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Investigations Exposing Attorneys General-Fossil Fuel Alliance Provide Key Context For Clean Power Plan Fight
As the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals hears challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, media should note that the Republican attorneys general suing the EPA have formed what a New York Times investigation described as an "unprecedented, secretive alliance" with the fossil fuel industry. Since the Times investigation was published, additional details of this alliance have come to light, including the revelation that fossil fuel companies paid for private meetings with Republican attorneys general shortly before the attorneys general sued the EPA to block the flagship climate change policy.
Sometimes even the world’s most serious problems are best handled with a little bit of humor.
Case in point: The Madhouse Effect (Columbia University Press), a new book by Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann and Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles, which lays out a plan for media, politicians, and the public at large to “escape the madhouse” of climate change denial before it’s too late.
There is no shortage of books about climate change. But what makes this one unique is the way it combines Mann’s science communication skills, which help succinctly describe the roots, methods, and implications of climate science denial, and Toles’ illustrations, which provide an equally biting and amusing perspective on the dynamics the book describes. The book speaks to both our left and right brains, with the hope that it will motivate many to push for climate action -- and maybe even convert a few deniers along the way.
The Madhouse Effect is also a book about media, and it dissects many common media failings that we frequently analyze and write about here at Media Matters.
First among them is false balance, which the book describes as giving false industry-friendly claims about climate change “an equal place on the media stage with actual science.” As we documented in a recent study of newspaper opinion pages, one place where this problem is alive and well is USA Today, which often pairs scientifically accurate editorials about climate change with “opposing view” op-eds that flatly deny climate change is happening or that it's caused by human activities.
Several of these climate science-denying “opposing views” in USA Today were written by Republican members of Congress, exemplifying another point Mann and Toles make in the book: False balance is “greatly exacerbated by the increasing polarization of our public discourse.” This can also be seen in print and TV news coverage of GOP presidential candidates’ climate denial, which frequently failed to indicate that the candidates' statements about climate change conflicted with the scientific consensus on the issue.
Mann and Toles argue that false balance has been further worsened by the decentralization of news sources, particularly the rise of the “right-wing echo chamber” led (at least in the U.S.) by Rupert Murdoch-owned outlets Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. Indeed, climate science denial remains a staple of both outlets, with the Journal editorial board and Journal columnist Holman Jenkins peddling every denialist trope imaginable, and Fox News recently erasing all mentions of climate change (and coincidentally, Mann) from an Associated Press article about Tropical Storm Hermine.
The Madhouse Effect also pinpoints where these denialist talking points often originate, detailing many of the fossil fuel front groups whose representatives frequently mislead about climate change in major print and TV media without disclosing their glaring conflicts of interest. Among them are leading opponents of climate action such as Americans for Prosperity, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), the Heartland Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), all of which have received funding from the oil billionaire Koch brothers.
The book exposes many of the individual industry-funded operatives known for misinforming about climate change, too, including the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, Heartland’s Fred Singer and James Taylor, Junkscience.com editor Steve Milloy, ClimateDepot’s Marc Morano, and CEI’s Chris Horner and Myron Ebell.
Mann and Toles give special attention to Bjorn Lomborg, a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and USA Today:
Lomborg’s arguments often have a veneer of credibility, but scratch the surface, and you witness a sleight of hand, where climate projections are lowballed; climate change impacts, damages, and costs are underestimated; and the huge current subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, both direct and indirect, are ignored.
(Unfortunately, after Mann and Toles wrote a September 16 op-ed in the Washington Post profiling Lomborg and other members of the book’s climate “deniers club,” the Post opted to publish its first Lomborg op-ed in nearly two years on its website on September 19.)
Thankfully, The Madhouse Effect debunks many of the top climate falsehoods promoted by these industry operatives -- and conservative media. These include claiming that addressing climate change will keep the poor in “energy poverty”; citing the global warming “hiatus” or “pause” to dismiss concerns about climate change; pointing to changes in the climate hundreds or thousands of years ago to deny that the current warming is caused by humans; alleging that unmitigated climate change will be a good thing; disputing that climate change is accelerating sea level rise; and denying that climate change is making weather disasters more costly.
And Mann and Toles detail some of the climate connections that major media outlets often ignore, such as the counterintuitive role of climate change in the winter snowstorms that blanketed the Northeast in early 2015, and the impacts of climate change on national security, the economy, and public health. In part, they attribute this lack of coverage to a modern media environment where very few stories can survive more than a few 24-hour news cycles, which is “prohibitive for raising awareness about slowly growing threats such as climate change.”
The book concludes with a call to action for readers to “leave the madhouse” and help lead the fight against climate change. The authors convey a sense of urgency, writing: “We will not, we cannot, wreck this planet. There is no Planet B.” As with so much else in The Madhouse Effect, that sentiment is also expressed in cartoon-form, via Toles’ illustration of a thermometer for a chapter titled, “Why should I give a damn?”:
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Media are calling out GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump for providing vague and evasive answers to a series of science-related questions posed by a coalition of major science organizations, including a question about climate change. Trump has a long track record of denying the reality of climate change, but he was not asked about the topic during any of the 12 GOP presidential primary debates.
The USA Today editorial board is well-versed in the science of human-caused climate change and its impacts. So shouldn’t USA Today make sure that the op-eds it runs alongside its climate-related editorials aren’t scientifically inaccurate?
In a recent study, we documented that 12 percent of the climate-related opinion pieces that USA Today has published since January 2015 contained climate change denial or other climate science misinformation. Most of these opinion pieces were what USA Today calls “opposing view” op-eds that ran alongside USA Today editorials (“our view”) that accurately reflected climate science.
The end result was false balance, where a factually accurate statement about climate change was pitted against a factually inaccurate one, and USA Today’s readers were forced to decide which side to believe.
This dynamic was once again at play when USA Today published a September 8 “opposing view” from Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for the Study of Science. USA Today deserves some credit for properly disclosing that “Cato has received funding from fossil fuel interests,” but that doesn’t excuse publishing an op-ed containing claims about climate change that USA Today knows to be untrue.
In the op-ed, Michaels asserted that “glib attributions” of a climate change role in the recent extreme rainfall and flooding in Louisiana are “more wishful than reality.” As purported evidence, he cited a recent study of the contiguous United States by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which found that “no evidence was found for changes in extreme precipitation attributable to climate change in the available observed record.” Michaels then added: “What’s good for the U.S. is also good for Louisiana.”
The NOAA study Michaels cited did not assess whether the devastating flooding in Louisiana was related to climate change, but another study by many of those same NOAA scientists did. It found, “Human-caused climate warming increased the chances of the torrential rains that unleashed devastating floods in south Louisiana in mid August by at least 40 percent.” And the lead author of both studies, Karin van der Wiel, stated: “We found human-caused, heat-trapping greenhouse gases can play a measurable role in events such as the August rains that resulted in such devastating floods, affecting so many people.”
USA Today published Michaels’ distortion of NOAA’s climate research despite being well aware of the Louisiana-focused study. In its editorial that ran alongside Michaels’ op-ed, USA Today wrote that the “science of heavy rain events is straightforward” and noted that “a new federal report concluded that human-caused climate change played a ‘measurable’ role in last month’s catastrophic flooding in Louisiana and increases the chances of such torrential downpours by at least 40%.” And a USA Today news article stated that the NOAA study found climate change “played a major role in the historic rainfall that caused catastrophic flooding in Louisiana last month, nearly doubling the chance of such a deluge taking place.”
Much of the climate science misinformation on the pages of USA Today stems from this “our view”/“opposing view” format, but it doesn’t have to be this way. USA Today would do a service to its readers by committing to fact-checking all of its climate-related opinion pieces -- “opposing view” or otherwise -- to ensure that they don’t contain false claims about climate science.
The September 8 USA Today editorial concluded: “There’s plenty of room for debate on the best ways to adapt to climate change, mitigate its effects and curtail greenhouse-gas emissions. After another long, hot, soggy summer, however, neither [GOP presidential candidate Donald] Trump nor any other candidate for public office should be allowed to get away with the argument that climate change is a ‘hoax’ or something not worth sweating over.”
It’s a good point -- and one that should apply to USA Today’s opinion pages, too.
Kevin Kalhoefer assisted with the research for this article.
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During a discussion about the presidential campaign on the September 7 edition of Fox News’ America's Newsroom, Fox host Tucker Carlson denied the findings of major scientific institutions around the world when he asserted that “there’s literally no proof” that climate change is caused by human activities such as burning fossil fuels. He added that the notions that humans are causing climate change and can reverse it by cutting emissions are “articles of faith”:
Meanwhile, on September 6 the Journal posted another interview on its website between editorial board member Mary Kissel and Rod Nichols, chairman of the climate science-denying CO2 Coalition. Kissel introduced Nichols as a “guy who takes no coal money or big energy money, as far as I know.” However, Nichols has served on the boards of the Manhattan Institute and George C. Marshall Institute, which have each received funding from ExxonMobil and foundations run by the oil billionaire Koch brothers.
During the interview, Kissel and Nichols agreed that climate change is “a non-problem,” because according to Nichols, carbon pollution “is going to be good for the world.” He also claimed that there has been “practically no warming” in order to suggest that climate change is not a cause for concern:
For one brief moment over the weekend, Fox News did the unthinkable: acknowledge some of the real-world impacts of climate change in an online article about Tropical Storm Hermine. Soon afterward, though, Fox got back on message, erasing all mentions of global warming from the piece.
The Fox News article, which was initially attributed to The Associated Press and published on FoxNews.com on September 4, reported that climate scientists say “the storm surges pushed by Hermine could be even more damaging” because “sea levels have risen up to a foot due to global warming.” The article cited Penn State University scientist Michael Mann and Princeton University scientist Michael Oppenheimer, who each stated that warming-induced sea level rise has already significantly worsened flooding from major storms:
Forecasters expected Hermine to regain hurricane force on Sunday as it travels up the coast before weakening again to a tropical storm by Tuesday.
And since sea levels have risen up to a foot due to global warming, the storm surges pushed by Hermine could be even more damaging, climate scientists say.
Michael Mann at Pennsylvania State University noted that this century's one-foot sea-level rise in New York City meant 25 more square miles flooded during Superstorm Sandy, causing billions more in damage.
"We are already experiencing more and more flooding due to climate change in every storm," said Michael Oppenheimer, a geosciences professor at Princeton University. "And it's only the beginning."
It was a notable acknowledgement of climate science from Fox, a media outlet that previously directed its journalists to cast doubt on the science, and which continues to frequently deny the scientific consensus around human-caused climate change to this day.
But as it turned out, Fox News’ progress on climate change was short-lived. After FoxNews.com assumed “ownership” of the article by changing the article’s byline from The Associated Press to FoxNews.com (and adding a note stating that the AP had “contributed” to the report), Fox removed all of the portions of the article that related to climate change.
In other words, Fox indicated that while The Associated Press may choose to report on the impacts of climate change, Fox News will most certainly not. Or, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) coincidentally put it on September 5, the debate over climate change is over, "Except on Fox.”
Here's an excerpt of the original Associated Press article published on FoxNews.com on September 4:
Here's what that portion of the article looked like after the attribution was changed to FoxNews.com:
The Wall Street Journal has published 21 opinion pieces since October opposing state or federal investigations into whether ExxonMobil violated the law by deceiving its shareholders and the public about climate change, a new Media Matters analysis finds, far more than The New York Times, The Washington Post, or USA Today published on either side of the issue. The Journal has yet to publish a single editorial, column, or op-ed in support of investigating Exxon’s behavior, and many of its pro-Exxon opinion pieces contain blatant falsehoods about the nature and scope of the ongoing investigations being conducted by state attorneys general.
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.
Veteran political consultant and commentator James Carville says the media assumes false equivalence when covering major policy disagreements, allowing right-wing misinformation to overshadow clear evidence that Democratic policies on issues like the economy and health care have been successful.
Carville, who is a guest contributor to Media Matters, recently released We’re Still Right, They’re Still Wrong, a sequel to his 1996 book We’re Right, They’re Wrong. In an interview with Media Matters, Carville explained that he wrote the book because “the Democratic Party does a very poor job of tootin’ our own horn” while “right-wing blowhards” successfully push misinformation about Democratic policies into mainstream media coverage.
“The economy performs better under Democrats than Republicans -- there’s no debate there,” Carville explained. “You don’t even have to be an expert to go look up unemployment data. Look up growth. The deficit is remarkably lower under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents.” But Carville argues that reporters’ obsession with presenting “both sides” of policy disagreements -- rather than focusing on evidence -- ends up lending credibility to right-wing misinformation. Conservatives "don’t ever cite any facts for anything that they say. And they just move on.”
Carville highlighted conservative fearmongering on issues like Obamacare, the Ebola virus -- which some warned was going to “kill us all” -- and climate change as notable examples. “It’s not a disputable fact. The earth is getting warmer; get over it. There‘s not another side of the argument.”
Carville sees evidence of that same false equivalence in reporting about the presidential election. “I do interviews and they say, ‘Well, we have two unpopular candidates.’ Yes, that’s sort of true, but one is twice as unpopular as the other.”
In Carville’s view, Republican nominee Donald Trump’s candidacy is the natural product of years of fact-free right-wing fearmongering. “I think Trump is the perfect nominee of a party that hates facts. Because he doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know the nuclear triad from the federal triangle. And he is just exactly what they deserve. They’ve been a fact-denying party from evolution to global warming to economic policy to foreign policy, so why should they be surprised if they have a fact-denying nominee? He fits in perfectly for them.”
At the same time, Carville sees a double standard in the way reporters handle each candidate's respective controversies. In a March piece for Media Matters, Carville laid out what he dubbed “The Clinton Rule” based on the Beltway media’s obsession with supposed Clinton “scandals”: “There shall be one standard for covering everyone else in public life, and another standard for the Clintons.”
As a recent example, Carville pointed to the media’s recent scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation and the growing calls for the Clintons to shut it down. He urged Democrats to be blunt in their defense of the foundation: “People are going to die. Yes, people will die when you shut it down.” He dismissed potential hand-wringing over his proclamation: “‘Oh gee, do you think you should you really say that?’ Well it’s a fact.”
“My message to Democrats is, you’ve been right, get over it. You can be nice, you can be polite about it, but you’ve just been right,” Carville said. “I’m sure it’s going to come a day where we’ll get something wrong and we’ll deal with that, too.”
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