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 a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Matt Ridley attempted to cast doubt on the severity of manmade climate change, arguing that future warming will be modest and "good" for the planet. But experts say the author flubbed the science, and continue to project that the earth will warm between 2 and 4.5 degrees Celsius (or about 3.5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit), unless mitigating action is taken.
Ridley's argument goes something like this: climate models are "unproven." Therefore, it is now possible to rely solely on "observations" -- which show that temperatures are "no higher than they were 16 years ago"--to determine that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the end of the century would cause modest warming, a development he says is "dynamite." Further, that amount of warming would be a "net good."
Putting aside the fact that Ridley cites a "semiretired successful financier" and an unnamed scientist to support his claims, his arguments are not well-founded. Or, as John Abraham, an IPCC reviewer and the director of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, put it to Media Matters: the column "has such elementary errors in it that [it] casts doubt on the author's understanding of any aspects of climate change."
Let's look at each of those errors, one by one.
First, Ridley wrongly argues that three variables factored into current climate models are overstated (and thus that climate models are "unproven"). In fact, experts agree that the basic impacts of each variable that Ridley cites -- the cooling effect of aerosols (or particles in the air); the rate of heat absorption by the world's oceans; and the role of water vapor in amplifying climate change -- are unambiguous.
With regard to aerosols: Abraham told Media Matters: "it is very clear [they] have a cooling impact," adding, "I don't know of any reputable scientist that would dispute that." Boston University's Robert Kaufmann, lead author of a 2011 sulfur emissions study, agreed:
I know of no evidence that would suggest that the temperature effect of sulfur emissions are small. This conclusion is totally at odds with my peer reviewed publication in the area, which indicate that sulfur emissions have a significant effect on temperature.
With regard to the feedback effect of water vapor: Kevin Trenberth, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Media Matters in an email: "water vapor effects are well established as an amplifier (strong positive feedback)." Abraham further noted that Ridley has apparently confused water vapor with clouds, whose effects are not as well understood. He said, "it is very clear water vapor...is an amplifying effect. It is a very strong warmer for the climate" and challenged Ridley to name the anonymous scientist who gave him his information.
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.
Matt Ridley, a science writer and the author of The Rational Optimist, frequently uses his Wall Street Journal column to dismiss the threat of climate change and argue that climate scientists should not be trusted. But experts say that Ridley, who is an advisor to the right-wing Global Warming Policy Foundation, is misleading readers about climate science.
Carbon dioxide emissions are not just warming up our atmosphere, they're also changing the chemistry of our oceans. This phenomenon is known as ocean acidification, or sometimes as global warming's "evil twin" or the "osteoporosis of the sea." Scientists have warned that it poses a serious threat to ocean life. Yet major American
news outlets covered the Kardashians over 40 times more often than ocean acidification over the past year and a half.
Rising carbon dioxide emissions have caused the oceans to become around 30 percent more acidic since the Industrial Revolution, and if we do not lower the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, the ocean surface could be up to 150 percent more acidic by 2100. At that level, the shells of some plankton would dissolve, large parts of the ocean would become inhospitable to coral reef growth, and the rapidity of the change could threaten much of the marine food web. According to the National Research Council, the chemical changes are taking place "at an unprecedented rate and magnitude" and are "practically irreversible on a time scale of centuries."
Despite a boom of recent scientific research documenting this threat, there has been a blackout on the topic at most media outlets. Since the end of 2010, ABC, NBC, and Fox News have completely ignored ocean acidification, and the Los Angeles Times, USA TODAY, Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, CNN, and CBS have barely mentioned it at all.