Media Mayhem: 5 more tall tales by climate change deniers in 2009
Last week's readers help me come up with five more juicy ones to chew on.
Mon, Jan 04 2010 at 8:28 AM
THE SKY IS FALLING ... AND WE'RE BEING ATTACKED BY ALIENS: Some have blamed the media for hyping climate change. (Illustration by Sean James/iStockPhoto)
Long before 2009, a nine-headed serpent guarded the gate to Hades. For every one of the Hydra’s heads that was chopped off, two grew in its place.
Now I understand. The Hydra wasn’t actually a beast. It was a metaphor for the endlessly multiplying tall tales of climate change deniers. Here -- with a big assist from all the deniers who popped up with fresh myths in comments to last week’s column -- are five more of the best tall tales climate change deniers for 2009. Where’s Hercules when you need him?
The media has hyped climate change
Tall tale: We all know journalists hate America. Rather than report the truth, they act as PR agents for the global warming crowd. That’s why it’s right and proper to claim over and over again that journalists are biased in favor of “global alarmists” -- and to claim it most loudly when there’s no evidence to prove it.
Let’s say, for instance, that the U.N. Environment Program issues an overview of recent studies, which concludes that climate researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees by the end of the century even if most emissions cuts are implemented. Now, let’s say the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin writes: “Climate researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century even if the world's leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges.”
Well, obviously, Eilperin is an alarmist-slanted reporter. Otherwise she would have noted that the scientists were basing all that nonsense on “unproven computer climate models that violate the basic principals of forecasting.” Why should she have included that bit of wisdom? Because political operative and non-scientist Marc Morano says she should have. And she didn’t. Ta-da! Bias!
I don’t think so: U.S. media coverage of climate change certainly has been slanted -- but the evidence shows it’s been slanted precisely in the opposite direction.
The most comprehensive review yet of newspaper climate change articles, performed in 2004 by academics Jules and Maxwell Boykoff, found that 53 percent of them offered roughly an equal balance between the view that humans contribute to global warming and that it’s exclusively caused by nature. But the Boykoffs couldn’t find a single peer-reviewed scientific study that supported the later view -- out of more than 900.
“We respect the need to represent multiple viewpoints,” the Boykoffs wrote, “but when generally agreed-upon scientific findings are presented side-by-side with the viewpoints of a handful of skeptics, readers are poorly served. In this case, it contributed to public confusion and opened the door to political maneuvering.”
Earlier this year, Harvard scholar and former Fortune magazine managing editor Eric Pooley found much the same thing: “My analysis of news articles published in national and regional newspapers, wire services, and newsmagazines between December 2007 and June 2008 suggests that for most reporters covering this story, the default role was that of stenographer -- presenting a nominally balanced view of the debate without questioning the validity of the arguments, sometimes even ignoring evidence that one side was twisting truth.”
Part of the problem is that, more than colleagues in other countries, American journalists are obsessed with the idea that every controversial story feature two equally valid sides. “Balance” trumps truth. And that makes American news organizations particularly easy to manipulate. All you have to do is declaim loudly and repeatedly that your side isn’t being given equal time; the news organizations then cower in fear that they’ll be called out as liberals.
It’s important, of course, to repeat the point as many times as possible. Because if you say something often enough, it becomes the truth. Right?
Media spin: The more the tall tale of media bias is repeated, the more the media seems to lean backward to prove it isn’t true. Not surprisingly, last year’s climate change reporting tilted further than ever from a truly “balanced” version of reality.
Morano even did a victory lap in October, boasting that 2009 was the year that journalists were finally “losing their religion” and acknowledged that they have to cover climate skeptics seriously.
The coup de grace came in the fall, when newspapers and TV networks, fanned by the right-wing echo chamber, gave unbridled coverage to four or five choice phrases in stolen e-mails between a couple of scientists. In many cases, they even allowed that much overhyped handful of out-of-context e-mail phrases frame coverage of the entire Copenhagen climate summit.
With reporting like that, it’s no surprise that the chasm between scientists and other Americans on climate change has widened. A July Pew Center survey found that 84 percent of scientists believe warming is caused by humans, while only 49 percent of the general population did.
Also unsurprisingly, more Americans than before seem convinced that fears of climate change are “exaggerated,” according to a separate Gallup poll. No doubt a spineless editor somewhere saw that survey and became even more convinced that the newspaper should work harder to “give voice” to the claims of deniers.
“Cap and tax” will cost thousands of dollars per household
Tall tale: Cap-and-trade may be a complicated policy idea, but building a tall tale around it is pretty simple: Just yell “largest tax increase in American history” and people will get the message.
The permit-trading scheme is the centerpiece of climate change legislation being pushed this year by President Obama and congressional Democrats. Rather than raise taxes on products that emit greenhouse gases, the idea is to issue permits that cap emissions but also to allow the companies that own those permits to sell them. As the pollution allowed in the permits is ratcheted down each year, the permits’ cost will increase -- theoretically at least -- which supposedly creates a powerful incentive to find cleaner industrial processes.
There’s no denying that cap-and-trade will introduce a new expense to polluting industries. The big questions are: How big an expense? And how much of it would be passed along to the average family?
Since spring, as cap-and-trade was being debated in the House of Representatives, all kinds of scary numbers have been floating around Washington. Cap-and-trade will cost $1,500 per family a year. No, $1,761. No, $800, $1,241, $1,800, $3,100 and so on. It’ll increase unemployment by 2.5 million or maybe it’ll even double unemployment.
The bulk of those numbers were bandied about by Fox News. But other media outlets -- CBS, CNBC and the Washington Post, among others -- were sure not to be left out.
Whatever the actual amount cap-and-trade will cost, this sure did sound bad.
I don’t think so: If you were listening to Fox, or as it turns out a lot of Washington media, you were less likely to hear much smaller numbers, each of which happened to be more credible than any of the ones mentioned above.
In fact, every single one of the numbers above either applied to an entirely different proposal to the one being considered in Congress, or was created by an organization with close ties to oil companies. Or both.
How much will the cap-and-trade options in the real world actually cost families? Nobody really knows, but here are the results from more objective studies: $175 a year (nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office), $80-$111 a year (EPA), and $83 a year (Energy Information Administration).
Media spin: By any measure, the mainstream media’s inability to distinguish the suspect spin of denial activists from authoritative government projections was an appalling dereliction.
Particularly indecorous was the Fox-led hype over an outdated administration document unearthed in September by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-funded pro-denial think tank. That document estimated that a cap-and-trade bill could cost the average family up to $1,761 a year. The only problem was the document didn’t apply at all to the actual cap-and-trade bill being considered by Congress.
Still, CBS, CNBC and the indefatigable Lou Dobbs picked up the story with breathless outrage. Pretty soon it was transformed to the main part of the mandatory intro to coverage of the bill, as in: “Some critics say that it would cost every American family $1,761 annually.” Except that no critics actually say that about any of the bills actually under consideration.
Glenn Beck was, of course, indignant.
The ice caps are getting bigger
Tall tale: There’s a growing belief among climate change deniers that all the talk about the melting polar ice is a bunch of hot air. Partly it seems to come from the anecdotal observation that, regardless of long-term trends, sea ice grows in the winter.
The idea was propped up by an August report in “CO2 Science,” a pseudoscience website funded by oil and coal interests that’s made to look like some sort of scientific journal. CO2 Science actually excerpted a study from another source and spun it to make it look as if that study found that there was no evidence of unusual arctic melting.
But the chief yarn spinner on Arctic sea ice for 2009 was none other than George Will, the inside-the-Beltway newspaper columnist who for years has hid poorly researched work behind a bow tie and thick classes.
Early in 2009, Will reported startling news: “As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”
I don’t think so: Here’s the statement that the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center published on its website within hours of the publication of Will’s column:
"... We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined. ... It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts."
Need we say more?
Media spin: One would think that such an egregious error would warrant an unequivocal correction, even an apology to the badly misquoted source. Such an apology would be beneath Will apparently.
The EPA suppressed whistle-blowing dissidents
Tall tale: There’s a grain of truth in this story. But because it was blown so far out of proportion, it still qualifies as a tall tale.
Scientific findings under the Bush administration were on several occasions influenced by special interests. That scandal reached its apex in 2002, when a one-time industry lobbyist and future ExxonMobil employee, who served on Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality, was found to have edited a major EPA report on climate change to make it seem more benign and less certain than the scientists who wrote the report had found.
So when news organizations reported in June of this year that a “scientist” had been blocked by agency officials from contributing his skeptical view to an EPA report finding that greenhouse gases were pollutants, it immediately drew parallels. Economist Alan Carlin had long been something of a skeptic within the agency, and he wanted to put in his two cents that regulating greenhouse gases would be a mistake.
The report sounded particularly bad when an email to Carlin from his supervisor saw daylight. It said: “The administrator and the administration has decided to move forward on endangerment, and your comments do not help the legal or policy case for this decision. I can only see one impact of your comments given where we are in the process, and that would be a very negative impact on our office."
I don’t think so: Let’s acknowledge from the start that there’s a big difference between one guy’s supervisor going overboard in an e-mail and the sanctioned actions of a political appointee to allow a fox to run wild in the henhouse. Carlin’s supervisor was reprimanded for the e-mail.
But there are other differences as well. Contrary to many news reports and even one speech from by a congressmen from the floor of the House, Carlin’s not a scientist; he’s an economist. In a follow-up months after the media firestorm condemning the EPA died down the New York Times reviewed documents it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act to get a clearer understanding of what happened:
"[The] newly obtained documents show that Dr. Carlin’s highly skeptical views on global warming, which have been known for more than a decade within the small unit where he works, have been repeatedly challenged by scientists inside and outside the EPA.; that he holds a doctorate in economics, not in atmospheric science or climatology; that he has never been assigned to work on climate change; and that his comments on the endangerment finding were a product of rushed and at times shoddy scholarship, as he acknowledged Thursday in an interview."
Media spin: The more complicated truth came out long after cable TV and radio hosts put away their pitchforks. But Carlin’s tale has graduated to the status of a mythic truth to be trotted out every time that climate change hits the headlines again as “proof” that the Obama administration is waging a war on independent science.
In the words of a December article in the conservative Weekly Standard: “In light of the scandal surrounding the East Anglia emails ... the newly urgent demand for transparency in the climate science and policy process may shine unwelcome new light into the dark corners of [the] EPA's politically driven agenda.”
Warming on Mars proves that warming on Earth isn’t caused by humans
Tall tale: You’ve got to love this one for the pure bizarreness of it. A couple of commenters on last week’s column are way ahead of me on this one.
The basic argument is that if Mars is warming without having any people on it, then people must not have anything to do with global warming here. Apparently that theory is being pushed by one Habibullo Abdussamatov, the head of space research at St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory in Russia,
I don’t think so: There’s a basic logical problem with this story. If one cause for global warming is found on other planets, it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that there could be other causes, like, say, for instance, carbon dioxide. Does it?
Regardless, as National Geographic documents, “Abdussamatov’s work has not been well received by other climate scientists.” That’s a polite way of putting it. Says one Oxford scientist: "His views are completely at odds with the mainstream scientific opinion."
Media spin: Maybe, it’s a simple little tall tale like the Mars hypothesis that allows us to see how climate change tall tales operate. You don’t have to put out even a credible story to get the gullible people who call themselves "skeptics" to trumpet it as truth all across the globe.
Want more? Catch up by reading last week’s column with five more climate change denying tall tales.