Environment & Science

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  • 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.

  • Media Should Scrutinize Trump’s Fact-Free Claim That China Will Violate Paris Climate Agreement

    ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Presumptive Republican presidential nominee and climate science denier Donald Trump told Reuters that if elected, he would renegotiate the historic Paris climate change agreement -- if not scrap it altogether -- because “China doesn’t adhere to it, and China’s spewing into the atmosphere." But media outlets should think twice before repeating Trump’s claims about China, which experts say is already well on its way toward meeting its obligations under the Paris agreement thanks to major investments in clean energy and energy efficiency.

  • Big Oil Cheerleader Robert Bryce Predictably Misleads On Wind Energy And Eagle Deaths In WSJ

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Life can be full of surprises, but Big Oil ally Robert Bryce deceptively attacking wind energy in the pages of the Wall Street Journal evidently isn’t one of them.

    On May 6, Daily Kos published a blog post presciently warning that the Journal would provide Bryce with opinion page space to attack wind energy by latching onto newly announced revisions to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regulations governing the accidental harming or killing of bald and golden eagles. The blog cited Bryce and the Journal as likely contributors to “a fresh round of fossil fuel-penned pieces crying crocodile tears for birds”:

    Bryce wrote op-eds attacking wind power in February, October and November 2013, which are all similar to one he wrote in 2009, and just like what he wrote in 2015. Since he already attacked wind power back in February of this year, one might think the WSJ editors wouldn’t want to go back to him for essentially a rerun of the same op-ed. But the WSJ has published over twenty of his pieces since 2009, all of which are either explicitly anti-wind or pro-fossil fuels.

    On May 15, Bryce and the Journal proved the Daily Kos blog post right with a Bryce op-ed castigating FWS for “trying to make it easier for the wind industry to kill” eagles.

    Bryce complained that the new rules would allow wind energy producers to kill or injure up to 4,200 eagles per year and hyped data showing that wind turbines were responsible for about 573,000 total bird deaths (not just eagles) in 2012. But as the Daily Kos piece explained, it is misleading to cite these figures without explaining that wind turbines are responsible for only “about 3 percent of human-caused eagle deaths” and that other factors -- including the oil and gas industry and climate change -- are a much greater threat to birds than wind energy. From the Daily Kos:

    [A]t present 970 million birds crash into buildings annually, 175 million die after flying into power lines, 72 million killed by misapplied pesticide, 6.6 million from collisions with communications towers, and “as many as 1 million birds die in oil and gas industry fluid waste pits."

    [...]

    Given the massive harm to birds from carbon pollution (an Audubon report found that half of all of America’s birds are at risk from climate change) [Bryce] should be gung-ho about reducing emissions.

    In addition to Bryce’s long record of attacking clean energy, there’s another reason his latest anti-wind screed is so predictable: He’s a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which has received millions of dollars from oil interests over the years, including $800,000 from ExxonMobil and $1.9 million from a foundation run by the oil billionaire Koch brothers.

    Unfortunately, it was also easy to predict that the Journal editorial board members would allow Bryce to attack wind energy without disclosing his oil industry conflict of interest -- because they did the same thing earlier this year.

  • Experts, Media Say Trump Wrong, Clinton Right About Coal Industry's Decline

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Media outlets and industry experts are recognizing that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is wildly off-base when he claims that he can revive the coal industry, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is correct when she says that market forces -- not environmental regulations -- are the main cause of the coal industry’s decline.

    Following his victory in the May 3 Republican primary, Trump pledged, “We're going to get those miners back to work,” referencing coal miners in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio specifically. When asked how exactly Trump would accomplish that feat, a Trump advisor said the candidate would review Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards that affect the coal industry.

    But Trump’s plan to restore coal industry employment is highly unrealistic, as several industry experts and media fact-checkers have recently noted.

    In a May 5 “Fact Check,” the Associated Press reported that while Trump has long claimed that EPA emission standards on coal-fired power plants are “killing American jobs,” experts say “a bigger factor in coal's decline has been cheaper natural gas.” The AP noted that John Deskins, the director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, “said government's ability to boost coal production is limited,” and the AP quoted Deskins saying, “It is very unlikely we will see a return to levels of coal production like we observed in 2008." The AP added: “There is another limitation on coal's future in Appalachia: After decades of heavy production, there is less of it to be mined.”

    Similarly, in a May 10 column in The Hill, contributor and Rice University associate professor Daniel Cohan wrote: “Despite the bold pledge, Trump is about as likely to bring back the heyday of coal mining employment as to cajole Mexico to fund a border wall. Neither is going to happen, no matter who is elected president.” Cohan noted that Appalachian coal mining employment “began to decline in the 1980s,” and that the “financial services firm Lazard estimates that wind, utility-scale solar and natural gas all provide cheaper options for new power generation than coal, even before considering subsidies.” Cohan added that the U.S. coal industry can also no longer count on coal exports, which “have plummeted as demand has waned in Europe and Asia,” particularly in China, where the government is cutting the country’s coal use to address severe air pollution and climate change.

    Additionally, a May 10 ClimateWire article titled “Trump Cannot Bring Back Coal” reported that both Deskins and Chiza Vitta, a Standard & Poor’s credit rating analyst, “see a continuing decline in the coal sector, with no real chance for a major recovery.” ClimateWire reported that Vitta said the coal industry is going to have to “be notably smaller to be profitable again” and added: “We do not view regulations as the primary factor for the decline.”

    As Forbes contributor Tim Worstall put it: “Trump simply isn’t going to bring back all those mining jobs. They’re gone, gone forever.”

    Meanwhile, PolitiFact has ruled that Clinton’s claim that “the market” is responsible for coal industry bankruptcies is “mostly true.”

    In a May 4 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Clinton stated:

    One hundred thousand coal miners in this country lost their lives in the 20th century, so I want people to pay attention to what we, as a nation, need to do to support them. But the market is making this decision. The market has driven down the cost of coal so you have companies going bankrupt. So what I'm offering is a $30 billion plan to really revitalize coal country, to provide support for coal miners and their families, and I think that is the least the country owes these brave people.

    In its May 10 fact check of Clinton’s remarks, PolitiFact determined that it is “mostly true” that “market forces made coal companies go bankrupt.” PolitiFact stated: “We talked to coal industry experts who told us that the primary forces working against coal are market-based, notably the growth of natural gas as a cleaner, cheaper alternative.” In addition to low natural gas prices, Politifact reported that West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley cited a “depleted supply” of Appalachian coal and “growing demand and diminishing costs for renewable energy, like wind and solar power,” as significant factors in the coal industry’s decline.

    PolitiFact added:

    But it was a big, failed bet on the international coal market that ultimately pushed companies to a point where they couldn’t pay off their debts, forcing them to file for bankruptcy reorganization.

    About five years ago, the big coal companies  — Arch, Alpha and Peabody — took out massive loans to invest in metallurgical coal, a type found in the Appalachia region. They thought fast-growing Asian countries, particularly China, would want the coal to facilitate economic development.

    But China’s growth slowed, and the demand never materialized. The companies have been unable to pay back their debts on this project, and that’s what sent them into bankruptcy, [University of Wyoming professor Robert] Godby said.

    PolitiFact said that environmental regulations “may make electricity companies apprehensive about investing in coal down the line,” and “may play a larger role” as the coal industry becomes more vulnerable and environmental protections grow. But the article concluded, “Economic forces on both the national and international markets are the main reason coal’s prominence in the American energy sector is now vulnerable, forcing coal-burning plant closures and several high-profile bankruptcies.”

    Indeed, while Clinton’s remarks about the coal industry have been frequently distorted by conservative media, competition from natural gas and renewables, depletion of easily recoverable coal reserves, and advances in mining technology are the most significant factors in the coal industry’s decline -- not environmental protections.