The Climate Is Changing. Will NOVA?

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

A viewer from upstate New York, Joe Brown, wrote to me earlier this month to ask me about something that appeared in a column I had written almost exactly one year ago. The column was focused on the PBS science series NOVA, the popular, highly regarded, multiple-award winning weekly series that has been running for some 40 years. The David H. Koch Fund for Science is a major funder of NOVA. Koch has been a member of the Board of Trustees of WGBH in Boston, NOVA’s presenting station, since 1997 and has been a supporter of the station since 1982.

The viewer said: “Dear Mr. Getler, I would like to thank you for your piece ‘Global Warming, Koch and NOVA’ published 12/11/2015. I was watching Nova this morning and noticed it was supported by Koch. First thought… ‘Must be a different Koch. Maybe they have a cool brother...?’ One quick google search and I find you. My question is this: Has there been any progress on that 4-part miniseries Nova mentioned in their correspondence with you? Thank you very much for your time, Joe.”

That 4-part miniseries that Brown was referring to was part of a response to my 2015 column by NOVA’s senior executive producer, Paula Apsell. Please bear with me for a few moments here for some history.

For the past few years, I have posted a couple of columns dealing with NOVA, climate change and support by the Koch Foundation in which I have been critical of what I believe has been a failure of NOVA to confront and authoritatively address the specific issue of climate change and man’s contribution to it.

The Ombudsman/NOVA Papers

For example, in an ombudsman’s mailbag posted in June 2014, I wrote, responding to an email from a viewer in Minnesota: “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.”

In the 2015 column, I said much the same thing in response to an email from a viewer in Iowa and asked Apsell for a response. She provided a lengthy and detailed response (see below), referring to numerous, specific documentaries and “NOVA’s long record of reporting on this issue” and explaining that 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.”

I wrote back saying: “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 said I was wrong and Apsell included a second response which is also posted in the Dec. 11, 2015 column (and is also reprinted below).

The Proverbial Needle(s) in the Haystack

But within Apsell’s response to my December, 2015 column was this paragraph: “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.”

That is the statement that Mr. Brown from New York wrote to me about this month and asked where that project stood. I thanked him for reminding me and sent his query to NOVA’s Apsell.

Here is her response: “At the time that you wrote your [12/11/15] column, we had just started developing a multipart series focusing on the basic science of climate change and the search for solutions to make communities more resilient in the face of a warming planet. Unfortunately, after we had submitted it, there was a change in leadership of the foundation that was to be its main source of funding, and this has led us to reconsider the approach. We don’t want to propose a series that is going to take several years to fully fund, since with this topic, time is of the essence. In the meantime, we have developed a proposal for an ambitious two-hour special called Polar Extremes on paleoclimate and the role of the poles, the Arctic and Antarctic, in controlling earth’s climate. We submitted this to the National Science Foundation last month and, if all goes to plan, we expect to go into production in the summer of next year. Finally, we have also just started discussing the idea of a one-hour NOVA program with a working title ‘Is Climate Change Real?’ – again focusing on the basic science. I hope this helps to answer your inquiry from the viewer.”

Not surprisingly, it didn’t.

I sent Apsell’s response to Brown and he wrote back, in part: “I find this exceptionally disturbing. One could easily argue that man-made climate change & the policies and politics around it is the leading scientific dilemma of this generation as well as the next. Nova's silence in this matter is indeed deafening. To use a military term it is hard to see how Nova could not be found to be in dereliction of duty. They are ignoring not just the crisis of climate change but as a result the crisis of science denying…I see no way for Nova to have ignored these issues if they are not in some way being manipulated from an outside source. There is certainly no logical explanation why the leading scientific program is ignoring both these incredibly serious issues. In the history of man what other event had the prospect of a larger negative impact on literally all mankind? How is it that Nova is silent? How are they not having a program on Science denying? It will take a program like Nova to wipe away the filth and smog of politics that has so effectively reduced the respectability of science in the eyes of the populace to literally nothing.”

Here Are the Needles

As I have said in writing about this program on many occasions over the years, NOVA is not only PBS’s premier science program it is probably the best such science series anywhere on television. And Apsell is an able and strong defender of the work the program has presented.

But in portions of  her responses to the 2015 column and to Brown’s inquiry, I find acknowledgements that the issue of climate change and the extent of human contribution to global warming has not, in fact, been tackled head-on by the program.

Given the new and skeptical approach of the new administration of President-elect Donald Trump to this issue, one has to hope that NOVA will shed some authoritative light on this issue as soon as possible.

The Koch Factor

Here is what I said about ‘The Koch Factor’ a year ago:

“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…

“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.

“NOVA’s Apsell has stated that 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.’”

And as I also wrote last year: “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.”

It’s hard to know what to believe with any certainty. But I, and I'm sure a fair number of viewers, look forward to NOVA’s new contributions to public understanding of this vital issue sooner rather than still later, and to assessing it directly, and to setting aside "our approach not to wade into the highly politicized and polarized policy debates around global warming" that Apsell has said has constituted the program's long-term approach (also see below).

Here Are Apsell’s Full, Earlier Responses in 2015 about NOVA Coverage

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), What’s 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)

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. 21, 2016 at 12:21 p.m.

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