As some of the most destructive wildfires in history ravage the Southwest, major newspapers in the area have documented the way climate change makes blazes more likely less than half as often as national newspapers.
Recent fires have taken a massive toll as the hottest, driest parts of the U.S. become even hotter and drier. In Arizona, 19 firefighters perished in the worst American wildfire disaster in decades, a quick-moving inferno that destroyed a small town. Months ago, fire season began early in California, and it has since been called the state's worst ever. Colorado recently experienced the most destructive wildfire in its history, bringing the total area set aflame this season within the state to about 180 square miles, larger than the area of Barbados. New Mexico and Utah have lately faced "unprecedented" and "potentially explosive" fires, respectively.
Fires like these must be sparked (by anything from lightning to a stray rifle shot), but research indicates that climate change, and the extreme heat and drought conditions it propagates in the Southwest, boosts the chances that they will happen and cause significant damage. Indeed, seven out of nine fire scientists contacted by Media Matters as part of a 2012 study agreed that journalists should detail the role of climate change in worsening risk when they report on such fires.
As wildfires swept through southern California over the past week, experts warned that the state is in for an especially dangerous wildfire season due to unusually hot and dry conditions. But in their coverage of the fires, several of California's major newspapers have entirely ignored how climate change has increased wildfire risks in the region.
California's wildfire season kicked off early this year, with record temperatures, heavy winds and ongoing drought conditions fueling fires across the state that have threatened thousands of homes and businesses. California has already experienced 680 wildfires this year -- about 200 more than average for this period -- and the National Interagency Fire Service is predicting "above normal" potential for significant fires in northern and southern California this season. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service is preparing for a higher number of significant fires across the West.
Climate experts warn that rising global temperatures are already leading to more frequent and more severe wildfires and longer fire seasons in the Southwest, calling large fires like those in California "the new normal." But several major print outlets in California have failed to make this connection, even after Governor Jerry Brown noted the link Monday.
The San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register and U-T San Diego have not mentioned climate change while reporting on the recent fires. These papers also printed several stories from the Associated Press, none of which mentioned climate change. By contrast, the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times mentioned climate change in 33 percent and 27 percent of coverage, respectively.
The Orange County Register's newest weekly sections on local colleges, which are being financed in part by the colleges themselves, are raising concerns about conflicts of interest and credibility from both inside and outside of the newspaper.
At issue is the financial arrangement the Santa Ana, CA, daily has with three local campuses: Chapman University; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California at Irvine.
Under an agreement reached earlier this year, the paper is publishing a separate, weekly six-page special section devoted to positive coverage of each university's news and events. Each of those sections include two columns authored by top university staffers.
In exchange, each university is paying the newspaper $275,000, supposedly for advertising that will appear in that section for one year. The sections began running on April 1.
The financial arrangement and partial control of content by the universities has some at the paper and on campus concerned.
"It does make me a little uncomfortable," said Bill Johnson, a Register columnist. "In this business, appearance is everything. Appearance-wise, it is a bit troubling. If you know people are paying for coverage does that affect the coverage? I would like to think we are way above that, writing good news to satisfy an advertiser."
Jeffrey Brody, a journalism professor at Cal State, Fullerton, and a former Register reporter, called it a "disguised advertorial."
"That's a breach of the wall between editorial and advertising of traditional newspapering," he said. "A newspaper should not be making these kinds of quid pro quo agreements. It seems that that does damage the credibility of the university."
A review of the most recent sections from April 15, 16, and 17, finds stories written by Register staffers, along with two pieces from each university's faculty or administration.
A half-page color ad for the university appears on the back page of each section.
The stories range from a review of the number of bronze busts on the Chapman campus to a report on UC-Irvine's annual "Undie Run." None of the stories could be described as critical of the school.
While newspapers often clearly label such content as "advertisement" or "advertorial," the only note related to the Register's arrangement is a small box on the inside of the page alongside the staff list stating "while the university is the section's primary advertising sponsor, all editorial decisions are independent of the university's control."
Fox News is seizing on high gas prices in California to push for opening up new areas, including the California coast, to drilling, ignoring the real factors driving up prices at the pump. But experts say increasing U.S. production will have no impact on gas prices, and that the only way to protect against price spikes is to reduce consumption.
Gas prices in California hit near-record highs this week as a result of supply disruptions at several key refineries in the state as well as the shutdown of a contaminated pipeline. Fox & Friends devoted an entire segment to the California price spike this morning without once mentioning these factors. Instead, Fox's Charles Gasparino blamed President Obama for implementing "policies that discourage drilling." While Gasparino acknowledged that "some of this is out of [Obama's] control," he said the President should know that "we could have lower gas prices, lower oil prices if you start drilling."
Later on Varney & Co., Fox Business' Charles Payne blamed California policies, saying: "They won't take advantage of natural resources, they won't allow drilling, it's just economic suicide."
Local media are misrepresenting the solutions to the price spike as well. An OC Register editorial claimed that drilling off the coast of California would drive down prices:
Gasoline prices in reached a record high in California this week, making us wonder if it might be time to revisit energy policies in the state. Determining what causes the rise and fall of gas prices isn't easy - there are whole industries devoted to it. However, there are a few things that certainly don't help and ought to be corrected.
Let's begin with supply. California artificially constricts fuel supplies by banning oil drilling along the coast. The Federal Energy Information Administration estimated in June 2011 that there were some 15.4 billion barrels in the Monterey Formation off the coast of California. "If the EIA estimate is reasonably close to the mark, the Monterey Formation would be in a class with oil fields in Saudi Arabia," wrote Tom Gray for City Journal. To put that in perspective, that's roughly quadruple the estimated reserves in North Dakota's Bakken shale formation. By Gray's count, those barrels would be worth about $1.5 trillion in today's prices, and prices are expected to rise.
But because the price of oil is dictated by the global market, expanding U.S. production would not protect against price spikes. A recent analysis by the Associated Press found "[n]o statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump."
Earlier this week, the Orange County Register's Pat Brennan, the California paper's science editor, broke from the editorial board's established (and dismissive) opinion regarding the effects of global warming. In a news article discussing the massive wildfires in the West and the heat wave scorching the Midwest and the East Coast, Brennan looked at the two events and asked, "Are we feeling the effects of global warming?" The article cited scientific evidence supporting the existence of global warming and the dangers carbon dioxide emissions pose to the environment.
Brennan provided a look at the global warming reality that has been consistently denied or ignored on the paper's editorial page. For example, the editorial board of the Register claimed that global warming is a non-threat and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a "highly questionable, perhaps meaningless, goal." The editorial page has been filled with columns attacking efforts to reduce carbon dioxide in our atmosphere instead of acknowledging what the vast majority of scientists concur upon -- that man-made climate change is real.
The Register's editorial section has also provided a place for writer Mark Landsbaum to attack global warming. He called greenhouse gases "harmless" and claimed that those who believe humans have contributed to increased global temperatures are committing a logical fallacy.
The Orange County Register's stance on climate change and efforts to contain greenhouse gases that contribute to the current warming trends isn't exactly in line with widely accepted scientific data. This is due in part to the presence of climate change contrarian Mark Landsbaum on its editorial board. Landsbaum, who had a previous stint at the Los Angeles Times before joining the Register, has penned numerous columns for the Register attacking climate science and cap-and-trade initiatives going as far back as 2008.
Landsbaum seems to deny basic physics in his columns. He calls carbon dioxide a "so-called greenhouse gas" and claims that it is a "harmless" gas that "every human being creates with every exhale." In 2008, Landsbaum wrote:
Follow this logic: "The sun rises every morning. We wake up every morning. Therefore, our waking up causes the sun to rise." Baloney, right?
Then why do so many people believe this: "Temperatures have increased. Man-made greenhouse gases have too. Therefore, global warming is caused by man." Sadly, most of the media and public have jumped to the conclusions that man is causing dangerous global warming, and unless we "do something," we'll all be toast.
Yes, Landsbaum apparently believes that the vast majority of climate scientists are basing an entire body of science on a logical fallacy. In fact, scientists established the greenhouse effect over a century ago: greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide trap more of the heat from the sun, raising temperatures on Earth. And contrary to Landsbaum's assertions, the National Research Council has stated:
There is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities.
As for Landsbaum's claim that every human breathes CO2 and therefore it can't be a pollutant, he fails to take into account what scientists are saying -- that excess discharges of CO2 are what harm the environment, not people breathing.
In addition to attacking the scientific evidence of global warming, Landsbaum has also attacked measures -- such as California's greenhouse gas reducing AB 32 -- which decrease pollution in the atmosphere and seek to reduce the harm to our environment. However, it's no surprise that his anti-science viewpoints echo those of his editorial board. Landsbaum, like the board, continually misinform their readers about the 'consequences' of the AB 32. In fact, AB 32, and the cap-and-trade program specifically, are extremely cost effective and successful ways of reducing harmful greenhouse gas levels.
As California's cap-and-trade program nears implementation in January 2013, AB 32 is sure to return to the editorial pages of the Register. However, don't expect the editorial board or its resident climate change denier Mark Landsbaum to discuss the harmful impacts of global warming or the successes other cap-and-trade programs have had in improving our environment.
To read our full report on the Orange County Register Editorial Board's attacks on AB 32 click HERE.
Over the last year, the Orange County Register has published numerous editorials that falsely portray California's pollution reduction program as costly, ineffective and arbitrarily imposed by state regulators. In fact, the program -- which incorporates a cap-and-trade program -- is part of a bipartisan law expected to benefit the state's economy.
After the EPA proposed regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, several conservative media outlets claimed that the new rule would increase electricity prices for consumers by prohibiting the construction of coal plants without carbon dioxide controls. But economists and other analysts say that because low natural gas prices are already suppressing coal-plant growth, the rule will not significantly affect electricity rates.