STUDY: Newspaper Opinion Pages Feature Science Denial And Other Climate Change Misinformation

››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS, KEVIN KALHOEFER & ANDREW SEIFTER

The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The Washington Post all published climate science denial and other scientifically inaccurate statements about climate change on their opinion pages over the last year and a half, while The New York Times avoided doing so, according to a new Media Matters analysis of those four newspapers. The Journal published by far the most opinion pieces misrepresenting climate science, while all three instances of climate science denial in the Post came from columns written by George Will. The Journal and USA Today also published numerous climate-related op-eds without disclosing the authors’ fossil fuel ties, while USA Today, the Post, and particularly the Journal frequently published some of the least credible voices on climate and energy issues.

Three Major Newspapers Published Climate Science Denial On Opinion Pages, Led By The Wall Street Journal

Analysis: Three Major Newspapers’ Opinion Pages Published Climate Science Denial And Other Antiscience Claims. Media Matters examined op-eds, editorials, and columns in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, and The Washington Post from January 1, 2015, to August 31, 2016, to determine how often climate science denial and other false statements about climate science appeared on each newspaper’s opinion pages. We found that the Journal, the Post, and USA Today all published climate science misinformation on their opinion pages, while the Times avoided doing so. Unlike the Journal editorial board, which has denied climate science, the editorial boards of the Times, the Post, and USA Today all recognize the scientific consensus around man-made climate change. But our analysis found that the Times was the only one of these newspapers that did not publish an op-ed or column containing climate science denial during this time period. [Media Matters, Climate Denial/Misinformation SpreadsheetThe New York Times, 4/29/15; The Washington Post, 7/21/15; USA Today, 11/30/15]

One-Third Of WSJ’s Climate-Related Opinion Pieces Contained Climate Denial Or Other Scientifically Inaccurate Statements About Climate Change. Out of 93 climate-related opinion pieces published in the Journal during the time period examined, 31 featured climate science denial or other scientifically inaccurate claims about climate change (33 percent). This included pieces claiming that the human impact on climate change is difficult to distinguish from natural variables, casting doubt on the reliability of climate models to predict global warming, and claiming that sea level rise has not accelerated in recent years. [Media Matters, Climate Denial/Misinformation Spreadsheet]

USA Today Published Climate Science Denial Or Other Antiscience Claims In 12 Percent Of Climate-Related Opinion Pieces. Out of 52 climate-related opinion pieces USA Today published during this time period, six featured climate science denial or other scientifically inaccurate claims about climate change (12 percent). This included five op-eds questioning whether climate change is occurring or caused by human activity, as well as a column by James S. Robbins, who wrongly disputed that climate change increases health risks for those with asthma. USA Today deputy editorial page editor David Mastio -- who was in charge of editing op-eds as the newspaper’s forum editor until June 2015 -- has described himself as a climate denier. On March 15, he tweeted a link to an op-ed that linked climate deniers to allies of slavery and wrote: “In which my own op-ed page compares me to a slave owner: Will history condemn climate deniers?” [Media Matters, Climate Denial/Misinformation Spreadsheet; USA Today, accessed 9/1/16; Twitter, 3/15/16]

Three Percent Of The Wash. Post's Climate-Related Opinion Pieces Denied Climate Science -- And All Were Written By George Will. Of the 94 climate-related opinion pieces that The Washington Post published over the time period examined, three denied climate science (3 percent) -- all authored by Post columnist George Will. Another Post columnist, Robert Samuelson, asserted, “We can still debate how much [global warming] has occurred and the share attributable to human activity." But that column was not counted as denial because he affirmed a “human impact on global warming” from fossil fuel emissions and noted that increases in atmospheric carbon during the industrial age have led to more warming. Our analysis also did not include letters to the editor, such as a letter by the Heritage Foundation’s Hans A. von Spakovsky that the Post published in June alleging that “human-induced global warming is unproven, not an undisputed fact.” [Media Matters, Climate Denial/Misinformation Spreadsheet, 6/30/16; The Washington Post, 8/9/15]

NY Times Did Not Publish Climate Science Denial On Its Opinion Pages. Of the four newspapers Media Matters examined, The New York Times, which published 164 climate-related opinion pieces during the time period studied, was the only publication that did not publish any climate science denial or other antiscience claims. [Media Matters, Climate Denial/Misinformation Spreadsheet]

Study Builds On Climate Nexus Analysis, Which Documented WSJ’s “Consistent Pattern” Of Misinforming Readers About Climate Change. A recent Climate Nexus study titled “How The Wall Street Journal Opinion Section Presents Climate Change” examined 20 years’ worth of climate-related opinion pieces in the Journal. The study found that the Journal’s opinion pieces about climate change show “a consistent pattern that overwhelmingly ignores the science, champions doubt and denial of both the science and effectiveness of action, and leaves readers misinformed about the consensus of science and of the risks of the threat.” Among Climate Nexus’ findings were the following:

  • Of 201 editorials dating back to 1997, none explicitly acknowledge that fossil fuels cause climate change.
  • Of the 279 op-eds published since 1995, 40 reflect mainstream climate science. That is 14 percent.
  • Of 122 columns published since 1997, four accept as fact that fossil fuels cause climate change, or endorse a policy to reduce emissions. That is three percent. [Climate Nexus, accessed 9/1/16]

Newspapers Rarely Disclosed Fossil Fuel Ties Of Climate Change Op-Ed Authors 

WSJ Largely Failed To Disclose Op-Ed Authors’ Fossil Fuel Industry Ties, While USA Today Failed To Do So At All. During the time period examined, USA Today published six op-eds about climate change by individuals with fossil fuel ties, none of which disclosed those ties to readers. In one of those op-eds, by Heartland Institute president Joseph Bast, USA Today noted that Heartland “no longer discloses its donors,” but did not explain the Heartland Institute’s long history of receiving funding from ExxonMobil and organizations linked to the oil billionaire Koch brothers. The Wall Street Journal published 21 climate-related op-eds authored by individuals with fossil fuel ties, only two of which included disclosure -- and in one of those instances, an op-ed co-authored by Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser, the Journal disclosed Ridley's fossil fuel ties but not Peiser's. [Media Matters, Fossil Fuel Disclosure Spreadsheet; USA Today, 6/18/15]

NY Times And Wash. Post Each Published One Climate-Related Op-Ed By Author With Fossil Fuel Industry Ties. During the time frame examined in this study, The Washington Post published one fossil fuel-linked op-ed on climate change -- by officials from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), who noted that CEI had been subpoenaed by the attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands based on "our contacts with ExxonMobil, a former CEI donor that publicly ended its support for us after 2005." However, the op-ed did not disclose any of CEI's other numerous financial ties to fossil fuel companies. And, as the Climate Denier Roundup pointed out:

Worth noting CEI’s careful phrasing about its relationship with Exxon, which CEI says “publicly ended its support for us after 2005.” With Donors Trust and others making it possible to anonymize giving, the key word is “publicly.”

The Times also published one fossil fuel-linked climate change op-ed -- by an author who acknowledged that he is "a 'fracker,' an executive at an investment firm that funds oil and gas shale development, someone whose own economic interest would be crushed by a national ban on fracking." For the purposes of documenting disclosure, we did not assess op-eds that focused on environmental or energy issues without substantially discussing climate change, such as a Times op-ed by Robert Bryce of the industry-funded Manhattan Institute, who criticized the Renewable Fuel Standard. [Media Matters, Fossil Fuel Disclosure Spreadsheet; Climate Denier Roundup, 4/26/16; The New York Times, 3/10/15]

Newspapers Gave Key Climate And Energy Misinformers Significant Exposure

WSJ, USA Today, And Wash. Post Frequently Published Least Credible Voices On Climate And Energy Issues. Our analysis found that a select group of writers were responsible for much of the climate- and energy-related misinformation in the four newspapers: Wall Street Journal editorial board members Holman Jenkins and Kimberly Strassel, Washington Post columnist George Will, a few high-profile congressmen, representatives of a few key fossil fuel front groups, and frequent op-ed contributors Bjorn Lomborg and Matt Ridley. Altogether, The Wall Street Journal published 55 climate- or energy-related opinion pieces by these misinformers since January 2015, while The Washington Post and USA Today each published nine, and The New York Times published just one. [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers Spreadsheet]

Misinforming Columnists At WSJ And Wash. Post

Holman Jenkins: 32 Columns. Wall Street Journal editorial board member Holman Jenkins Jr. frequently writes columns dismissing science, attacking climate policies, and defending the fossil fuel industry. During the time period examined, Jenkins authored 18 Journal columns that mentioned climate change -- 15 of which denied the consensus that human activities are driving climate change or otherwise misinformed on climate, such as questioning whether climate change is a “problem” or disputing the reliability of climate models to predict future warming. He also frequently attacked actions aimed at addressing climate change or holding the fossil fuel industry accountable, writing eight columns criticizing government investigations of Exxon, three criticizing the Paris climate agreement, and two criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. In one column responding to Climate Nexus’ study of climate denial on the Journal’s opinion pages, Jenkins declared, "No contributor has written more frequently on the subject of climate change on these pages,” and claimed that his views on the subject are “ploddingly conventional.” Yet he then proceeded to deny climate science by asserting that “science has been unable to discern signal from noise in the hunt for man-made warming.” As climate scientist Steve Sherwood pointed out to DeSmogBlog:

“That’s just not true. There are dozens and dozens of studies that have done exactly this. There’s a whole field of climate science looking at detection and attribution. For example, you can see the human fingerprint of greenhouse gas warming in precipitation extremes, in the vertical pattern of change between the stratosphere and troposphere. And all these studies use observations and models. If you are dismissing models, then that means the person does not understand the scientific process.” [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers SpreadsheetClimate Denial/Misinformation Spreadsheet; Climate Nexus analysis, accessed 9/1/16; Partnership for Responsible Growth, accessed 9/1/16; DeSmogBlog, 7/1/16]

Kimberley Strassel: Six Columns. Journal editorial board member Kimberley Strassel is also a climate science denier, as Mother Jones has documented, and her Journal columns frequently include climate-related misinformation. Strassel defended Exxon in a June 16 column that peddled the baseless conspiracy theory that the real target of the attorneys general investigations is “a broad array of conservative activist groups that are highly effective at mobilizing the grass-roots and countering liberal talking points.” In it, she falsely claimed that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has never “taken a position on climate,” when in fact ALEC has crafted model legislation that misrepresents science while attacking climate action. Strassel also claimed that the Koch brothers’ front group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has “never taken a dime from Exxon,” but the group’s predecessor organization received hundreds of thousands from Exxon, and it remains an open question whether Exxon is continuing to funnel money to AFP via dark money groups DonorsTrust and the Donors Capital Fund. In an April 14 column, she claimed that Democratic attorneys general are “pursuing the bogus claim” that Exxon “suppressed climate science,” when in fact they are investigating whether Exxon violated the law by misleading investors about climate change in order to achieve financial gain, regardless of whether Exxon published climate research in journals. And in an April 21 column, she called climate change “the left’s new religion.” [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers Spreadsheet; 6/17/16, 7/8/16Mother Jones, 2/13/16]

George Will: Seven Columns. Washington Post columnist George Will, who is also a contributor for Fox News, wrote seven columns about climate change or energy in the time period examined, three of which denied climate science. In two of these columns, Will pointed to natural shifts in the climate hundreds of years ago to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that human activities are driving the climate change that is occurring now. In the other, he dismissively referred to “the supposed warming that supposedly caused Hurricane Katrina.” Will, who was Media Matters' "Misinformer of the Year" in 2014, has a long track record of pushing climate change misinformation, which led a coalition of advocates to create a 2014 petition -- ultimately signed by 110,000 people -- demanding that the Post stop publishing editorial content by Will and others who deny climate science. That same year, Will was also criticized by the Society of Professional Journalists’ then-ethics chair Kevin Smith for not disclosing his involvement in donor summits organized by the oil billionaire Koch brothers while writing columns promoting Koch-backed candidates. [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers SpreadsheetClimate Denial/Misinformation Spreadsheet5/22/14, 1/9/15, 12/22/14, 9/9/14; Forecast the Facts, 2/20/14; FoxNews.com, accessed 9/1/16]

Science-Denying Lawmakers

Antiscience Members Of Congress: Five Op-Eds. USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post all gave space to members of Congress who denied climate science or peddled other misinformation around climate change:

  • The Wall Street Journal published an April 23, 2015, op-ed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who cited “the lack of global warming over the past 15 years” to baselessly dismiss concerns about future climate change.
  • USA Today published three op-eds by members of Congress who denied climate science. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) asserted in a March 31, 2015, op-ed: “The debate on man-driven climate change is not over.” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) wrote in an October 13, 2015, op-ed that “temperatures have been essentially flat for 18 years” to cast doubt on climate models that predict rapid temperature increases. And Smith proclaimed in a December 13 op-ed that scientists “disagree” about how much of climate change is caused by human activity as opposed to “natural cycles” or “solar variability.”
  • The Washington Post published a November 27 op-ed by climate science-denying Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), in which he attacked the Clean Power Plan by citing debunked reports by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and NERA Economic Consulting about its impacts on jobs and electricity bills, respectively. He also tried to undermine the historic Paris climate negotiations by falsely claiming China “cheated” when the country revised its coal emissions data to show it had been burning more coal than previously thought.

Although it was not disclosed in their op-eds, these congressmen have all accepted significant funding from the oil and gas, electric utilities, and/or coal mining industries, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Rep. Smith has accepted $773,847 from these industries, Sen. Sessions has accepted $822,145, Sen. Inhofe has accepted $2,623,744, and Sen. McConnell has accepted $3,504,469. Altogether, the four congressmen have accepted $7,724,205 in fossil fuel industry campaign contributions over their careers. [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers Spreadsheet, Climate Denial/Misinformation SpreadsheetFossil Fuel Campaign Contributions Spreadsheet, 6/3/14, 8/26/15, 12/3/15; Natural Resources Defense Council, 11/11/15Cincinnati Enquirer, 3/7/14]

Fossil Fuel Front Groups

Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce: Five Op-Eds. During the time period examined in this study, Robert Bryce, who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, authored three op-eds in The Wall Street Journal, one in USA Today, and one in The New York Times. The Manhattan Institute has received at least $800,000 from ExxonMobil and millions from Koch-affiliated organizations. In one Journal op-ed, Bryce presented a false choice between acting on climate change or protecting wildlife, and in another, he falsely claimed the people of Vermont oppose wind energy. [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers Spreadsheet; 7/31/15, 2/8/16, 5/16/16, Manhattan Institute, accessed 9/1/16]

Heartland Institute: Four Op-Eds. USA Today and The Wall Street Journal published three op-eds and one op-ed, respectively, written by people affiliated with the climate denial organization Heartland Institute, which has received over $700,000 from Exxon and significant funding from organizations tied to the oil billionaire Koch brothers. Three of the Heartland Institute op-eds peddled climate science denial, and the fourth also contained climate-related misinformation. Heartland Institute’s Marc Morano asserted in a November 30 USA Today op-ed: “The U.N. summit's goal of limiting the Earth's temperature to a rise of no more than 2 degrees Celsius is also not based on science. … The notion that a U.N. agreement to limit emissions will somehow alter the Earth's temperature or storminess is bordering on belief in witchcraft.” In an April 22 USA Today op-ed, Heartland’s John Coleman described himself as a “skeptic of man-made global warming” and wrote that "the hard cold truth is that the basic theory has failed. Many notable scientists reject man-made global warming fears.” Heartland’s Patrick Moore wrote in a September 3, 2015, Journal op-ed that “the real threat” is not global warming but a coming “cooling of the climate.” And in a June 18, 2015, USA Today op-ed, Heartland president Joseph Bast criticized Pope Francis’ climate encyclical by pushing the myth that climate action harms “the poor and the elderly, the sick, and vulnerable populations in all countries, but especially in Third World countries.” [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers Spreadsheet; Climate Denial/Misinformation Spreadsheet7/31/15, 7/6/15; Heartland Institute, accessed 9/1/16, 9/1/16, 9/1/16]

Cato Institute: Three Op-Eds. The Wall Street Journal published three climate- or energy-related op-eds by members of the Cato Institute, which was co-founded by the oil billionaire Koch brothers and has received millions of dollars from the Koch family. One of the op-eds falsely attacked attorneys general investigations of Exxon, and the other two op-eds promoted climate science denial. In an August 21 op-ed, Cato's Elizabeth Price Foley wrongly claimed that a group of attorneys general, who have committed to holding fossil fuel companies -- including Exxon -- accountable if they obfuscated climate change research in order to protect their financial interests, had pledged to take action against "climate wrongthink." A March 4, 2015, op-ed by Cato's Richard Lindzen questioned “the popular alarm over allegedly man-made global warming,” and criticized world leaders for “demonizing carbon dioxide.” And a January 24 piece by Cato's Patrick Michaels, titled “The Climate Snow Job,” was critiqued by Climate Feedback, an organization that publishes scientists’ assessments of the accuracy of news articles and opinion pieces. Ten scientists analyzed the op-ed and in their summary wrote, “Most of the article is devoted to casting doubt over the accuracy of the global temperature record. The author uses detailed technical descriptions to distract readers from the inaccuracies of the article, which involve cherry-picking data to support multiple unsubstantiated and discredited claims.” They rated its scientific credibility to be “low" to "very low.” [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers Spreadsheet, Climate Denial/Misinformation Spreadsheet7/31/15; Florida International University Law School, accessed 9/1/16; InsideClimate News, 3/30/16; Climate Feedback, 1/24/16]

Competitive Enterprise Institute: Two Op-Eds. Representatives of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which has recently received attention for having peddled climate science denial while receiving funding from Exxon, authored two op-eds during the time period examined in this study, both of which falsely claimed that the Exxon investigations are an attempt to criminalize free speech. In The Washington Post, CEI general counsel Sam Kazman and president Kent Lassman co-authored an op-ed describing the attorneys general investigations of Exxon as an attempt to criminalize “dissent” and “run roughshod” over First Amendment protections. And David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew Grossman -- the lawyers that represented CEI in its response to an Exxon-related subpoena from the attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands -- wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal alleging that the attorneys general investigations of Exxon are part of a strategy of “punishing dissent from an asserted ‘consensus’ view” on climate change. [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers Spreadsheet, 4/11/166/27/16; CEI.org, 4/20/16]

Other Frequent Misinformers

Bjorn Lomborg: Eight Op-Eds. Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center -- which was launched in the U.S. with funding from the Koch-linked Randolph Foundation -- wrote six op-eds in The Wall Street Journal and two in USA Today about climate or energy. In them, Lomborg frequently distorted climate science or deceptively criticized climate action. For instance, in one Journal op-ed in which he suggested that fewer people will die as the planet warms, Lomborg “misrepresent[ed] the results of existing studies” and “rel[ied] on flawed reasoning,” according to climate scientists who analyzed his claims for Climate Feedback. He also cited the global warming “hiatus” to dismiss concerns about future climate change, and falsely claimed that spending resources on climate aid to poor countries will deprive those countries of "medicine, mosquito nets or micronutrients." Additionally, he frequently cited a Copenhagen Consensus Center study to claim that the Paris climate agreement would reduce global warming by only 0.17 degrees Celsius. However, this study was debunked by multiple experts, and Lomborg’s findings were contradicted by several more reputable analyses, which found that the Paris climate agreement would limit global warming by approximately 1 degree Celsius and could lead to further global warming reduction. In USA Today, Lomborg again cited his study to call the Paris climate agreement a “hugely expensive way of doing very little.” He also twisted facts to claim that ceasing production of electric cars would keep people from dying. [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers Spreadsheet; Climate Denial/Misinformation SpreadsheetFossil Fuel Disclosure Spreadsheet12/3/15, 2/24/15; Climate Feedback, 4/6/16]

Matt Ridley: Two Op-Eds And One Essay. Matt Ridley frequently contributes to The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed pages about climate change and sometimes discloses that his family leases land for coal mining in northern England. During the time period examined for this study, Ridley authored two climate-related Journal op-eds -- and one additional piece published for “The Saturday Essay” in the Journal’s Life section, where he asserted that fossil fuels “will save the world.” One Ridley op-ed co-authored with Benny Peiser, director of the U.K.-based climate denial organization Global Warming Policy Foundation, was titled “Your Complete Guide to the Climate Debate” and released shortly before the international climate talks in Paris. Dozens of scientists criticized and debunked this op-ed on Climate Feedback, calling it a “very biased and misleading presentation of the science,” and adding that it contained “rampant cherry-picking, misleading statements, and flawed logic.” Climate Feedback assigned the op-ed an overall credibility score of “Low” to “Very Low.” A previous Media Matters analysis found that between January 2011 and October 15, 2012 -- when Ridley was a columnist for the Journal -- he authored 18 columns about climate change in which he frequently distorted climate science and compared climate scientists to eugenicists because eugenicists "insist[ed] that its tenets were beyond reasonable challenge." In one 2012 Journal column, Ridley asserted that global warming will be a “net good” for the planet. [Media Matters, Frequent Misinformers Spreadsheet, Climate Denial/Misinformation Spreadsheet10/29/12, 12/20/12; The Wall Street Journal, 3/13/15; Climate Feedback, 11/27/15]

 

Methodology

This report analyzed climate change coverage between January 1, 2015, and August 31, 2016, to determine how often climate science denial or other inaccurate claims about climate change appeared in op-eds, editorials, and columns published in four U.S. newspapers: The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

The Nexis and Factiva search terms “(climate change OR global warming OR emissions OR carbon OR greenhouse OR methane OR heat-trapping OR planet-warming)” were used to identify opinion pieces with a substantial mention of climate change or global warming. A substantial mention was defined as more than one paragraph about climate change. For instances where one of the paragraphs is a passing mention of climate change (e.g. climate change is mentioned only as one of a list of issues), we coded the article as a substantial mention if there was a second paragraph that made a definitive statement about climate change. To identify opinion articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times, we added the terms “and subject(editorials & opinion)” and “and document-type(op-ed OR editorial OR news analysis),” respectively, to our Nexis search. Our analysis excluded letters to the editor.

For coding climate science denial and other antiscience claims about climate change, we captured any instance in which the author disputed that climate change is happening or primarily driven by human activities such as burning fossil fuels. We also captured any instance where the author disputed other aspects of mainstream climate science, including the following examples:

  • mentioning the global warming “hiatus” or “pause” to suggest that there will not be future warming or that climate change is not a cause for concern;
  • disputing that carbon pollution is harmful;
  • casting doubt on the reliability of climate models or the amount of warming they project;
  • claiming that sea level rise has not been accelerating; and
  • claiming that climate change has not or will not exacerbate extreme weather events such as droughts and wildfires.

To debunk the climate-related misinformation, we produced a spreadsheet that includes links to major scientific organizations’ websites and reports, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Climate Assessment.

For identifying climate- and energy-related opinion pieces by frequent misinformers, we searched the terms “([first name] w/3 [last name]) AND (keystone or oil or climate or global warming or energy or renewable or frac! or exxon or clean power plan or carbon or coal or power plant! or EPA or environmental protection agency)” in Nexis and Factiva from January 1, 2015, through August 31, 2016. We excluded pieces with less than two paragraphs about a topic related to climate change or energy.

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