A FoxNews.com article questioned whether 2012 was actually the hottest year on record, quoting "skeptics" who suggest a government office is manipulating data to fabricate proof of rising temperatures. In fact, statistical adjustments made by the agency are required, publicly-documented changes to correct for errors and known sources of bias in the raw data.
In January, the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) announced that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the contiguous U.S. - an announcement that Fox News ignored until one of Fox News' few liberal commentators, Bob Beckel, tried to bring it up on The Five. Soon after, FoxNews.com reporter Maxim Lott solicited the views of a few professional climate "skeptics" to claim that scientists made unjustified data adjustments to exaggerate 2012's heat.
Under the headline "Hottest year ever? Skeptics question revisions to climate data," Lott quoted Roy Spencer, a rare climate contrarian scientist who considers it his job to "minimize the role of government," and Steve Goddard, a climate denier-cum-birther writing under a pseudonym, to cast doubt on the temperature record. According to Goddard, the U.S. only "appears" to have warmed as a result of the agency's adjustments, making the data "meaningless garbage." Lott gave the final word to former television weatherman and blogger Anthony Watts, who said, "In the business and trading world, people go to jail for such manipulations of data."
But the NCDC has publicly explained that it needs to make adjustments to the raw temperature data to account for flaws that can result, for example, when stations are moved, are measuring temperatures at different times of day, or are measuring temperature with different instruments. The NCDC carefully applies these adjustments after publishing their methods in multiple peer-reviewed papers. As several scientists tried to explain to FoxNews.com, these adjustments make the temperature data more accurate:
Government climate scientist Peter Thorne, speaking in his personal capacity, said that there was consensus for the adjustments.
"These have been shown through at least three papers that have appeared in the past 12 months to be an improvement," he said.
NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen agreed.
"These kinds of improvements get us even closer to the true climate signal, and help our nation even more accurately understand its climate history," he said.
Conservative media outlets are claiming that a leaked draft of the UN climate panel's upcoming report undermines previous predictions of rapid warming driven by rising CO2 emissions. But scientists say these claims are "nonsense" and that the draft report only adds to the existing body of evidence that manmade climate change is a serious problem.
A draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment report, due to be published in fall 2013, was leaked by Alec Rawls, a blogger who volunteered to review the report despite having no scientific expertise. In a blog post on Watts Up With That, Rawls claimed that the draft report contains a "game-changing admission" that galactic cosmic rays have significantly contributed to global warming, undermining the scientific consensus that climate change is driven by human activity. But experts say Rawls "completely misrepresented the IPCC report," noting that he ignored a paragraph that explicitly states there is "high agreement" among scientists that cosmic rays do not have a meaningful impact on global temperatures. Dr. Steve Sherwood -- a lead author of the chapter in question -- told Australia's ABC News that Rawls' claim is "ridiculous," adding: "we conclude exactly the opposite, that this cosmic ray effect that the paragraph is discussing appears to be negligible."
Furthermore, as Skeptical Science pointed out, even if cosmic rays did influence global temperatures, "they would currently be having a cooling effect." Dr. John Abraham of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team told Media Matters:
The IPCC report certainly was not saying the changes in the sun were causing the earth to warm. In fact, if the leaker was correct in his interpretation, the earth should be cooling right now!
But that didn't stop Investor's Business Daily from echoing his misinformation, claiming that the leaked draft "indicates the IPCC is actually admitting that a factor outside man's activities is playing a significant role in our climate." IBD quoted Rawls' claim that the section on cosmic rays "completely undercuts" the IPCC's conclusion that manmade climate change poses a significant threat, without noting that Rawls is not a scientist and has been thoroughly discredited.
Meanwhile, climate contrarian blogger Anthony Watts claimed to have discovered the real "bombshell" in the draft report: a chart comparing observed changes in global average surface temperatures with projections from the four previous IPCC reports. The chart indicates that early UN projections may have slightly overestimated warming because they did not take into account natural factors like solar forcing or aerosols, which tend to have a cooling effect. But the draft notes that "observations through 2010 generally fall well within the projections made in all of the past assessments."
Despite the overwhelming consensus among climate experts that human activity is contributing to rising global temperatures, 66 percent of Americans incorrectly believe there is "a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening." The conservative media has fueled this confusion by distorting scientific research, hyping faux-scandals, and giving voice to groups funded by industries that have a financial interest in blocking action on climate change. Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets have shied away from the "controversy" over climate change and have failed to press U.S. policymakers on how they will address this global threat. When climate change is discussed, mainstream outlets sometimes strive for a false balance that elevates marginal voices and enables them to sow doubt about the science even in the face of mounting evidence.
Here, Media Matters looks at how conservative media outlets give industry-funded "experts" a platform, creating a polarized misunderstanding of climate science.
The Economist has called the libertarian Heartland Institute "the world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change." Every year, Heartland hosts an "International Conference on Climate Change," bringing together a small group of contrarians (mostly non-scientists) who deny that manmade climate change is a serious problem. To promote its most recent conference, Heartland launched a short-lived billboard campaign associating acceptance of climate science with "murderers, tyrants, and madmen" including Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson and Fidel Castro. Facing backlash from corporate donors and even some of its own staff, Heartland removed the billboard, but refused to apologize for the "experiment."
Heartland does not disclose its donors, but internal documents obtained in February reveal that Heartland received $25,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2011 and anticipated $200,000 in additional funding in 2012. Charles Koch is CEO and co-owner of Koch Industries, a corporation with major oil interests. Along with his brother David Koch, he has donated millions to groups that spread climate misinformation. Heartland also receives funding from some corporations with a financial interest in confusing the public on climate science. ExxonMobil contributed over $600,000 to Heartland between 1998 and 2006, but has since pledged to stop funding groups that cast doubt on climate change.
Despite their industry ties and lack of scientific expertise, Heartland Institute fellows are often given a media platform to promote their marginal views on climate change. Most visible is James Taylor, a lawyer with no climate science background who heads Heartland's environmental initiative. Taylor dismisses "alarmist propaganda that global warming is a human-caused problem that needs to be addressed," and suggests that taking action to reduce emissions could cause a return to the "the Little Ice Age and the Black Death." But that hasn't stopped Forbes from publishing his weekly column, which he uses to spout climate misinformation and accuse scientists of "doctoring" temperature data to fabricate a warming trend. It also hasn't stopped Fox News from promoting his misinformation.
Last night, PBS NewsHour turned to meteorologist and climate change contrarian Anthony Watts to "counterbalance" the mainstream scientific opinions presented by the program. This false balance is a disservice to PBS' viewers, made worse by the program's failure to explain Watts' connection to the Heartland Institute, an organization that receives funding from some corporations with a financial interest in confusing the public on climate science.
While PBS mentioned that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that manmade global warming is occurring, it did not reflect this consensus by giving significant airtime to Watts' contrarian views. The segment presented Watts as the counterbalance to scientists that believe in manmade global warming -- every time a statement that reflects the scientific consensus was aired, in came Watts to cast doubt in viewers' minds. As 66 percent of Americans incorrectly think that "there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening," news organizations need to be careful not to contribute to this confusion.
The segment focused on the findings of physicist Richard Muller, who was previously skeptical of climate science, and decided to embark on a study to re-examine the data. Muller's work was partially funded by the Koch Brothers, who fund climate contrarian groups like the Heartland Institute, and he collaborated with Watts to address his concerns about the reliability of the temperature record. Watts stated at the time, "I'm prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong." But after Muller reconfirmed the surface temperature record that has been constructed by several scientific groups and is consistent with satellite temperature records, Watts continued to dispute it. Yet in the full interview with Watts that PBS posted online, reporter Spencer Michels did not challenge Watts once, instead asking questions like, "What's the thing that bothers you the most about people who say there's lots of global warming?"
In the online report, Michels revealed that he got in contact with Watts through the Heartland Institute -- which he failed to mention on-air. Segments like this one on PBS are the very goal of groups like the Heartland Institute, as the New York Times' Andrew Revkin explained:
The norm of journalistic balance has been exploited by opponents of emissions curbs. Starting in the late 1990s, big companies whose profits were tied to fossil fuels recognized they could use this journalistic practice to amplify the inherent uncertainties in climate projections and thus potentially delay cuts in emissions from burning those fuels. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this strategy was a long memo written by Joe Walker, who worked in public relations at the American Petroleum Industry, that surfaced in 1998. According to this ''Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan,'' first revealed by my colleague John Cushman at the New York Times, ''Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom'' for ''average citizens'' and ''the media'' (Cushman 1998). The action plan called for scientists to be recruited, be given media training, highlight the questions about climate, and downplay evidence pointing to dangers. Since then, industry-funded groups have used the media's tradition of quoting people with competing views to convey a state of confusion even as consensus on warming has built.
In addition to being promoted by Heartland, Watts was paid by the Heartland Institute for his work on temperature stations. Yet PBS left out that fact, even as it aired Watts suggesting that 97 percent of climate scientists are lying in order to be paid by the allegedly lucrative global warming "business":
In a Daily Caller post, climate change skeptic Anthony Watts used familiar tactics to downplay human-induced climate change: He focused on national rather than global temperature data; he looked at a short time period rather than the long-term trend; and he portrayed routine data adjustments as deceptive doctoring by government agencies.
A new study confirming the accuracy of existing global temperature records has been ignored by the all the major television news outlets, except for one mention in a CNN news brief. But the omission is most conspicuous at Fox News, which routinely casts doubt on the temperature data, accuses climate scientists of doctoring research to exaggerate global warming, and often just makes up its own temperature facts.
The new research from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project indicates that land surface temperature has risen about 0.9°C in the last 50 years, which is consistent with the findings of the major climate data centers in the U.S. and the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU), the group at the center of the "Climategate" story.
The study was set up by physicist Richard Muller to investigate criticisms of the prevailing global temperature records by using a different methodology and more raw data. Writing about his results, which have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, Muller said:
When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn't know what we'd find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.
In response to the suspension of federal scientist Charles Monnett, who authored a 2006 article documenting polar bear deaths, conservative media have claimed that the case exposes "the global warming fraud" and that polar bears are not threatened by climate change. In fact, extensive research establishes that polar bears are vulnerable to extinction due to decreasing sea ice, and human-induced global warming is supported by a robust body of evidence independent of any polar bear studies.