Fox has fed its audience a steady diet of warmed-over climate denial, conspiracy theories, and disinformation for years, reaching a new crescendo during the waning days of the general election. Now, given President-elect Joe Biden’s rhetorical commitments to reasonable climate actions such as repealing the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks and rejoining the Paris climate accord, Fox’s post-election coverage is a clear signal that it will continue attacking the possibility of climate action for the duration of Biden’s administration.
With Fox committed to advancing its pro-fossil fuel agenda at any cost, its cable news counterparts at CNN and MSNBC must stop ceding the climate coverage narrative to Fox, especially as the window for meaningful climate action is rapidly closing.
How Fox has covered climate during Biden’s transition
Since President-elect Biden clinched the election, Fox has continued its steady drumbeat of disinformation, bad-faith arguments, and climate denial. This includes blaming proposals like the Green New Deal for some Democrats’ disappointing down ballot performance, demonizing the Paris climate accord, and labeling Biden’s moderate climate plan as too expensive. This also includes ongoing personal attacks on Biden’s climate-focused Cabinet nominees, such as special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry and White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy chief Gina McCarthy, among others.
Typifying Fox’s post-election coverage was a segment from the December 16 edition of The Ingraham Angle, which featured industry shill Steve Milloy and host Laura Ingraham discussing the announcement that McCarthy would be Biden’s domestic “climate czar.” During the segment, Ingraham and Milloy questioned McCarthy’s patriotism and called her a “supplicant of China,” repeated debunked talking points about how the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency under McCarthy “killed the coal industry,” and echoed disinformation about Biden imposing a fracking ban.
On the December 11 episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson interviewed Justin Haskins from the Heartland Institute, a fossil fuel-funded think tank that has promoted climate denial and undermined climate action for more than a decade. As expected, the segment was rife with disinformation and fearmongering about the Biden administration rejoining the Paris accord, America’s carbon emissions, and Biden’s position on fracking, as well as rank climate change denial. The segment also included attacks on incoming climate envoy John Kerry, providing another preview of what Fox’s stance will be during the Biden administration.
Fox anchors on the network’s so-called “straight news” side and opinion hosts have been pushing these narratives in the weeks since election night. For example, during the November 11 episode of Bill Hemmer Reports, incoming Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-IA) claimed that Democrats’ “socialist ideas” like Biden’s climate plan were the reason “Republicans were successful this cycle.”
Guest host Tammy Bruce echoed and amplified this narrative during the November 20 episode of Hannity, claiming the “extreme left continues to plot their far-left takeover of Joe Biden” during a segment about the Sunrise Movement’s protest at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, claiming Biden “is under pressure from every corner of the new socialist Democratic Party” to “let them unleash … a clearly destructive political force on the American public.”
Fox News also dutifully laid groundwork against reasonable climate actions such as rejoining the Paris accord. During the November 24 episode of Your World with Neil Cavuto, guest Stephen Moore, a climate-denying, Koch-funded economist, asserted that reentering the agreement would harm America’s energy independence.
The network is exceedingly efficient at poisoning the well against even the most milquetoast climate proposals, while consistently failing to inform its audience about the need for ambitious climate action in light of the growing climate emergency. National polls demonstrate strong support for “progressive” proposals such as the Green New Deal, yet 91% of Fox viewers oppose it according to a 2019 poll conducted by Green Advocacy Project, a nonprofit advocacy group. Meanwhile, the ambitious climate proposal was rarely discussed on other cable news networks, despite the sheer number of devastating and record-breaking extreme weather events that are playing out in real time.
Fox’s coverage of the incoming administration’s climate policies shows the network will continue relentlessly eroding public demand for the government to address the climate crisis. And its ongoing dominance of the climate change narrative drowns out other cable news outlets, leaving viewers with no place to turn to see informed and substantive discussions of climate change and potential solutions to mitigate its worst consequences.
Fox dominated the climate conversation during the general election
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Fox News played a key role in right-wing media efforts to echo and amplify disinformation about Biden’s climate plan and his statements on various climate proposals. Ahead of the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, Fox News spent an entire month lying about Biden's climate plan -- from July 14 to August 14, it aired 35 segments about it, seven times the amount that CNN aired and four times the coverage that aired on MSNBC. These unhinged and misleading attacks included the fake narrative that Biden would ban fracking if elected.
The network also continuously lied about Biden’s comments about the need to transition away from fossil fuels, promoting Big Oil takes on Biden’s comments from the final debate in 100% of the 92 segments the network aired about his statement from October 22-26.
This campaign to deceive viewers and toxify reasonable climate policy mirrors the network’s unrelenting attacks on the Green New Deal. Since the ambitious proposal was announced nearly two years ago, Fox News has been propagating the same message, repeatedly anchoring the proposal to radical socialism and economic devastation. Fox’s campaign has been so successful that the pro-fossil fuel right-wing, now labels “virtually every climate change effort as part of the Green New Deal.”
These attacks continued apace during the 2020 election: During the week following the first presidential debate on September 29, Fox pushed false narratives about Biden’s support for the Green New Deal at least 48 times. These included claims that Biden had flip-flopped on supporting the Green New Deal and that his position on the proposal would drive a wedge between moderates and progressives.
Will the other cable networks again surrender the climate change narrative to Fox News?
While Fox has been repeatedly misinforming its audience about climate change and climate action, CNN and MSNBC have been largely silent. This includes not only virtually ignoring what the Green New Deal actually says and what it would accomplish, but also largely failing to rebut Fox’s campaign of lies about climate policy during the general election.
When CNN and MSNBC are not silent on climate issues, they often echo Fox News’ conservative framing shaped by fossil fuel industry talking points. For example, during the week leading up to Election Day, CNN and MSNBC, like Fox, often overstated the role of fracking in Pennsylvania, suggesting that a perceived lack of support for the industry would kill a candidate’s chances of carrying the key swing state. And following the October 22 debate, the vast majority of CNN and MSNBC segments about Biden’s fossil fuel transition statements ran with the conservative, pro-Big Oil framing about the negative implications for the oil and gas industry. As a result, their viewers were not informed that climate scientists say decarbonizing our economy is necessary to secure a livable planet.
This tendency to echo conservative framing around climate issues also occurs outside of news programs, during some of the highest viewed political events such as presidential debates. A Media Matters analysis of Democratic primary debates, which included moderators representing CNN and MSNBC as well as PBS and Politico, found that 49% of their climate questions were framed conservatively, focusing on the costs of proposed climate plans or suggesting that climate action would harm the economy. And, during the vice presidential debate, moderator Susan Page posed a question to Sen. Kamala Harris that outright amplified Fox News’ false claims about Biden’s support for the Green New Deal.
It is unacceptable that Fox News talking points played such a prominent role in shaping the discussion about climate change and climate action ahead of one of the most consequential elections of our time. CNN and MSNBC cannot continue surrendering the conversation during the Biden administration when it will be more critical than ever to act swiftly and decisively to limit the worst consequences of climate change.
Fox News will continue to demonize any and all climate action under the Biden administration
Fox has demonized climate action for years while staying silent on Trump’s inaction and the growing consequences of the climate crisis. As Biden has made rhetorical commitments to act on climate change during his presidency, Fox will continue aggressively misinforming its viewers. That’s because it is less a news outlet and more a key cog in the right-wing disinformation network, providing a platform for a coterie of fringe cranks and conspiracy theorists to push misinformation about climate change and rail against climate action.
In particular, Fox has played a critical role in undermining the political and public consensus around climate change. According to a 2014 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Fox News was the least accurate of the three major cable news networks, with 72% of Fox segments about climate science in 2013 “contained misleading statements.” In the first half of 2019, “climate denial claims dominated 86% of climate change segments on Fox News,” according to progressive public interest group Public Citizen.
Post-election, Fox has continued to avoid having good-faith discussions about tackling the climate crisis, providing a preview of the network’s coverage for the next four years when it will relentlessly propagate misleading and false information about any and all climate action to its viewers. These efforts must be countered by cable news networks facing a bleak post-Trump future. According to The New York Times:
CNN and MSNBC thrived during the Trump years, reaching new heights in ratings and revenue while devoting countless prime-time hours to criticizing a White House antagonist their viewers just could not quit.
People at both networks know that viewers who abhorred President Trump may no longer need their nightly therapy sessions with Rachel Maddow or Don Lemon. And President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. seems unlikely to generate the 24/7 grist of drama and scandal that resurrected cable news, taking it from a dying medium to a focal point of modern politics.
Instead of the nonstop dopamine hits of covering the latest Trump outrage, CNN and MSNBC could provide their viewers with substantive reporting on a number of vital issues, such as climate change, that the public wants to learn more about.
Progressive polling firm Data for Progress found that 77% of likely voters say it is important for news media to connect climate science to extreme weather events, and 71% want to know if climate change is exacerbating an extreme weather event when it’s discussed in the news. And a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that “large majorities in most news audiences are interested in news stories about a wide range of global warming topics.”
There is no doubt that Fox News will remain reliably opposed to any efforts to address the existential threat of climate change during Biden’s presidency. The question going into 2021 is whether the other cable news networks will find their footing and begin to report on the frontlines of the climate crisis and detail potential solutions and approaches to mitigating the worst consequences of climate change. Fox could use the competition, and cable news audiences could use climate coverage that isn’t rife with cynicism, lies, and disinformation.