Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million (ppm) on Thursday for the first time in human history. But one thing hasn't changed: false balance still crops up in climate change stories.
False balance occurs when journalists give equal weight to arguments from both sides, regardless of where the facts lie. Climate change is a textbook example of this problem -- in fact, the term was coined in academic papers to criticize climate coverage in the 1990s.
Yet 20 years later, we still get articles like this from Bloomberg News, reporting on the 400 ppm milestone:
"The Earth has had many-times-higher levels of CO2 in the past," said Marc Morano, former spokesman for Republican Senator James Inhofe and executive editor of Climate Depot, a blog that posts articles skeptical of climate change. "Americans should welcome the 400 parts-per-million threshold. This means that plants are going to be happy, and this means that global-warming fearmongers are going to be proven wrong."
That position is disputed by many researchers, said Melanie Fitzpatrick, climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"This needs to be a wake-up call," she said in a statement. "Reaching 400 parts per million represents a dire experiment with the climate system. As long as humans have walked the Earth, we've never seen carbon dioxide levels this high."
Marc Morano is not a scientist and has no scientific education. He is paid by an oil-industry funded organization to confuse the public about climate change, and has compared climate science to the Mayan calendar, Nostradamus, and medieval witchcraft. Moreover, his argument is laughable: by focusing on how carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth in a controlled environment, he ignores that our huge emissions of it and other greenhouse gases are warming up the planet, thereby increasing the risk of extreme rainfall and drought to the detriment of agriculture. A Wall Street Journal op-ed made the same argument on Thursday, leading to a deluge of condemnation.
The Wall Street Journal once again published an op-ed disputing climate science by authors with no peer-reviewed papers on the topic and ties to groups funded by the oil industry. The op-ed argues that we should be "clamoring for more" carbon dioxide because it is a "boon to plant life," ignoring scientific research establishing that our excessive carbon dioxide emissions are rapidly changing the climate, which will have significant negative impacts for plants and humans.
The Midwest has experienced near record flooding this spring, resulting in four deaths, extensive property damage, and disruptions of agriculture and transportation. Evidence suggests that manmade climate change has increased the frequency of heavy downpours, and will continue to increase flooding risks. But in their ample coverage of Midwestern flooding, major media outlets rarely mentioned climate change.
Fox News has often claimed that "liberals" stopped using the term "global warming" in favor of the term "climate change" because the planet is no longer warming. Fox News' The Five, for instance, celebrated Earth Day 2013 by trotting out this talking point to deny global warming - even though 2000-2009 was the warmest decade on record and each of the 12 hottest years on record have come in the last 15 years. In reality, it was Republican consultant Frank Luntz -- now a Fox News contributor -- who advised Republicans in a 2002 memo to use the term "climate change" because "'climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming.'"
The term "climate change" was used long before Luntz's memo, particularly in the scientific literature. For instance, a 1970 paper published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was titled "Carbon Dioxide and its Role in Climate Change" and discussed how emissions of carbon dioxide warm the atmosphere.
Scientists use "global warming" when speaking about the increase in average global surface temperatures. They use "climate change" to refer to all the other disruptions that greenhouse gas emissions are causing -- from rising sea levels, to abruptly changing precipitation patterns that increase the likelihood of droughts and wildfires in certain areas and extreme flooding in others, to acidifying oceans that disturb the marine food web.
John Kerr created the video in this report.
Nearly three years ago, as reporters shifted their focus away from the Gulf oil spill, they managed to overlook a pipeline spill that happened just 10 days after the BP well was capped. Their oversight was a boon to a non-profit with only seven full-time employees, which recently beat leading national newspapers in the race for the national reporting Pulitzer Prize for its investigative reporting on that spill.
The non-profit InsideClimate's award-winning report on the oil spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River, titled "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside The Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of," noted that the national press was uninterested in the spill:
Despite the scope of the damage, the Enbridge spill hasn't attracted much national attention, perhaps because it occurred just 10 days after oil stopped spewing from BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which had ruptured three months earlier. Early reports about the Enbridge spill also downplayed its seriousness. Just about everybody, including the EPA officials who rushed to Marshall, expected the mess to be cleaned up in a couple of months.
The pipeline that leaked in Michigan was carrying bitumen extracted from tar sands and diluted with liquid chemicals, including the known human carcinogen benzene. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry the same type of crude. InsideClimate reported that officials initially were not aware that the pipeline was carrying diluted bitumen, or dilbit, and the characteristics of this heavy crude -- namely that it sunk to the river floor rather than floating like conventional light crude -- compounded challenges for the clean-up crew. Officials had to learn how to clean it up as they went along, helping make it the most costly pipeline spill on record.
Just last month, another pipeline carrying dilbit spilled in Arkansas, and this Saturday will mark the 3rd anniversary of the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which led to the largest offshore oil spill in history. A Media Matters study found that even after the recent Arkansas spill, media have continued to overlook the risk that the Keystone XL pipeline could spill dilbit into the large aquifer or the sensitive ecosystem it will cross. Pew Research found that less than a month after the BP oil well was capped, only 3 percent of news coverage focused on the spill, even though 44 percent of Americans said that they were still following the story more closely than any other issue.
These repeated plunges in coverage belie the impacts of oil spills, which are ongoing. Three years later, the BP spill is still harming many species critical to the Gulf's food chain. And as a The New York Times editorial stated, "The toll on the gulf and its marine life may not be known for years. The herring population of Alaska's Prince William Sound did not crash until three years after the Exxon Valdez spill."
The dearth of long-term investigative reporting on oil spills also obscures the need for policy reform, which reports like InsideClimate's have exposed:
Republican Representative Joe Barton denied manmade climate change by citing the biblical story of Noah's flood, yet no major news outlet except for the online publication Buzzfeed has noted his comments.
Rep. Barton stated in a hearing on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that climate change could be natural because the biblical story of the Great Flood, wherein God told Noah to build an ark to prepare for the flood, occurred prior to the Industrial Revolution:
I would point out, though, that people like me that support hydrocarbon development don't deny that the climate is changing. I think you can have an honest difference of opinion on what's causing that change without automatically being either all in, it's all because of mankind, or it's all just natural. I think there's a divergence of evidence. I would point out that if you're a believer in the Bible, one would have to say the Great Flood is an example of climate change. And that certainly wasn't because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy. So, in any event -- I would ask the gentleman from the Canadian government if you agree with the professor at the other end of the table that if we don't do Keystone, that these projects won't be developed to get the oil to the West Coast of Canada and on to Japan and China?
Bloomberg published a 650-word plus article about the hearing, but ignored Barton's comments. Buzzfeed noted his comments but did not note that they run counter to 97 percent of actively-publishing climate scientists, who agree that recent climate change is mostly manmade.
The press' failure to call out distortions of science does a disservice to the public, many of whom are under the mistaken impression that global warming either isn't happening or is mostly natural:
Rep. Barton has repeatedly suggested that climate change is entirely natural and misled on climate science, including commissioning a reportedly plagiarized report casting doubt on climate change. He has also received millions of dollars in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies.
UPDATE (4/11/13): The Huffington Post, MSNBC's First Look, and ABCNews.com have covered Barton's remarks. ABCNews.com stated that a "group of extreme athletes, however, disagree" with Barton, but did not note that the vast majority of scientists also disagree with him.
Bill O'Reilly labeled electric carmaker Tesla Motors a failure, claiming it had net losses. But Tesla has actually turned a profit, leading Fox News to label it a "success story" just last week.
O'Reilly stated that Tesla, which received a $465 million Department of Energy loan guarantee, had "$523 million in losses." But Tesla actually made a profit in the first quarter of 2013, and has arranged to repay its loan five years early. O'Reilly's figure is from a 2011 Investor's Business Daily editorial, as Raw Story first noted. In 2011, Tesla had annual net losses of $254 million, adding to previous losses, but CEO Elon Musk always saw Tesla turning a profit in 2013 once its car production ramped up.
In fact, Fox News itself labeled Tesla a "success story," and Fox Business anchor Lou Dobbs reluctantly acknowledged that it was one of the "winners" of the Obama administration's clean energy programs.
Fox News is now acknowledging that Tesla Motors is a "success story," but only a year ago the network declared the company "failed." This distortion played into its attempts to boost then-presidential nominee Mitt Romney's claim that President Barack Obama only "pick[s] the losers."
Discussing the Obama administration's investments in green technology, Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett recently stated that Tesla is a "success story," and Fox Business anchor Lou Dobbs acknowledged on Monday night that it is one of the "winners." Tesla recently announced that it made a profit in the first quarter of 2013 after exceeding sales goals for its electric sedan, and the company plans on paying back its Department of Energy loan guarantee five years early.
But an oft-aired Fox News graphic previously listed Tesla as "failed," a claim that Romney later echoed. In fact, several of the companies that Fox News declared "failed" are still successfully operating (circled in green), and contributing to technological advances that could help us transition to a clean energy economy, as can be seen in this interactive graphic created with ThingLink:
The companies circled in yellow did not actually receive any funds from the loan guarantee programs, instead receiving either grants, tax credits, or no federal funds at all. Nevada Geothermal Power's project, at far left and not circled in the graphic above, is still operating and part of the 87 percent of loan guarantee funds under the 1705 program awarded to projects that experts say pose almost no risk to the taxpayer. By lumping all of these programs together from the more than 1,460 companies that have received such awards, Fox News was able to paint a distorted picture of the Obama administration's energy policies.
NPR gave undue credence to wind power opponents who claim turbines are "making them ill" with a variety of symptoms. But there is no demonstrated link between wind turbines and health impacts, and studies suggest that psychological factors are behind these symptoms.
In a post titled, "Could Wind Turbines Be Toxic To The Ear?" NPR gave pediatrician Nina Pierpont a platform to promote "wind turbine syndrome," a term she coined. Although NPR noted that her claims "have been met with heavy skepticism from a host of experts in energy and public health," it nonetheless suggested that a recent scientific review supported her "self-published report."
Pierpont's report consisted of telephone interviews with 23 people who responded to an ad asking for people who claimed to experience "wind turbine syndrome," and their anecdotes about 15 family members.
The Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, Canada stated in a report that "no conclusions on the health impact of wind turbines can be drawn from Pierpont's work due to methodological limitations including small sample size, lack of exposure data, lack of controls and selection bias." Pierpont claimed that her paper was peer-reviewed, but it was actually evaluated by people she selected, including her husband, an anti-wind activist who compares his struggle to the civil rights movement:
Dr. Martin Luther King (see below) didn't use lawyers. Neither did Gandhi, who was a trained lawyer. Wrong strategy. If you think the Big Wind Onslaught is not on the scale of a Gandhi and King, but just a minor issue -- think again.
As Rosa Parks did, when she sparked the Civil Rights movement: you need to refuse to give up your seat to the wind bastard on the bus.
NPR also trumpeted the significance of a new scientific review, saying it "showed that outer hair cells of the cochlea respond to infrasound, which could affect the functioning of the ear." But there is no evidence that the outer hair cell response actually does "affect the functioning of the ear." Previous reviews have also noted that outer hair cells respond to infrasound, but nevertheless concluded "[a]vailable evidence shows that the infrasound levels near wind turbines cannot impact the vestibular system."
Rush Limbaugh is claiming contrary to basic physics that "carbon in the atmosphere may actually be making things cooler, not warmer."
Limbaugh asserted that he was backed up by an article in The Economist, but the article actually examined how much the Earth is warming from emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which by definition trap heat in the atmosphere.
The greenhouse effect is the reason that there is life on Earth, but since the Industrial Revolution humans have emitted billions of tons of carbon dioxide, trapping more heat in the atmosphere than the natural greenhouse effect would have. This warming has in turn set off several feedback loops that have on average amplified warming.