USA Today’s Climate Denial Problem Isn’t Going Away

Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

As has become its custom, USA Today provided its readers with another dose of false balance about the science of climate change on December 11. This time, the newspaper paired an editorial criticizing President-elect Donald Trump’s environmental cabinet nominations with an op-ed praising Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nominee Scott Pruitt while falsely disputing that human activities are driving global warming and that climate models are able to predict future warming.

This marks at least the third time that USA Today has published climate science misinformation on its opinion pages since September, when a Media Matters study found 12 percent of USA Today’s climate-related opinion pieces over an 18-month period contained scientifically inaccurate claims.

The December 11 USA Today editorial, which the newspaper describes as “our view,” stated that there is “a disconnect” between Trump’s seemingly open-minded words about climate change and “Trump's actions in putting forth a slate of climate change skeptics for key administration jobs.” It also referred to Pruitt, who is currently the attorney general of Oklahoma, as Trump’s “most troubling” cabinet nominee. Alongside the editorial, USA Today published an op-ed, which the newspaper refers to as an “opposing view,” by Hoover Institution research fellow David R. Henderson, who declared that Pruitt is “the right choice” to lead the EPA.

There is no harm in USA Today providing two different perspectives about a major cabinet nominee. But it becomes a significant problem when one of those perspectives is based on egregious falsehoods about the science of man-made climate change.

In his op-ed, Henderson repeated the myth that Pruitt is not a climate change “denier,” asserting that Pruitt is instead a “skeptic” of climate change. But the term “skeptic,” which USA Today also used in its editorial, should not apply to Pruitt, a politician who has refused to accept the consensus of the world’s leading scientific institutions that human activities such as burning fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming. As the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has explained, true skepticism "promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason," which is different from "political efforts to undermine climate science by those who deny reality but do not engage in scientific research or consider evidence that their deeply held opinions are wrong."

While Henderson’s description of Pruitt is a problem in and of itself, his reasoning for it is far worse because it is premised on distorting climate science. To back up his description of Pruitt as a so-called “skeptic,” Henderson peddled the twin falsehoods that scientists are unsure of “mankind’s effect on the climate” and that climate models “are simply not well enough developed” to confidently predict future global warming. From the op-ed:

Critics have called him a climate change denier. He’s not. He’s a climate change skeptic. There’s a big difference.

It makes no sense to deny that the climate is changing. The climate is always changing. The real issue is what mankind’s effect on the climate is. Specifically, can we be sure that, say, a 20 parts per million increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause a discernible increase in the Earth’s temperature? We can’t. Some climate models that were created some years ago predicted a temperature that is substantially higher than the actual temperature we observe. The models are simply not well enough developed to give us much confidence.

Although I have never met the man, Scott Pruitt seems to understand this.

Contrary to Henderson’s claim that the role of “mankind” in climate change is unclear, NASA says, “Most climate scientists agree the main cause of the current global warming trend is human expansion of the 'greenhouse effect.’” And the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has similarly stated, "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” The IPCC defines "extremely likely" as having 95-100 percent probability, which is on par with the level of certainty scientists have that cigarettes are deadly.

It’s unclear why Henderson chose to discuss a hypothetical 20 parts per million (ppm) increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; atmospheric CO2 levels have increased by that amount in just the last eight years. Former NASA scientist James Hansen has argued that atmospheric CO2 will need to be reduced to 350 ppm to maintain a hospitable climate for human civilization, while Pennsylvania State climate scientist Michael Mann has said that CO2 concentrations must be kept below 405 ppm to avoid the dangerous threshold of two degrees Celsius of warming since the pre-industrial period. When the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere recently surpassed 400 ppm, a wide array of scientists explained why it was a “troubling milestone.”  

Henderson’s attack on the reliability of climate models is also inaccurate. As The Guardian’s Dana Nuccitelli has noted, the 2014 IPCC report showed that “observed global surface temperature changes have been within the range of climate model simulations,” and a 2015 study that accounts for the discrepancy between air and sea surface temperatures “shows that the models were even more accurate than previously thought.”

Finally, Henderson’s claim that the “climate is always changing” is a favorite trope of climate science deniers, even though it is a logical fallacy to suggest that natural changes to the climate in the past mean that the current changes to the climate cannot be explained by human activities. 

Simply put, USA Today’s climate denial problem isn’t going away, and it’s high time the newspaper do something about it.

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