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.
Fox News is hyping a petition that calls for Congress to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, on the grounds that global warming is a "hoax." But while hyping 15,000 signatures gathered by a group that is in the business of misleading the public on climate science, Fox ignored that over 3 million comments have been submitted in favor of EPA's greenhouse gas regulations.
Fox News uncritically repeated the conservative Heartland Institute's declaration that the extensive science behind manmade climate change is just a "hoax." The group's petition, which is being promoted by Republican Senator James Inhofe, tries to cast doubt on everything from the basic physics of the greenhouse effect to the fact that Arctic sea ice has hit record lows and sea levels are rising. Based on that misinformation, the petition argues that the EPA should allow businesses to continue spewing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the air at no cost to the polluters.
Fox News did not give any background on the Heartland Institute, which has received significant industry funding and came under fire earlier this year for a billboard campaign associating acceptance of climate science with murderers. Heartland took down the billboard, but refused to apologize for its "experiment."
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":
Natural gas can help the U.S. transition away from reliance on coal in the near-term if it is produced responsibly. But conservative media have dismissed the risks involved with the rapid spread of natural gas extraction to push for deregulation, attack the Obama administration, and ignore the need for a comprehensive energy policy to transition to renewable energy.
A recent Forbes column alleges that federal scientists are "doctoring" temperature data to fabricate a warming trend, after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the last 12-month period was the warmest on record for the continental U.S.
But what the column paints as a nefarious conspiracy is actually just proper science -- NOAA painstakingly applies peer-reviewed adjustments to account for errors and gaps in the raw data from thousands of temperature stations across the country. The resulting temperature record has been independently evaluated and corroborated.
The column is by James Taylor of the Heartland Institute, the libertarian group that recently made headlines with a short-lived billboard campaign tastelessly invoking the Unabomber. This is not the first time Taylor has used his platform at Forbes to malign scientists and spread bad information about climate research.
At issue are the corrections NOAA uses to eliminate errors and known sources of bias from the raw weather station data (which Taylor likes to call "the real-world data"). Keep in mind that the U.S. represents just 2% of the Earth's surface so the data we're talking about are a small part of the evidence of global climate change.
The scientists (Taylor calls them "bureaucrats") know that the raw data have flaws -- stations are moved, natural disasters knock stations offline, measuring instruments change -- so NOAA performs quality control using methods that are published in peer-reviewed papers. Taylor concedes that "it is, of course, possible that certain factors can influence the real-world temperature readings such that a correction in real-world temperature data may be justified." But when he doesn't like the results, he concludes that the adjustments aren't valid corrections but "doctored data."
(UPDATE 4:31PM: The Heartland Institute tells the Washington Post that the billboard will be taken down today. Heartland CEO Joseph Bast said: "The Heartland Institute knew this was a risk when deciding to test it, but decided it was a necessary price to make an emotional appeal to people who otherwise aren't following the climate change debate.")
As the evidence continues to mount that humans are changing the climate with serious consequences, the libertarian Heartland Institute is becoming increasingly desperate to recast concern about climate change as "radical." This week the organization, usually so sensitive about logical fallacies, launched a billboard campaign in Chicago associating "belief" in global warming with murderers and tyrants, including Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson and Fidel Castro.
"The point" of the billboards, according to Heartland, "is that believing in global warming is not 'mainstream,' smart or sophisticated" and "the people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society."
The message is an uphill climb for Heartland, to say the least. Basic physics indicates that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will cause warming, confirmed by decades of research. And surveys show that a vast majority of scientists, and particularly those who specialize in fields related to climate, have concluded that human-induced warming is occurring, along with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other major scientific body.
By Heartland's standard, the "radical fringe of society" also includes the Pope, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, Evangelical Christian leaders and Republican climate scientists.
Anonymous hackers recently released another batch of emails taken from a climate research group at the University of East Anglia in 2009, along with a document containing numbered excerpts of purportedly incriminating material. Many of these selections have been cropped in a way that completely distorts their meaning, but they were nonetheless repeated by conservative media outlets who believe climate change is a "hoax" and a "conspiracy."
The Heartland Institute's James Taylor is on the defensive after an independent study undermined critics of the temperature records establishing global warming. In his most recent Forbes.com column, Taylor accuses media outlets of knocking down a straw man in their reports on the study. But in doing so, Taylor himself advances a bad argument which misconstrues the basic physics of the climate.
Dismissing as old news the warming trend confirmed by the study, Taylor writes that temperatures have increased because the climate is "recovering from the Little Ice Age":
Very few if any skeptics assert that the earth is still in the Little Ice Age. While the Little Ice Age raged from approximately 1300 to 1900 AD, it is pretty well accepted that the Little Ice Age did indeed end by approximately 1900 AD. The mere fact that the Little Ice Age ended a little over 100 years ago, and that temperatures have warmed during the course of recovering from the Little Ice Age, tells us absolutely nothing about the remaining components necessary to support an assertion that humans are creating a global warming crisis.
This is not the first time Taylor has claimed in his weekly Forbes column that "the earth continues to recover from the abnormally cold conditions of the centuries-long Little Ice Age" and that "there was little room for temperatures to go at the time but up." But it's an entirely hollow argument.
"Recovery" from the Little Ice Age is not an explanation for warming any more than "recovery from falling" is an explanation for why a basketball bounces. University of Arizona climatologist Malcolm Hughes said via email that Taylor's claim is "as unscientific and uninformative as that other old chestnut, that 'climate has always varied,'" adding, "Science is about how things work."
We noted in June that Fox News' iPad app was sponsored exclusively by ExxonMobil, a corporation known for paying think tanks to obfuscate the scientific consensus on climate change. Now FoxNews.com's "Planet Earth" section is also brought to you by the oil giant:
"Has a central tenant [sic] of global warming just collapsed?" That's the first sentence of a July 29 Fox News article about a recent study which shows nothing of the sort, demonstrating just how broken climate change coverage is at news outlets like Fox, where scientific illiteracy meets political slant.
Last week, Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), one of the few climate scientists who think we don't need to worry much about global warming, published a paper purportedly challenging mainstream climate models that is both limited in scope and, by many accounts, flawed. After a Forbes column by James Taylor of the libertarian Heartland Institute misinterpreted the study and declared that it blows a "gaping hole in global warming alarmism," an avalanche of conservative media outlets, including Fox, followed suit:
In at least 40 instances since the beginning of 2011, conservative media outlets wrongly told consumers that the light bulb efficiency standards scheduled to take effect in 2012 will require them to use compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs).