Environment & Science

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  • Wash. Post Editor: This Election “Could Change The Climate Debate For The Better” In Political Journalism

    James Downie: “More Journalists Have Seen That The Sky Won’t Fall If They Treat Falsehoods As Falsehoods”

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    The Washington Post’s digital opinions editor, James Downie, wrote that this year’s election cycle has “altered political journalism” in a way that could lead to journalists taking a more aggressive approach to fact-checking climate denial. In a November 7 column, Downie quoted CNN’s Dylan Byers saying, “The traditional model of ‘he said, she said’ journalism . . . was thrown out the window in favor of a more aggressive journalism that sought to prioritize accuracy over balance.” Downie added that “climate change is an obvious area to apply this new model.”

    In the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, Media Matters found that media often failed to fact-check candidates when they denied the science of climate change. But media have since scrutinized Republican nominee Donald Trump’s false claims that “there is no drought” in California, that he will put coal miners “back to work,” that he has not called climate change a “hoax,” and more

    From Downie's column:

    Shifting the discussion is one area where, surprisingly, the 2016 campaign could change the climate debate for the better, even though climate change has been absent from the discussion. The contest has altered political journalism in a important way: As CNN’s Dylan Byers writes, “The traditional model of ‘he said, she said’ journalism . . . was thrown out the window in favor of a more aggressive journalism that sought to prioritize accuracy over balance.” More journalists have seen that the sky won’t fall if they treat falsehoods as falsehoods, and climate change is an obvious area to apply this new model. Senators should not be able to bring snowballs onto the Senate floor to “disprove” climate change without every headline fact-checking them. The realities of climate change are as much objective truth as the murder or unemployment rates. Regarding them as such will be an early test of whether political journalism has rededicated itself to the facts.

    The debate over climate change is changing, but not as rapidly as it can or should. We have largely squandered decades that could have been spent heading off the danger, and now the consequences are no longer abstract. Climate change is a perilous threat to the country and the world; we must finally treat it that way.

  • Final Scorecard: Climate Change Absent From Debates In Most Key Senate And Governors’ Races 

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    In late September, we launched a real-time scorecard to keep tabs on how often debate moderators and panelists in the presidential election and 18 tightly contested Senate and governors’ races were asking the candidates about climate change. We’ve been constantly updating the scorecard ever since, publishing transcript and video/audio whenever climate questions were asked. Check out our completed scorecard here.

    The November 4 Senate debate in Illinois was the last of the 55 debates we examined, and the final results are not pretty for those of us concerned about climate change. Here are the key takeaways from our scorecard of climate change questions in presidential, Senate, and governors’ debates:

    • Just 12 of the 55 debates held in these key races included questions about climate change (22 percent). If you exclude the three presidential debates and the vice-presidential debate, where the lack of climate questions was well-chronicled, the portion of debates with climate questions inches up to 24 percent.

    • Broken down by individual race, only eight of the 19 contests featured at least one debate question about climate change (42 percent). In addition to the presidential campaign, debate moderators completely ignored climate change in the following races: Arizona Senate, Indiana Governor, Missouri Senate, Missouri Governor, Montana Governor, Nevada Senate, New Hampshire Governor, North Carolina Senate, North Carolina Governor, and West Virginia Governor. Each of these states face serious climate-related challenges, some of which I detailed here.

    • Only races in two New England states -- Vermont and New Hampshire -- featured more than one debate with a climate question. The Vermont Governor race had four debates with questions about climate change, and the New Hampshire Senate race had two.

    • In six of the 12 debates with climate questions, the climate questions were asked because voters spoke up and asked them. The climate change questions generated by voters included a Twitter question in Wisconsin, two Facebook questions in Vermont, an audience question in Ohio, a question from the Open Debate Coalition website in New Hampshire, and a question in Indiana submitted to the Indiana Debate Commission using an online form.

  • STUDY: Fox News Spent Less Than Five Minutes Covering The Dakota Access Pipeline Protests This Week

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.

    One of the largest tribal protests in modern history is being virtually ignored by Fox News, even as clashes between protesters and militarized police over construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota came to a head. A Media Matters analysis found that Fox devoted less than five minutes to coverage of these events in the past week.

    For months, Native demonstrators known as “water protectors” have been protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would transport crude oil near the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation in North Dakota, potentially harming sacred grounds or endangering their water supply. In recent weeks, the ongoing water protection actions have expanded to include larger groups of allies, in what activists say is now “the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century, perhaps since Little Bighorn.” Local police forces have reportedly used rubber bullets, mace, and other violent means, as well as mass arrests in an attempt to control the ongoing protests. Prominent progressive online publications have been covering the actions against the pipeline for months, and major print outlets have begun writing editorials about the pipeline. The protests even spawned a viral Facebook post, delivering news about the clashes between peaceful demonstrators and local authorities to wider audiences. Cable news coverage this week has not been as comprehensive, with Fox News, in particular, merely mentioning the events during headline readings.

    Media Matters analyzed coverage for the last week -- from October 26 through November 3 -- on the cable news networks CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, and found that all three networks together spent less than an hour covering the ongoing protests and police response. Fox News stood out for its lack of coverage, devoting just four and a half minutes to reporting on the events.

    CNN’s coverage over the same period amounted to 18 minutes and 45 seconds, while MSNBC led the charge with just over 30 minutes of coverage. Both CNN and MSNBC featured multiple updates from reporters on the ground at Standing Rock (Sara Sidner at CNN and Miguel Almaguer at MSNBC), and panel discussions about the ongoing protection actions and the response from local authorities.

    MSNBC’s October 27 edition of The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell provided exemplary coverage of the issue, with a panel discussion that included the leader of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Dave Archambault II, and delved into the nuances of the the pipeline debate.

    Meanwhile, Fox’s scant coverage of the issue was in line with the network’s tendency to overlook or demonize protesters of color while elevating white armed protesters as “patriotic.” In a one-and-a-half-minute segment -- its longest segment on the matter this week -- during the October 28 edition of America’s Newsroom, Fox characterized the protest movement writ large as violent, calling the stand-off “a mess” and saying “there is no evidence” that the pipeline construction will pollute the Sioux tribe’s water. The segment featured a brief interview clip with just one person at Standing Rock -- a local sheriff:

    Media have a responsibility to provide coverage of the environmental and human rights battles of our time because coverage can pressure politicians to speak out. Protests against police brutality in Ferguson, MO, and Baltimore, MD, for example, were widely covered by media -- and the coverage, though often frustrating and problematic, helped start a debate that has now set needed reforms in motion.

    Raising the voices of the Native water protectors in North Dakota would also improve the lack of representation of minorities of color in media, a challenge that is far from being overcome.

    Methodology

    Media Matters searched CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC transcripts using the SnapStream video archive from October 26 at 6:00 a.m. through November 3, 2016 at 12:00 p.m. for any mention of the term "Dakota" within 20 seconds of the terms "access" or "pipeline." We excluded teasers for upcoming segments and duplicate segments that were re-aired.

  • Three New National Geographic Documentaries Detail Climate Change Impacts And Battle Lines

    Blog ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

    While climate change has been largely overlooked as an electoral issue this year, it is receiving the attention it deserves in at least one place: National Geographic. This month, three new National Geographic documentaries have shed light on the serious consequences of climate change and the industry-funded forces standing in the way of finding solutions.

    Environmental advocates expressed concern when News Corporation’s 21st Century Fox bought the National Geographic Society’s magazine last year, given founder Rupert Murdoch’s climate science denial. But National Geographic pledged it would maintain its editorial independence, and soon after, it published a special edition of the magazine focused on climate change.

    Now, National Geographic is making another important contribution to the climate change discussion in two documentaries that aired back-to-back on its television channel on October 30, as well as a new film now playing in IMAX theaters.

    The season two premiere of Years of Living Dangerously, a documentary series co-produced by James Cameron and featuring a range of famous actors, includes a segment about the utility-funded opposition to rooftop solar policies that are critical to fighting climate change. Saturday Night Live cast member Cecily Strong explores the battles in Nevada and Florida against net metering, a policy that allows customers to send excess electricity from their rooftop solar panels to the electric grid in exchange for a credit. In Florida, Strong interviewed a spokesperson for solar advocacy group Floridians for Solar Choice (FSC), who explained how big utility companies financed a front group called “Consumers for Smart Solar” (CSS) that is behind a deceptive anti-solar ballot measure. CSS was successful in garnering enough signatures to put its anti-solar amendment on the ballot, duping voters into thinking they were supporting a pro-solar initiative and thwarting a rival FSC petition that would have actually helped expand rooftop solar. FSC’s Alissa Jean Schafer told Strong, “The whole point” of the CSS initiative was “to confuse people,” adding: “The utility-backed initiative talks about solar choice but doesn’t actually give people any choices.”

    CSS has gotten away with deceiving Florida voters in many of the state’s newspapers, too. Florida newspapers have published at least 14 op-eds by CSS co-chairmen Dick Batchelor and Jim Kallinger without disclosing their financial ties to utilities.

    From Years of Living Dangerously:

    In addition to Strong’s segment on the anti-solar initiative in Florida, season two of Years of Living Dangerously will feature many other “emotional and hard-hitting accounts of the effects of climate change” in the coming weeks, as National Geographic explained in a press release. In an interview with E&E News, David Gelber, creator and executive producer of the series, argued that the general public’s lack of awareness of climate impacts “allows debate moderators to ignore climate change as an issue,” and added that he hopes his series “does something to change” that fact.

    In Before the Flood, a documentary directed by Fisher Stevens and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, DiCaprio interviews Penn State University’s Michael Mann, who explains that he and other climate scientists are up against the fossil fuel industry’s “massive misinformation campaign to confuse the public.” Mann explains: “Websites and news outlets and think tanks, they find people with fairly impressive credentials who are willing to sell those credentials to fossil fuel interests.” Key to this strategy, he explained, is the use of fossil fuel front groups “with lofty sounding names, like Americans for Prosperity or the Heartland Institute.”

    Indeed, Media Matters has documented many occasions where fossil fuel-funded “experts” have misled on climate change in the media, including people affiliated with the groups Mann highlighted. Americans for Prosperity, which coordinated a misleading nationwide op-ed campaign against the Environmental Protection Agency’s landmark climate change policy, “frequently provides a platform for climate contrarian statements,” as the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted. And the Heartland Institute, which is known for its annual climate denial conferences, has sought to undermine important steps forward on climate including the pope’s climate change encyclical and state renewable energy standards.

    Mann concludes: “These people are engaged in an effort to lead us astray in the name of short-term fossil fuel profits so that we end up leaving behind a degraded planet. What can be more immoral than that?”

    The rest of Before the Flood takes viewers around the world to witness the impacts that climate change is already having, from the South Pacific, where sea level rise is an existential threat, to Miami, Florida, where millions of dollars are being spent to keep rising seas at bay.

    The impacts of climate change are also the focus of another National Geographic-produced documentary, called Extreme Weather, which was released in IMAX theaters on October 15. The film aims to demonstrate "how climate change is rapidly affecting our land, oceans and atmosphere to produce natural disasters as ruinous as they are spectacular." Director Sean Casey said in an interview that he wanted to show how climate change is connected to extreme weather with "powerful imagery that really does justice to what's happening." Watch the trailer:

    With broadcast networks frequently ignoring the climate change context of many extreme weather events, this film is both a call to action for concerned citizens and a welcome reminder for media.

  • Conspiracy Theorist Matt Drudge Thinks He Knows More About Hurricanes Than Hurricane Experts Do

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Earlier this month, Matt Drudge, proprietor of the highly trafficked Drudge Report, drew widespread criticism when he irresponsibly alleged that the federal government’s National Hurricane Center (NHC) was “lying” about the strength of Hurricane Matthew in order to “make [an] exaggerated point on climate [change].” The storm ultimately killed over 1,000 people, but Drudge is still sticking to his conspiracy theory, even as two hurricane experts provided a detailed explanation of why he was wrong to dispute government data relating to Matthew’s wind speeds.

    In an October 26 column for The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog, University of Miami senior research associate Brian McNoldy and Colorado State meteorologist Phil Klotzbach dissected Drudge’s claims. In particular, McNoldy and Klotzbach noted that Drudge had questioned the NHC’s statement that Hurricane Matthew had produced 165 mph gusts. In an October 6 tweet, Drudge declared: “Nassau ground measurements DID NOT match statements!” (emphasis original).

    In response to that claim, McNoldy and Klotzbach wrote:

    Drudge argued the point based on data from Caribbean weather stations and buoys that were not reporting winds as strong as what the National Hurricane Center used in its advisories. But the National Hurricane Center uses a lot of different methods to determine a hurricane’s actual peak intensity, and there are some serious issues with relying simply on weather stations and buoys.

    McNoldy and Klotzbach went on to explain some of the “serious issues” that cause buoys and weather stations to underestimate hurricane wind speeds. These include that buoys use a longer “wind averaging time” than NHC measurement devices; buoys are “sheltered from the strongest winds” when they are in the trough of a wave; weather stations often “wash away” before the strongest winds come ashore; and the “small region” of a storm containing its strongest winds will not typically reach a weather station.

    McNoldy and Klotzbach concluded: “Matthew’s strongest winds would likely not have been measured by a weather station. The National Hurricane Center provides the best analysis that science can offer.”

    The best analysis science can offer, however, is apparently not good enough to convince Drudge. On October 27, the front page of the Drudge Report included the following headlines:

    Both headlines linked to the Post column by McNoldy and Klotzbach.

    So even though two actual hurricane experts say surface stations are not adequate to measure the maximum wind speeds of a hurricane, self-styled hurricane expert Matt Drudge begs to differ.

  • How Florida Newspapers Helped A Utility Front Group Promote A Deceptive, Anti-Solar Amendment

    ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

    A utility-backed front group deceptively named “Consumers for Smart Solar” has been campaigning for a misleading ballot initiative in Florida that is disguised to look pro-solar but could actually hamper the growth of rooftop solar power and protect utilities’ electricity monopoly. Florida newspapers have published over a dozen op-eds in favor of the amendment by representatives of this group without disclosing their utility industry ties.

  • Wash. Post Weather Editor Debunks Myth That Hurricane “Drought” Disproves Climate Science

    Blog ››› ››› KEVIN KALHOEFER

    The Washington Post’s weather editor Jason Samenow debunked the claim by climate science deniers and conservative media outlets that the lack of category 3 or higher hurricanes striking the U.S. over the last 11 years is "evidence that global warming is not affecting the storms."

    This month marks 11 years since the U.S. mainland was last struck by a “major” hurricane, defined by the National Hurricane Center as a category 3, 4 or 5 storm with sustained wind speeds of at least 111 miles per hour. In response, conservative media have misleadingly cited this fact to wrongly dispute the link between hurricanes and global warming.

    For instance, The New American asserted, “The latest report from NOAA that major hurricane activity has subsided for 11 years — despite high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere — provides welcome relief from the assorted predictions made by the ‘global warming’ doomsayers of catastrophic events that supposedly will be caused by human activity.” Similarly, The Daily Caller’s Michael Bastasch wrote that “the hurricane drought sort of runs counter to predictions global warming will make storms more frequent and more intense.” And perhaps most notably, radio host Rush Limbaugh falsely claimed that the lack of a major hurricane making landfall in the U.S. over the past 11 years “bores a hole right through the whole climate change argument.”

    But as Samenow explained, researchers believe it is just "dumb luck" that Atlantic storms with sufficient wind speeds to be defined as "major" hurricanes have remained offshore or slowed down before making landfall on the U.S. coastline. Atlantic hurricane activity also accounts for only a small portion of the total storms occurring around the world, as PolitiFact noted when it rated Limbaugh's claim a "Pants on Fire" falsehood.

    Samenow, who described the hurricane “drought” as “the most overblown statistic in meteorology,” also pointed out that many hurricanes that had devastating impacts due to extreme rainfall and flooding occurred during this "drought." He noted that because the definition of a “major” hurricane is tied only to wind speeds and not impacts from water, the term “omits some of the most consequential storms in modern history”:

    But the criteria for what makes a major hurricane is impossibly restrictive. It is tied to a single hazard, wind, and ignores impacts from water, which causes the lion’s share of fatalities and damage in most hurricanes.

    While big wind speeds grab people’s attention and sound scary, precious few people, if any, ever experience a storm’s peak winds. Such high winds are typically confined to a tiny area near the hurricane’s eye.

    But tens of thousands of people are exposed to a hurricane’s water, whether it’s freshwater flooding from heavy rainfall or coastal flooding from storm surge, the rise in ocean water as the hurricane comes ashore.

    Because the definition of a major hurricane ignores the effects of water, it omits some of the most consequential storms in modern history, which have occurred during the so-called drought.

    Consider, in the 11 years since Wilma, two of the three most costly storms in U.S. history occurred: Sandy in 2012, and Hurricane Ike in 2008 — neither of which was classified as “major.”

    Moreover, the "impacts from water" that Samenow describes are intensified by climate change. Scientists say that a warming climate is making storms more destructive due to warming air and oceans -- which lead to more rainfall -- and rising sea levels, which worsen storm surges.

    Samenow ultimately concluded: “The major-hurricane-landfall drought is an interesting statistic, and that’s about it. It is a fine metric to track and report as a curiosity, but it cannot be used to say anything useful about how hurricanes are affecting society or how their behavior may or may not be changing over time.”