NY Times Disregards Times Staffers' Advice On Avoiding Term “Climate Change Skeptic”

Times Story On Pope Encyclical Gives Unwarranted Platform To Climate Science Deniers

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A June 13 New York Times article about the pope's forthcoming climate change encyclical failed to follow leading Times staffers' recommendations by using the term “climate skeptic” to refer to those who blatantly deny established climate science.

The Times article stated that the Vatican's stance on climate change has “rankled ... climate change skeptics, who have suggested that Francis is being misled by scientists[.]”  It added that “a group of self-described climate skeptics, led by the Heartland Institute” organized a protest of the Vatican's position in Rome, and described Marc Morano, a member of the Heartland delegation to Rome, as a former “aide to Senator James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and climate change skeptic.”

But these descriptions of Heartland, Morano, and Inhofe run counter to the recommendations of The Times' public editor and one of its environmental reporters, each of whom has firmly gone on record against referring to climate science deniers as climate “skeptics.”

Just last month, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan responded to an open letter from a group of Fellows from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a petition by Forecast the Facts (which Media Matters supported by conducting research into media coverage) asking media outlets to stop incorrectly referring to climate science deniers as “skeptics.” Sullivan stated: “The difference between skeptic and denier ... may seem minor, but it's really not. Simply put, words matter.” And in February, Times environmental reporter Justin Gillis wrote that the term “skeptic” should not apply to those who “make scientifically ludicrous claims, such as denying that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas or rejecting the idea that humans are responsible for its increase in the atmosphere.”

But making “scientifically ludicrous claims” about climate change is precisely what the Heartland Institute, Morano, and Sen. Inhofe have done:

  • The Heartland Institute frequently makes claims about the causes and impacts of climate change that directly contradict the nearly unanimous findings of climate scientists. Heartland made it's climate science denial perfectly clear when it organized a publicity stunt to disrupt the Vatican's April climate change summit, stating that the purpose of the effort was “to inform Pope Francis of the truth about climate science: There is no global warming crisis!”
  • Morano, who was recently featured in a documentary about climate science deniers titled Merchants of Doubt, has long denied that human activities are responsible for climate change. He's described climate science as “primitive” and “crumbl[ing],” and climate change models as “akin to medieval witchcraft.”
  • Inhofe is the author of a book titled, “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.” In February, he brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to dispute the scientific finding that 2014 was the hottest year on record.

In addition to wrongly describing these deniers as “skeptics,” The Times again failed to note that they are funded by fossil fuel interests or that their claim that humans are not responsible for global warming is firmly rejected by the vast majority of climate scientists.

At one point, the article reported that Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo “postulated that many of the attacks have been underwritten by oil companies,” but The Times did not confirm the strong evidence that this is indeed the case. The Heartland Institute has received over $700,000 from Exxon Mobil, as well as significant funding from organizations with ties to the oil billionaire Koch Brothers; Morano's blog is financed by the Exxon- and Chevron-funded Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT); and Inhofe has received nearly $1.8 million from the oil and gas industry over the course of his congressional career, more than twice as much as he's taken from any other industry.

The Times piece was published on the same day as another problematic Times article about the encyclical that also featured the word “skeptical” to refer to those attacking climate science. That article, which talked about the “wariness” that some U.S. bishops have towards the issue of climate change, stated that "[s]ome bishops said they had received hate mail from Catholics skeptical of climate change."

The second Times article also portrayed the human role in climate change as a topic of debate between “conservative” and “liberal-leaning” bishops -- without noting the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue (emphasis added):

In recent years, [American bishops] have devoted their time and resources to fighting against abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception and for religious exceptions, vouchers for religious schools and the rights of immigrants. They found common cause with Republican politicians and evangelicals, and attended conferences hosted by conservative and libertarian think tanks -- where the bishops became acquainted with those who argue against the evidence that climate change is caused by human activity.

The more liberal-leaning bishops who dominated the conference in the 1980s and the 1990s -- taking on issues like economic injustice, workers' rights, agriculture and the environment -- have been outnumbered and overshadowed for years.