In an October 19 editorial, USA Today criticized the “powerful fossil fuel lobby” for standing in the way of addressing climate change by “underwrit[ing] organizations that challenge the science and confuse the public.” Yet at the same time, USA Today provided a forum for precisely that sort of climate confusion by publishing its editorial alongside a falsehood-filled op-ed by the head of a fossil fuel industry front group.
In its editorial, which expressed dismay at the lack of climate change discussion in the presidential debates, USA Today cited fossil fuel industry front groups as one of the “obstacles” to addressing climate change:
[A]s with pension promises to public employees, today’s politicians will be long gone when the worst effects manifest themselves. The powerful fossil fuel lobby resists change; it underwrites organizations that challenge the science and confuse the public. And no individual city, state or nation can solve the climate problem; that will take a global effort in which individual countries have economic incentives to cheat on their emissions-reduction pledges.
Given all these obstacles, the progress of the past year has been remarkable.
But as is often the case, USA Today published this editorial -- which it describes as “our view” -- alongside an “opposing view,” a practice that has frequently resulted in USA Today publishing scientifically inaccurate claims about climate science that could confuse its readers. And this instance was no different.
In this case, the “opposing view” was written by Alex Epstein, whom USA Today identified as “president and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, a for-profit think tank that has clients in the fossil fuel industry.” That disclosure of Epstein’s fossil fuel ties is commendable, but it does not excuse publishing an op-ed containing false claims about climate science.
In the op-ed, Epstein claimed that political candidates who “think carefully about the magnitude of man-made warming and compare it with the unique benefits of fossil fuels” will conclude that “man-made warming is mild and manageable, not runaway and catastrophic.”
But Epstein’s claim that global warming is “mild and manageable” directly contradicts the findings of the world’s leading climate scientists. For example, NASA says that “small changes in temperature correspond to enormous changes in the environment,” and notes that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that “the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time." Similarly, the National Climate Assessment states that climate change impacts “are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond,” and that there is “mounting evidence that harm to the nation will increase substantially in the future unless global emissions of heat-trapping gases are greatly reduced.”
According to Epstein, one reason that the “unique benefits” of fossil fuels outweigh their impact on the climate is that wind and solar energy are “expensive.” But that’s also not true, particularly for wind. As Fortune magazine recently reported, a new report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance found:
Electricity generated by large wind farms is now cheap enough in many places around the world to compete effectively with electricity generated by coal and natural gas.
At the same time, solar panel farms aren’t quite low cost enough to be as competitive with fossil fuels as wind energy is. Still, the cost of electricity generated by solar panels has also come down significantly this year.
The Bloomberg New Energy Finance report further stated that wind and solar will “become the cheapest ways of producing electricity in many countries during the 2020s and in most of the world in the 2030s.” And analyses from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and investment banking firm Lazard show that wind energy is already the cheapest source of electricity in some parts of the country.
Epstein also peddled the myth that “only the fossil fuel industry” can rescue poor people around the world from “energy poverty.” The truth is that fossil fuels are not economically viable in most of the communities that suffer from a lack of electricity, and experts say distributed renewable energy sources are often a more effective way to lift the world's poor out of energy poverty.
The USA Today editorial board is correct when it writes, “Aside from the possibility that mankind will blow itself up, no issue is more important to the future of the planet than global warming.” And it's right when it pinpoints climate science denial by fossil fuel front groups as a major roadblock to dealing with the climate crisis.
The question, then, is an obvious one: Why does USA Today continue to provide a forum for these front groups to confuse the public about climate change?