This year saw clean energy technologies become cost-competitive with fossil fuels and gain prominence worldwide. The fossil fuel industry, desperate to stymie clean energy's continuing expansion, enlisted conservative media to do their bidding and attack clean technologies in every shape and form. From stoking fears about public transit being a form of "government control," to providing one-sided stories falsely predicting clean energy's downfall, here are the media's six most absurd attacks on clean energy this year.
1. 60 Minutes Produces "Poor Piece Of Journalism" To Attack Clean Energy
In January, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a report titled, "The Cleantech Crash," which attempted to label clean energy a "dirty word." The report was widely criticized by reporters, government officials, and clean energy advocates alike for offering a one-sided look at renewable energy and narrowly focusing on a few failures while ignoring the majority of clean energy's success. Two of the guests interviewed in the report later criticized it for selectively airing their comments to provide an overly negative portrait of the industy and for "fail[ing] to do the most elementary fact checking and source qualification."
Further, the report made no mention of climate change, which as energy reporter Dana Hull pointed out is "the whole point of cleantech, after all: using the promise of technology and innovation to try to wean our economy off of fossil fuels."
"[W]hen they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate."
This single phrase has followed George Will for the last six months. The syndicated conservative columnist, considered by many a thoughtful intellectual rather than a bomb-thrower, severely damaged his brand when he wrote a June 2014 column dismissing efforts on college campuses to combat the epidemic of sexual assault and suggesting that women who say they were raped receive "privileges." The column has sparked hundreds to protest his public appearances, challenges from U.S. Senators and women's rights groups, and the dropping of his column from a major newspaper.
Will's 2014 misinformation was not limited to attacking and dismissing rape victims. Throughout the year, Will failed to disclose several major conflicts of interest in his columns, and his tangled relationship with political entities backed by Charles and David Koch was cited by the outgoing ethics chair of the Society of Professional Journalists as the kind of conflict journalists should disclose in their writing. His history as a prominent denier of climate change also helped further undermine his credibility, with more than 100,000 people signing a petition demanding the Washington Post stop printing the science misinformation he and others regularly push in its pages.
Will has written a column for the Post since 1974, which is syndicated in over 450 papers. He started his career as a Republican Senate staff member and speech writer before moving into the ranks of the conservative press, contributing to The American Spectator and working as the Washington editor for the National Review for a time. He has become a fixture in the right-wing think tank infrastructure, serving as a board member of the Bradley Foundation, which funds conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Federalist Society. But Will was always careful to keep one foot in the mainstream -- in addition to his Post column, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977, he served as an ABC News commentator for three decades and was even a featured interview in several Ken Burns documentaries.
Yet late last year, he left ABC to join Fox News as a political contributor, cementing his increasingly conservative and counterfactual tendencies. Some of his politics -- such as his longstanding climate change denial -- seemed to fit in at the network. But at the time, Media Matters wondered if an association with Fox's more angry and crude fare would ruin the brand of the staid conservative pontificator, shifting his erudite elitism towards the hard-edged style of misinformation for which Fox is better known. Will's accomplishments in 2014 revealed our suspicions were well-founded.
Media Matters isn't the only organization to recognize the damage Will's commentary did to the discourse this year. When PolitiFact awarded its 2014 Lie of Year to "exaggerations about Ebola," they cited Will as a prime example. Will used his Fox News platform to spread lies about the disease, falsely claiming that it could be "spread through the air." As PolitiFact noted:
Will's claim that Ebola could spread through the air via a cough or sneeze shows how solid science got misconstrued. The conservative commentator suggested a thought shift about how the virus could spread. In reality, Will simply misunderstood scientists' consistent, albeit technical explanation.
Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, vomit and diarrhea. Coughing and sneezing are not symptoms.
Will has a long history of pushing misinformation, but it finally caught up with him in 2014, tarnishing the reputation as a public intellectual he had spent decades cultivating. He started the year one of the most respected members of the conservative media elite, and ended it with hundreds protesting his speeches. For this reason, Media Matters recognizes George Will as the 2014 Misinformer of the Year.
Past recipients include CBS News (2013), Rush Limbaugh (2012), Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. (2011), Sarah Palin (2010), Glenn Beck (2009), Sean Hannity (2008), ABC (2006), Chris Matthews (2005), and Bill O'Reilly (2004).
From the December 16 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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United Nations delegates have gathered over the past two weeks to discuss action on climate change. Fox News only covered the talks once, to warn that they were "breaking down," but ignored the deal reached Sunday morning: a pledge from every nation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.
On Saturday, December 13, Fox News' America's News Headquarters reported that the United Nations climate talks were "breaking down." The international negotiations took place over a two-week stretch in Lima, Peru, and were supposed to conclude Friday, December 12, but were extended one day to ensure that countries could reach an agreement. Fox News reported that "countries can't agree on what nearly 200 nations should pledge to keep our air clean":
But an agreement was, in fact, reached early Sunday morning. On December 14, the United Nations' chairs released a document called the "Lima Call For Climate Action," which ensured a pledge from every country to lower their greenhouse gas emissions. The pledge states that countries must aim to phase out fossil fuels and achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The agreement itself is somewhat contentious among environmental advocates, some of whom call it too "weak." Others heralded it for paving the way to a more robust deal at the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris next year. And the agreement's geographic scope -- a pledge from each and every country -- is considered a "breakthrough" by Harvard economist Robert Stavins. Political scientist David Victor said that the voluntary nature of the agreement is actually a good thing, in an interview with Vox:
Victor has long argued that UN negotiators would never be able to impose a climate plan on reluctant countries from on high. Instead, any climate deal should work from the bottom up -- start with what countries are actually willing to do and slowly build from there. And that's essentially taken in these latest climate talks. It's not enough to avoid drastic global warming-- not yet, at least. But it may be a step forward from past gridlock.
Yet Fox News has made no mention of this agreement since its Saturday report that the talks were breaking down.*
A Media Matters analysis of major U.S. newspapers reporting on the alleged "war on coal" found that newspapers provided one-sided coverage of the issue and seldom mentioned the coal industry's negative environmental and health impacts or its efforts to fight regulations. Out of 223 articles published in major U.S. newspapers this year mentioning the phrase "war on coal," more than half failed to mention underlying issues that account for the coal industry's decline and the need for regulations. Further, less than 10 percent of articles mentioned harm caused by the coal industry or how the coal industry is fighting against regulations aimed at protecting miners and reducing pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that it will delay its decision about the 2014 levels for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which requires oil refiners to blend renewable fuels into the nation's gasoline supply. The announcement has drawn criticism from opponents who want the EPA to lessen or eliminate the RFS, and the media are recycling debunked myths about the mandate. Here are the facts.
Media figures are touting the Keystone XL pipeline as an "environmentally safe" alternative to truck and rail transportation, uncritically citing a State Department report on the environmental impact of building Keystone XL. But experts and subsequent studies have determined that the report is based on faulty conclusions and grossly underestimates greenhouse gas emissions caused by Keystone.
From the November 19 edition of CNBC's Squawk Box:
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Fox News provided American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellow Jonah Goldberg a platform to attack climate scientists as profiteers who are "financially incentivized" to advocate climate change action, without disclosing AEI's own financial incentive to undercut action on climate change. AEI has taken over $3 million from ExxonMobil, and once offered money to scientists to write articles criticizing a UN climate change report.
On the November 18 edition of Your World with Neil Cavuto, Goldberg argued that climate scientists have a conflict of interest reporting on climate change because they are "deeply invested in the whole industry of global warming" for their university programs. Goldberg also called climate scientists and advocates "people who are financially incentivized to go one way."
Though host Neil Cavuto did disclose that Goldberg is a fellow at AEI, he did not mention AEI's ties to the oil industry or its history of offering money to climate scientists to write articles undermining a climate change report. In 2013, The Union of Concerned Scientists reported that AEI received $3.04 million from ExxonMobil between 2001 and 2011. According to ExxonMobil's website, in 2012 the company also donated $260,000 to AEI.
In 2007, The Guardian reported that AEI offered scientists and economists $10,000 to write articles that "emphasise the shortcomings" of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which found a 90 percent chance that human activity was causing global temperature increases.
The failure of Fox News and Goldberg to disclose ExxonMobil's contributions to AEI, or its previous attempt to pay scientists to criticize a U.N. climate change report, shows that conservative media will stop at nothing to undercut the settled science on climate change, even in the face of their own hypocrisy.
A 60 Minutes report on groundwater depletion brought attention to a critical issue that many regard as a national security threat, but failed to mention the inherent connection between water scarcity and climate change.
The November 16 edition of 60 Minutes featured a segment on the threat of groundwater scarcity titled "Depleting the Water." In it, host Leslie Stahl covered the severe droughts around the world that are leading people to extract fresh water from the ground at unsustainable rates, warning that "the wars of the 21st century may well be fought over water."
But Stahl completely ignored climate change, which is projected to increase the severity and frequency of such droughts and is inherently linked to groundwater scarcity. A United Nations climate science report concluded earlier this year that manmade climate change will reduce groundwater resources "significantly in most dry subtropical regions," and a 2013 study from Simon Fraser University determined that climate change may already be exacerbating water shortages in many areas around the globe.
The 60 Minutes segment highlighted that California's "record-breaking drought" is inducing farmers to drill for water in underwater aquifers at unsustainable rates -- without mentioning that this drought that has been directly linked by scientists multiple times to manmade climate change. Stahl also highlighted severe droughts across southern Asia and in the Middle East, regions that the National Center for Atmospheric Research and other scientific institutions have projected will experience worsening droughts as the planet warms.
Stahl's comment that groundwater shortages may lead to political unrest also has roots in global warming. As Stahl pointed out, many aquifers that are being severely depleted are in "volatile regions" such as in Iraq and Syria. Many military officials have warned that unabated global warming could exacerbate wars and terrorism and pose a national security threat.
The segment ended by asserting that if no action is taken, California's aquifers could end up completely depleted. But the only responses to the drought that the news magazine covered were a process in which sewage water is recycled into freshwater and a recently enacted law that regulates groundwater. 60 Minutes didn't discuss ways to combat climate change, which would work to prevent catastrophic droughts from happening in the first place.
60 Minutes' failure to mention global warming -- in a segment focused on a problem related to manmade climate change -- follows the news magazine's widely panned report on clean energy, which also made no mention of climate change.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough peddled the myth that building the Keystone XL pipeline would "create 50,000 new jobs," even though independent fact checkers have called that figure false. The pipeline is projected to create as few as 50 permanent jobs.
The House of Representatives passed a bill to fast-track approval of the Keystone XL pipeline for the ninth time on Friday. A parallel measure will be considered in the Senate on Tuesday. The administration has indicated that it plans to delay approval of the pipeline while a legal challenge to the proposed route proceeds and suggested that President Obama would veto the effort to accelerate the process.
Scarborough questioned any decision to delay the pipeline on the November 17 edition of Morning Joe and wrongly claimed that the project would "create 50,000 new jobs."
The implication that building the pipeline would create 50,000 jobs that don't currently exist is not true. As PolitiFact noted in calling similar job creation estimates false, many of the jobs that would be supported by the pipeline already exist, and the majority of the construction jobs that would be supported are short term.
"A State Department review found the project could support -- not create -- 42,100 jobs. But that number needs considerable explanation and does not amount to tens of thousands of full-time jobs in the most common sense of employment," PolitiFact noted. "The figure represents the project's estimated direct, indirect and induced jobs over two years of construction, and all but 50 are temporary."
From the November 12 edition of CNN's The Lead with Jake Tapper:
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Fox News revived a long debunked myth to inflate the number of long-term, sustainable jobs that would be created by the Keystone XL pipeline.
Conservative media attacked President Obama over a historic deal between China and the U.S. to reduce carbon emissions, claiming that the deal was a "cave" to China and that the U.S. got "steamrolled." But climate experts and others widely agree that the deal is an important step in the fight against climate change.
This year's midterm election campaigns were filled with promises to dismantle climate change policies, at a time when climate action is more important than ever. But even against the backdrop of record-breaking temperatures, recent landmark climate reports, and candidates denying climate change, the broadcast networks ignored the implications of climate change in their evening news coverage of the midterms.
A Media Matters analysis of broadcast networks' coverage of the midterm elections found that their nightly news programs glossed over policy issues. Moreover, the programs offered no discussion about climate change or how the candidates plan to address the issue.
Here are several opportunities that the media could have used to bring climate change into their discussion of the midterm elections.
Environmental issues were a top platform issue in this year's elections; environment and energy-related issues were the "third-most mentioned issue in political advertisements" according to an analysis from Kantar Media/CMAG, especially in battlegrounds states like Kentucky and West Virginia. The New York Times reported that the surge in energy and environmental ads "suggests the prominent role that the issues could play in the 2016 presidential race."
Many of these ads included promises to dismantle environmental regulations and even abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A main target of conservative attacks has been the EPA's Clean Power Plan, a key piece of President Obama's Climate Action Plan, which has been seen by foreign government leaders as an important step for reaching a global agreement on climate change. Dismantling the Climate Action Plan could have global ramifications and dissuade other countriesfrom taking action to curb emissions themselves.
At the same time, the reality of climate change is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. The globe just experienced the hottest June, August, and September on record, as well as the warmest six-month stretch ever recorded.
Just days before the elections, the United Nations' climate panel released the culmination of their five-year effort to synthesize climate science in a report concluding that the world needs to take action and completely phase out fossil fuels by 2100 to avoid the "irreversible"effects of man-made climate change.
Yet several GOP candidates waffled on the issue of climate change, or even backtracked to global warming denial. Denial of climate science has become something of a litmus test for Republican politicians, and in order to deflect questions about their belief in climate change, candidates have repeated the refrain: "I'm not a scientist."
A plurality of Americans agree that climate change is happening and support government effort to curb emissions, but now that the Senate has flipped, the nation's current efforts to address climate change are at risk.
The broadcast nightly news programs have an alarming trend of paltry climate change coverage. Their coverage of the midterm elections fits in with this trend --instead of focusing on climate issues, the networks devoted much of their midterm coverage to President Obama's low favorability ratings.