On January 21, 98 U.S. senators voted to affirm that "climate change is real and not a hoax." But the media should not misconstrue that vote as evidence that the Republican-led Senate is now seeing eye-to-eye with scientists on the issue. Moments later, 49 senators voted to deny that "human activity significantly contributes to climate change" - the position held by the vast majority of climate scientists.
Climate scientists say that human activity is not only a "significant" cause of climate change; they say it's the primary cause. According to the latest report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." The IPCC defines "extremely likely" as having 95-100% probability. NASA similarly notes: "Most climate scientists agree the main cause of the current global warming trend is human expansion of the 'greenhouse effect' -- warming that results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space."
But some Senators who deny the science may be hoping the media won't call them out on a sleight of hand in which they vote to acknowledge that "climate change is real" while continuing to maintain that it is only happening because of natural causes. This is akin to conservative media pundits and other climate science deniers who frequently declare that "the climate is always changing."
When it comes to discussing climate change, the issue of causation is central. It's impossible to have a debate about how to address climate change without first agreeing that human activity -- specifically the burning of fossil fuels -- is causing it. Climate scientists settled that question a long time ago, but the debate continues to play out in the Senate, a point that should not get lost in media coverage of the Senate's acknowledgement that "climate change is real."
Misinformer of the Year George Will reversed the timeline of events surrounding President Obama's threat to veto a bill forcing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and distorted a quote from Obama about the number of jobs Keystone XL would create.
In his January 15 syndicated column, Will wrote, "[T]here no longer is any reason to think [Obama] has ever reasoned about [Keystone XL]. He said he would not make up his mind until the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled. It ruled to permit construction, so he promptly vowed to veto authorization of construction." However, Will's version of events is backward.Obama announced on January 7 that he would veto H.R. 3, the House of Representatives bill that would force theapproval of Keystone XL. That was two days before the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled on January 9 that a group of landowners did not have standing to challenge the state over a law that approved the pipeline's route through the state.
Moreover, Obama emphasized in his announcement that he would veto the bill not just because of ongoing litigation in Nebraska, but also because the bill "seeks to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether cross-border pipelines serve the national interest." When asked about the Nebraska court decision on January 9, White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz similarly stated that the Obama administration's "position hasn't changed" and that Obama would still veto the bill and then wait for the State Department review process to play out before he "makes any decisions" regarding Keystone XL.
Will also mischaracterized a quote from Obama to falsely suggest the president had touted job numbers for the pipeline that were at odds with the State Department's own estimates. Will claimed: "[Obama] said it would create 'a couple thousand' jobs (the State Department study says approximately 42,100 'direct, indirect, and induced')." However, the full quote shows Obama said that "the construction of the pipeline itself will create probably a couple thousand jobs" (emphasis added). Obama's figure is entirely consistent with the State Department's Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, which said:
During construction, proposed Project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs (direct, indirect, and induced), and approximately $2 billion in earnings throughout the United States. Of these jobs, approximately 3,900 would be direct construction jobs in the proposed Project area in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas (3,900 over 1 year of construction, or 1,950 per year if construction took 2 years).
Finally, Will turned to mocking the environmental concerns of pipeline opponents: "To oppose the pipeline is to favor more oil being transported by trains, which have significant carbon footprints, and accidents. To do this in the name of environmental fastidiousness is hilarious." However, there is no shortage of studies that back up environmentalists' concerns and contradict Will's claim that the tar sands oil that would flow through Keystone XL will simply be "transported by trains" if the pipeline is not built. In fact, even the State Department report, which considered it unlikely that building Keystone XL would significantly affect the production of carbon-intensive Canadian tar sands oil, noted that the pipeline could do so if oil prices fell below $75 a barrel -- which is exactly what has happened since the report came out.
Environmentalists view stopping Keystone XL as a critical part of addressing climate change, and Will has a long record of denying that climate change is a real, manmade problem with drastic consequences.
Many news outlets are uncritically touting the State Department's conclusion that building the Keystone XL pipeline would not significantly worsen climate change without noting that this determination was based on an expectation of high oil prices. Some media outlets, however, have reported the significance of the recent plunge in oil prices, such as the Associated Press, which noted that "[l]ow oil prices could make the pipeline more important to the development of new oil sands projects in Canada than anticipated by the State Department ... and therefore is more likely to increase emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming."
From the January 15 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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George Will is citing past shifts in the climate to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that human behavior is currently driving global warming, despite the fact that those previous shifts actually demonstrate the need to take action on climate change.
On January 8, The Washington Post published Will's syndicated column, headlined "Climate change's instructive past," in which he discussed two books about previous climate shifts -- the Medieval Warming Period and the Little Ice Age. Will asserted, "of course the climate is changing -- it always is," and warned against "wagering vast wealth and curtailments of liberty on correcting the climate."
Without explaining his reasoning, Will claimed the books do not "support those who believe human behavior is the sovereign or even primary disrupter of climate normality." But Will ignored the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is the main cause of recent global warming. Further, Will's myopic view of history ignores the wealth of scientific evidence showing that greenhouse gases -- which are currently at record levels due to the burning of fossil fuels -- have been the principal factor in prior climate changes.
As Climate Nexus pointed out, Will actually missed the lesson from his historical examples -- that climate change left unchecked will have devastating impacts:
Contrary to [Will's] claim, past changes in our climate should be understood as a warning, but shouldn't be seen as evidence that current climatic change is naturally occurring, as he suggests.
The problem with this claim is that human-made emissions have increased exponentially since Will's historical examples. Science has clearly shown how current human-made climate change is very different from earlier slower natural changes, something Will failed to factor.
More accurately, historical climate change provides insight into problems we can expect in the future as greenhouse gases are increasingly amplifying variations in our climate. Historical trends should, instead, serve as a stark warning of what we can expect from the emission-driven warming we're experiencing now.
ThinkProgress' Joe Romm called Will's logic "exactly backwards." Pointing out that climate change has occurred naturally in the past does not disprove the fact that it is happening unnaturally now, as Romm analogized: "[I]t would be exactly the same as saying that because people who didn't smoke have died of cardiopulmonary disease and lung cancer, we can't know that cigarette smoking also causes those diseases and is unhealthy." He added that "climate scientists now have the same degree of certainty that human-caused emissions are changing the climate as they do that cigarette smoking is harmful."
Will is infamous for his climate misinformation -- over the past few years, other writers have called his misunderstanding of science "mystifying" and asserted that he is "helping to muddle our collective scientific literacy." Will's misleading coverage of climate science in his columns sparked a petition in 2014, signed by more than 100,000 people, urging The Washington Post to exclude climate misinformation from its pages.
Fox News reported on Pope Francis' upcoming action on climate change by promoting climate change denial and suggesting that the pope is aligning with "extremists who favor widespread population control and wealth redistribution."
While many Catholics praised Pope Francis' recent announcement that he will publish an encyclical -- a papal letter sent to all the bishops in the Catholic Church -- on climate change, Fox News responded by stoking fears and promoting climate change denial. Fox News correspondent Doug McKelway reported on the December 30 edition of Special Report that the move will be "aligning [Pope Francis] with some church enemies," including "a few environmental extremists who favor widespread population control and wealth redistribution." The segment also featured climate "skeptic" Marc Morano -- who is paid by an industry-funded group to run the climate change-denying website ClimateDepot.com -- to falsely claim that there has been "no global warming" for "almost two decades":
But acting on climate change already has widespread support among Catholics. The pope's move comes after senior bishops from around the globe called on the world's governments to phase out fossil fuels completely in order to "protect frontline communities suffering from the impacts of climate change." Christian leaders have been promoting climate action for many years, citing its disproportionate impacts on the poor as a main concern. In 2006, the Evangelical Climate Initiative urged members of the church to act on climate change because it "hit[s] the poor the hardest":
Poor nations and poor individuals have fewer resources available to cope with major challenges and threats. The consequences of global warming will therefore hit the poor the hardest, in part because those areas likely to be significantly affected first are in the poorest regions of the world. Millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.
Christians must care about climate change because we are called to love our neighbors, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and to protect and care for the least of these as though each was Jesus Christ himself (Mt. 22:34-40; Mt. 7:12; Mt. 25:31-46).
Christians, noting the fact that most of the climate change problem is human induced, are reminded that when God made humanity he commissioned us to exercise stewardship over the earth and its creatures. Climate change is the latest evidence of our failure to exercise proper stewardship, and constitutes a critical opportunity for us to do better (Gen. 1:26-28).
2014 was a year of eye-popping media numbers, from millions of dollars' worth of coverage devoted to a trumped-up scandal to mere seconds devoted to historic news. Here are some of the most important -- and most surprising -- figures from the year.
This year saw landmark reports on climate change, detailing the ever-increasing scientific certainty that human activities are driving catastrophic climate change and that action needs to be taken to prevent the worst effects. Yet despite the fact that more Americans than ever support action on climate change, conservative media went to ridiculous lengths to cast doubt on the scientific consensus behind global warming, citing everything from free market economics to witchcraft, touting conspiracy theories and predictions of an "ice age," and even fulfilling Godwin's law.
Here are the 11 dumbest things conservative media said about climate change this year:
11. Bill O'Reilly: "It's Easier To Believe In A Benevolent God, The Baby Jesus" Than Manmade Climate Change. On the December 16 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Bill O'Reilly led a discussion on whether or not it is easier to believe in the birth story of Jesus than in manmade climate change, positing that it is "easier to believe in a benevolent God, the baby Jesus, than it is in some kind of theory about global warming." When his guest pointed out that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activities are driving global warming, O'Reilly baselessly countered, "I wouldn't put it that high. I've read a lot about it." He concluded: "[I]t's a choice -- people choose to believe."
While some mainstream media outlets are starting to get the message about the threat of climate change, they are still far behind emerging media when it comes to climate coverage.
Throughout 2014, new TV and web-based news sources have been continuing the trend of providing excellent climate coverage. Media Matters has identified six positive trends in how new media are covering climate change -- and one trend that may be cause for alarm.
"Single-subject news sites" have been on the rise for the past couple of years. The New York Times reported in 2011 that internet news was starting to veer towards "niche" sites, and more recently, in its "Prediction for Journalism 2014" series, Nieman Lab predicted that single-subject news sites would continue to gain prominence this year.
The Center for American Progress' ClimateProgress is unparalleled in its timely coverage of the latest climate developments. The blog often takes its reporting further than mainstream sources, providing perspective on landmark climate reports and mainstream climate coverage, and amplifying studies that shed light on media bias in global warming reporting.
Another prominent climate news site, InsideClimate News (ICN), won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting last year, with the Pulitzer committee commending their "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation's oil pipelines." ICN also teams up with other outlets to amplify and disseminate their work; it partnered with VICE TV for a documentary and e-book on how global warming affects the likelihood of polar bear attacks, produced an exposé with The Weather Channel on the ramifications of the oil-by-rail boom, and partnered with both The Weather Channel and Center for Public Integrity for an in-depth investigation of how Texas' fracking boom has been harming the environment.
This year saw clean energy technologies become cost-competitive with fossil fuels and gain prominence worldwide. The fossil fuel industry, desperate to stymie clean energy's continuing expansion, enlisted conservative media to do their bidding and attack clean technologies in every shape and form. From stoking fears about public transit being a form of "government control," to providing one-sided stories falsely predicting clean energy's downfall, here are the media's six most absurd attacks on clean energy this year.
1. 60 Minutes Produces "Poor Piece Of Journalism" To Attack Clean Energy
In January, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a report titled, "The Cleantech Crash," which attempted to label clean energy a "dirty word." The report was widely criticized by reporters, government officials, and clean energy advocates alike for offering a one-sided look at renewable energy and narrowly focusing on a few failures while ignoring the majority of clean energy's success. Two of the guests interviewed in the report later criticized it for selectively airing their comments to provide an overly negative portrait of the industy and for "fail[ing] to do the most elementary fact checking and source qualification."
Further, the report made no mention of climate change, which as energy reporter Dana Hull pointed out is "the whole point of cleantech, after all: using the promise of technology and innovation to try to wean our economy off of fossil fuels."
"[W]hen they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate."
This single phrase has followed George Will for the last six months. The syndicated conservative columnist, considered by many a thoughtful intellectual rather than a bomb-thrower, severely damaged his brand when he wrote a June 2014 column dismissing efforts on college campuses to combat the epidemic of sexual assault and suggesting that women who say they were raped receive "privileges." The column has sparked hundreds to protest his public appearances, challenges from U.S. Senators and women's rights groups, and the dropping of his column from a major newspaper.
Will's 2014 misinformation was not limited to attacking and dismissing rape victims. Throughout the year, Will failed to disclose several major conflicts of interest in his columns, and his tangled relationship with political entities backed by Charles and David Koch was cited by the outgoing ethics chair of the Society of Professional Journalists as the kind of conflict journalists should disclose in their writing. His history as a prominent denier of climate change also helped further undermine his credibility, with more than 100,000 people signing a petition demanding the Washington Post stop printing the science misinformation he and others regularly push in its pages.
Will has written a column for the Post since 1974, which is syndicated in over 450 papers. He started his career as a Republican Senate staff member and speech writer before moving into the ranks of the conservative press, contributing to The American Spectator and working as the Washington editor for the National Review for a time. He has become a fixture in the right-wing think tank infrastructure, serving as a board member of the Bradley Foundation, which funds conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Federalist Society. But Will was always careful to keep one foot in the mainstream -- in addition to his Post column, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977, he served as an ABC News commentator for three decades and was even a featured interview in several Ken Burns documentaries.
Yet late last year, he left ABC to join Fox News as a political contributor, cementing his increasingly conservative and counterfactual tendencies. Some of his politics -- such as his longstanding climate change denial -- seemed to fit in at the network. But at the time, Media Matters wondered if an association with Fox's more angry and crude fare would ruin the brand of the staid conservative pontificator, shifting his erudite elitism towards the hard-edged style of misinformation for which Fox is better known. Will's accomplishments in 2014 revealed our suspicions were well-founded.
Media Matters isn't the only organization to recognize the damage Will's commentary did to the discourse this year. When PolitiFact awarded its 2014 Lie of Year to "exaggerations about Ebola," they cited Will as a prime example. Will used his Fox News platform to spread lies about the disease, falsely claiming that it could be "spread through the air." As PolitiFact noted:
Will's claim that Ebola could spread through the air via a cough or sneeze shows how solid science got misconstrued. The conservative commentator suggested a thought shift about how the virus could spread. In reality, Will simply misunderstood scientists' consistent, albeit technical explanation.
Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, vomit and diarrhea. Coughing and sneezing are not symptoms.
Will has a long history of pushing misinformation, but it finally caught up with him in 2014, tarnishing the reputation as a public intellectual he had spent decades cultivating. He started the year one of the most respected members of the conservative media elite, and ended it with hundreds protesting his speeches. For this reason, Media Matters recognizes George Will as the 2014 Misinformer of the Year.
Past recipients include CBS News (2013), Rush Limbaugh (2012), Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. (2011), Sarah Palin (2010), Glenn Beck (2009), Sean Hannity (2008), ABC (2006), Chris Matthews (2005), and Bill O'Reilly (2004).
From the December 16 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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United Nations delegates have gathered over the past two weeks to discuss action on climate change. Fox News only covered the talks once, to warn that they were "breaking down," but ignored the deal reached Sunday morning: a pledge from every nation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.
On Saturday, December 13, Fox News' America's News Headquarters reported that the United Nations climate talks were "breaking down." The international negotiations took place over a two-week stretch in Lima, Peru, and were supposed to conclude Friday, December 12, but were extended one day to ensure that countries could reach an agreement. Fox News reported that "countries can't agree on what nearly 200 nations should pledge to keep our air clean":
But an agreement was, in fact, reached early Sunday morning. On December 14, the United Nations' chairs released a document called the "Lima Call For Climate Action," which ensured a pledge from every country to lower their greenhouse gas emissions. The pledge states that countries must aim to phase out fossil fuels and achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The agreement itself is somewhat contentious among environmental advocates, some of whom call it too "weak." Others heralded it for paving the way to a more robust deal at the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris next year. And the agreement's geographic scope -- a pledge from each and every country -- is considered a "breakthrough" by Harvard economist Robert Stavins. Political scientist David Victor said that the voluntary nature of the agreement is actually a good thing, in an interview with Vox:
Victor has long argued that UN negotiators would never be able to impose a climate plan on reluctant countries from on high. Instead, any climate deal should work from the bottom up -- start with what countries are actually willing to do and slowly build from there. And that's essentially taken in these latest climate talks. It's not enough to avoid drastic global warming-- not yet, at least. But it may be a step forward from past gridlock.
Yet Fox News has made no mention of this agreement since its Saturday report that the talks were breaking down.*
A Media Matters analysis of major U.S. newspapers reporting on the alleged "war on coal" found that newspapers provided one-sided coverage of the issue and seldom mentioned the coal industry's negative environmental and health impacts or its efforts to fight regulations. Out of 223 articles published in major U.S. newspapers this year mentioning the phrase "war on coal," more than half failed to mention underlying issues that account for the coal industry's decline and the need for regulations. Further, less than 10 percent of articles mentioned harm caused by the coal industry or how the coal industry is fighting against regulations aimed at protecting miners and reducing pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that it will delay its decision about the 2014 levels for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which requires oil refiners to blend renewable fuels into the nation's gasoline supply. The announcement has drawn criticism from opponents who want the EPA to lessen or eliminate the RFS, and the media are recycling debunked myths about the mandate. Here are the facts.