Environment & Science

Issues ››› Environment & Science
  • Reporters Should Contrast Trump’s “Love” Of Coal Miners With Funder’s Record Of Undermining Them

    ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

    Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump will attend a fundraiser hosted by coal industry CEO Robert Murray, who has pressured and even allegedly fired employees for political gain and has repeatedly fought against health benefits, safety protections, and labor rights for coal miners. Media covering the event should contrast Trump’s claims of staunch support for coal miners with his willingness to raise money with Murray.

  • The Dean Of Yale’s Law School Just Schooled The Washington Post On Exxon And The First Amendment

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Yale Law School Dean Robert Post took to The Washington Post to completely dismantle the bogus claim that the attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil for fraud are trampling the company’s First Amendment rights. And in doing so, he pointed to one of several opinion writers who have misinformed the Post’s readers by advancing this “free speech” defense of Exxon's alleged deception on climate change. 

    Writing in The Washington Post on June 24, Robert Post criticized “ExxonMobil and its supporters” in the media for deceptively “[r]aising the revered flag of the First Amendment” to condemn attorneys general who are investigating Exxon. The attorneys general are looking into whether the oil company committed fraud by deliberating withholding truthful information about climate change from shareholders and the public in order to protect its profits. As Post explained, Exxon and its allies are “eliding the essential difference between fraud and public debate,” and if Exxon has indeed committed fraud, “its speech would not merit First Amendment protection.” He added: “Fraud is especially egregious because it is committed when a seller does not himself believe the hokum he foists on an unwitting public.”

    One of the conservative media figures that Post called out for distorting the Exxon investigations was The Washington Post’s own George Will, who penned an April 22 column peddling the false claim that the attorneys general pursuing Exxon are seeking to “criminalize skepticism” about climate change. And that wasn’t the only basic fact that Will butchered, as the Climate Denier Roundup explained at the time:

    George Will used his column in the Washington Post to offer a lesson on how this campaign [against Exxon] is part of a larger progressive strategy to shut down debate. But apparently it’s Will that needs a history lesson, as he uses as evidence a story about a 2013 IRS investigation accusing the agency of targeting conservatives. But that investigation “found no evidence” that the IRS actions were politically motivated.

    Unfortunately, Will is not the only voice on the Post’s opinion pages who has misrepresented the facts to defend Exxon.

    As the Climate Denier Roundup noted, the same day that Will’s column ran, the Post also published an op-ed by two officials at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a think tank that peddled climate science denial while receiving funding from Exxon. The CEI op-ed repeated the falsehood that the attorneys general are seeking to “run roughshod” over Exxon’s First Amendment protections and prosecute “dissent.” It also engaged in carefully crafted legalese about CEI’s relationship with Exxon, as the Climate Denier Roundup observed:

    Worth noting CEI’s careful phrasing about its relationship with Exxon, which CEI says “publicly ended its support for us after 2005.” With Donors Trust and others making it possible to anonymize giving, the key word is “publicly.”

    Flashback to November 2015, and the story at the Post is much the same. Like Will, the Post’s Robert Samuelson claimed in a November 8 column that investigations of Exxon are an “assault” on free speech, and that the “advocates of a probe into ExxonMobil are essentially proposing that the company be punished for expressing its opinions.” Samuelson also repeated Exxon’s bogus talking point that a 1989 Exxon document proves that groundbreaking reports about Exxon by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times "'cherry-pick[ed]' their evidence."

    Then there’s the Post editorial board itself, which prematurely concluded in a November 15 editorial that Exxon “didn’t commit a crime.” Perhaps the Post will reconsider after hearing from Robert Post on that matter. 

    From Robert Post’s June 24 op-ed in The Washington Post:

    If large oil companies have deliberately misinformed investors about their knowledge of global warming, they may have committed serious commercial fraud.

    [...]

    ExxonMobil and its supporters are now eliding the essential difference between fraud and public debate. Raising the revered flag of the First Amendment, they loudly object to investigations recently announced by attorneys general of several states into whether ExxonMobil has publicly misrepresented what it knew about global warming.

    The National Review has accused the attorneys general of “trampling the First Amendment.” Post columnist George F. Will has written that the investigations illustrate the “authoritarianism” implicit in progressivism, which seeks “to criminalize debate about science.” And Hans A. von Spakovsky, speaking for the Heritage Foundation, compared the attorneys general to the Spanish Inquisition.

    Despite their vitriol, these denunciations are wide of the mark. If your pharmacist sells you patent medicine on the basis of his “scientific theory” that it will cure your cancer, the government does not act like the Spanish Inquisition when it holds the pharmacist accountable for fraud.

    The obvious point, which remarkably bears repeating, is that there are circumstances when scientific theories must remain open and subject to challenge, and there are circumstances when the government must act to protect the integrity of the market, even if it requires determining the truth or falsity of those theories. Public debate must be protected, but fraud must also be suppressed. Fraud is especially egregious because it is committed when a seller does not himself believe the hokum he foists on an unwitting public.

    [...]

    If ExxonMobil has committed fraud, its speech would not merit First Amendment protection. But the company nevertheless invokes the First Amendment to suppress a subpoena designed to produce the information necessary to determine whether ExxonMobil has committed fraud. It thus seeks to foreclose the very process by which our legal system acquires the evidence necessary to determine whether fraud has been committed. In effect, the company seeks to use the First Amendment to prevent any informed lawsuit for fraud.

  • What Media Should Know About The House Science Committee Members Defending Exxon

    ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Thirteen Republican members of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, led by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), are wrongly accusing 17 attorneys general and eight environmentally focused organizations of trying to “silence speech” by ExxonMobil and other companies that may have intentionally misled shareholders and the public about climate change. Media coverage of the committee members’ actions should note that they have taken a combined $3.4 million from the fossil fuel industry -- and that all 13 members have received money directly from Exxon. Moreover, Smith has a track record of baselessly attacking climate scientists, and the committee members announced their efforts on the same day that Exxon-funded fronts groups made the same deceptive “free speech” allegation in a full-page ad in The New York Times.

  • WSJ's Kimberley Strassel Pushes Illogical Conspiracy Theory About Exxon Climate Investigations

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board has tried every trick in the book to wrongly defend ExxonMobil against allegations that the company intentionally misled shareholders and the public about the science of climate change. Now one member of the editorial board is pushing yet another defense of Exxon so riddled with errors that it completely falls apart upon a basic review of the facts.

    In a June 16 column, the Journals Kimberley Strassel alleged that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s recent subpoena of ExxonMobil shows that the attorneys general investigating Exxon aren’t really concerned with whether the company’s climate science denial constitutes fraud. Rather, Strassel declared, “The real target is a broad array of conservative activist groups that are highly effective at mobilizing the grass-roots and countering liberal talking points.”

    As supposed proof, Strassel pointed to Healey’s request for Exxon’s communications with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Strassel asserted that Healey targeted ALEC because it is “one of the most powerful forces in the country for free-market legislation,” an argument she based on the false premise that “ALEC doesn’t now, and hasn’t ever, taken a position on the climate.”

    The truth is that ALEC has crafted model legislation that misrepresents the science of climate change and hosted prominent climate science deniers at its conferences, and ALEC officials – including CEO Lisa Nelson – have refused to acknowledge or outright denied the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels and other human activities are causing climate change. ALEC, a corporate front group that connects fossil fuel industry executives with legislators to serve industry interests, has also pushed model bills that would mandate teaching climate science denial in public schools. So it’s not hard to understand why Healey would want to know whether Exxon and ALEC have teamed up to undermine climate science.

    Strassel similarly claimed that Healey targeted the oil billionaire Koch brothers’ front group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) because “its 2.3 million activists nationwide are highly effective in elections.” This must be true, Strassel argued, because “AFP confirms it has never received a dime from Exxon.”

    However, as Climate Hawks explained in response to a Daily Caller article that made the same claim, “Americans for Prosperity's predecessor Citizens for A Sound Economy got hundreds of thousands from ExxonMobil,” meaning that “the group in question simply went by another name when it was funded by ExxonMobil.”

    Moreover, it remains an open question whether Exxon is continuing to funnel money to AFP via DonorsTrust and the Donors Capital Fund, dark money groups largely backed by the Koch brothers. In October, InsideClimate News reported that a group of Democratic senators wrote a letter to Exxon “questioning Exxon's contributions to Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, which provide a conduit between well-heeled contributors and various conservative public policy organizations, including many at the forefront of climate science denial.” InsideClimate News further noted that the senators cited research from Robert Brulle of Drexel University, who provided evidence that Exxon may have engaged in an effort to “simply reroute its support” of climate denial organizations:

    Brulle is a leading sociologist who has been published extensively in the peer-reviewed literature on the climate denial movement.

    In material supplementing one of his studies, Brulle documented Exxon donations directly to climate denial groups such as the Heartland Institute, up until about 2008. At about the time Exxon scaled back its giving to those groups, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund stepped up their donations to them.

    Americans for Prosperity “frequently provides a platform for climate contrarian statements,” as the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted. The Americans for Prosperity Foundation has received approximately $23 million in combined contributions from Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund since 2008.

  • New Book Reveals How “Broken Media” Enables War On Science

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    In his new book The War on Science (Milkweed Editions), science writer and ScienceDebate.org chair Shawn Otto describes the ongoing assault on scientific knowledge that is occurring across public life, from our churches to our courts and classrooms, and from the halls of Congress to the pages of our largest newspapers. Otto points to many culprits, but as he explained in comments about the book, it heavily focuses on the role our “broken media” has played in allowing the “war on science” to undermine our collective understanding of the world around us.

    Otto identifies many common journalistic failings that he says “aid the slide into unreason,” provide unwarranted support for extreme views, and play into the hands of industry groups and other vested interests to such an extent that they represent a “danger to democracy” itself. Chief among these is what Otto refers to as reporters’ “laissez-faire, hands off view” that “there is no such thing as objectivity,” which has led to false balance in news reports by giving inaccurate claims equal weight to scientific facts.

    A primary reason for false balance, according to Otto, is that journalists approach questions in a fundamentally different way from scientists. “Journalists look for conflict to find an angle,” he writes, “so there are always two sides to every story.”  A scientist, by contrast, would say that “one of these claims can be shown to be objectively false and it’s poor reporting to paint this as a controversy.” As a result, the journalistic approach “tends to skew public policy in counterfactual directions.”

    A good example is climate science denial. Although 97 percent of climate scientists say that human activities such as burning fossil fuels are causing global warming, claims disputing man-made climate change appear far too often in major print and television media. Noting the prevalence of climate science denial in opinion pieces about the historic Paris climate agreement, Otto argues that this kind of misrepresentation “deprives the public of the reliable information necessary for self-governance.”

    Otto adds that journalists’ “confusion about the nature of objectivity” has not only enabled the industrial war on science, but also “directly caused” much of it by spurring the development of the public relations industry. Otto argues that reporters’ failure to establish the truth and willingness to cite anti-science views on matters of fact has provided an opening for public relations campaigns to emerge and influence coverage. And indeed, he writes that many journalists ultimately move into the public relations industry themselves, “seeking to manipulate the thinking of their former colleagues in the media.”

    At the same time, reporters frequently underestimate the public’s interest in hearing about scientific topics, Otto says. He recounts asking media figures to cover the 2008 presidential candidates’ refusal to debate science policy issues, despite widespread calls for such discussion from major players in the scientific community. But the news directors and editors he spoke to “said they thought it was a niche topic, and the public wasn’t interested.” Otto and others commissioned polling data showing otherwise, but Otto believes that this incorrect media assumption about public disinterest in science persists to this day.

    The War on Science also points to another newsroom bias that has worked against science reporting. According to Otto, “There is a long-standing tradition in newsrooms for editors and news directors to forbid political reporters from covering science issues and to rarely place science stories in the political pages.” This might not seem like such a big problem, except that commercial news media have faced tightening budgets and increasing competition from free online news, forcing staff cutbacks. And as Otto points out, “Among the first things to go were the most expensive: investigative and science reporters.”

    The end result of all these factors is insufficient coverage of scientific topics like climate change. In remarks discussing the book, Otto noted that moderators completely ignored climate change in the first two presidential debates following the Paris agreement, and observed, “There’s something wrong when you have Leonardo DiCaprio using his Oscar speech to talk about climate change but journalists and presidential candidates are largely ignoring science.”

    Of course, there are also some more intentionally nefarious causes of media misinformation on climate change, such as Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon’s infamous 2010 directive that the network’s journalists cast doubt on climate science, which Otto says “set the tone of junk-science skepticism for all Fox News reportage” that followed. And the problem’s not just cable news: Otto writes that the rise of conservative talk radio programs like The Rush Limbaugh Show and right-wing websites have also helped “[o]ne-sided rhetorical arguments backed by outrage and sheer wattage” drown out facts and reason, particularly when it comes to climate science.

    So what can be done about it? To start, Otto suggests reporters begin covering the war on science itself. As InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times demonstrated with important investigations into ExxonMobil’s climate change deception, journalists “have a wealth of stories at their fingertips when they start exploring how science is being intentionally misrepresented by vested interests.”

    Otto also implores media to devise a “journalistic method” comparable to the scientific method, which could seek to “strip away biases and leave verifiable knowledge.” This could include obtaining a “meta-consensus from fellow reporters,” essentially a journalistic peer review process to ensure that news reports are accurately conveying the known facts.

    Otto further argues that reporters can avoid false balance and improve reporting if they “go deeper” into science topics. Here, he cites the impressive work of Minnesota Public Radio News’ Climate Cast, which manages to avoid false balance about the existence of climate change by producing detailed reports on climate impacts and steps being taken to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

    Finally, Otto proposes the creation of a National Center for Science and Self-Governance with initiatives focused on journalism, education, elections, religion, law, and more. Otto describes a series of actions the center could take to improve science coverage, including certifying the accuracy of stories, training journalists to cover scientific topics, and honoring journalists who consistently get the science right.

  • TV Networks Backslide By Omitting Link Between Climate Change And Destructive Texas Floods

    ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

    The major broadcast news networks ignored climate change in their coverage of Texas’ recent disastrous flooding, despite the well-documented link between global warming and extreme precipitation events. This omission marks a deterioration in network coverage from one year ago, when both CBS and NBC covered the science connecting climate change to similarly devastating floods pummeling Texas at the time.

  • How Conservative Media Enabled Trump’s Outrageous Lies

    ››› ››› CYDNEY HARGIS & JARED HOLT

    Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and conservative media figures repeatedly enabled each other to spread baseless smears and outright lies throughout the Republican presidential primary election cycle. Voices in conservative media repeatedly legitimized Trump’s debunked conspiracies, policy proposals, and statistics, some of which echoed longtime narratives from prominent right-wing media figures.

  • WaPo Editorial Board Blasts Trump's "Dangerous, Nonsensical Energy Plan"

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    The Washington Post’s editorial board lambasted the energy proposals put forth by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump as “illogical” and “dangerous,” adding that his vow to undue environmental protections will cause future generations to “suffer.”

    After Trump gave a speech about energy issues at an oil conference last week, media figures quickly ripped apart his comments as “utter nonsense” demonstrating a “lack of basic knowledge” about the energy industry. Industry experts later questioned the feasibility of Trump’s energy-related pledges in The New York Times, in part by pointing out that his vow to restore coal jobs contradicts his pledge to expand the natural gas industry, which according to Harvard economics professor Robert N. Stavins “would actually have the effect of lowering demand for coal, causing more mines to close.”

    The Post added to the criticism by pointing out that Trump’s promise to achieve energy independence is misguided because the “best way to insulate the country from oil price volatility would be to make the economy less dependent on oil, but Mr. Trump has no interest in doing so.” The Post also argued that Trump’s pledge to kill the U.S.’s major climate policy and “cancel” the Paris climate agreement would be a “massive blow to the global fight against climate change,” concluding that if he succeeds, “[f]uture generations will suffer.”

    From the May 29 editorial:

    Last week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that voters think Donald Trump would handle the economy better than would Hillary Clinton. But from his destructive tax proposals to the illogical energy plan he detailed on Thursday, there is little basis for that belief.

    [...]

    Setting “energy independence” as an overriding policy goal is a policy mistake of long standing in Washington. In fact it is far less risky to participate in the global market than to erect barriers to energy imports or ban them entirely. If you rely only on yourself for your oil, you put all of your eggs in one supply basket. Disruptions due to a natural disaster or anything else that would be relatively localized in a global oil market would cause major volatility in a closed domestic one. The best way to insulate the country from oil price volatility would be to make the economy less dependent on oil, but Mr. Trump has no interest in doing so.

    Mr. Trump’s error reflects a deeper contradiction in his thinking. He praises the unencumbered free market, insisting that, “the government should not pick winners and losers” and that he would “remove obstacles” in the way of private enterprises. At the same time, he promises energy independence, a renaissance for the coal industry and other goals that would require government interference in the market. The decline of coal, for example, has occurred in large part because under the Obama administration natural gas drilling has boomed, lowering the price of gas and spurring utilities to move away from coal.

    Mr. Trump’s plan is dangerous as well as incoherent. In his zeal to revoke environmental regulations, Mr. Trump promises to kill the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon dioxide rules and pull the country out of the Paris climate agreement. He also promised “clean air and clean water,” but over the past half-century, it has been government regulation, sometimes market-based, that has helped clear up the nation’s air and water. Mr. Trump’s plan would lead to dirtier air and water — and to a massive blow to the global fight against climate change. With great care and difficulty, President Obama persuaded major polluting countries such as China to listen to scientists and move with the United States toward cuts in emissions.

    Future generations will suffer if Mr. Trump succeeds in reversing that progress.

  • Media Explain Everything Wrong With Trump’s Energy Speech

    ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

    Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump gave a speech about energy issues on May 26 at an oil conference in North Dakota in which he asserted that he would expand fossil fuel drilling and restore coal mining jobs and he ignored or downplayed renewable energy’s potential. Media figures have criticized Trump’s claims as “utter nonsense” that “defy free market-forces” and noted that his remarks displayed a “lack of basic knowledge” about the energy industry and were full of “absurd, impossible-to-keep promises.”

  • As Trump Talks Energy, Media Should Recall His Preposterous Track Record

    ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS & KEVIN KALHOEFER

    Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is expected to discuss energy policies during a May 26 keynote speech at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference. When reporting on his remarks, media should keep in mind Trump’s long track record of extreme and half-baked positions on energy and environmental issues, including repeatedly denying climate change science, vowing to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, and pledging to “renegotiate” the landmark Paris climate agreement.

  • LA Times Criticizes Lack Of Climate Change Questions In Presidential Debates

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    The Los Angeles Times editorial board lamented that climate change has been largely overlooked in presidential election coverage so far, despite it being “the most pressing issue of our time.”

    The Times pointed to a Media Matters analysis, which found that through the first 20 presidential primary debates, moderators only asked 22 questions about climate change, making up just 1.5 percent of the 1,477 questions asked during the debates. Instead, debate moderators have focused on the political horserace and other non-substantive issues. Moderators posed so few climate questions that Democratic candidates brought up climate change unprompted more than twice as often as the debate moderators did.

    Debate moderators’ failure to bring up climate change drew the attention of a bipartisan group of 21 Florida mayors, who urged networks hosting debates in Miami to ask the candidates about climate change. The subsequent debates in Miami featured seven questions about climate change, accounting for nearly one-third of the 22 climate questions asked over the course of all 20 primary debates. The lack of climate questions in the debates also prompted a group of Nobel Laureates and hundreds of other experts to call for at least one presidential debate that is exclusively focused on science, health, technology, and environmental issues.

    From the May 26 Times editorial, titled, “Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. So why isn't it getting more play in the election?":

    Climate change is, as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently put it, "one of the most crucial problems on Earth."  Yet the issue has been largely absent from the current presidential campaign.

    [...]

    So what forms the core of our political discourse instead? It’s ranged from the size of Trump’s, uh, hands to whether Clinton enabled her husband’s philandering to how to make Mexico pay for a wall the length of the border, along with international trade agreements, under what circumstances the military should be deployed, and whether the multi-nation deal with Iran to freeze its nuclear program was wise or foolish.

    Climate change barely resonates. An assessment in March by Media Matters found that across 20 debates among candidates in both major parties, global warming accounted for only 1.5% of the questions asked – 22 out of 1,477 questions. Nearly a third of the questions came in two Florida debates after some of that states’ mayors asked that the issue be addressed. And voters haven't particularly cared, either. A February Gallup poll found climate change low on the list of issues that voters say matter to them – especially for Republicans, for whom it was the least-significant issue included in the survey.

    That’s a lot of heads in the sand – dangerously so if the sand happens to be near the rising seas.

    [...]

    Confronting the challenges of climate change will require significant political leadership, particularly since a cluster of deniers hold influential congressional positions. Given the severity of the threat, the issue should play a far greater role in the national discussion.