A new study found that organizations funded by ExxonMobil and the oil billionaire Koch brothers may have played a key role in sowing doubt in the U.S. about climate change. These findings reveal how important it is for media to disclose the industry ties behind front groups that consistently misinform the public.
Over recent decades, the scientific consensus that fossil fuel emissions are driving global climate change has grown stronger, yet Americans have become increasingly divided on the issue along partisan lines. A new study, led by Yale University sociologist Justin Farrell, examined the "organizational and financial roots" behind this polarization and found that funding from ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers may have played a key role.
The study, published November 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that "organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue." It focused on organizations funded by ExxonMobil and the Koch family foundations, noting that those two funders had been previously "identified as especially influential," and that funding from these groups "signals entry into a powerful network of influence."
The study follows criticisms of Exxon Mobil for sowing doubt on climate change through its front groups despite its own scientists confirming the climate change consensus decades ago. New York's Attorney General is currently investigating whether Exxon deliberately misled the public about climate change, and more than 350,000 people recently signed a petition calling for a federal investigation of the company's climate misinformation campaign. Documents compiled by Greenpeace show that since 1998, Exxon has given over $30 million in funding to organizations "that work to spread climate denial."
According to the PNAS study, many of these groups' climate change positions were likely influenced by Exxon's funding; specifically, the study found that not only were these groups "more likely to have written and disseminated contrarian texts," but also that "corporate funding influences the actual language and thematic content of polarizing discourse."
The study detailed the "thematic content" touted by these organizations, which include many industry front groups, and found that fossil fuel-funded organizations more often discussed "temperature trends," "energy production," "the positive benefits of CO2," and "climate change being a long-term cycle" than organizations that did not receive industry funding:
Those deceptive "themes" have made frequent appearances in the media. "Temperature trends" have recently become a pervasive talking point, with much coverage devoted to a supposed 18-year "pause" in global warming (multiple studies confirm that this "pause" never happened, as the planet continues to warm). The false talking point that carbon dioxide emissions could have positive impacts has been touted by Marc Morano -- who is paid by industry-funded Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow to run a climate denial blog -- and has also made its way onto Fox News, and, most alarmingly, into California textbooks. And the misleading emphasis on "climate change being a long-term cycle" is a frequent soundbite on Fox News and other conservative media outlets, even though the science shows that the global climate is currently experiencing a significant shift that award-winning astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says "the Earth hasn't seen since the great climate catastrophes in the past."
Yet, as study author Farrell told The Washington Post, "contrarian efforts have been so effective for the fact that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust."
Farrell's study suggests that fossil fuel industry front groups' efforts to polarize the climate change debate may have been intended to delay climate action, stating in its discussion: "It is well understood that polarization is an effective strategy for creating controversy and delaying policy progress, especially around environmental issues."
As Media Matters has documented, many groups funded by ExxonMobil and the Kochs have pervaded mainstream media to fight against environmental protections. It is essential that reporters, at the very least, disclose the industry funding behind them -- or better yet, think twice before providing such a wide platform for corporate interests to stymie progress on climate change.
Image via Creative Commons courtesy of Flickr user CGP Grey.
New research from Southern Methodist University (SMU) found that some children's textbooks that depict the reality of human-caused climate change with uncertainty are influenced by a climate science knowledge gap that finds its roots partly in conservative media misinformation.
In a language analysis of four major California science textbooks, the SMU researchers found that the books delivered a message "that climate change is possibly happening, that humans may or may not be causing it, and that we do not need to take immediate mitigating action."
The study concluded that the four 6th grade textbooks -- including books from major national publishing companies McGraw-Hill Education and Pearson -- used language and writing techniques that "more closely match the public discourse of doubt about climate change rather than the scientific discourse" one might expect from academic texts. The books used language that misleadingly amplified uncertainty about the causes of climate change, undermined the expertise of climate scientists, and implied a false balance narrative around the realities of climate change within the scientific community.
For example, the authors found that only 21 percent of the instances discussing the cause-effect factors in climate change identified the effects of human activity, and that in the texts, "Scientists were often said to think or believe but rarely were scientists said to be inferring from evidence or data."
The SMU study explained that conservative media falsehoods about climate change contribute to a shift in public discourse, which eventually influences textbook language by creating competing interests within the textbook market. Publishers' attempts to cater to the largest market -- which includes textbook buyers who ascribe to the "public discourse of doubt" around climate change -- ultimately result in misleading textbook language and factual inaccuracies. Although the study focused on California textbooks, such a large textbook market often "set[s] standards for the rest of the country" according to the study's authors -- an effect that may already be seen in Texas.
How does this "public discourse of doubt" on climate change first develop? The researchers at SMU cited Fox News' coverage of climate science as one factor in shaping misinformation, pointing to previous research that showed Fox has disproportionately interviewed climate science deniers and that its viewers are more likely to be climate science deniers themselves (emphasis added):
[I]n discussing the topic of climate change, some segments of the media use the journalistic norm of 'balance' -- giving equal weight to all positions about this phenomenon -- when building frames to present to the public (Boykoff 2007). When frame setting, segments of the media adhere to this norm to give equal time to a climate scientist and a climate denier when addressing climate change. For example, Fox News presents climate change as uncertain by interviewing a greater proportion of climate deniers (Feldman et al. 2012). As a result, at the individual-level effects of framing stage, the audience may come to understand human-caused climate change as controversial. And indeed, viewers of Fox News are more likely to be climate skeptics even when taking into account political affiliation (Feldman et al. 2012). The effects of framing go beyond individual positions about specific topics. Frames accumulate into larger discourses, which are 'a shared way of apprehending the world... enabling those who subscribe to it to interpret bits of information and put them together into coherent stories or accounts' (Dryzek 2013, 9). We see two discourses prevalent in climate change communication: a 'scientific discourse' and a 'public discourse.'
The researchers' implication of Fox News in the creation of a misinformed public discourse is well founded. Media figures at Fox have a long record of repeating scientific inaccuracies on air and allowing fringe figures to perpetuate widely debunked claims. The similarities between the doubtful language and inaccurate claims on Fox and in the textbook examples from the study are striking:
The SMU study found that the textbooks dedicated substantial portions of their passages on climate change to discussing natural causes rather than human causes, despite that "there is little doubt about the causes of current climate change" within the scientific community that human activities are the driving force behind the phenomenon:
All four textbooks dedicated a substantial portion of the chapters about climate change to describe the natural factors that could be causing this phenomenon. Although all four textbooks indicated that human beings could be having an impact on climate change, they framed this topic as an issue in which not all scientists are in agreement as can be seen in the following example:
- Not all scientists agree about the causes of global warming. Some scientists think that the 0.7 Celsius degree rise in global temperatures over the past 120 years may be due in part to natural variations in climate. (Prentice Hall 2008)
The study stated in a discussion of its findings: "The causes of climate change were shrouded in uncertainty in the texts we analyzed. Specifically, the human contribution to climate change was presented as a possibility rather than a certainty."
Fox Host: Is Global Warming Man-Made? "Nobody Knows." In a June 2014 edition of Fox News Radio's Kilmeade & Friends, Fox News' Steve Doocy asserted that "nobody knows" if the causes of global warming are natural or man-made:
STEVE DOOCY: Keep in mind: nobody is saying that the planet isn't getting warmer. Although, you know, we had a story a couple of days ago that the 1930s were much, much warmer than the decade we're in right now. And the globe has not warmed in 17 years. Here's the thing - nobody's saying the globe isn't warming. The question comes down to, if it is, what's making it warm up? Is it just a natural climactic [sic] cycle? Or is it something man-caused? Nobody knows.
Fox News Correspondent: "There Is Not Consensus" On Causes Of Climate Change. On the September 1 edition of Special Report with Bret Baier, Fox News correspondent Dan Springer rejected the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change, stating that "while the Obama administration blames man and the burning of fossil fuels, there is not consensus," before cutting to an economist from the conservative Heritage Foundation to support his claim.
DAN SPRINGER: Scientists say the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the nation. Sea ice is arriving later in the fall and melting sooner in the summer. This was one of the worst wildfire seasons on record in the Last Frontier State -- 5 million acres burned, about the size of Massachusetts. But while the Obama administration blames man and the burning of fossil fuels, there is not consensus.
The SMU study identified language in multiple textbooks that emphasized the historical context of climate change "to support the idea that climate had been changing well before humans were here and, therefore, is a naturally occurring phenomenon," including the following examples:
However, climates have gradually changed throughout Earth's history. (Prentice Hall, 2008)
Scientists have found evidence of many major ice ages throughout Earth's geologic history. (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston Inc. 2007)
Media figures often appear on Fox News to suggest that historical shifts in the global climate somehow disprove the notion that human-driven climate change is threatening our way of life. Media Matters compiled several, such as Competitive Enterprise Institute's Chris Horner, saying: "Climate changes. It always has, it always will."
The SMU study noted that "all four textbooks mentioned the negative effects of climate change, but two of them also discussed the potential positive results of this phenomenon," pointing out the following examples:
Global warming could have some positive effects. Farmers in some areas that are now cool could plant crops two times a year instead of one. Places that are too cold for farming today could become farmland. However, many effects of global warming are likely to be less positive. (Prentice Hall, 2008)
But farther north, such as in Canada, weather conditions for farming would improve. (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston Inc. 2007)
Fox's Gutfeld: "Even If There Is Global Warming ... It's Good For Human Beings." On the April 11, 2012 edition of Fox News' The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld asserted : "even if there is global warming ... it's good for human beings. If a polar bear dies, I don't feel bad. Honestly I don't. No, human beings. When temperature goes up, human beings live longer. When you have cold spells across countries, people die."
Fox Turned To Mark Levin And A Coal Miner To Say "CO's What Make Plants Grow." During an hour-long special on the "green agenda" in 2012, Fox News turned to right-wing radio host Mark Levin, who denied that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that should be regulated, saying: "Carbon dioxide is what we exhale. Carbon dioxide is necessary for plants." Fox later aired video of coal miner Robert "Buz" Hilberry echoing this, saying: "I'm no scientist but CO's what make plants grow and what make you breathe, so they're trying to choke us all out by stopping the burning of coal."
Fox Frequent Marc Morano: Record High Carbon Dioxide "Should Be Welcomed" Because "Plants Are Going To Be Happy." Marc Morano, who was featured on Fox News to discuss climate change 11 times in 2014 alone, said to Bloomberg that Americans "should welcome" a record high in greenhouse gases because "This means that plants are going to be happy, and this means that global-warming fearmongers are going to be proven wrong."
A Wall Street Journal op-ed declared that the World Health Organization's (WHO) recent statement linking red and processed meats to cancer was not actually about protecting public health, but "about fighting global warming."
The November 9 op-ed, headlined "The Climate Agenda Behind the Bacon Scare," claimed WHO's announcement "seems particularly well timed" to coincide with upcoming United Nations climate negotiations, where nations hope to achieve an international agreement to act on global warming. The writers dismissed WHO's conclusions about cancer -- which were was based on an assessment of "more than 800 studies that investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets" -- as "flimsy at best," and posited that its findings would be used by environmental activists or "doomsayers" who "want to take on modern agriculture" to reduce greenhouse gas-intensive meat consumption. The op-ed concluded: "In other words, meat is a double threat that governments should contain. Hang on to your T-bones and sausages, folks."
One of the op-ed writers, Jeff Stier, is described as head of the "risk analysis division" at the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR). NCPPR has been given at least $445,000 from ExxonMobil, and has received over $300,000 from DonorsTrust, a dark money group that receives large donations from groups connected to the oil billionaire Koch brothers.
NCPPR has extensively railed against climate change efforts, including attacking the CIA for providing climate data to scientists, making the false claim that Pope Francis' climate stance could hurt the poor, and urging Apple to end their environmental initiatives.
Stier is also listed as a health and scientific policy expert at the Heartland Institute, which is known for its annual climate denial conferences and has received over $700,000 from ExxonMobil. Julie Kelly -- the co-author of the Journal op-ed -- was listed as a food writer, but she is also a food policy adviser for Heartland, according to National Review.
The New York Times recently reported that China had released new data showing that the country has burned significantly more coal in recent years than previously thought. Conservative media are alleging that China is "lying" and using this news to undermine the upcoming United Nations climate conference in Paris, where nations hope to reach an international climate change agreement. But experts say China's revised data, which has been known to policymakers for months, is a result of improved accounting -- not deception -- and has already been incorporated into the international negotiations.
The Washington Times touted a report attacking the process the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used to develop proposed restrictions on environmentally-destructive mining in Alaska's Bristol Bay, without disclosing that the report was funded by the company that wants to build the mine.
The EPA has invoked Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect Alaska's ecologically sensitive Bristol Bay region, home to the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, from the possible "catastrophic" impacts of a proposed gold and copper mine. Pebble Limited Partnership, the company that has been seeking approval to construct a mine in the region, commissioned former defense secretary William Cohen's firm to author a report on whether or not EPA acted "fairly" in its evaluation of potential mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.
Rather than note that the study was funded by a company with a vested interest in the outcome, The Washington Times simply stated that the report was conducted "by Mr. Cohen, who was in Democratic President Clinton's cabinet." The Washington Times also did not mention that Cohen was a Republican member of both the House and Senate before joining the Clinton administration.
In addition to having a financial conflict of interest, the Cohen report did not make meaningfully different claims than the Pebble Limited Partnership had already made itself, and was nowhere near as accurate, comprehensive, or transparent as the EPA's own methodical scientific review.
From the November 6 article in The Washington Times:
At the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing, Republicans took aim at the EPA's objectivity in assessing the project, producing a cache of emails from EPA staffers obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, author of an Oct. 6 report critical of the process, pointed out that the project lies on state land designated for mining, not federal land.
"The notion that the EPA can make you file something that you're not ready to file, and over the objections of the state of Alaska, is, it seems to me, that's quite a stretch for EPA's power," Mr. Cohen said.
The report by Mr. Cohen, who was in Democratic President Clinton's cabinet, concluded that the EPA had acted unfairly by using the less comprehensive 404(c) authority instead of evaluating a permit application under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"EPA's unprecedented, preemptive use of Section 404(c) before a permit filing, in my judgment, exacerbated the shortcomings of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment and inhibited the involvement of two key participants -- the Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Alaska," Mr. Cohen said in his testimony.
His findings were echoed in a report released Wednesday by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which accused the EPA of exercising a "preemptive veto" against the mine by undertaking a rarely used 404(c) review.
The report cites a 2010 email in which Mr. Hough, an environmental scientist in the EPA's wetlands division, says that, "we have never gone down the route of a 'preemptive' 404(c) action before."
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working to protect Alaska's Bristol Bay, home to the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, from the adverse environmental impacts of a proposed mineral excavation project called the Pebble Mine. Proponents of the mine have been pushing an array of falsehoods, many of which are being propagated in the media as the EPA's process for evaluating the project was scrutinized in a November 5 Congressional hearing. Here are the facts.
A new NASA study found that there has been a net increase in land ice in Antarctica in recent years, despite a decline in some parts of the continent. The study's lead author astutely predicted that climate science deniers would distort the study, even though it does nothing to contradict the scientific consensus on climate change or the fact that sea levels will continue to rise.
NPR executive editor Edith Chapin and ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen agree it is "unfortunate" that NPR has thus far failed to cover groundbreaking reports documenting that ExxonMobil funded efforts to sow doubt about climate science for decades after confirming that burning fossil fuels causes climate change.
In a November 2 post on NPR's website, Jensen noted that NPR received criticism from some listeners for failing to report on the recent reports by The Guardian, InsideClimate News, and the Los Angeles Times documenting that Exxon amplified doubt about climate science after Exxon's own scientists confirmed the consensus on global warming. Jensen quoted Chapin as saying of the Exxon story, "NPR should have reported on it in some fashion on at least one of our outlets/platforms," and Chapin also said "[i]t is unfortunate that this topic didn't come up [in NPR's daily editorial discussions] or in any conversation or email that I was a part of." For her part, Jensen agreed that the story "seems to have fallen through the cracks," and that given the growing calls for an investigation of Exxon, "the lapse was unfortunate." Jensen noted that the story was addressed in September by WNYC's On the Media, which was at the time distributed by NPR but is no longer affiliated with the outlet.
Since the media investigations were published, climate scientists, members of Congress, and Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley have called for the Department of Justice to investigate either Exxon specifically or oil companies more broadly to determine if they knowingly deceived the public about climate change.
As one listener wrote to NPR: "Considering the importance of the issue and the prominence of Exxon's role, this story deserved, and still deserves, to be headline news on the national broadcast." Jensen agreed, concluding that "the issue is still a live one, and it's not too late for NPR to find some way of following up."
Andrew Ratzkin, a listener to the New York City member station WNYC, wrote that the only reporting he heard on the issue was in September, by On the Media, which is produced by WNYC (at the time, the show was distributed by NPR, but that business deal ended Oct. 1 and it is no longer NPR-affiliated). That reporting, examining the InsideClimate News reports, included a contentious interview by On the Media co-host Bob Garfield with Richard Keil, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, who disputed the InsideClimate News claims.
"This is not enough," Ratzkin wrote. "Considering the importance of the issue and the prominence of Exxon's role, this story deserved, and still deserves, to be headline news on the national broadcast."
Edith Chapin, NPR's executive editor, told me by email that she believes NPR dropped the ball.While it was not a major headline story, I think it meets the interesting test and thus NPR should have reported on it in some fashion on at least one of our outlets/platforms. Exxon Mobil is the world's largest publicly traded multinational oil and gas company and the debate and research decades ago is interesting in light of contemporary knowledge and action on climate change. Daily conversations at our editorial hub typically cross a range of subjects and stories from across the globe. It is unfortunate that this topic didn't come up there or in any conversation or email that I was a part of. It should have been flagged by someone so we could have discussed it and made an intentional decision to cover or not and if so, how.
My take: The story was on the radar of at least some in the newsroom, but it seems to have fallen through the cracks. Given the latest repercussions--Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is among those calling for a federal investigation--the lapse was unfortunate. But the issue is still a live one, and it's not too late for NPR to find some way of following up.
CNBC will host the third GOP presidential primary debate on October 28, which is set to focus on economic issues. So will the network that describes itself as the "world leader in business news" ask the candidates to reconcile their positions on climate change with the views of prominent Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte and many of America's leading businesses and financial leaders, who have expressed support for climate action and warned of the severe economic risks associated with unchecked global warming?
Right-wing media frequently distort climate science in order to dispute the overwhelming consensus that human activities are responsible for climate change. But sometimes scientists fight back and stand up for their work. Here are nine times scientific researchers stood up to deniers who misrepresented their climate studies.