Excerpts from Open Letter to Washington Post Ombudsman: climate skeptics as sources

Open Letter to The Washington Post

February 11, 2006

Deborah Howell, Ombudsman
The Washington Post

RE: Coverage of climate change news

Dear Ms. Howell,

I am a reader of the Washington Post and a human geographer with an interest in media coverage of science....

I have just completed a LexisNexis review of seven months of climate change coverage by the Washington Post. While I commend the Post on providing some fine reporting on this vital issue, I believe that there is one aspect of your coverage that should be reviewed. Articles that grant equal space to “climate skeptics” severely limit the understanding of readers by diverting their attention away from the fact that there is international scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change being a dangerous, current reality. I hope that you will share this letter with the science writers and editors at the Post so they might reconsider some of their reporting procedures.
As you are aware, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded (2001) that there is strong evidence that most of the observed warming of the Earth over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities, and other scientific bodies agree.
In 2004 scholars Boykoff and Boykoff found that “balance,” one of the standards of professional journalism, can lead to biased news coverage of climate change. These researchers found that:

[A]dherence to the norm of balanced reporting leads to informationally biased coverage of global warming. This bias, hidden behind the veil of journalistic balance, creates both discursive and real political space for the US government to shirk responsibility and delay action regarding global warming.

This balancing technique often includes rebuttals by other climate “experts” who happen to be affiliated with industry lobbies that benefit from our fossil fuel addiction and/or anti-regulatory groups holding a radical “free-market” ideology; these sources have deep vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Consequently, this framing tool can create a false impression that the scientific findings or proposed mitigation policies that are the subject of the news article are highly controversial. While recognizing that a number of the Post articles reviewed here did mention the industry connections of the climate contrarians, including their comments still gives them some legitimacy.

Within the seven month period of July 1, 2005 to January 31, 2006, I found 43 articles that substantially related to climate change. Eleven (or 25%) of these 43 articles contained remarks from persons affiliated in some way with think tanks or organizations that have received funding from industry and all eleven articles were written by Juliet Eilperin.

Beginning with the Post article, “G-8 Urges Action On Global Warming, With General Goals; U.S. Resists Gas-Reduction Levels” (07/08/05, Section A19) the Post used William O’Keefe, of the George C. Marshall Institute (GMI) as a source. Here I shall point out that the GMI receives funds from ExxonMobil ($170,000 in 2004). In addition, O’Keefe is a registered lobbyist for ExxonMobil and is a former executive of the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. trade association of the petroleum industry. On 12/16/05 the Post quoted O’Keefe questioning the significance that three institutions (NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NOAA, and the U.K. Met Office) had all found 2005 to be the hottest year in recorded history for the Northern Hemisphere—this, according to O’Keefe, was “trying to make news where none exists.”

A Post article from 10/13/05, “World Temperatures Keep Rising with a Hot 2005” .... After mentioning that there was “A vocal minority of scientists [who] say the warming climate is the result of a natural cycle,” the article quoted “skeptic, state climatologist George Taylor of Oregon” who told the Post that he just didn’t trust the calculations of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. While Mr. Taylor holds no doctorate degree he is a “scientific and policy advisor board member” to the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change which has received funding from ExxonMobil ($40,000 in 2003).

Taylor has written a number of essays in which he is dismissive of anthropogenic climate change. On 8/20/00 Taylor wrote: “I believe that the human contribution to climate change is a great deal smaller than natural variations” and in “Science wake-up call: there’s more hype than truth” (5/04) Taylor claimed: “[E]xtreme [weather] events are becoming LESS common.” And for the on-line journal Tech Central Station (TCS, more details on TCS follow), Taylor (11/22/04) critiqued the intergovernmental Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) report; although Taylor had not “thoroughly examine[d]” this study, based on his review it “appear[ed] to be guilty of selective use of data” and was essentially “bad science.”

The 10/13/05 Post article also included comments from ExxonMobil lobbyist O’Keefe who asserted that policymakers should not rush to impose new rules on industry when it remains unclear whether the current warming worldwide reflects natural climate variability or a human-induced trend. O’Keefe informed the Post that “It still remains very complicated.”

Shortly thereafter, on 10/18/05, the Post ran “Warming to Cause Harsher Weather, Study Says” (Section A2) which included a confident statement by longtime skeptic Patrick J. Michaels who is affiliated with a number of conservative groups that distort the science of climate change and receive funds from ExxonMobil. Michaels told the Post that doubling of carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations was “not going to happen”—in contradiction to a team of scientists from Purdue University and an Italian research group whose findings were consistent with a paper published by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

Known industry affiliates and climate skeptics Myron Ebell and John R. Christy have been recent commentators in Post articles as well and both have ties to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI)—also a recipient of substantial funds from ExxonMobil ($405,000 in 2002; $465,000 in 2003; $270,000 in 2004). In December 2003 Ebell told Scripps Howard News Service: “the warming of recent decades is not surprising since the planet had been in a ‘little ice age’ until the early 19th century … It isn’t much to worry about.” And an article published by the Independent (UK) on 1/17/05 relating to climate skeptics reported that Ebell declared that Sir David King, chief scientific advisor to the government of the United Kingdom, “is an alarmist with ridiculous views who knows nothing about climate change.”

A Post article on 7/2/05 noted that Ebell was (not surprisingly) “pleased with the firm and consistent position Bush is taking on climate change.” On 12/11/05 the Post provided space to Ebell and his dismissal of the outcome of the MontrĂ©al climate negotiations. The following month (1/19/06, “Ex-EPA Chiefs Agree on Greenhouse Gas Lid,” Section A4) the Post quoted Ebell (with the qualifier “whose think tank [CEI] receives contributions from companies opposed to mandatory carbon limits”): “EPA administrators like to regulate things … That’s their only approach to anything.”

According to the website of the conservative Independent Institute, John R. Christy is on this group’s panel on global warming. A press release (7/28/03) from this organization stated that a report based on the research of Christy and others, which appears to be non-peer-reviewed, included findings that satellite data show “significantly less [warming] than forecast by climate models that are based on bad science” and that EPA bias is traceable to “a Clinton [a]dministration product that was based on bad science.” According to corporate records, ExxonMobil contributed $10,000 to the Independent Institute in 2002 and $10,000 in 2003.

Myron Ebell is also the ‘group leader’ of the Cooler Heads Coalition (CHC). The CEI, GMI, and The Independent Institute are members of the CHC and essays by Christy appear on this group’s website. The CHC website is designed and maintained by member Consumer Alert. Consumer Alert has also received funding from ExxonMobil ($10,000 in 2002; $15,000 in 2003; $25,000 in 2004).

Roy Spencer, another recent Post source has similar affiliations. Writings by Spencer have appeared in a publication of the Heartland Institute—another member of CHC. The Heartland Institute accepted $100,000 from ExxonMobil in 2004. A Post article published 11/27/05 quoted Spencer, who also is (according to the Post) a “[contributor] to … [TCS], which is in part funded by oil companies opposed to mandatory carbon limits.” Spencer told the Post he “does not believe the climate will warm as rapidly as many computer models predict” and that “[a]sking people to cut their energy use is like asking people to stop eating.”

Christy and Spencer have received a great deal of media attention due to their controversial work on tropospheric temperature trends—their studies found little warming. These (now proven erroneous) findings have been used by Christy, Spencer, and others to dispute the reality and magnitude of anthropogenic climate change. According to NPR, Republican Senator James Inhofe (Oklahoma)—who also has received generous financial contributions from the energy sector—was in part relying “on the work of Christy” when he (first) proclaimed that “Global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Not surprisingly, Senator Inhofe has also cited George Taylor (inaccurately referring to him as Dr. Taylor) when dismissing the reality if climate change. Incidentally, the 12/11/05 Post article also included the perspectives of Senator Inhofe who spurned the MontrĂ©al pact which would lead only to “a dead end economically.”

According to a team of scientists whose research helped to substantiate tropospheric warming:

On the basis of [the Christy/Spencer] records, it has been argued that the troposphere has not warmed … thus casting doubt on the usefulness of climate models (which predict that anthropogenic warming should have occurred) … and the reality of human-induced climate change (Santer, et al., Science 300, 1280 [2003]).

Finally, the Christy/Spencer work is recognized as being overturned. After roughly a decade of peer-reviewed, published studies that found errors in the work of Christy and Spencer, the faulty Christy/Spencer results are now regarded as, in the words of editors at Science (9/2/05), “inconsistent with our understanding ….” Yet for some inexplicable reason Christy and Spencer continue as commentators on climate stories by the Post and other media outlets.

The 11/17/05 Post article “Climate shift Tied to 150,000 Fatalities; Most Victims are Poor, Study Says” (Section A20) noted that “Some experts … questioned whether it was fair to attribute death and illness in the developing world to global warming” and then immediately quoted Christy who blamed “Thugocracies … [that don’t have] free markets and therefore free people.” More recently, on 1/29/06 the Post quoted Christy as saying “it is possible increased warming will be offset by other factors, such as increased cloudiness that would reflect more sunlight. Whatever happens, we will adapt to it.”

Christy seems to hold an optimistic vision of our ability to adapt to the substantial climatic and physical changes to our planet that are and will be caused by climate change. On 2/1/05 Christy told the New York Times: “If we just significantly minimize our vulnerabilities to the extremes which occurred during the last 250 years, we’ll be O.K. for the next 100 …. [As for rising seas] … [y]ou’ve got 100 years to move inland.”

The following excerpts from Christy’s (2002) contribution “The Global Warming Fiasco” to Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death are insightful; this book was a project of the CEI:

The IPCC 2001 claims the following: There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human factors.

But is this evidence truly “convincing” or “beyond doubt” or “stronger than a DNA test?” The evidence is described only as “new and stronger” and hides the fact that uncertainties and inconsistencies are not only still present but in some cases growing.

The alarmist media reports … become the source of downstream hysteria promoted by those with extreme environmental agendas. Such pronouncements by ideological environmentalists that the globe’s weather is worsening are actually false.

The types of bad weather people really care about are not changing enough to notice.

Now, to the last of the eleven articles reviewed here. To begin, Senator Inhofe’s spokesman Bill Holbrook was consulted for a Post article published 9/16/05 that discussed peer-reviewed scientific articles that had concluded “rising sea temperatures have been accompanied by a significant global increase in the most destructive hurricanes.” Holbrook flatly dismissed any correlation between warmer oceans and hurricane intensity. This same article quoted James O’Brien who [like Taylor] “writes for the online free-market journal [TCS],” (in fact, O’Brien, Taylor, Spencer, and Michaels are all “roundtable members” of TCS) O’Brien said he had found “no indication of an increase in intensity.”

The climate contrarians identified above play an essential role in the well-funded effort by industry lobbies and other special interest groups to cast doubt upon or downplay the reality, urgency, scale, and causal factors of destructive climate change. The continuing false prognostications by industry-affiliated skeptics is reprehensible and has contributed to our current dilemma—being that the U.S. has, in many aspects, fallen behind the rest of the world on the urgent issues of mitigation of climate change and energy modernization.

When mainstream media prints or broadcasts disinformation relating to the gravity or causes of climate change it violates the trust of an audience that assumes some level of informed interpretation of the situation. Again, while I praise the Washington Post and Ms. Eilperin for having published some highly informative and important articles on this topic, I ask the Post staff to act as vanguard against the spurious assertions of industry-affiliated climate skeptics.

I look forward to your response.


Liisa Antilla
Seattle, WA

cc: Juliet Eilperin

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MA: King's College London; BA: University of Washington; Association of American Geographers; International Environmental Communication Association; PUBLISHED WORK Antilla, L. (2010) “Self-censorship and science: a geographical review of media coverage of climate tipping points,” Public Understanding of Science 19(2): 240-256; Antilla, L. (2005) “Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change,” Global Environmental Change 15(4): 338-52