In response to widespread mainstream coverage of what scientists say was the hottest day in modern history, right-wing media predictably downplayed extreme heat with the help of Twitter’s community notes feature.
Scientists say July 6 could have been the hottest day in some 120,000 years, reaching a global average temperature of 63.02 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the fourth straight day to set or tie that record. A wide variety of other news outlets covered the record-breaking heat, including CNN, which tweeted on June 5: “The planet saw its hottest day ever this week. The record will be broken again and again” and linked to an article.
Before long, some users were claiming that CNN was being dishonest in its wording. A community note, a feature that allows users to “add context” below “potentially misleading” tweets, appeared below it:
But this information was already front and center in CNN’s article, right under the lede.
Reporter Laura Paddison wrote: “On Monday, the average global temperature reached 17.01 degrees Celsius (62.62 Fahrenheit), the highest in the US National Centers for Environmental Prediction’s data, which goes back to 1979. On Tuesday, it climbed even further, reaching 17.18 degrees Celsius and global temperature remained at this record-high on Wednesday.”
The note even cited the very same article that was already linked in the tweet. Nonetheless, right-wing media piled on, creating another fake “gotcha” moment:
- Fox & Friends Weekend co-host Will Cain told frequent Fox News guest and climate change denier Marc Morano that CNN is dishonestly convincing climate protesters they are “living on the edge of apocalypse”: Morano falsely claimed that warming isn’t significant because “we're on an almost nine-year no change in temperature going back to about 2014-15 now.” Cain added: “All of this climate change data that we have, it’s short term as well. We can’t go back. We don’t know. I know they suggest —we don't know the climate over every ounce, every moment of this world's history.” [Fox News, Fox News Tonight, 7/8/23]
- Blogger and climate change denier Tony Heller: “According to @CNN, earth is hotter now then when palm trees grew at the poles. #ClimateScam.” [Twitter, 7/6/23]
- British conservative activist and “social media commentator” Adam Brooks: “Community notes hand CNN a big custard pie in the face… climate propaganda is out of control. Agenda.” [Twitter, 7/6/23]
- Fox News contributor Joe Concha: “CNN's version of the beginning of time is apparently the year before the network launched in 1980…” [Twitter, 7/6/23]
- The Federalist co-founder Sean Davis: “If you legitimately believe that yesterday was literally the hottest day IN ALL OF HISTORY, then you are too stupid to exist and you should be deported.” [Twitter, 7/5/23]
- Singer and frequent Timcast guest Phil Labonte: “It wasn’t the hottest day ever.” [Twitter, 7/5/23]
- Megan Kelly Show producer Steve Krakauer: “‘Hottest day ever”’* *since 1979 haha.” [Twitter, 7/5/23]
- Former Fox News producer Kyle Becker wrote that the record “is an absolute lie”: Becker highlighted the well-known fact that Earth was hotter in the Paleozoic era and that “life on earth flourished in both of these eras, despite much higher carbon dioxide levels and much higher average global temperatures.” This life did not include humans and this fact does not disprove the existence of human-caused climate change. [Twitter, 7/5/23]
- Gov. Ron DeSantis press secretary Jeremy Redfern tweeted a graph of global temperature over 500 million years and wrote, “Guys… .” [Twitter, 7/5/23]
- Grabien founder and radio producer Tom Elliott: “CNN: Did you know the world started 150 years ago?” [Twitter, 7/5/23]
Importantly, the fact that the current modeling used to measure the global average temperature was implemented in 1979 doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about global temperatures before then.
Paleoclimatologists use fossils and ice cores to piece together what Earth was like thousands of years ago. While precise measurements are all but impossible, there is evidence to suggest average global temperatures haven’t been this high in over 100,000 years.
One thing paleoclimatologists know for sure, according to Richard Alley, a geosciences professor at Pennsylvania State University, is that if it was hotter in the past, it was naturally caused, while “the current rise is not natural, but caused by us.”
Community notes has a shaky track record
Crowdsourced notes on Twitter — a feature Elon Musk expanded in 2022 — have proved useful at times for rapidly adding highly visible context. But these notes aren’t always helpful for adding context to highly politicized issues like climate change and race, and can invite bigoted and misleading notes.
Twitter approves notes based on values it gives to each individual user that weighs in, not how many users find it helpful or unhelpful. A note can have few helpful votes and be approved; it just has to have ratings from people “with different points of view” that Twitter finds appropriate.
The values given to votes depend in part on how users have voted on community notes in the past. But some have pointed out that measuring “diversity” in this way can be flawed. Considering how Musk has empowered right-wing users in other ways, the balance of those who write community notes in the first place could potentially be ideologically skewed. In this case, the community note itself lacked key information and would have been more helpful if it specified that this was likely a 120,000-year record.
While significant, one broken record is far from the only indicator that global heating is a major threat
The argument over how to phrase this worrying benchmark is somewhat arbitrary in the scheme of global climate impacts.
The fact that July 6 was the hottest day on record shouldn’t bring the issue urgency by itself. The fact that over 100 people recently died in Mexico due to extreme heat, wildfires in Canada have burned an area the size of Virginia, and several major U.S. cities are still bracing for unhealthy air quality due to wildfire smoke should motivate the media to pay attention and lawmakers to act.
Right-wing media regularly respond to coverage of extreme heat with loud climate change denial. In July 2022, as a heat wave shook Western Europe, killing tens of thousands of people, climate skeptics responded with gaslighting and insisted everything was fine. How hot does it have to get and how many people have to die for skeptics to accept the fact that climate change is driving dangerously high temperatures? There is seemingly no limit.