Right-wing media manufacture outrage over CNN host Don Lemon discussing relationship between climate change and strengthened hurricanes
Tucker Carlson protégé Alex Pfeiffer mischaracterized a conversation between a CNN host and a NOAA scientist to push right-wing climate denial
A producer for Fox News’ prime-time program Tucker Carlson Tonight successfully created controversy out of thin air Tuesday with a tweet mischaracterizing a conversation between CNN host Don Lemon and meteorologist Jamie Rhome, the acting director of the National Hurricane Center.
During a segment on the September 27 edition of CNN’s Don Lemon Tonight, Rhome declined to attribute specific metrics of Hurricane Ian to climate change as the storm threatened Florida’s gulf coast with damaging wind, torrential rain, and catastrophic storm surge.
When Lemon pressed Rhome on whether he could attribute the rapid intensification of increasingly severe storms like Hurricane Ian to human-induced climate change, Rhome politely responded, “I don't think you can link climate change to any one event.” While declining to attribute Ian itself to “climate change,” Rhome agreed that “on the whole, on the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse.” (The link between climate change and the rapid intensification of storms like Ian is well-documented and had been reported on earlier that day by CNN.)
There isn’t really a debate here; both men are correct. No single weather event can be said to be caused by climate change, but the developing field of attribution science allows climate scientists to calculate how anthropogenic changes to the climate have “made some extreme events more severe and more likely to occur.”
Across the board, scientists already agree that “extreme weather events such as heat waves and large storms are likely to become more frequent or more intense with human-induced climate change.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Rhome’s employer) recently published a thorough analysis demonstrating how atmospheric and oceanic warming, and sea level rise, are likely to make tropical cyclones increasingly intense and destructive. Climate change didn’t “cause” Hurricane Ian, but the hallmarks of our changing climate almost certainly made the storm more destructive.
The specific exchange between Lemon and Rhome was hardly noteworthy, and it merited little attention until it was amplified on social media by Fox News producer Alex Pfeiffer.
Several right-wing outlets were quick to amplify Pfeiffer’s framing, running exaggerated headlines about how Rhome “schooled” Lemon, who had “face-plant[ed]” in his supposed “attempt to link Hurricane Ian to climate change.”
- “National Hurricane Center chief shuts down CNN's Don Lemon trying to link Hurricane Ian to climate change.” [FoxNews.com, 9/28/22]
- “NOAA Hurricane Director Twice Shuts Down Lemon For Blaming Climate Change.” [MRC Newsbusters, 9/28/22]
- “'It's not the time to point score': Don Lemon is schooled AGAIN by CNN guest after blaming Hurricane Ian on 'climate change.'” [The Daily Mail, 9/28/22]
- “Hurricane expert brushes off Don Lemon climate change question: ‘I want to talk about the here and now.’” [The Hill, 9/28/22]
- “Don Lemon: Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change.” [National Review, 9/28/22]
- “WATCH: Don Lemon face-plants in attempt to link Hurricane Ian to climate change.” [Washington Examiner, 9/28/22]
- “CNN’s Don Lemon Tries To Blame Hurricane Ian On Climate Change. NOAA’s Hurricane Director Shuts Him Down.” [The Daily Wire, 9/28/22]
- “Don Lemon Blames Climate Change For Hurricane Ian. Guest Shuts Him Down.” [OutKick.com, 9/28/22]
The CNN segment was also the object of derision from Fox News personalities, with panelists lambasting Lemon during the September 28 edition of Fox Business’ Mornings with Maria, and prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham also targeting Lemon on that evening’s editions of their Fox News programs.
There is no scandal here, no “gotcha” moment. Don Lemon was not “schooled,” and Jamie Rhome did not “shut down” a conversation about climate change. Rhome seemed to lean toward a preference shared by some other meteorologists to not mix broader discussions of climate change with discrete coverage of individual breaking news about dangerous storms.
But Rhome’s preference for nuance was completely lost by right-wing propagandists peddling climate change denial. As media researcher Juliet Jeske pointed out on Twitter, one need look no further than the responses to Pfeiffer's tweet “to see the effects of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda” on the climate debate. It is for this reason that legendary climatologist Michael Mann also criticized Rhome, arguing that Rhome was “spouting climate denial talking points.” Even if Rhome doesn't subscribe to the denialist position, the propagandists are ready to use any rhetorical lapse as a cudgel against climate science.
Last year, many of the same right-wing outlets piled on CNN after an anchor asked Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm if there might be a link between climate change (specifically sea level rise) and a deadly building collapse. The melodramatic right-wing response to Rhome is a time-honored tactic used to muzzle media conversations of the climate crisis, wherein climate deniers exaggerate a fleeting comment as proof of their demonstrably false position.