Conservative media have been quick to rush to the defense of climate science denier Willie Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who has recently come under fire for accepting over $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry without disclosing this conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. Among the most impassioned defenses of Soon was an article penned by a writer at the Daily Caller with connections to some of the organizations that funded Soon's research.
Documents obtained by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center detail the extensive and problematic relationship between the fossil fuel industry and Soon, one of the contrarian scientists often cited by prominent climate science deniers like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). The documents reveal that Soon described many of his scientific papers, which largely focus on the claim that the sun is primarily responsible for recent global warming, as "deliverables" produced in exchange for money from fossil fuel interests. The revelations, which were recently covered by several media outlets, reveal a potentially serious breach of scientific ethics in at least eight of the papers Soon has published since 2008, and the Smithsonian Institution has directed the organization's Inspector General to investigate Soon's ethical conduct.
Several right-wing media outlets are already aggressively defending Soon. Shortly after the initial reports, the Daily Caller published an article criticizing the "attack campaign" against Soon by "firm believers in global warming." The article's author, PG Veer, dismissed the criticisms of Soon, claiming that opponents "are looking for conflicts of interest" rather than challenging Soon on "the facts."
Yet Veer himself is a former fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, which was created from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation -- one of the organizations that provided money for Soon's research. Veer currently works for the Franklin Center, which has received significant funding from Donors Trust, another organization that bankrolled Soon.
Breitbart has also carried Soon's water, defending him in at least five different articles so far. Columnist James Delingpole defended Soon for "telling the truth" about climate change, writing that the latest news is a "continuation of a vendetta which has been waged for years against an honest, decent, hardworking -- and incredibly brave -- scientist who refuses to toe the official (and increasingly discredited) line on man-made global warming."
The Associated Press reported that national groups including the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are heralding the repeal of West Virginia's alternative energy mandate as a lynchpin to repeal stronger renewable energy standards in other states. But the AP identified the Heartland Institute and ALEC only as "national small government groups," ignoring their significant ties to the fossil fuel industry.
West Virginia will likely soon become the first state to repeal an alternative energy standard, following a multi-year campaign by fossil fuel interests to target more environmentally-friendly renewable energy standards in statehouses across the country. In recent days, both chambers of the West Virginia state legislature easily passed a bill repealing the state's Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, which requires 25 percent of the state's energy to come from alternative power sources (including non-renewable sources) by 2025.
The AP reported on January 31 that groups including the Heartland Institute and ALEC "argue renewable energy plans limit free market choices and could result in higher electricity costs," but did not reveal that these groups are tied to fossil fuel interests that would benefit from repealing clean energy standards:
After West Virginia legislators voted to delete a law that counts burning tires and some coal as alternative fuels, national small government groups are turning the uncontroversial repeal into a rally cry to remove more stringent energy standards in other states.
National small government lobbies, including The Heartland Institute, still heralded the repeal's passage in West Virginia in early January as a win and a call to action.
"One can only hope other states follow West Virginia's sensible lead," H. Sterling Burnett, Research Fellow, Environment & Energy Policy for The Heartland Institute, said in a news release after the state House passed the bill Jan. 22.
The groups argue renewable energy plans limit free market choices and could result in higher electricity costs. But for years, the American Legislative Exchange Council and others have failed to get any states to delete their standards.
As The Washington Post has noted, "In many cases, the groups involved [in efforts to undermine renewable energy standards and other environmental initiatives] accept money from oil, gas and coal companies that compete against renewable energy suppliers." The anti-renewables campaign by Heartland and ALEC is a case in point.
The textbooks that Texas adopts influence those that are chosen by districts across the U.S., which makes it all the more worrying that several textbooks under consideration by the state misrepresent what scientists know about climate change. The distortions in these textbooks mirror the misinformation that has been pushed in Texas media that has contributed to this dangerous ignorance.
A recent review by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) found that several textbooks under consideration by the Texas Board of Education, which includes numerous members who deny global warming, cast doubt on the basic fact that carbon pollution is driving climate change. National Journal explained that since "Texas is the second-largest market in the U.S. for textbooks after California," the textbooks chosen by the board could affect what publishers sell to states across the country.
Some of the misleading claims in these textbooks mirror the misinformation that has been pushed in the state's local media. For example, one textbook presents claims from the Heartland Institute, a climate "skeptic" organization that once compared those that "believe" in global warming to the Unabomber and in the 1990s denied the science demonstrating the dangers of secondhand smoke, as equally credible to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assembles hundreds of scientists to review thousands of peer-reviewed articles on climate change. Some Texas media have similarly treated the Heartland Institute as equally or even more credible than the world's top scientists. For example, a news reporter for the Houston talk radio station KTRH hyped a Heartland Institute report when it was released in April 2014 with the headline "New Report Debunks Climate Change," and in May 2014 turned to the group to rebut an actual scientific report on climate change that was reviewed by a National Academy of Sciences panel. An on-air host at KTRH has also called global warming a "scam."
Other news outlets in Texas have also misrepresented climate science. For example, an East Texas Fox affiliate, KFXK, aired a commentary on September 9 that falsely claimed Arctic sea ice has "expanded":
The Heartland Institute, an organization notorious for its virulent climate denial, opened its conference on climate change with a German rap on the "Climate Swindle" that claims "saving the climate means wiping out the humans," according to an English translation.
The conference, which is being held in Las Vegas this week, featured a live performance by Austrian rapper Kilez More of "Klimawandel (Klimalüge, Klimaschwindel)" -- translation "Climate Change (Climate Lies, Climate Swindle)" -- alongside speakers who are largely industry-funded and have no scientific expertise. According to an English translation by the German climate denial blog NoTricksZone, the rap claims that hacked "Climategate" emails showed scientists "fudging the data" to fake warming, contrary to every independent investigation into the matter, in order to gain "more power, more money, more control, more global tax." The chorus repeats that "climate change was not made by man," shouting "nein!" Later, the rap really goes off the rails, claiming that climate change advocates believe that "there's only one way here to clean the planet / saving the climate means wiping out the humans."
A July 7 Heartland Institute press release quoted More stating he's "honored" and "pleased the Heartland Institute liked the song and invited me to present it live on stage."
You might have thought that after the Heartland Institute ran a billboard campaign in 2012 comparing those that accept climate science to the Unabomber -- later pulling the billboards but refusing to apologize -- that the media would have already stopped turning to the organization for analysis. However, The Washington Post, Bloomberg News, and Fox News all quoted Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast casting doubt on a 2013 scientific report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, without noting that he has no climate expertise and previously denied the science showing secondhand smoke can lead to cancer.
The conference in Las Vegas is also being co-sponsored by Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., which owns mainstream television and radio stations across the country. What would it take for the media to stop taking the "kings of unintentional climate-comedy" seriously?
They say comedy is just a funny way of being serious. So it's natural that a deepening climate crisis would produce a deepening well of climate comedy. We don't yet have our climate-themed Dr. Strangelove, but there's now a feature film's worth of gags, skits, and riffs exploring the lighter side of a cooking planet. Stand-up comics, from mainline stars like Louis C.K. to niche acts like the Christian comic Paul Kerensa, have mined climate change for material. Climate activist groups like 350.org have recently begun to take a cue from Comedy Central. Even NASA climatologists have gotten awkwardly into the act.
Like the global temperature, the phenomenon is on an upswing. In May, a New Yorker science blogger mused on the benefits of employing a "comedic frame" in climate coverage. A couple weeks later, the Guardian collected climate-comedy highpoints, from The Onion to "Ali G." The newest item on the list came from a May bit from an exasperated John Oliver on the media habit of "balancing" the climate consensus with fringe skeptics.
The biggest sign the genre is maturing hums with neon. Today, Chicago's Heartland Institute, the kings of unintentional climate-comedy, will hit the Vegas strip with a three-day show at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, featuring a chorus line's worth of hilarious climate rejectionists. The line-up will collectively perform the energy-policy equivalent of a Henny Youngman routine: "Take my planet capable of supporting civilization. Please!"
The think tank that flacked for Big Tobacco against the science of lung cancer will perform off the same playbook to flack for Big Carbon against the science of greenhouse gases. Tickets to see these self-styled climate researchers and political operatives -- almost none of whom are climate or earth systems scientists and nearly all of them funded at one- or two-degrees remove by oil and coal interests -- run $129, including meals.
On the Strip, Heartland speakers will pretend to be qualified to dissent from the equivalent to the National Academy of Sciences of every industrial country. Against the faint ring of slot machines, they'll dismiss the stark warnings of experts from 130 countries who contribute to the authoritative assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Because the first rule of improv comedy is "Yes, and...", some Heartland speakers will concede that, yes, man-made warming is occurring. The kicker comes when they echo Heartland's April report concluding that this is a net positive for all carbon-based life forms. With this pivot toward "Yes, and...", Heartland is ensuring they'll continue to have topical comedy fodder for years to come, even after their carbon denial becomes as outdated as their lung cancer material.
Heartland's Vegas appearance also suggests a strategy to avoid repeating the troupe's 2012 funding crisis. Instead of depending on corporate contributions, Heartland could find steady revenue as a regular sell-out act on the Strip. They aren't in a position to challenge Carrot Top for a headlining residency at the MGM Grand, but in a city whose economic base is expected to suffer devastating effects from climate change, there is a role for a group with years' worth of climate change gags, including slide shows and props. Heartland policy advisor Norman Rodgers, for example, would kill audiences with classic one-liners such as, "The few examples of coal or oil companies actually giving money to dissenters or dissenting organizations are so minor that one suspects that the gift was an accident or bureaucratic snafu." James Taylor would have them rolling with lines like, "I successfully completed Ivy League atmospheric science courses, so I'm a scientist by training."
If Don Rickles can make a Vegas career as the "Merchant of Venom," the folks at Heartland can make a run as the "Merchants of Doubt." The timing could not be better. Nevada's nearly 50 golf courses will likely soon be wilting under heat waves and water shortages, and the dwindling number of tourists visiting Vegas will want more air-conditioned entertainment. To draw these crowds, Heartland just needs to punch-up its clunky ad copy, which now reads, "Come to fabulous Las Vegas to meet leading scientists from around the world who question whether 'man-made global warming' will be harmful to plants, animals, or human welfare." A permanent show needs something that sparkles, like the tagline for the Cirque Du Soleil show "O: An aquatic masterpiece of surrealism and theatrical romance."
Heartland's might read, "Take the Money and Run: A planet-crushing masterpiece of delusion and breathtaking corruption."
There are other benefits to turning Heartland events into entertainment spectacles worthy of a Vegas marquee. Real scientists would no longer have to "tie up all our time fighting denialist propaganda," as astronomer Phil Plait put it. Instead, they could relegate Heartland coverage to the entertainment critics at Variety and Las Vegas Magazine. Heartland is a good bet to open to rave local reviews. They already have friends at the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Heartland is also getting into the movie side of show business. Its main co-sponsor in Vegas this week is the concurrent libertarian event, FreedomFest, held at Planet Hollywood. On Wednesday night, Heartland ticket-holders are invited to attend the debut the film, Atlas Shrugged 3: Where is John Galt? Fox Business host and popular climate comedian John Stossel will introduce the screening and broadcast his show from the FreedomFest floor.
Media Matters has produced brief playbill bios of Heartland's Vegas cast.
Sebastian L. Lüning
UPDATE (6/30/14): According to the Minneapolis City Pages, KSTP News Director Lindsay Radford was "in touch with [Hubbard's] camp" and said that Hubbard "isn't actually 'sponsoring' the conference ... [b]ut Hubbard did provide the Heartland Institute with a $1,000 check for an award to be given out during it." However, Hubbard is listed as a co-sponsor on the Heartland Institute's website:
When asked why KSTP has aired climate denial, Radford responded, "[j]ust like any story, we strive to give all sides." However, climate change is the classic case of a story where giving "all sides" can be misleading because the scientific facts lie firmly on one side. As New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan explained, the public wants "real answers" not false balance:
Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don't want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.
A news organization that runs several ABC and NBC affiliates nationwide is co-sponsoring a Heartland Institute conference promoting climate denial, in line with its chief executive's views, which have seeped into the stations' reporting.
In July, the Heartland Institute will host its annual conference railing against the scientific consensus that humans are the main cause of climate change. The conference was nearly ended in 2012, after funders fled the organization for running a short-lived billboard campaign comparing those that accept climate change to the Unabomber. The co-sponsors of the 2014 conference, who pay anywhere from $150 to $10,000 and are asked to "[w]rite at least one story" before and after the event,* are mostly right-wing groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Media Research Center, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Leadership Institute. However, one group stands out: Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., an American television and radio corporation that owns several ABC and NBC affiliates across the country.
Hubbard Broadcasting is run by billionaire Stanley Hubbard, who, according to Rolling Stone, has said that global warming is "the biggest fraud in the history of America." Hubbard has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to political candidates (most of whom are Republicans) both individually and through his corporation. He supported former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who denies man-made climate change, in the 2012 Republican primary for president. He was a major funder of a now-defunct group founded by Newt Gingrich that promoted increased extraction of fossil fuels. Hubbard has also told the Koch brothers, billionaire Republican donors who made their fortune in the oil industry, that they can "count" on him and attended at least one strategy conference run by the Kochs.
Hubbard Broadcasting's flagship station, KSTP-TV, an ABC affiliate broadcasting on Channel 5 in the Twin Cities and surrounding area, has cast doubt on climate change by citing the Heartland Institute. In September 2013, the news station conveyed false balance by hosting Heartland Institute CEO Joseph Bast to cast doubt on findings from the "Intragovernmental [sic] Panel on Climate Change." KSTP did not give any background information about Bast, who claimed in the 1990s that smoking "in moderation has few, if any, adverse health effects." In 2008, KSTP reportedly aired a 10-minute video by the Heartland Institute titled "Unstoppable Solar Cycles" that espouses the long-debunked claim that recent climate change is being driven by changes in the sun. The station's chief meteorologist has also suggested that the sun, rather than human activities, is the primary driver of climate change.
Hubbard stations WNYT and WHEC, which serve parts of New York State, have also seen the impact of their CEO's climate denial. In 2008, former WNYT anchor Ed Dague suggested at his Times-Union blog that his popular former colleague Lydia Kulbida was let go in part because she resisted inserting climate denial into the news:
Lydia Kulbida was a member of the union's "mobilization committee" and had resisted some of management's attempts to insert Hubbard family opinions into news content. The Hubbards do not believe in global warming and have distinct views about unionization. My belief is that her salary didn't make her a target for the cutback but her activism and attitude did.
WHEC's chief meteorologist, like KSTP's, also denies climate change. At a Tea Party rally in 2010, WHEC's Kevin Williams claimed the "Earth is not warming." Williams has also promoted climate denial on Twitter.
A Media Matters analysis of Fox News coverage of the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed carbon pollution standards finds that long after a report from the Chamber of Commerce was discredited, Fox News continued to cite it. In addition, Fox News only hosted politicians who opposed EPA standards and who have altogether received over $1.6 million in contributions from fossil fuel industries in 2014.
The final installment of the U.N.'s top climate report, which calls for prompt, extensive action to avoid calamitous impacts from climate change, garnered relatively little attention from the major print, cable and broadcast media outlets compared to the first installment. However, coverage of the third report rightfully gave far less space to those who cast doubt on the science.
In response to Media Matters' documentation that a group pushing climate change denial has also rejected the known health impacts of tobacco and secondhand smoke, Fox News is suggesting that secondhand smoke is not dangerous.
On the April 9 edition of Special Report, Fox News correspondent Doug McKelway pointed to a report by the "Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change" (NIPCC), which was written in an attempt to debunk the United Nations' recent consensus report, to claim that "a torrent of new data is poking very large holes" in climate science. In an accompanying article at FoxNews.com, McKelway responded to a Media Matters blog post documenting that the group behind the report, the Heartland Institute, has previously denied the health impacts of tobacco, by claiming that the "Heartland's denial of the dangers of second hand smoke was re-affirmed by a large scale 2013 study":
The NIPCC ["Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change"] report was immediately assailed by administration supporters. The website Media Matters reported that the NIPCC study was published by the conservative Heartland Institute, which previously denied the science demonstrating the dangers of tobacco and secondhand smoke. (In fact, Heartland's denial of the dangers of second hand smoke was re-affirmed by a large scale 2013 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute which found "no statistically significant relationship between lung cancer and exposure to passive smoke.")
Media Matters had actually pointed out that the Heartland Institute once claimed that smoking "fewer than seven cigarettes a day" -- not just secondhand smoke -- was not bad for you, while simultaneously being funded by the tobacco giant Philip Morris. Regardless, secondhand smoke is unequivocally dangerous and causally linked to cancers including lung cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, the American Lung Association, and the Centers for Disease Control. McKelway cherry-picked one study that found no statistically significant link between secondhand smoke and cancer but did find a trend of "borderline statistical significance" among women who had lived with a smoker for 30 years or more. Meta-analyses have previously found that the "abundance of evidence ... overwhelmingly support the existence of a causal relationship between passive smoking and lung cancer." The Environmental Protection Agency states that it does not claim that "minimal exposure to secondhand smoke poses a huge individual cancer risk," but that nonetheless secondhand smoke is responsible for about 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year in U.S. nonsmokers:
The evidence is clear and consistent: secondhand smoke is a cause of lung cancer in adults who don't smoke. EPA has never claimed that minimal exposure to secondhand smoke poses a huge individual cancer risk. Even though the lung cancer risk from secondhand smoke is relatively small compared to the risk from direct smoking, unlike a smoker who chooses to smoke, the nonsmoker's risk is often involuntary. In addition, exposure to secondhand smoke varies tremendously among exposed individuals. For those who must live or work in close proximity to one or more smokers, the risk would certainly be greater than for those less exposed.
EPA estimates that secondhand smoke is responsible for about 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year among nonsmokers in the U.S.; of these, the estimate is 800 from exposure to secondhand smoke at home and 2,200 from exposure in work or social situations.
Fox News is suggesting a report by the Heartland Institute "debunked" a top climate change report while obscuring the background of the organization, which previously denied the science demonstrating the dangers of tobacco and secondhand smoke.
On Fox News' America's Newsroom and America's News Headquarters, Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast said that "We can't trust what appears in our most prestigious [scientific] journals anymore." Instead, Bast wants Fox News viewers to trust his organization's "Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change" (NIPCC), which puts out a report imitating -- and attempting to debunk -- the consensus report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which forecasts "severe and widespread impacts" from manmade global warming.
But how much trust should you put in the Heartland Institute? In 1998, Bast was claiming that "smoking in moderation has few, if any, adverse health effects," citing a few "experts." (Simultaneously, he was touting to a tobacco industry funder that "Heartland does many things that benefit Philip Morris' bottom line.") This was left out of Fox News' report. Today, his organization is claiming in the NIPCC that "few (if any) [species] likely will be driven even close to extinction" from climate change and "no net harm" overall will result, citing a few "experts." (The organization's current funders are largely unknown, often funneled through the right-wing's "dark money ATM," but it has received funding from ExxonMobil and Koch-connected foundations in the last decade.)
While IPCC's dozens of authors are unpaid, at least three of the NIPCC's four lead authors are paid by the Heartland Institute. One of the authors, Craig Idso, used to work for the coal company Peabody Energy and wrote a contracted study for the industry group The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. The IPCC reviews the current state of scientific knowledge, while the NIPCC's references in its Summary for Policymakers include publications that date back to 1904 and few references from this century other than non-peer-reviewed reports from itself and its authors. As climate scientist Donald Wuebbles noted at the end of the Fox News report, the NIPCC report is "full of misinformation" and "not peer-reviewed."
So far, Fox News has dedicated nearly as much time to the NIPCC (over 4 minutes) as it did to the actual IPCC report (over 5 minutes of disparaging coverage). When Fox News equated the first NIPCC report with the first IPCC report on the physical science basis of climate change, scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research told Media Matters it was "irresponsible":
The NIPCC has no standing whatsoever. It is not a reviewed document, it is not open for review at any point and it contains demonstrable garbage and falsehoods. In contrast the IPCC process is rigorous, open and there are 2 major reviews. This is irresponsible journalism.
The founder of the Weather Channel, now a local weatherman on a San Diego television station, dedicated nearly half an hour to climate change misinformation, including claiming that there are more polar bears because "Eskimos ... have now become more civilized."
John Coleman, who is a weatherman for the independent news station KUSI News after being "forced" out of the Weather Channel, said in a segment on climate change this week that polar bear populations have increased because "the Eskimos no longer kill the polar bears for the meat and furs in order to stay alive, it's -- we have now become more civilized in our Eskimo populations around the poles."
In fact, the majority of polar bear populations for which there are sufficient data are declining. Those population levels are somewhat higher than in the 1970s thanks to a ban on polar bear hunting with limited exceptions for traditional hunting by Inuit populations. However, despite conservative media claims to the contrary, this recovery in no way negates the ongoing existential threat that global warming poses to polar bear populations.
In the segment, Coleman -- who has accused NASA climate researchers of "lying" about temperature records -- hosted four paid associates of the Heartland Institute, which has received funding from the fossil fuel industry and once compared those who accept climate science to the "Unabomber." Coleman called Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast, who claimed in the 1990s that moderate smoking has "few, if any, adverse health effects" while simultaneously receiving money from tobacco giants Philip Morris, "a hero of mine."
A study of coverage of the recent United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report finds that many mainstream media outlets amplified the marginal viewpoints of those who doubt the role of human activity in warming the planet, even though the report itself reflects that the climate science community is more certain than ever that humans are the major driver of climate change. The media also covered how recent temperature trends have not warmed at as fast a rate as before in nearly half of their IPCC coverage, but this trend does not undermine long-term climate change.
In the weeks leading up to the release of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change's (IPCC) fifth assessment report summarizing climate science on Monday, conservative media have spread a variety of myths about the process, credibility and findings of the group. Contrary to misinformation, the report reflects that scientists are more convinced than ever that manmade climate change is real and dangerous.
Former Fox News host Glenn Beck once declared "Do I believe scientists? No. They've lied to us about global warming." But the study, by the Yale Project on Climate Communication, concludes that it's actually the other way around: conservative media consumers don't believe in scientists, therefore they don't believe in global warming.
The study suggests that watching and listening to outlets like Fox News and The Rush Limbaugh Show may be one reason that only 19 percent of Republicans agree that human activity is causing global warming, despite the consensus of 97 percent of climate scientists. The Yale researchers depicted five tactics used by conservative media to erode trust in scientists, which Media Matters illustrates with examples.
Conservative media typically turn to a roster of professional climate change contrarians and portray them as "experts" on the issue. What they don't mention is that most of these climate "experts" don't have a background in climate science and are often on the bankroll of the fossil fuel industry.
A Media Matters study detailed how certain climate contrarians have been given a large platform by the media, particularly Fox News.
For instance, Fox News cut away from President Barack Obama's recent climate change speech to host Chris Horner of the industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute -- giving approximately equal time to Horner and the president.
A Wall Street Journal op-ed authored by a staffer of the industry-funded Heartland Institute claimed that "[p]hysical limitations" will not allow wind to become a major source of our power. However, he ignored recent positive developments for the wind industry and areas where further innovation can help wind capacity further grow.