When is a scientific question settled to the point that entertaining further debate becomes not only a waste of precious newsprint but also a diversion from finding a solution to the problems raised by the answer to the question?
Earlier in my journalism career I had to confront this question over whether smoking causes cancer. I worked in Annapolis, Md., and my beat included the tobacco farms of southern Anne Arundel County. At the time, the cigarette companies denied the link and only begrudgingly put warning labels on their packaging. Because smoking was seen as a personal choice (secondhand smoke and public smoking bans were not yet on the health policy radar), I kept my conclusions to myself and instead chatted up the farmers about yields and leaf blight.
But human-caused climate change has implications far beyond personal vices. To dispute the science as either fundamentally flawed or a vast conspiracy among climate scientists to provide job security until their retirement simply hasn’t withstood scrutiny. There does seem room to debate the extreme predictions by some scientists, but the basic idea that human activities are accelerating the pace of global warming in an unsustainable way enjoys the same scientific consensus as the finding that smoking causes cancer.
A local newspaper, however, needs to reflect its community in the conversations it hosts. But in the case of Flagstaff, a university town with an environmental IQ far above average, there aren’t many climate change deniers willing to stick their heads up and take the inevitable flak. Yes, journalism is supposed to give voice to the powerless, but that’s not the same as allowing a small minority to filibuster what is arguably the most pressing problem on the planet. Unlike defeating a personal vice, tackling climate change will take collective, global action that deniers don’t seem willing to contemplate, much less engage.
Does denying a seat at the journalistic table to climate change deniers amount to censorship and political correctness, in the sense that unpopular opinions are being silenced? As I am wont to tell some letter writers, you are entitled to your opinions, but not your facts. Let’s save our breath and get on with saving the planet.
Randy Wilson is editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (928) 556-2254.