Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Climate Change and Lake Michigan

A recent scientific conference detailed all the problems -- and got no coverage from the Journal Sentinel.

By - Jun 3rd, 2014 01:50 pm
Algae bloom on the Great Lakes.

Algae bloom on the Great Lakes.

Comedian John Oliver recently did a hilarious piece on the issue of global climate change, culminating in a “statistically representative” debate on the issue, with 97 scientists arguing that climate change is occurring and 3 scientists disputing this who got drowned out by the throng. His point was that climate change was a fact on which there was an overwhelming scientific consensus, yet the media continues to treat this as a “belief” about which scientists disagree.

Oliver had fun ridiculing TV news shows featuring one-on-one debates, but you could make the same point about the state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which routinely runs opinion columns by those on both sides of the issue, while doing little to report the facts. That seems a remarkable oversight, given the huge impact climate change is having on Wisconsin and others in the Great Lakes region.

Last month there was a conference of scientists at Wingspread in Racine to discuss the issue of “Great Lakes Restoration and Climate Change,” which received not a word of coverage from the Journal Sentinel, although the facts presented were alarming for anyone who cares about this issue. That should arguably include everyone on this planet, given that the Great Lakes contain about 21 percent of the world’s and 84 percent of North America’s freshwater. And it would seem to be a golden opportunity for Dan Egan, the JS Great Lakes reporter, probably the only full-time reporter handling this beat in America, to update us on what is going on.

“The overarching conclusion from the event,” the conference report notes “is that the impacts of climate change are already urgent and consequential in the Great Lakes system.”

The current and future impact cited by experts includes:

-Warming of the lakes’ water, less ice-cover and more evaporation, which has contributed to Lake Michigan’s water level declining five feet;

-Increased variability in temperatures and precipitation, drops in dissolved oxygen, more extensive harmful algal blooms, exacerbated flooding (Milwaukee has experienced five 100-year or greater storm events since 1990), increased nonpoint source pollution, and more combined sewer overflows;

-More frequent and intense rain events are predicted to increase coastal erosion, increase nutrient and sediment runoff, overwhelm existing wastewater containment and treatment infrastructure, and undermine efforts to contain toxic sediments;

-Climate-induced shifts in wind can greatly alter the chemical and thermal regimes of lake habitats, placing stress on native plant and wildlife species and allowing invasive species to establish through the region;

-Climate change may impact cold-water streams critical to sustainable fish populations in Wisconsin. Warmer groundwater inputs and air temperatures may put fish at increased risk for predation, parasites, and disease;

-Because of the long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere, climate change over the next 50 years is already mostly out of our control and effectively cannot be mitigated. Observed climate change effects in the region to date are just the tip of the iceberg.

Egan and the Journal Sentinel have written about some of these problems for the Great Lakes — invasive species, loss of fish populations, etc. — but never with any mention of the impact of global climate change. Use the JS search function for “Great Lakes and global climate change” and almost nothing comes up, just a couple opinion columns. Indeed, the newspaper has printed countless opinion pieces on climate change, while failing to report on these changes in its own backyard.

And it’s not for a lack of reporting resources or newspaper space. As I’ve previously reported, the newspaper did 39 stories about the declining water level of Lake Michigan between 2005 and May of 2013 —  and not one story mentioned global warming as a possible cause. When Egan and the JS finally did a story on how changes in climate are affecting the Great Lakes, nowhere in its 144 paragraphs and three full pages in the newspaper did Egan ever mention the words “global warming” or “global climate change” as I’ve also reported.

Egan and the JS have hammered away at the impact of the dredging of the St. Clair River in Michigan on Lake Michigan, suggesting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to repair the damage. But they ignored this recent conference, as least half of which was devoted to making recommendations on developing “policy-based strategies to integrate climate variation into future restoration and stewardship practices.”

Ironically, the very first recommendation in the conference report is to “Build Awareness and Understanding of Climate Change Impacts.” That’s very difficult to do if the media won’t report on the problem.

I should add that the Journal Sentinel is hardly alone in under-covering the issue.

Some interesting research on this was done by the Center for Science and Technology Science Research. It counted the newspaper stories on climate change or global warming and found the number rose about ten-fold in North America from about 100 stories per month to a level several times that, then suddenly spiked at about 1100 stories per month in late 2009 and early 2010. Why the spike? That’s when the so-called “climate gate” controversy arose, with conservatives outraged by the idea that a couple scientists might have been manipulating the research on global warming. But after that spike, coverage of global warming declined back to a level of about 200 stories per month.

A study by Media Matters showed a similar trend in broadcast journalism. The coverage of global warming on nightly news shows and Sunday morning news shows spiked in 2009 and then dropped off after that. The nightly news went from 135 minutes discussing the issue in 2009 to less than 35 minutes in both 2010 and 2011. By 2013 the coverage had gone up somewhat but still nowhere near the spike of 2009. And for all practical purposes the issue did not exist on Fox News, which gave it three minutes of coverage in all of 2013, the study found.

But here is my favorite part of the study: from 2009 to 2013, the researchers found, the Sunday news shows did not interview a single scientist about global warming. Mostly they featured media figures and politicians, and 75 percent of these politicians were Republicans. If anything, John Oliver’s scathing summary on the media’s handling of this underplayed the problem.

Why is the mainstream media, with its alleged “liberal bias,” so reluctant to report this issue? The answer, I believe, is they fear the anger from climate change deniers. I’ve seldom seen an issue that elicits so much anger in emails and phone calls from readers.

Polls show that as many as 18 percent or even 23 percent of Americans  don’t believe global climate change is happening. Odds are that percentage is considerably higher in heavily Republican Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties, where most of the Journal Sentinel’s readers live. Nothing makes a newspaper more likely to look liberal and out of touch with those readers than stories about global climate change. So maybe you just skip that part of the Great Lakes reporter’s beat.

Needless to say, if the issue continues to be seen as a matter of belief, it will be very difficult for political leaders to do anything about the problem. The fate of humankind may well depend on how the media chooses to cover climate change.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

18 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Climate Change and Lake Michigan”

  1. Raul says:

    Thank you for reporting on this report. I had no idea about it. A few days ago my daughter, 10, who regularly reads National Geographic issues with me, turns to me and says: “I used to think a lot of the effects of climate change would affect maybe my kids or my grandkids, but now I’m starting to see that it’s going to affect me…” I’m going to make sure that she knows as she grows up who are the old farts who don’t care about the wellbeing of younger generations. I know a lot of them live in Waukesha.

  2. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Not one of the predictions made at Kyoto have come to pass. Does this tell us something about the Leftist politicos that made the science about this. If the ice cap is melting than Lake Michigan should be higher. Ain’t. Temps are supposed to go up? Ain’t. Hurricanes drowning Florida. Aint’. Manhattan 10 feet under water. Ain’t. Could go on, Only the most gullible believe lies so big that they cannot be proved one way or other.
    If you really believe this crap, take Al’s word and look for land that will become beachfront in 10 years and buy it up. You and Gates and Buffett will be rich.

  3. PMD says:

    Right WCD I will take your word for it as opposed to 97% of scientists. You and other climate change deniers know more than they do.

  4. Andy says:

    Can I just point out, Bruce (and PMD) that to correctly state it, 97% of scientists who wrote an abstract and expressed a position on anthropogenic global warming (it’s humans fault) supported the idea that humans play a role in global warming or climate change.

    That’s not quite the same as saying 97% of all scientists believe humans cause global warming or climate change. In fact, two thirds of all abstracts did not express a position at all. This leaves twice as many abstracts in which the “science was[n’t] settled.” Not to mention, many of those abstracts in the study that this stat comes from weren’t even related to global warming… but that’s just another of the many issues with this “97%” stat being thrown around.

    I’m not a global warming denier… but I recognize that there is still a lot more that we DON’T know than there is that we DO know. Otherwise, how could all of these global temperature models be so far off base? How do they explain the last 15 years in which global warming essentially stopped? How do they account for all of their predictions not coming true (lack of powerful hurricanes/tornado’s for example)? I’m no scientist, and I don’t have the answers… but it seems to me that no one has all the answers yet.

  5. PMD says:

    It’s fair to say that no one has all the answers yet Andy. No argument here. I’m sure that’s why it’s something that continues to be studied. But that’s a far cry from entirely denying the existence of man-made global warming, from claiming that it’s just made up and a vast left-wing conspiracy to oppress the American people.

  6. Water Lily says:

    Raul, that’s a very poignant story about your daughter. We all owe our children and grandchildren better than this polluted, depleted, politicized world we have now.
    However, you go a bit astray when you blame Waukesha for being the capitol of climate change denial. It’s most certainly in Waukesha, as well as Milwaukee, California, and all over thanks to the Petro-Chemical Industrial Koch-Exxon Alliance.

    Wisconsin Conservative Digest: What happened to the conservative’s pretense of rationality and science with regard to this issue? Were you too embarrassed by the 3 “scientists” who showed up on John Oliver’s show? Compounding bad science with bad grammar, nastiness and sarcasm isn’t going to do your lost cause any good.

  7. Observer says:

    4 + 5 = 14 No? Maybe you can find someone that’s agrees it’s not 9 but that doesn’t make it so. Last Sunday’s Cosmos shot holes into denier arguments. Step by step. Please don’t take my word for it. Listen to an astrophysicist If you disagree, feel free to point out on which points and please tell me why. WCD, if you have something that you think might convince of your take on this, please post it. I’ll watch it and if Bruce doesn’t mind, I’ll give you my take on it.

  8. John G. says:

    @WCD, your comment would make a smidge of sense when water is able to reverse course up Niagara Falls, first starting its course at the mouth of the St. Lawrence.

    My comment above ignores evaporation, but considering 70+% of the earth is covered in water, and water that falls on land mass has a natural predication to run back towards the ocean, this also points out how stupid you are.

    Watch the previous poster’s generous linking of the Cosmos episode for a pretty quick way to educate yourself. If that doesn’t convince you, I would counsel you to avoid cars, aircraft, modern medicine, grocery stores, anything with an electrical charge etc. as those are clearly the result of thousands of years of Devil’s work and not the scientific process.

    Was a pharmacy degree in the 50s akin to getting a welding degree today?

  9. David says:

    If we were to believe that climate change is real and developed policy directly related to the reduction of pollutants causing the problem, we would have to begin to pay the true costs of cheap / subsidized energy. That means increased densities, fewer vehicle miles, urban planning initiatives, smaller homes, etc. This would drive up the costs for living in suburban and exurban communities. Gone would be the days not having to think twice about firing up the SUV to drive ten minutes for a loaf of bread unless you could pay the true costs.This is exactly what WCD does not want.

  10. stacy moss says:

    When has the climate not changed?

  11. Tom D says:

    WCD, Manhattan WAS under 10 feet of water during Hurricane Sandy. Some of the flooded subway tunnels are still closed. Hospitals were flooded; one of the affected (private sector) ERs took more than one year to re-open.

    And don’t just say this was”just a hurricane”. NYC has had numerous hurricanes before but never saw anything like Sandy.

    And Sandy wasn’t just notable because it hit such a large city head-on. It is notable because it brought 3-5 feet of snow to the Appalachians. EVERY other hurricane in human history has been a warm weather event, but Sandy was a cold weather event. It is hard to deny that climate is changing when a completely new type of storm suddenly shows up.

  12. Water Lily says:

    Stacy, Stacy, Stacy. Don’t confuse weather with climate. This is way bigger than your backyard, or your tiny lifespan.

  13. duncan says:


    I’d be curious about the international media. Is the media coverage (you write of) a US phenomenon? Or if you were viewing a newspaper/TV in Canada, Spain, the UK, Norway, Brazil, Singapore, etc, could the same complaints be leveled?

  14. Jenny says:

    Thanks for this astute article.

  15. deezus says:

    “Warming of the lakes’ water, less ice-cover and more evaporation, which has contributed to Lake Michigan’s water level declining five feet;”


  16. Observer says:

    You too are confusing weather with climate. Read up on it

  17. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    It is safe to say the increase in CO2 might have some effect on the climate/weather. No one knows what that effect is, Right. There is no scientifc evidence using the scientific method if what is going to happen.

  18. Observer says:

    People died of cancer before cigarettes were invented so smoking doesn’t cause cancer if I understand you clearly.

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