NPR’s Harris Falls Flat in Climate Talk

By Ke Ding

Given Richard Harris’s background, I had high expectations for his Wednesday, October 20 talk in Filene Auditorium on climate change and its accompanying media narrative. Mr. Harris is very qualified to lecture on both subjects: He graduated as valedictorian from his class at UC Santa Cruz with a major in biology and is a highly respected journalist covering scientific issues for NPR news. I was looking for some fresh insights from an obviously smart guy. Unfortunately, the lecture was disjointed, unfocused, and ultimately not very informative.

Richard Harris is NPR’s resident climate reporter, apparently a more secure position than NPR’s Juan Williams slot.It started off promisingly. Mr. Harris began with an initial briefing on climate change in the Arctic, explaining that the media may have exaggerated the nature of the impact of global warming there. He talked about the changes he’s noticed in how we think about climate change and how the media talks about it. One such change is that it has become much more tangible, whereas “in the 1980s it was a much more abstract concept.” Somewhat breaking the flow of his presentation, Mr. Harris recounted a story about Virginia Attorney General Cuccinelli’s investigation of Michael Mann for fraud relating to the “hockey stick graph,” a graph of questioned accuracy portraying a dramatic and unprecedented rise in global temperatures in recent years, which was later found to be missing some key variance adjustments. Cuccinelli asserted that the graph was an act of fraud on which Mann based his career. Mr. Harris ended the story there, promising to come back to it. 

He then began to talk about his frustration over the fact that the debate still refuses to move beyond the science. “When all the data began coming out, I remember thinking, Okay: the thing that we’re going to start worrying about is how to deal with this problem.”

But that didn’t happen; many Americans still believe that the scientists are wrong and that global warming is a myth. Harris blamed the blogosphere, and political bias, lack of knowledge amongst the public, and a psychological determination not to confront the problem. 

It would have been interesting had Mr. Harris then delved into a deeper discussion of the media environment or the political climate that may have caused this state of things, but he left it at that, and instead moved to hedge his statement. “With that said, there is no problem with asking open, honest questions about the science.” He also noted that as we develop bigger, more inclusive, and more advanced models of climate change that take into account more variables, the uncertainty will only get larger, referencing the scientist Kevin Cranburgh.  Harris also made the case for scientists to stop indiscriminately blaming disasters on climate change, because it is “irresponsible and contributes to public suspicions of scientists’ findings.”

Mr. Harris shifted gears again and talked about the necessity of a “third way” in the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, in keeping with the lecture’s chronic lack of detail, Harris did not make clear what such a third way would be. A reference to the agricultural revolution in the US that increased yield somehow transformed into a couple of notes about the state of international cooperation on climate change, with Harris noting that the US contributes to only 20% of the problem, and India and China contributing a growing share to carbon emissions. Nothing new there, however.

Having covered a lot of ground in the discussion without having said much of anything, and with time running out, Mr. Harris concluded that the key point of his presentation was that there really is no point arguing with the science. In support of this point, he asserted that in arguments between creationists and Darwinists, creationists always win, though The analogy was a bit heavy-handed, and delivered with not a little bit of smugness. His final few jumbled points were as follows: 

1) Framing the debate is important: calling efforts to reduce energy enterprises in “efficiency,” rather than “working on climate change,” may reduce resistance to climate measures.

2) Scientists should focus less on agenda: the shrillness and stridency of the message have probably done some harm. 

3) The world needs decision-makers who make their decisions regardless of the latter’s popularity. 

And thus ended the meandering presentation, which never delivered the promised resolution of the Michael Mann incident, and which had covered several ideas (many of which were obvious) but had explored the nuances of none. 

Of course, there was applause at the end of the lecture anyhow, as Harris was effectively preaching to the choir, and had said nothing potentially controversial (or very interesting). 

The question and answer section was almost as disappointing: In response to a question posed by this author about balancing growth and sustainability (in terms of reducing emissions while trying to bring countries out of poverty and growing the burgeoning middle classes of developing countries such as India and China), Harris responded in a nutshell that “…Clean technology. Cleaner sources of energy-The key is technology and sources of clean energy.” I hoped that he would perhaps talk about the ways to develop these sources of clean energy, or perhaps the sacrifices and conflicts that may arise, but he did not, instead taking the rather obvious, skimming the surface, and meandering his way to a milquetoast answer that was disappointing and in so many ways representative of the whole presentation. 

The thing was so lackluster not so much because of the quality of the intellectual as because of the presentation. Harris periodically showed flashes of erudition and intelligence; it was just such a shame that these things never really got to flex with meaty, interesting topics. The topics of climate change and media perception certainly provide ample opportunity for insight, but instead Mr. Harris just barely touched the surface and did so mostly in a very, very predictable way. Perhaps the audience had something to do with it as well; a man sitting next to me nodded his head vigorously when Mr. Harris mentioned the fact that some Republican candidates still deny global warming. The man then shouted out: “So what do you think about that?” I was actually hoping that Mr. Harris would respond and maybe provide a bit more depth into his views in the matter, but instead, he just skipped ahead (or right, or left, or any which way, since there really wasn’t much structure in the thing) in his presentation. The lack of structure was a fundamental flaw, as problematic as the lack of depth. 

I would have loved to hear Mr. Harris’s in-depth views on the current political climate, the forces at work that make radicalization more and more common in this country, what’s driving people’s distrust of the media, or even the technicalities of the science on global warming (since at least I’d learn something in the process). It’s an enormous, controversial topic about which something really fantastic could have been presented. Instead, Harris delivered an entirely bland, entirely predictable and entirely uninteresting disappointment.