Right-wing media outlets and the climate deniers they platform predictably threw a fit after White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy suggested that tech platforms could be doing more to stop the spread of climate change misinformation -- which numerous studies have shown to be running rampant on both Twitter and Facebook -- by calling her comments an attack on free speech. They also doubled down on repeatedly debunked talking points about renewable energy and climate change impacts, and a few outlets went so far as to compare her to Hitler.
At a June 9 Axios event on the real-world impacts of misinformation on public health and climate action, McCarthy pointed out that the fossil fuel industry has shifted to tactics of delay rather than outright climate denial to spread misinformation and seed doubt about the costs and effectiveness of clean energy. She called on tech companies to do more to curtail the spread of this misinformation: “Frankly, the tech companies have to stop allowing specific individuals over and over again to spread disinformation,” she said. “That’s what the fossil fuel companies pay for…that’s what they do…we need the tech companies to really jump in.” Her point is supported by a study, which found that social media platforms have empowered a relatively small number of individuals to generate untruths that spread faster and reach more people.
Right-wing media outlets responded to McCarthy’s comments the way they often do when confronted with the tangible harm caused by their lies — be it false claims of election fraud, COVID-19 misinformation, or attacks on LGBTQ+ individuals to label them child abusers: They deflected by making the issue about free speech.
The Wall Street Journal repeated misinformation in an attack on McCarthy’s comments
The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which often peddles climate change denial in its op-ed section, complained that McCarthy wanted social media platforms to “censor content on the costs of a force-fed green energy transition.” The paper then used a repeatedly debunked talking point about the cause of Texas’s 2021 winter power outages, incorrectly suggesting the failure of wind energy was the primary cause.
The editorial also complained about Facebook’s fact checks of op-eds on climate, including those by two of its contributors, Bjorn Lomborg and Steve Koonin, and framed Facebook’s bare minimum effort to inform users of misleading or decontextualized content as some sort of censorship. Both authors are known climate skeptics with ties to the fossil fuel industry and have used the paper to spread misinformation about the climate crisis.
Fox used the story to feign concern over free speech, as well as push false solutions and industry talking points
Fox News invited Lomborg to talk about McCarthy’s comments and the Journal’s editorial response to them. On the June 15 episode of America’s Newsroom, Lomborg partook in his usual drivel, namely that a transition to renewable energy would be too expensive, and told co-anchor Dana Perino that McCarthy had said “our solutions will cost almost nothing and if anyone else says anything, they should be barred.” On the June 16 episode of Fox Business’ Mornings with Maria, anchor Maria Bartimoro called McCarthy’s comments “actually incredible.” Her guest Rep Kevin Brady (R-TX) claimed that McCarthy aimed to “purge from public debate other solutions” and then cited continued dependence on fossil fuels as a solution to climate change. He also said that McCarthy’s message for tech companies was the “equivalent of book burning here in America. They just don’t want other facts in the public arena.”
Aside from the fact that no one, including McCarthy, is saying that climate action will cost “almost nothing,” framing the costs of climate action as an economic burden while ignoring the growing costs of inaction is a tried-and-true fossil fuel industry tactic. A recent report from Deloitte found that if the world stayed on its current course of global warming, it would cost $178 trillion over the next 50 years.
Lomborg also claimed that tech companies “want to make sure people only hear one side of the story,” namely, the “side” of McCarthy and climate advocates. A plethora of evidence says otherwise. Facebook’s algorithm has been shown to push users toward climate misinformation. A new analysis of climate skeptic and climate delay posts during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference and beyond found that Facebook’s algorithm resulted in more user exposure to climate misinformation than exposure to its own Climate Science Center. The same report identified Lomborg as a “super-spreader” on Twitter, one of a small number of accounts that drove a disproportionately high amount of climate skeptic content. While Lomborg’s repeatedly disproven content might have been fact-checked on Facebook in the past, Facebook’s overall fact-checking efforts have fallen short. A recent Media Matters report identified the top 100 climate misinformation posts over a 7-month period. These posts received 5.2 million interactions, and only 2 had fact-checking labels. Misleading content often lacks a label and labels rarely spur action.
By going on national TV news to complain that his content for a national newspaper is being censored on social media platforms, Lomborg is only making McCarthy’s point. Influential actors are using delay tactics to stall climate action and keep the country hooked on fossil fuels. They’re being aided by legacy media like the Wall Street Journal, which has a history of publishing op-eds that are chock-full of climate misinformation without disclosing the author’s ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Other right-wing media outlets used the comments to amplify unsubstantiated climate denier gripes and compared McCarthy to Hitler
Lomborg wasn’t the only climate skeptic who came out of the woodwork to attack McCarthy. After his underwhelming performance in the California gubernatorial primary elections, Michael Shellenberger, dedicated an issue of his substack to the discussion. Shellenberger, a staple on Fox News who has also been identified as a “super-spreader” of climate delay rhetoric, again painted fact-checking labels as “censorship” even though users still have access to the content. He also attempted to defend examples of unsupported claims made by Lomborg and John Stossel, a former Fox Business host who now hosts a YouTube show with the Koch-funded Reason Foundation. Stossel is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Facebook over a “missing context” label on a video in which Shellenberger appeared, inaccurately dismissing the significant role of climate change in the devastating 2020 California wildfires.
Both Newsmax and the Washington Examiner published articles comparing McCarthy to Hitler by calling her the Biden administration’s “climate fuhrer.” The articles featured a collection of reaction quotes from climate contrarians like former Murray Energy director and Fox News regular Steve Milloy, who also tweeted about the comments several times, and CO2 Coalition's Gregory Wrightstone, who told the Examiner McCarthy doesn’t “want the public to know that our ecosystems are thriving and that humanity is prospering precisely owing to modestly increasing temperature and more carbon dioxide.” Both pieces also quoted James Taylor and Frank Lasee, the current and former president of the Heartland Institute, which has received funding from the fossil fuel industry and shilled for Big Tobacco.
The climate deniers attacking McCarthy by pretending to be defenders of free speech are hypocritical at best. The same day that Wrightstone was quoted complaining about censorship in the two articles mentioned above, CO2 Coalition announced to its followers that it has just banned a “troll” from its Facebook page for highlighting its consistent climate change denial. Let’s not forget how the Heartland Institute quickly abandoned its commitment to free speech when its strategy to introduce climate denial into grade school curricula leaked in 2012. The agenda of these bad faith attacks is to ensure the continued viral spread of misinformation about the costs of the climate crisis and the viability of climate solutions like renewable energy.