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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.
Studies have shown 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. And that’s a huge problem when major outlets’ headlines are framed around President-elect Donald Trump’s latest false claims about climate change.
During a December 11 appearance on Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday, Trump declared that “nobody really knows” whether human-induced climate change is happening. As is often the case in TV interviews with climate science deniers, host Chris Wallace didn’t challenge Trump’s claim, which blatantly misrepresents the consensus of the world’s leading scientific institutions that human activities such as burning fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming. But Wallace’s silence was just the first media misstep.
In the hours that followed, major media outlets including The Washington Post, CNN.com, United Press International, and International Business Times produced online headlines about Trump’s remarks that didn’t mention that they were false:
Each of these outlets noted in the body of the articles that the vast majority of climate scientists would dispute Trump’s claim that “nobody really knows” whether man-made climate change is real (the initial version of the Post article apparently did not, but it was updated). Nonetheless, the damage had already been done by the headlines.
When Trump makes comments like these, the news story should be that the the president-elect told a whopper about climate change, not that the science of climate change is suddenly in doubt. And if media outlets want to avoid confusing their readers, their headlines should reflect that reality.
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On December 7, President-elect Donald Trump named Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as his pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Media should take note of Pruitt’s climate science denial, his deep ties to the energy industries he will be charged with regulating, and his long record of opposition to EPA efforts to reduce air and water pollution and combat climate change.
CNN’s Alisyn Camerota Claims Pruitt “Sees Nuance,” But Pruitt Actually Denies Scientific Consensus Of Human-Caused Warming
On the December 8 edition of CNN’s New Day, anchor Alisyn Camerota falsely claimed that President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, “hasn’t denied global warming.”
According to Camerota, when Pruitt and other Republicans say that the science of climate change is “far from settled,” they are referring only to “the predictions and the forecasts” of future climate impacts. But that’s simply not true. Like many other Republicans, Pruitt 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. In a May op-ed published in National Review and Tulsa World, Pruitt and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange claimed, “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
As Camerota wrongly absolved Pruitt of climate denial, CNN’s on-screen text read: “Climate Change Denier Scott Pruitt To Lead EPA.” Co-anchor Chris Cuomo also pushed back on Camerota, stating that Pruitt “says it’s ‘far from settled.’ That means he’s not accepting the science.” Camerota replied that Pruitt “sees nuance where you see black and white.”
Camerota was also off base when she claimed that Pruitt is justified in disputing climate science because climate “predictions” and “forecasts” are unreliable.
Camerota cited one specific example to back up this argument: “People thought the Antarctic ice would be gone by now. It increased in 2014. This is what people hang their hat on when they say that the forecasts are not settled. They fluctuate.” Although it’s true that the increase in Antarctic sea ice has surprised climate scientists, a team of NASA-led researchers was recently able to explain why it is happening, as InsideClimate News reported:
While Arctic ice is melting at a record pace, a team of NASA-led researchers say they can explain why Antarctic sea ice has been edging in the opposite direction. That paradox has puzzled scientists for years and given climate-change deniers fodder to dispute global warming.
The group found that the icy winds blowing off Antarctica, as well as a powerful ocean current that circles the frozen continent, are much larger factors in the formation and persistence of Antarctic sea ice than changes in temperature.
And overall, climate models have been very accurate when it comes to the core task of projecting the rate of global warming. As The Guardian’s Dana Nuccitelli has noted, the 2014 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (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.” The nonprofit science education organization Skeptical Science has also explained the accuracy of climate models in predicting global temperature changes.
Watch Camerota deny Pruitt’s climate science denial:
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Atmospheric Scientist Kait Parker: “To all my fellow scientists out there: Let’s make the facts louder than the opinions”
The Weather Channel criticized Breitbart.com for falsely claiming that global warming temperatures have “plunged,” describing a Breitbart article as “a prime example of cherrying picking” data and pointing out that Breitbart denied the findings of “thousands of researchers and scientific societies.”
In a video accompanying a December 6 article, Weather Channel meteorologist Kait Parker explained to Breitbart, “Science doesn’t care about your opinion. Cherry-picking and twisting the facts will not change the future, nor the fact -- not opinion -- that the earth is warming. ”
The Weather Channel video and article roundly debunked the false and misleading claims in the November 30 Breitbart article by James Delingpole. In response to Delingpole’s claim that "[g]lobal land temperatures have plummeted by one degree Celsius since the middle of this year,” Parker pointed out that Delingpole had cherry-picked one set of data, adding in the video that “land temperatures aren’t an appropriate measure” and that the temperature decline disappears when you also account for sea surface temperatures. Delingpole also cited the science editor of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, David Whitehouse, to claim that “without the El Niño (and the so-called ‘Pacific Blob’) 2014-2016 would not have been record warm years," yet Parker noted in the video that even if you “take out the El Nino spike in temperatures, 2015 and 2016 still come in as the warmest years on record,” as Carbon Brief has shown. Finally, Parker debunked Delingpole’s claim that a likely drop in global temperatures in 2017 is evidence against global warming, writing: “There is nothing unusual about a drop in global surface temperatures when going from El Niño to La Nina. These ups and downs occur on top of the long-term warming trend that remains when the El Niño and La Niña signals are removed.”
Parker also lamented the U.S. House Science Committee’s endorsement of the Breitbart article on Twitter and concluded her video with a helpful suggestion for Breitbart and a rallying cry for fellow scientists: “So next time you’re thinking about publishing a cherry-picked article, try consulting a scientist first, and to all my fellow scientists out there: Let’s make the facts louder than the opinions.”
Here is the video and full transcript of Parker’s comments (which are well worth watching):
KAIT PARKER: So last week, Breitbart.com published an article claiming that global warming was nothing but a scare and global temperatures were actually falling. Problem is, they used a completely unrelated video about La Nina, with my face in it, to attempt to back their point. What’s worse is that the U.S.Committee on Space, Science, & Technology actually tweeted it out. Here’s the thing: Science doesn’t care about your opinion. Cherry-picking and twisting the facts will not change the future, nor the fact -- not opinion -- that the earth is warming. So let’s break it down.
Their first claim is that “Global land temperatures have plummeted by one degree Celsius since the middle of this year -- the biggest and steepest fall on record.” Now, that was based on one satellite estimate of global land temperatures, not a consensus. And second of all, land temperatures aren’t an appropriate measure. The earth is 70 percent water, and water is where we store most of our heat energy, so when you look at sea surface temperatures, and you combine that with land temperatures, you actually get a record high for November of 2016.
Their second claim: “It can be argued that without the El Nino … 2014-2016 would not have been record warm years.” Now, if you’re taking a look at the Arctic sea ice melting here in this video from NASA -- when you actually normalize the data, aka take out the El Nino spike in temperatures, 2015 and 2016 still come in as the warmest years on record.
So that brings me to claim number three: “Many think that 2017 will be cooler than previous years.” Now, it is typical, yes, for temperatures to drop in a post-El Nino environment, but certainly not to record lows. If that claim was correct, we would have had global record lows all over the last century, and we haven’t seen that since 1911. The last time we fell below the 20th century average was in 1976, and guess what? That was directly following the 1974-1975 strong El Nino. So next time you’re thinking about publishing a cherry-picked article, try consulting a scientist first, and to all my fellow scientists out there: Let’s make the facts louder than the opinions.
When President-elect Donald Trump made seemingly open-minded remarks about climate change during a November 22 meeting with staff of The New York Times, it set off a wave of television coverage about how Trump had supposedly “reversed course” on climate change. But few of these reports addressed any of the substantive reasons that is highly unlikely, such as his transition team’s plan to abandon the Obama administration’s landmark climate policy, indications that he will dismantle NASA’s climate research program, and his appointment of fossil fuel industry allies as transition team advisers -- not to mention the full context of Trump’s remarks to the Times.
In his interview with reporters, editors and opinion columnists from the Times, Trump contradicted his long-held stance that climate change is a “hoax” by stating that he thinks “there is some connectivity” between human activities and climate change (although even that statement doesn’t fully reflect the consensus view of climate scientists that human activities are the “dominant cause” of global warming). Trump also declined to reaffirm his earlier statements that he would “renegotiate” or “cancel” the international climate agreement reached in Paris last year, instead saying that he has an “open mind” about how he will approach the Paris agreement.
But there are many reasons to take these comments with a grain of salt. For one, Trump has given no indication that he will preserve the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which is the linchpin of the United States’ emissions reduction commitments under the Paris climate agreement. To the contrary, The Associated Press reported that internal documents from Trump’s transition team “show the new administration plans to stop defending the Clean Power Plan and other recent Obama-era environmental regulations that have been the subject of long-running legal challenges filed by Republican-led states and the fossil fuel industry.” Moreover, a senior Trump space policy adviser recently indicated that the Trump administration plans to eliminate NASA’s climate change research program, a move that would likely be accompanied by significant funding cuts to climate research.
Additionally, Trump has appointed Myron Ebell, a climate science denier from the fossil fuel-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, to lead his EPA transition team, and two other close allies of the fossil fuel industry, Kathleen Hartnett White and Scott Pruitt, are reportedly Trump’s leading contenders to run the EPA. Trump also named Thomas Pyle, president of the fossil fuel-funded American Energy Alliance, to head his Energy Department transition team. According to The Washington Post, “Hartnett-White, Pyle and Ebell have all expressed doubt about climate change and have criticized the findings of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”
Then there are Trump’s Times comments themselves, which have been “wildly misinterpreted” in the media, as Grist’s Rebecca Leber has explained. In addition to saying there is “some connectivity” between human activities and climate change, Trump said during the Times interview that there are “a lot of smart people” on the “other side” of the issue, and added: “You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, 98. You know, you can make lots of cases for different views.” Trump also appeared to reference the thoroughly debunked “Climategate” scandal about emails among climate scientists at a U.K. university, stating, “They say they have science on one side but then they also have those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists.”
Nonetheless, Trump’s two seemingly climate-friendly remarks to the Times -- that he has an “open mind” about the Paris climate agreement and that humans play some role in climate change -- generated a tremendous amount of uncritical television coverage:
Trump’s climate remarks also received wall-to-wall coverage on cable news, although unlike the broadcast networks’ reports, several of the cable segments did feature pushback on the notion that Trump had actually changed his position on the issue.
Trump’s climate comments were uncritically covered on several CNN programs, including New Day, Anderson Cooper 360, and CNN Tonight with Don Lemon. And on the November 27 edition of Inside Politics, host John King and senior political reporter Manu Raju agreed that Trump’s climate remarks were a “big deal.” Some of these programs included speculation about whether Trump truly meant what he said to the Times or whether it was a negotiating ploy, but none mentioned any specific steps Trump has taken since the election that undermine claims that he has reversed course on climate change.
By contrast, several other CNN programs included pushback on the notion that Trump had “softened” or “reversed” his position on climate change. For instance, on the November 23 edition of Erin Burnett Outfront, CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein cited Trump’s plan to repeal the Clean Power Plan as evidence that although Trump is “signaling a different tone” on climate change, “when you get into the guts of the policy, he is going in the same direction”:
Similarly, in an interview with NextGen Climate founder Tom Steyer on the November 27 edition of Fareed Zakaria GPS, host Zakaria noted that despite his comments to the Times, Trump “still has a leading climate change denier [Myron Ebell] as the head of his EPA transition, [and] his actions and contradictory words have climate change activists concerned.” Zakaria added that Trump “does say he's going to reverse a lot of these executive actions that Obama has taken, whether it's on coal-fired plants or vehicle emissions.”
A couple of CNN guests also challenged the premise that Trump had shifted his stance on climate change. On the November 22 edition of CNN’s Wolf, Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) said of Trump’s climate remarks to the Times, “The real test is who is he appointing and what will his policies be.” And on the November 23 edition of CNN’s At This Hour, Michael Needham of Heritage Action for America (the sister organization of the fossil fuel industry-funded Heritage Foundation), pointed to other remarks Trump made to the Times in order to dispute the idea that Trump had accepted that climate change is “settled science.” Needham stated:
I read the actual transcript of this thing. If you look at what [Trump] says on climate change, it's pretty much what we would have said at Heritage. He said there are questions that need to be looked at, there's research on both sides of the issue, this is not settled science the way some people on the left want to say.
Finally, all of the prime-time MSNBC shows that featured substantial discussions of Trump’s climate remarks included proper context. For instance, on the December 2 edition of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, Hayes explained that incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus had “clarif[ied]” that Trump’s “default position” on climate change is “that most of it is a bunch of bunk.” Hayes also explained that a senior Trump adviser had indicated that “NASA would be limited to exploring other planets rather than providing satellite information and data about what’s happening on the only planet we currently inhabit”:
Similarly, on the November 30 edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews, Matthews aired a clip of Priebus confirming that Trump’s “default position” on climate change is that “most of it is a bunch of bunk.” And on the November 22 edition of MTP Daily, guest host Andrea Mitchell pointed out that Trump “appointed somebody from a very conservative, climate-denying, Koch-sponsored organization, policy institute, to lead the transition on energy and climate issues,” although Mitchell nonetheless maintained that Trump’s statement that he is now open to the Paris climate agreement was “a very big signal internationally.”
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UPDATE: Hours after the Sunday political talk shows ignored the story, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they will deny the current route for the pipeline in favor of exploring alternate routes.
Sunday morning political talk shows entirely ignored the ongoing demonstration at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, continuing a troubling pattern of scant media attention being paid to the historic protests and the violent crackdown on the movement for environmental, civil, and Native peoples’ rights.
Law enforcement and private security officers armed with rubber bullets, water cannons, and dogs have clashed with peaceful protesters at the reservation in North Dakota, where Native demonstrators known as water protectors have sought to delay, and ultimately redirect or derail, construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is currently slated to run near the reservation. The pipeline, which was originally supposed to be built near Bismarck, was redirected near the reservation after residents of Bismarck raised concerns that the pipeline would contaminate their water supply. The protest has become “the longest-running protest in modern history” with “the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century, perhaps since Little Bighorn.”
On December 3 and 4, thousands of U.S. veterans arrived at Standing Rock to support the Native water protectors, join their cause, and “call attention to the violent treatment that law enforcement has waged on the protesters.” The Army Corps of Engineers has ordered the water protectors to vacate the site on their own reservation by December 5.
Despite the ongoing violent retaliation against the activists by law enforcement personnel, the December 4 editions of the major Sunday morning political talk shows -- including ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union, Fox’s Fox News Sunday, and NBC’s Meet the Press -- entirely ignored the events at Standing Rock.
The Sunday political talk shows’ outrageous Standing Rock blackout is in line with how cable news has covered, or not covered, the protests. From October 26 through November 3, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC combined spent less than an hour covering the ongoing demonstration and violent law enforcement response. Fox News stood out for its minimal coverage, devoting just four and a half minutes to reporting on the events during the time frame analyzed. A review of internal Media Matters records shows that the five main Sunday shows have failed to devote time to the events at Standing Rock since at least September.
CNN’s media criticism show, Reliable Sources, discussed the media blackout on Standing Rock and provided some guidance on how cable news should cover the gathering moving forward. The show’s host, Brian Stelter, lamented that “one of the most important civil and environmental rights stories of our time” was receiving “off and on attention from the national media,” noting that too often, the story seems to completely “fall off the national news media’s radar.”
Stelter’s guest -- Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, who was charged with trespassing while reporting live on the ground -- implored "all the media” to be "there on the ground giving voice to the voiceless” and said that “all the networks” “have a responsibility” to show images of police cracking down on protesters. Goodman also linked the media’s Standing Rock blackout to the national political media’s silence about climate change during the presidential campaign: “Not one debate moderator raised that as a question,” Goodman decried. “This is a key issue.”
Some shows on MSNBC did cover the events at Standing Rock, with Al Sharpton giving a “shoutout to the protestors” and noting that, “until recently, they weren't getting any attention from the outside world.” Joy-Ann Reid, who said that “there needs to be a lot more reporting on this,” provided exemplary coverage of the protests, inviting a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to be interviewed by MSNBC’s Cal Perry on the ground in North Dakota. Reid’s segment -- by devoting time to Standing Rock in the first place, talking with a person directly affected, and having a media presence at the site -- is a model for all news shows to follow. Reid also covered the “grossly underreported story” the week prior.
Online publications and public media have given some coverage to the actions against the pipeline amid the national news media’s virtual blackout, bringing videos and images of the clashes directly to the nation in ways TV news networks are not. And Democracy Now, which has diligently reported on the activity at Standing Rock, posted a video of private security hired by the Dakota Access Pipeline Company attacking protesters with dogs and pepper spray that has over one million views on YouTube.
NowThisNews’ Facebook page has an informational video about the protests, including images of violent attacks by law enforcement personnel on the protesters and interviews from activists, that also has over one million views.
Media have a responsibility to provide coverage of the environmental and human rights battles occurring at Standing Rock. Denying the activists due coverage allows right-wing spin to infiltrate the conversation, plays into a long-standing problem of both the lack of representation of people of color in media and a double standard in covering progressive protesters, and is a barrier to generating the public pressure necessary to induce change.
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