Why News Outlets Only Sometimes Push Back Against Climate Denial

The Atlantic: Backlash Against Scott Pruitt’s “Extremely Wrong” Climate Denial Highlights Media’s Failure To Call Out Trump Nominees’ “Milder” Form Of Denial

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The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer wrote that the backlash against Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s “extremely wrong” statement that carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to climate change stands in stark contrast to the tepid criticism Pruitt and other Trump cabinet members received for their “milder” form of climate denial during nomination hearings.

On the March 9 edition of CNBC’s Squawk Box, Pruitt roundly denied the scientific consensus on climate change by claiming that carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor. In his March 15 article, Meyer questioned (and addressed) why some media outlets “rushed to correct this untruth” when they paid less attention to past similar comments. He noted that Pruitt, as well as then-Trump nominees Rex Tillerson and Ryan Zinke, had made previous statements at odds with the scientific consensus that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change by employing what multiple outlets identified as Republicans’ new tactic on climate denial.

Meyers described this “milder” form of denial as consisting of two parts: “A nominee first recognized the reality of ‘some’ global warming—sounding appropriately grave and concerned about it—before they pivoted to casting doubt on whether humans were behind this warming, or even whether a human influence could ever be known at all.”

Yet Meyer noted that “even as scientists and some journalists shook their heads, Trump nominees’ statements were amended, and not outright rejected, in the broader public conversation,” adding, “My own work testifies to that: My headline about Tillerson’s hearing announced that he believes in climate change, even as I corrected what was incorrect about his scientific summary.” Indeed, The Atlantic was not the only mainstream outlet to describe Pruitt, Tillerson, and Zinke as believing in climate change in its headline, as articles in USA Today, Time, and Politico did the same. And even though these outlets noted in the articles that the Trump nominees’ statements were at odds with the scientific consensus on climate change, this sort of coverage is still problematic because studies show that most Americans don’t read beyond the headlines of news articles, most people who share articles on social media haven’t actually read them, and misleading headlines misinform people even when the body of the article gets the facts right.

Meyer concluded that part of the difficulty in adequately calling out this new form of denial is due to journalists having to regularly correct “obviously wrong Republican claims” on climate change:

Journalists covering climate change are constantly correcting obviously wrong Republican claims. This makes it harder for many to fact check the other, more waffley quotes that waft by. Many are loosely phrased and reasonable-sounding, but they contain little truth content. An example is Pruitt’s line from his confirmation hearing: “The human ability to measure with precision the extent of [the human] impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be.”

There is some kind of invisible consensus around questions of climate change. Say an obvious untruth and be mocked the world over. Say a non-commital (sic) vapidity—which has the same import as an outright lie—and you don’t wind up on Colbert. I suspect that an effect like this exists across politics, but it is surprising to see it so clearly on this one issue, where scientific agreement on reality is so strong.

From The Atlantic:

In January of this year, a ritual took shape on Capitol Hill, as one Trump nominee after another sat down a Senate committee for their confirmation hearing. The nominee shuffled his papers, greeted the lawmakers, and delivered conciliatory pablum about climate change.

As many soon noticed, these statements were often… surprisingly similar. They seemed to attest more to careful pre-briefing than to some new cross-party consensus. With tremendous reliability, every answer about the issue consisted of two parts. A nominee first recognized the reality of “some” global warming—sounding appropriately grave and concerned about it—before they pivoted to casting doubt on whether humans were behind this warming, or even whether a human influence could ever be known at all.

“Science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change,” said Scott Pruitt, the future administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. (That’s part one.) “The human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be.” (Part two.)

“The risk of climate change does exist. The increase in greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is having an effect,” said Rex Tillerson, future secretary of state. (Part one.) “Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.” (Part two.)

“I do not believe it is a hoax,” said Ryan Zinke, the future secretary of the interior. (Part one.) “I think where there’s debate on it is what [the human] influence is, what can we do about it.”(Part—well, you know.)

These answers weren’t necessarily true, but they were milder and more reasonable than outright denial. They prompted coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post, which noted the new position was “more nuanced” and “less urgent” while also noting that it wasn’t, well, correct. As Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, told the Post: “It sounds like an orchestrated campaign of head-in-the-sand. The scientific consensus is clear: Most of the warming since 1950 is the result of the buildup of the human-made greenhouse gases.”

But even as scientists and some journalists shook their heads, Trump nominees’ statements were amended, and not outright rejected, in the broader public conversation. My own work testifies to that: My headline about Tillerson’s hearing announced that he believes in climate change, even as I corrected what was incorrect about his scientific summary. I also wondered if his kinder, softer line pointed to a “potential shift in the Republican Party’s treatment” of the issue. 

Compare that to what happened last week. On Friday, Scott Pruitt told a CNBC host that he didn’t believe carbon dioxide to be a primary contributor to modern-day climate change. He also said he hoped for more study and debate of the issue.

This is extremely wrong. Decades of research have established that carbon dioxide, emitted by human industrial activities, traps heat in the atmosphere and boosts global temperatures. It is a scientific fact, as surely as the simple pull of gravity or the miracle of photosynthesis is a scientific fact. But if you go back and read Pruitt’s comments from January above, he doesn’t contradict himself.

And yet this time, the public leaped in to correct him. My inbox soon filled up with comments from pastors, politicians, well-known scientists, and former military leaders. So many people called Pruitt’s main telephone number to complain that the EPA had to set up an impromptu call center. And Keith Seitter, the executive director of the American Meteorological Society, wrote a public letter to Pruitt.

[...]

Journalists covering climate change are constantly correcting obviously wrong Republican claims. This makes it harder for many to fact check the other, more waffley quotes that waft by. Many are loosely phrased and reasonable-sounding, but they contain little truth content. An example is Pruitt’s line from his confirmation hearing: “The human ability to measure with precision the extent of [the human] impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be.”

There is some kind of invisible consensus around questions of climate change. Say an obvious untruth and be mocked the world over. Say a non-commital vapidity—which has the same import as an outright lie—and you don’t wind up on Colbert. I suspect that an effect like this exists across politics, but it is surprising to see it so clearly on this one issue, where scientific agreement on reality is so strong.

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