Right-wing media are laughing about President Barack Obama mentioning climate change in his fifth State of the Union address because it is cold in D.C. But the wobbly polar vortex bringing cold air to much of the contiguous United States is simultaneously causing record warmth in Alaska, a state often seen as the nation's "ground zero" for climate change.
On January 28, Alaska's largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, ran this remarkable headline: "Record warmth, confused plants: An Alaska January to remember." The article noted that it was 62 degrees Fahrenheit in one town, tying the January state record, but did not allude to the long-term warming trend. In November, the newspaper did briefly invoke the possibility of climate change while expressing disbelief that strawberries were growing "In Anchorage. In November."
Yet just a year ago, right-wing media claimed the state was headed toward "an ice age." The Alaska Dispatch, a prominent online news site, ran the misleading headline, "Forget global warming, Alaska is headed for an ice age." The report was promoted by the conservative British tabloid, the Daily Mail, and the climate denial site, WattsUpWithThat, which highlighted the state's relatively lower average temperature in 2012.
As the chart above also shows though, cherry-picking a short-time period is misleading -- natural variation can mask the long-term trend. Contrary to claims of an "ice age," studies project that average annual temperatures in Alaska will increase "an additional 3.5 to 7°F by the middle of this century," according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Warming in Alaska already has caused highways to buckle and homes in areas such as Shismaref, pictured above, to sink, as the EPA explained:
Many of Alaska's highways are built on permafrost. When permafrost thaws, roads buckle. Vehicles are only allowed to drive across certain roads in the tundra when the ground is frozen solid. In the past 30 years, the number of days when travel is allowed on the tundra has decreased from 200 days to 100 days per year.
Along Alaska's northwestern coast, increased coastal erosion is causing some shorelines to retreat at rates averaging tens of feet per year. Here, melting sea ice has reduced natural coastal protection. In Shishmaref, Kivalina, and other Alaska Native Villages, erosion has caused homes to collapse into the sea. Severe erosion has forced some Alaska Native Villages' populations to relocate in order to protect lives and property.
Image at top via Alaska's Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development
On January 28, President Obama gave his fifth State of the Union speech during which he addressed the urgent need to act on climate change. Conservative media pundits latched on to the cold winter weather in the area during his speech to laugh off global warming, despite the clear long-term warming trend.
Fox News host Sean Hannity has asserted 192 times that he and other Republicans do not want "dirty water." Yet he has not once covered the recent coal-washing chemical spill that left 300,000 West Virginia residents with no tap water to drink or bathe in -- an incident made more likely by the anti-regulation policies he supports.
On January 9, a storage tank at a Freedom Industries facility in West Virginia holding chemicals used to "clean" coal leaked into a river located near a water-treatment center. Residents noticed a strong odor soon after and were told to stop using their water.
The incident outraged many, but Hannity has instead focused his ire at those warning that Republican-backed deregulation would put people at risk of dirtier air and water. He has decried those saying these policies would lead to "dirtier air, dirtier water" 192 times*, calling the warnings "absurd and irresponsible scare tactics" and a vicious "lie." In fact, Hannity has wholeheartedly supported allowing more coal and enforcing fewer regulations -- a plan that could lead to more disasters like the one in West Virginia that he has ignored**.
Here are the five most infuriating things about the West Virginia spill that a self-declared "clean water" defender could have covered:
1. The company behind the spill is avoiding liability by filing for bankruptcy. MSNBC host Chris Hayes described how Cliff Forrest, the owner of the Freedom Industries who previously handed out "stop the war on coal" signs attacking President Barack Obama, filed for bankruptcy while opening another company that could take over "a big chunk of Freedom Industries' assets":
2. The company initially failed to disclose a second chemical in the water. The public only learned about the second chemical 12 days after the leak, as the company had originally told state regulators that the chemical was "proprietary" information. The Centers for Disease Control said that information about the chemical is "limited" but that they didn't anticipate any new health concerns.
3. West Virginia residents still aren't sure if their water is safe. After five days of not being able to use their water, residents were told by West Virginia American Water that the water was safe to drink. However, two days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that pregnant women should not drink the water. Hospital admissions have doubled since the ban was lifted, and many health experts have said that not enough is known about the chemical to state definitively that the water is safe to drink or bathe in. West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said of the water supply, "it's your decision ... I'm not a scientist."
4. There's a bill that might've stopped all of this. There are more than 62,000 chemicals that have not been publicly tested, including the chemical that spilled in West Virginia, which hampered authorities' attempts to assess and address the health risks it poses. The Safe Chemicals Act, opposed by the chemical industry, would address this by requiring companies to prove a chemical's safety before selling it.
5. But water pollution laws on the books aren't even being enforced. A 2009 New York Times investigation found that "In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times. The violations range from failing to report emissions to dumping toxins at concentrations regulators say might contribute to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses. However, the vast majority of those polluters have escaped punishment."
Fox News thinks it's "heartbreaking" that a "one-sided" pro-fracking film was rejected from a film festival in Minnesota, questioning the right to "freedom of speech." But the screening was canceled simply because it did not live up to the festival's standards.
On January 23, Fox and Friends hosted Phelim McAleer, director of the pro-fracking film called FrackNation, to complain about the film's cancellation from the Frozen River Film Festival. Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck lamented that the cancellation "has to just be heartbreaking," that Ireland-native McAleer came to America "to express [his] freedom of thought [and] expression." In McAleer's eyes, the festival organizers "don't want the people of Minnesota to be exposed to an alternative point of view." Co-host Steve Doocy ended the segment by asking, "Freedom of speech? You be the judge."
Doocy has previously answered his own question, acknowledging that "a private company can do anything they want" and it's "not [a] free speech [issue]."
A chyron during the segment stated that "MCALEER REJECTED INDUSTRY FINANCING FOR FILM." However, a review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found that "scores of energy industry associates" donated to the film's Kickstarter campaign, which was promoted by several pro-industry lobbying groups. What's more, McAleer and his co-director Ann McElhinney previously produced two anti-environment films openly funded by the fossil fuel industry. They are both listed as "experts" on the Heartland Institute's website, an organization infamous for climate change denial. It's no wonder that the San Francisco Chronicle previously dubbed McAleer "climate denial's Michael Moore" for his misleading film portraying global warming as "junk science."
The festival organizers cited the film's industry ties as one reason that they decided to cancel it, following in the footsteps of the Sundance Film Festival and Telluride's Mountian Film Festival (Frozen River's partner festival).
While Fox News noted that the film was called "methodically researched" by the New York Times, other movie reviewers have panned it. A Los Angeles Times review called it a "one-sided attack piece" that "doesn't add much to the conversation." The New York Daily News gave it a whopping one-star review, and wrote, "the accuracy of this crowd-sourced documentary -- funded by small donations on Kickstarter -- seems as reliable as a Wikipedia entry."
From the January 22 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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ESPN announcers recently used a cold spell to mock global warming in their live commentary, mainstreaming the conservative myth that cold weather disproves global warming. But during coverage of the Australian Open, which saw dangerous, record-breaking heat, commentators remained silent on the issue -- a trend more akin to Fox News.
During an Arctic chill on January 7, ESPN commentators Jimmy Dykes and Brad Nessler interjected their sports coverage with climate denial. Dykes mentioned that he had watched a national television debate over "whether or not global warming was still taking place," saying he "listened to about 30 seconds of it, but the guy saying no it has not, I think he won the debate." Nessler laughed in agreement, adding, "It's about 50 below wind chill [in Minnesota] so there's no global warming in that part of the country." In response to criticism, Dykes tweeted, "God is in control of our climate. He does not make mistakes. Plus it's 3 degrees where I stand right now : )"
However, as Melbourne experiences record-breaking heat during the Australian Open -- including the worst heat wave Melbourne has suffered since 1908 -- ESPN commentators have been mum on climate change one way or the other. Instead, they have opted to make light of the dangerous temperatures; after one tennis player hallucinated that he saw Snoopy before fainting, a commentator joked, "I wonder if Snoopy had a racket."
From the January 18 edition of Fox News' Cashin' In:
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A Media Matters analysis found that network nightly news coverage of climate change was tepid in 2013, despite growing scientific evidence that global warming is getting worse. By contrast, PBS aired nearly three times as much climate coverage as ABC World News, the worst offender.
PBS NewsHour aired more news coverage about climate change and interviewed more scientists on the issue than any other evening network news program in 2013. The scale and scope of coverage demonstrated the program's commitment to reporting on global warming, a pattern Media Matters first identified in 2012. The program broadcast 35 stories that at least mentioned climate change, far more than what ABC World News, NBC Nightly News or CBS Evening News chose to give its audiences. By comparison, the three other network nightly news programs aired a combined total of 49 stories that at least mentioned global warming.
A group of senators is asking for more broadcast coverage on climate change, following a Media Matters analysis which found that Sunday shows aired only scant coverage on the issue last year.
On Thursday, January 16, a letter spearheaded by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was sent to the top executives of four major television networks, expressing "deep concern" about the lack of coverage on global warming, deeming it a "serious environmental crisis" which "poses a huge threat to our nation and the global community." The letter cited findings from a recent Media Matters study, which revealed that Sunday news shows dedicated merely 27 minutes of coverage to the issue of climate change throughout all of 2013. They wrote that "this is an absurdly short amount of time for a subject of such importance."
The senators concluded with a call to action: "We urge you to take action in the near term to correct this oversight and provide your viewers, the American public, with greater discussion of this important issue that impacts everyone on the planet."
The other senators that signed the letter were Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
The letter in full:
Dear Mr. Ailes, Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Sherwood, and Ms. Turness:
We are writing to express our deep concern about the lack of attention to climate change on such Sunday news shows as ABC's "This Week," NBC's "Meet the Press," CBS's "Face the Nation," and "Fox News Sunday."
According to the scientific community, climate change is the most serious environmental crisis facing our planet. The scientists who have studied this issue are virtually unanimous in the view that climate change is occurring, that it poses a huge threat to our nation and the global community, and that it is caused by human activity. In fact, 97% of researchers actively publishing in this field agree with these conclusions.
The scientific community and governmental leaders around the world rightly worry about the horrific dangers we face if we do not address climate change. Sea level rise will take its toll on coastal states. Communities will be increasingly at risk of billions of dollars in damages from more extreme weather. And farmers may see crops and livestock destroyed as worsening drought sets in. Yet, despite these warnings, there has been shockingly little discussion on the Sunday morning news shows about this critically important issue. This is disturbing not only because the millions of viewers who watch these shows deserve to hear that discussion, but because the Sunday shows often have an impact on news coverage in other media throughout the week.
A study published today by Media Matters for America reported that Sunday news shows devoted 27 minutes of air time in 2013 to climate change coverage.
Although it is a modest improvement over the eight minutes of coverage in 2012, given the widely recognized challenge that climate change poses to the nation and the world, this is an absurdly short amount of time for a subject of such importance.
We are more than aware that major fossil fuel companies spend significant amounts of money advertising on your networks. We hope that this is not influencing your decision about the subjects discussed or the guests who appear on your network programming.
Thank you very much for your interest in this matter. We urge you to take action in the near term to correct this oversight and provide your viewers, the American public, with greater discussion of this important issue that impacts everyone on the planet. We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT)
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD)
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)
Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT)
Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI)
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
A Media Matters analysis reveals that news coverage of climate change on ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX picked up in 2013 over the previous year, but remained lower than a 2009 high. Furthermore, while one Sunday show interviewed scientists about climate change, distinguishing itself as the first such program to do so in five years, these shows continued to rely largely on media figures and Republicans to dictate the conversation around global warming.
The Baltimore Sun recently signed a deal with Maryland conservative blog Red Maryland to provide content for its website. But one of the site's editors, Mark Newgent, has worked for organizations that receive funding from fossil fuel companies to attack climate science.
The recent Arctic chill has given Fox News an excuse to give "skeptics" a platform to deny climate change and bash climate science. But the network has been remiss to discuss the topic during periods of record heat.
During their coverage of cold weather from January 2 to January 8, Fox News brought up climate change nine times, casting doubt on it every single time. They also devoted a significant amount of coverage to a ship getting stuck in Antarctic ice to mock climate change during this period. But this strongly contrasts Fox News' coverage of extreme heat events, in which the network is typically silent on the topic of global warming. A previous Media Matters analysis found that, in a parallel week-long time period in 2011, Fox News did not mention climate change once while reporting on an unusually intense heat wave. And throughout the entire month of July 2012, which was the hottest month on record for the United States, the network discussed climate change in the heat wave's context once -- in order to deny it.
Meanwhile, MSNBC primarily featured the anti-scientific "skeptic" claims to dismiss them in its five segments on the topic. CNN meteorologist Chad Meyers rebutted the "skeptic" claims in one segment, but in CNN's only other segment on the topic, the network portrayed the science of global warming as up for a "debate" by non-scientists. As MSNBC's Al Sharpton put it, "It's times like these that you want a scientist around to explain things" -- he brought on Bill Nye "The Science Guy" to make the case:
Fox News' Neil Cavuto continued to ignore the desperate need for infrastructure investment in the United States, repeatedly arguing instead that the government is stealing or misappropriating existing resources.
On the January 13 edition of Fox News' Your World, host Cavuto invited former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to discuss proposals to raise the federal gas tax to fund construction, repair, and renovation of America's crumbling transportation infrastructure. Rather than acknowledging the need to raise revenue to fund necessary projects, Cavuto made the unsubstantiated claim that federal, state, and local funds for infrastructure investment are being stolen or abused:
The paranoid and unsupported claims made by Cavuto during the segment echo his comments from a contentious December 3 interview with Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). On both occasions, Cavuto claimed without evidence that "someone" in the government had "stolen," "abscond[ed]," or "[run] off with" billions of dollars earmarked for vital improvements to roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure systems.
Once again, the only proof that Cavuto provided to support his claims is the fact that American infrastructure is in a state of disrepair. As Media Matters has shown in the past, the dilapidated condition of America's infrastructure is entirely the result of insufficient funding, not the alleged fraud, theft, or misappropriation suggested by the Fox host.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the public infrastructure of the United States earned a D+ grade in 2013 and is in need of $3.6 trillion worth of investments and upgrades by 2020. The ASCE estimates the cost of modernizing only America's bridges to be $121 billion, roughly equivalent to all of the revenue streams cited by Cavuto as excessive and wasteful during his tirade against the gas tax.
The reason that former Secretary LaHood, Representative Blumenauer, and others advocate raising the gas tax is precisely because the amount currently raised and spent by the federal government on infrastructure investments is too small. The federal tax, which has not be raised in 20 years, is one of many proposals to close this funding gap.
Instead of engaging in a substantive and important policy discussion, Fox News would rather promote its own narrative that all federal spending is riddled with fraud and abuse.
From the January 9 edition of Fox News' Hannity:
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Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national community of over 850 business leaders, is calling on CBS to correct their most recent 60 Minutes report, "The Cleantech Crash." Simultaneously, a climate change advocacy group is calling for CBS to appoint a public editor to investigate its one-sided story, which followed a string of poor reporting from the program.
"The Cleantech Crash" aired on the January 5 edition of CBS' 60 Minutes, and shortly thereafter drew wide criticism from members of the clean energy industry and among energy reporters. In the segment, correspondent Lesley Stahl wondered if clean tech has become a "dirty word," and concluded,"instead of breakthroughs, the [clean tech] sector suffered a string of expensive tax-funded flops." But critics have pointed out that Stahl focused too narrowly on the failure of a few companies and ignored most of the industry's success. In an interview with Media Matters, San Francisco Chronicle energy reporter David Baker called the segment "a pretty poor piece of journalism," adding, "There are areas of this field that are hurting, but there are others that are doing very, very well."
E2 is now asking CBS producers for a correction to the "misguided" report, writing, "it was shocking for those of us who know about creating businesses, jobs and clean energy to see a respected news organization get this story so wrong in so many ways." They concluded:
The litany of factual mistakes and distortions in 60 Minutes' piece cries out for a correction. While the networks by tradition are strangers to the concept of a public mea culpa, setting the record straight would continue CBS's more responsible position of owning up to the facts.
At the same time, Forecast the Facts, a climate change advocacy group, is calling for 60 Minutes to appoint a public editor to investigate the "Cleantech Crash" segment and ensure that "all future reporting serves the public interest." The group organized a petition to be delivered to Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of 60 Minutes, asking him to "hire a Public Editor to investigate the broadcast immediately and ensure 60 Minutes' climate reporting is accurate." The petition already has thousands of signatures.