Despite the overwhelming consensus among climate experts that human activity is contributing to rising global temperatures, 66 percent of Americans incorrectly believe there is "a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening." The conservative media has fueled this confusion by distorting scientific research, hyping faux-scandals, and giving voice to groups funded by industries that have a financial interest in blocking action on climate change. Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets have shied away from the "controversy" over climate change and have failed to press U.S. policymakers on how they will address this global threat. When climate change is discussed, mainstream outlets sometimes strive for a false balance that elevates marginal voices and enables them to sow doubt about the science even in the face of mounting evidence.
Here, Media Matters looks at how conservative media outlets give industry-funded "experts" a platform, creating a polarized misunderstanding of climate science.
The Economist has called the libertarian Heartland Institute "the world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change." Every year, Heartland hosts an "International Conference on Climate Change," bringing together a small group of contrarians (mostly non-scientists) who deny that manmade climate change is a serious problem. To promote its most recent conference, Heartland launched a short-lived billboard campaign associating acceptance of climate science with "murderers, tyrants, and madmen" including Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson and Fidel Castro. Facing backlash from corporate donors and even some of its own staff, Heartland removed the billboard, but refused to apologize for the "experiment."
Heartland does not disclose its donors, but internal documents obtained in February reveal that Heartland received $25,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2011 and anticipated $200,000 in additional funding in 2012. Charles Koch is CEO and co-owner of Koch Industries, a corporation with major oil interests. Along with his brother David Koch, he has donated millions to groups that spread climate misinformation. Heartland also receives funding from some corporations with a financial interest in confusing the public on climate science. ExxonMobil contributed over $600,000 to Heartland between 1998 and 2006, but has since pledged to stop funding groups that cast doubt on climate change.
Despite their industry ties and lack of scientific expertise, Heartland Institute fellows are often given a media platform to promote their marginal views on climate change. Most visible is James Taylor, a lawyer with no climate science background who heads Heartland's environmental initiative. Taylor dismisses "alarmist propaganda that global warming is a human-caused problem that needs to be addressed," and suggests that taking action to reduce emissions could cause a return to the "the Little Ice Age and the Black Death." But that hasn't stopped Forbes from publishing his weekly column, which he uses to spout climate misinformation and accuse scientists of "doctoring" temperature data to fabricate a warming trend. It also hasn't stopped Fox News from promoting his misinformation.
Fox News is promoting a report from a British tabloid to claim that new data shows "Global Warming [Is] Over." But the agency that released the data explained that the tabloid report is "misleading" because it is based on a short-term period that obscures the long-term upward trend in global temperatures.
In a recent interview with MSNBC.com, scientist James Lovelock said that he was too "alarmist" in his previous statements about the consequences of global warming and he now appears to be overcorrecting in the opposite direction. While conservative media have used his reversal to question the scientific consensus on climate change, the truth is that Lovelock's views were never in line with mainstream climate science.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a large group of experts that synthesizes climate research into massive reports on the state of the science. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2009 that Lovelock, who is known for formulating the Gaia hypothesis in the 1960s, considered those reports "too optimistic, constrained by 'consensus' (a word that makes his teeth itch) and wedded to computer models." Climate experts, in turn, distanced themselves from Lovelock's doomsday rhetoric. The IPCC's chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, told Agence France-Presse in September 2009 that Lovelock's predictions were "highly improbable"; RealClimate.org, a blog written by climate scientists, noted in 2006 that Lovelock's claims weren't supported by scientific research.
AFP labeled Lovelock a "scientific black sheep." The London Independent said in 2006 that Lovelock was "going out on a limb" and that his claims were "far gloomier than any yet made by a scientist of comparable international standing." And The Washington Post reported in 2006 that "the warming that Lovelock fears will occur is far more dire than that projected by many other scientists," and that his "dire talk no doubt occasions much rolling of eyes in polite circles, particularly among scientists in the United States."
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has canceled the climate change chapter in his upcoming book of environmental essays after Rush Limbaugh and other commentators targeted its author, atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe.
At a recent campaign event, Gingrich told a woman he had cut the climate change section after she expressed concerns about it, citing what she heard from "Rush." "That's not going to be in the book. We didn't know that they were doing that and we told them to kill it," Gingrich says in the video provided by National Journal. The woman replies, "That sounds like a good idea because I thought, why would you want to have somebody like that in there."
By "somebody like that," she was referring to a scientist who, like the vast majority of climatologists, will tell you that human activities are driving climate change. Gingrich's comments came as a surprise to Hayhoe, who said on Twitter that she spent "100+ unpaid hrs" on the project. According to emails reported by the Los Angeles Times, Hayhoe was asked in 2007 to write "a good opening chapter that lays out the facts on global climate change," including "a sense of what needs to happen." She said via email that her chapter did not include specific policy prescriptions. Gingrich's collaborator Terry Maple told the Times that the book will probably be released in 2013.
Hayhoe, an Evangelical Christian who often speaks about climate change to faith-based communities, has noted in the past that "there is a very intelligent, well-planned effort to deliberately try to muddy the waters on this issue." This month, she became the target of that very cohort of activists and commentators.
As many faith leaders have recognized, climate change presents a massive ethical challenge since those least responsible for global warming are among the most vulnerable to its consequences, including water scarcity, climate-sensitive diseases, and sea level rise. Yet in response to the recent international climate talks, conservative media outlets are mocking developing countries for seeking adaptation assistance, saying they just want to "cash in" on "climate gold."
Anonymous hackers recently released another batch of emails taken from a climate research group at the University of East Anglia in 2009, along with a document containing numbered excerpts of purportedly incriminating material. Many of these selections have been cropped in a way that completely distorts their meaning, but they were nonetheless repeated by conservative media outlets who believe climate change is a "hoax" and a "conspiracy."
After relentlessly pushing the false claim that the so-called "Climategate" controversy showed climate scientists deceitfully manipulating data, conservative media are celebrating a Rasmussen Reports poll finding that a majority of Americans believe "some scientists" have likely "falsified research data" to support "their own theories and beliefs about global warming."
In response to the suspension of federal scientist Charles Monnett, who authored a 2006 article documenting polar bear deaths, conservative media have claimed that the case exposes "the global warming fraud" and that polar bears are not threatened by climate change. In fact, extensive research establishes that polar bears are vulnerable to extinction due to decreasing sea ice, and human-induced global warming is supported by a robust body of evidence independent of any polar bear studies.
Conservative media outlets are reprimanding three prominent Republicans who recently acknowledged what scientists have been saying for years -- that human activities are contributing to global climate change.