Right-wing media are laughing about President Barack Obama mentioning climate change in his fifth State of the Union address because it is cold in D.C. But the wobbly polar vortex bringing cold air to much of the contiguous United States is simultaneously causing record warmth in Alaska, a state often seen as the nation's "ground zero" for climate change.
On January 28, Alaska's largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, ran this remarkable headline: "Record warmth, confused plants: An Alaska January to remember." The article noted that it was 62 degrees Fahrenheit in one town, tying the January state record, but did not allude to the long-term warming trend. In November, the newspaper did briefly invoke the possibility of climate change while expressing disbelief that strawberries were growing "In Anchorage. In November."
Yet just a year ago, right-wing media claimed the state was headed toward "an ice age." The Alaska Dispatch, a prominent online news site, ran the misleading headline, "Forget global warming, Alaska is headed for an ice age." The report was promoted by the conservative British tabloid, the Daily Mail, and the climate denial site, WattsUpWithThat, which highlighted the state's relatively lower average temperature in 2012.
As the chart above also shows though, cherry-picking a short-time period is misleading -- natural variation can mask the long-term trend. Contrary to claims of an "ice age," studies project that average annual temperatures in Alaska will increase "an additional 3.5 to 7°F by the middle of this century," according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Warming in Alaska already has caused highways to buckle and homes in areas such as Shismaref, pictured above, to sink, as the EPA explained:
Many of Alaska's highways are built on permafrost. When permafrost thaws, roads buckle. Vehicles are only allowed to drive across certain roads in the tundra when the ground is frozen solid. In the past 30 years, the number of days when travel is allowed on the tundra has decreased from 200 days to 100 days per year.
Along Alaska's northwestern coast, increased coastal erosion is causing some shorelines to retreat at rates averaging tens of feet per year. Here, melting sea ice has reduced natural coastal protection. In Shishmaref, Kivalina, and other Alaska Native Villages, erosion has caused homes to collapse into the sea. Severe erosion has forced some Alaska Native Villages' populations to relocate in order to protect lives and property.
Image at top via Alaska's Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development
On January 28, President Obama gave his fifth State of the Union speech during which he addressed the urgent need to act on climate change. Conservative media pundits latched on to the cold winter weather in the area during his speech to laugh off global warming, despite the clear long-term warming trend.
From the January 22 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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ESPN announcers recently used a cold spell to mock global warming in their live commentary, mainstreaming the conservative myth that cold weather disproves global warming. But during coverage of the Australian Open, which saw dangerous, record-breaking heat, commentators remained silent on the issue -- a trend more akin to Fox News.
During an Arctic chill on January 7, ESPN commentators Jimmy Dykes and Brad Nessler interjected their sports coverage with climate denial. Dykes mentioned that he had watched a national television debate over "whether or not global warming was still taking place," saying he "listened to about 30 seconds of it, but the guy saying no it has not, I think he won the debate." Nessler laughed in agreement, adding, "It's about 50 below wind chill [in Minnesota] so there's no global warming in that part of the country." In response to criticism, Dykes tweeted, "God is in control of our climate. He does not make mistakes. Plus it's 3 degrees where I stand right now : )"
However, as Melbourne experiences record-breaking heat during the Australian Open -- including the worst heat wave Melbourne has suffered since 1908 -- ESPN commentators have been mum on climate change one way or the other. Instead, they have opted to make light of the dangerous temperatures; after one tennis player hallucinated that he saw Snoopy before fainting, a commentator joked, "I wonder if Snoopy had a racket."
A Media Matters analysis found that network nightly news coverage of climate change was tepid in 2013, despite growing scientific evidence that global warming is getting worse. By contrast, PBS aired nearly three times as much climate coverage as ABC World News, the worst offender.
PBS NewsHour aired more news coverage about climate change and interviewed more scientists on the issue than any other evening network news program in 2013. The scale and scope of coverage demonstrated the program's commitment to reporting on global warming, a pattern Media Matters first identified in 2012. The program broadcast 35 stories that at least mentioned climate change, far more than what ABC World News, NBC Nightly News or CBS Evening News chose to give its audiences. By comparison, the three other network nightly news programs aired a combined total of 49 stories that at least mentioned global warming.
A group of senators is asking for more broadcast coverage on climate change, following a Media Matters analysis which found that Sunday shows aired only scant coverage on the issue last year.
On Thursday, January 16, a letter spearheaded by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was sent to the top executives of four major television networks, expressing "deep concern" about the lack of coverage on global warming, deeming it a "serious environmental crisis" which "poses a huge threat to our nation and the global community." The letter cited findings from a recent Media Matters study, which revealed that Sunday news shows dedicated merely 27 minutes of coverage to the issue of climate change throughout all of 2013. They wrote that "this is an absurdly short amount of time for a subject of such importance."
The senators concluded with a call to action: "We urge you to take action in the near term to correct this oversight and provide your viewers, the American public, with greater discussion of this important issue that impacts everyone on the planet."
The other senators that signed the letter were Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
The letter in full:
Dear Mr. Ailes, Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Sherwood, and Ms. Turness:
We are writing to express our deep concern about the lack of attention to climate change on such Sunday news shows as ABC's "This Week," NBC's "Meet the Press," CBS's "Face the Nation," and "Fox News Sunday."
According to the scientific community, climate change is the most serious environmental crisis facing our planet. The scientists who have studied this issue are virtually unanimous in the view that climate change is occurring, that it poses a huge threat to our nation and the global community, and that it is caused by human activity. In fact, 97% of researchers actively publishing in this field agree with these conclusions.
The scientific community and governmental leaders around the world rightly worry about the horrific dangers we face if we do not address climate change. Sea level rise will take its toll on coastal states. Communities will be increasingly at risk of billions of dollars in damages from more extreme weather. And farmers may see crops and livestock destroyed as worsening drought sets in. Yet, despite these warnings, there has been shockingly little discussion on the Sunday morning news shows about this critically important issue. This is disturbing not only because the millions of viewers who watch these shows deserve to hear that discussion, but because the Sunday shows often have an impact on news coverage in other media throughout the week.
A study published today by Media Matters for America reported that Sunday news shows devoted 27 minutes of air time in 2013 to climate change coverage.
Although it is a modest improvement over the eight minutes of coverage in 2012, given the widely recognized challenge that climate change poses to the nation and the world, this is an absurdly short amount of time for a subject of such importance.
We are more than aware that major fossil fuel companies spend significant amounts of money advertising on your networks. We hope that this is not influencing your decision about the subjects discussed or the guests who appear on your network programming.
Thank you very much for your interest in this matter. We urge you to take action in the near term to correct this oversight and provide your viewers, the American public, with greater discussion of this important issue that impacts everyone on the planet. We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT)
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD)
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)
Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT)
Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI)
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
A Media Matters analysis reveals that news coverage of climate change on ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX picked up in 2013 over the previous year, but remained lower than a 2009 high. Furthermore, while one Sunday show interviewed scientists about climate change, distinguishing itself as the first such program to do so in five years, these shows continued to rely largely on media figures and Republicans to dictate the conversation around global warming.
The Baltimore Sun recently signed a deal with Maryland conservative blog Red Maryland to provide content for its website. But one of the site's editors, Mark Newgent, has worked for organizations that receive funding from fossil fuel companies to attack climate science.
The recent Arctic chill has given Fox News an excuse to give "skeptics" a platform to deny climate change and bash climate science. But the network has been remiss to discuss the topic during periods of record heat.
During their coverage of cold weather from January 2 to January 8, Fox News brought up climate change nine times, casting doubt on it every single time. They also devoted a significant amount of coverage to a ship getting stuck in Antarctic ice to mock climate change during this period. But this strongly contrasts Fox News' coverage of extreme heat events, in which the network is typically silent on the topic of global warming. A previous Media Matters analysis found that, in a parallel week-long time period in 2011, Fox News did not mention climate change once while reporting on an unusually intense heat wave. And throughout the entire month of July 2012, which was the hottest month on record for the United States, the network discussed climate change in the heat wave's context once -- in order to deny it.
Meanwhile, MSNBC primarily featured the anti-scientific "skeptic" claims to dismiss them in its five segments on the topic. CNN meteorologist Chad Meyers rebutted the "skeptic" claims in one segment, but in CNN's only other segment on the topic, the network portrayed the science of global warming as up for a "debate" by non-scientists. As MSNBC's Al Sharpton put it, "It's times like these that you want a scientist around to explain things" -- he brought on Bill Nye "The Science Guy" to make the case:
From the January 9 edition of Fox News' Hannity:
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On the January 7 edition of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert called out Fox News for using an unsourced photo of Al Gore's 2006 book An Inconvenient Truth selling for $1 as a means of mocking climate change:
ESPN announcers Brad Nessler and Jimmy Dykes mainstreamed the right-wing myth that cold weather in January disproves man-made climate change.
During the first half of a January 7 game, Dykes discussed a pattern of cold weather blanketing much of the United States and said he had observed a national television debate earlier over "whether or not global warming was still taking place." While laughing Dykes said, "I listened to about 30 seconds of it, but the guy saying no it has not, I think he won the debate." Nessler laughed in response.
Regardless of whether Dykes and Nessler agree with the 97 percent of climate scientists who say that climate change is real and presents an immediate threat, or with climate deniers like Donald Trump, it's troubling that they would use their national platform to peddle right-wing myths.
On Sunday, CBS's flagship news magazine, 60 Minutes, aired a controversial and sloppy report that completely ignored the pressing threat of climate change while downplaying the need to invest in clean energy. CBS defended its reporting, including the decision not to mention climate change, by citing what it referred to as the show's "rich history" of reporting on the topic.
ESPN's broadcast of climate denialism only underscores the need for legitimate media organizations to treat the issue of global warming seriously and to make sure that it's part of the conversation.
As a network devoted to sports, ESPN has a unique responsibility to treat climate change seriously. An August 2013 Scientific American article made clear that climate change can have a direct impact on athletes:
"The climate's getting warmer so players are exposed to higher temperatures," said Andrew Grundstein, a climatologist at the University of Georgia and a co-author of a 2012 study of heat related deaths in high schools nationwide. Across the country, deaths of high school football players due to heat nearly tripled from 1994 to 2009 compared to the previous 15 years, according to Grundstein's study. Heat illnesses in football players have multiple causes, experts say, but as the climate heats up, practices in Georgia - and around the country - are getting watered down just to be safe.
From the January 7 edition of Fox News' The Five:
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As the nation has recently experienced unusually cold winter weather, climate "skeptics" have emerged from within conservative media, casting doubt on the scientific consensus about manmade global warming -- a yearly phenomenon dubbed by MSNBC's Chris Hayes as "snow-trolling."
Stephen Colbert accurately summarized how conservatives often perform "simple observational research" to deny climate change: "Whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening." It appears many doubters need a lesson in the difference between weather and climate: a single weather event does not negate a long-term climate trend (although climatologists are actually getting better at identifying which extreme weather events that climate change has worsened). On average, the planet has been warming at a rate of 0.17°C, or 0.3°F*, per decade since 1971. The most recent decade was the planet's warmest on record -- even including a few cold winters.
CNN lived up to its reputation of providing false balance on climate science once again on the latest edition of Crossfire.
On January 6, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate and current co-host of Crossfire, opened the segment by introducing guests "on opposite sides of the global warming debate." He claimed to present some "inconvenient facts" to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on manmade global warming, stating that "temperatures have flat lined for the past 16 years," (which is not true) and asking "Is it cold enough for you?" By contrast, Van Jones began by saying, "we should not be debating whether global warming is real, whether it's caused by humans," because scientific certainty on the matter is at the "same level of agreement that you got that HIV causes AIDS."
Recent cold weather nationwide apparently spurred the debate; earlier in the day, Crossfire's Twitter account tweeted, "TONIGHT's #Crossfire:historic lows bring out the climate change skeptics." They are right about the skeptics -- cold winter weather has prompted the right wing media to resume their tradition of "snow-trolling" in force, with some even suggesting that the planet has entered a period of global cooling.
But cold winter weather is not expected to go away with climate change and does not negate the long-term trend of global warming. And it is misleading to look at the United States' weather alone when talking about global warming -- for example, this past December tied for being the second-hottest December on record since 1979 globally, even while it was unusually cold in the United States. Additionally, the polar vortex responsible for dangerous Arctic-style weather across the Midwest could be connected to global warming.
As for Crossfire's "debate," the segment only demonstrated CNN's tendency to provide false balance on climate change. The show featured League of Conservation Voter's Navin Nayak and the Heritage Foundation's David Kreutzer. Kreutzer, an economist who has no scientific degree and who previously believed that global cooling defined this century's first decade, claimed that "what you call deniers agree" that "the world is getting warmer" and "some of that warming is due to man, maybe a significant amount." But that didn't stop him from debasing the scientific consensus throughout the "debate" -- calling the 97 percent consensus a "bogus term."