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10.06.2006

The Climate Con: media, misinformation & the masters of spin

Despite climbing US greenhouse gas emissions and in the face of international consensus, the Bush administration—enabled by industry influence over both Congress and big media—continues to suppress and distort climate science while pushing regressive energy policies. A prime sponsor of the “Bush stance” is ExxonMobil.
While earning record-breaking profits, Exxon joins other business interests in spending millions on political campaigns, lobbying efforts, and financing groups and individuals willing to publicly controvert global warming. The lavish funding of climate deniers and the unregulated market ideology behind it have generated a hostile, unrelenting PR machine that not only disputes peer reviewed science with specious commentary, but specializes in character assassination.

This Gordian knot is due, in no small part, to a corporate media focused on entertainment and profit. Although the nefarious stratagem of deploying so-called experts to engage the press was revealed over a decade ago and notwithstanding repeated confirmation of anthropogenic climate change, many reporters and editors are amnesiac as to these facts. Worse, some journalists and commentators are key players in the deception.

Myths & mythmakers
Regrettably, the journalistic standard of “balance” is misguidedly and frequently employed when covering climate change. For years, contrarians with ties to industry and/or free-market organizations such as Patrick Michaels, Richard Lindzen, S. Fred Singer, Myron Ebell, Robert Balling, Jr., John Christy, Roy Spencer, George Taylor, Exxon lobbyist William O’Keefe, and others—have exploited the practice of reporting “both sides of the story.” Attempting a balanced frame, the Washington Post last May quoted Republican Senator James Inhofe (Oklahoma)—another payee of energy companies who infamously called global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Inhofe, reported the Post, “maintains there is no evidence that human activity is warming Earth.” A sampling of Post climate stories over seven months (1 July 2005 - 31 January 2006) by this author uncovered eleven articles that incorporated industry-affiliated voices.

By publishing misinformation in this fashion, top news providers betray our trust in their informed review of the science. A major player in this media spectacle is conservative pundit George Will who laments that Americans “got their anxiety” about global warming from “crusading journalism.” During a recent episode of ABC’s This Week, Will grabbed his decades-old reports on “global cooling” and began reading them to host George Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos: George Will … we’ve been debating [global warming] for ten years now. You’ve been doing it for 20 … Will: 30. … Will: New York Times 1975, sooner or later a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable. Northern hemisphere glaciation. ... [Other panelists argue scientific consensus.] Stephanopoulos: This debate – we’re going to come back to it many times. At RealClimate.org, Eric Steig explained: [T]here was cooling in the 1940s to 1970s. But the cooling is a small variation superimposed on the overall warming of the last century…. [N]o one is claiming that CO2 is the only influence on climate. Indeed, far from being an embarrassment to climate scientists, this short period of cooling is in good agreement with model calculations

Further, William Connolley has shown that Will cites scientific findings “grossly out of context” when repeating a snippet from a 1976 paper published in Science which examined the effect of the earth’s orbit upon ice ages—a study that ignored human factors. Obsessed with “Northern Hemisphere glaciation,” Will disingenuously omits the fact that these scientists were referring to a “long-term trend over the next 20,000 years.” Any public discourse on climate change seems to spark a firestorm from right-wing pundits. Last April, Robert Novak (Post) asserted that “scientists are divided” and quoted Roy Spencer who disagreed with the “crusade” of climate expert James Hansen of NASA. That same month, columnist Jonah Goldberg (Los Angeles Times) ironically worried that news media “have gone after scientists” not interested in plunging “into some half-baked environmental jihad.” But titanic spin operations are being carried out on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, and FoxNews.com. Authors Chris Mooney and Paul Thacker have both published exposés on the ties between industry lobbies and Steve Milloy, columnist at FoxNews.com and frequent contributor to the Washington Times. This clamor of misinformation—forged from myths, uncertainties, and free-market rhetoric—thrives in the welcoming media echo chamber.

Talking points and talking heads There’s a debate over whether [global warming is] manmade or naturally caused. (George W. Bush, ABC News, 26 June, 2006) This countermovement is just one component of the larger effort by conservative ideologues to maintain power, profits, and the status quo. This constructed polemic is one in a series of phoney controversies. This “debate” is exacerbated by political insiders such as Inhofe, Republican strategist Frank Luntz, and former cabinet member James Schlesinger (Schlesinger’s op-eds have appeared in the Post, L.A. Times, and Wall Street Journal)—all peddle myths such as global cooling (Mooney has also uncovered Schlesinger's energy ties, see American Prospect Online 8/23/05). In his critique (God Willing?) of Bush rhetoric, scholar David Domke examined the influence of religious fundamentalism upon White House communiqués. Domke discovered a messaging strategy that capitalized on fear. Also employing this tactic are climate spinners such as Schlesinger (Post) who warned: “The CO2/climate-change relationship has hardened into orthodoxy—always a worrisome sign—an orthodoxy that searches out heretics and seeks to punish them.” Intensifying the danger (be very afraid) is the “crusade” of Hansen (Spencer and Novak), “crusading journalism” (Will), and the “environmental jihad” (Goldberg).

Media reform now The release of Al Gore’s latest book, An Inconvenient Truth, along with the film of the same title serves as a pretext for the dissemination of climate myths via news programs, commentaries (e.g. Michaels, “Gore’s inconvenient lie,” Washington Times), and advertisements. This crisis of disinformation is a consequence of the crisis of journalism—a direct result of corporatization and anti-democratic tendencies within the existing media system. Until there is a renewed interest in an informed citizenry, the denialist cabal shall enjoy primetime coverage of their propaganda—further constraining our ability to address oncoming climate chaos.

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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