large audience and will help clarify some of the key scientific issues which have been so muddied and distorted by the political process. That’s why for the past several months we have been crafting a proposal for a NOVA miniseries that will explain the basic science, look back at past lessons from the climate record, and explore future solutions.

As a matter of policy, WGBH does not share levels of donor contributions. However, we have stated many times over that David Koch's funding is totally irrelevant to our choice of programs, as is the contribution of every other funder. As you know, there is a long-established editorial firewall in place between program-makers and funders at both WGBH and PBS. This has never been breached on my watch at NOVA and never will be. It greatly concerns me that anyone would think otherwise, especially in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. Thank you very much for the opportunity to respond.

Posted on Dec. 11, 2015 at 10:24 a.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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