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Mainstream Media Airing Climate Denial Claims Is Negligent—If Not Criminal

Corporate media is doing a disservice to viewers—and the planet.

Photo Credit: Andrey Burmakin/Shutterstock

The following excerpt is from Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers for Survival, by Dr. Peter Carter and Elizabeth Woodworth (Clarity Press, 2018).

The Responsibility of TV Meteorologists

For years weathercasters have repeated the mantra, “No single weather event can be blamed on climate change.” One would assume that such a statement from a meteorologist would be based on an understanding of the climate science consensus.

However, a 2016 survey of 4,062 American Meteorological Society (AMS) members about climate change reveals that just 33% of respondents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher in meteorology, and only 37% considered themselves to be expert in climate science.[22]

This may explain why only 29% agreed with the wording of the scientific consensus that climate change has been caused “largely or entirely by human activity.” A further 38% believe that climate change is caused 60-80% by human activity. The combined figure, 67%, was close to the general U.S. population figure of 65%, and is a long way from the 97% consensus of published climate scientists.[23]

It’s the blind leading the blind. Twenty percent of the AMS membership are TV meteorologists who have such doubt in their minds about the source of climate change that they cannot begin to assign attribution, or to approach exercising the media’s responsibility to help citizens to deal with it.

A case in point: During the extreme eastern U.S. heat wave of Christmas 2015, only one out of thousands of TV weather forecasters linked the record temperatures to climate change. Some even went out of their way to explain why the temperatures could not be tied to climate change, one calling it “irresponsible” to do so.[24]

However, Dr. Steve Pacala of Princeton University explained in February 2017 that climate disasters have become so frequent that they could not occur statistically unless humans were influencing them. He said journalists are now able to attribute the cause and severity of climate events to our fossil fuel emissions. This will show citizens how much climate change is costing, countering the idea that addressing climate change is too expensive.[25]

With U.S. news reporting on climate change so highly politicized, it’s not surprising that weathercasters have a vested interest in retaining their conservative viewers (and jobs). This is nowhere more apparent than in the behavior of the right-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of TV stations in the United States. As of May 2017, its 173 stations were affiliates of the ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox news networks.

The Politicization of U.S. Climate News

For several years, Sinclair stations ended their news programs with a commentator speaking of the “manmade global warming hysteria that swept the nation,” while claiming that “most people realize manmade global warming is a hoax.”[26]    

CNN is no better. On April 22, 2017, the day after the earth’s atmosphere reached a terrifying CO2 concentration of 410 ppm, and the week before a major climate march, CNN’s New Day Saturday held a panel discussion.

The debate featured not climate scientists, but mechanical engineer Bill Nye the Science Guy, as the climate-change spokesperson, and atomic physicist William Happer, a climate change denier who has argued that the “demonization of CO2” “really differs little from the Nazi persecution of the Jews, the Soviet extermination of class enemies or ISIL slaughter of infidels.”[27]

Happer stated that CO2 was not a harmful pollutant but a benefit to the planet, and called for the cancellation of the Paris climate agreement because it “doesn’t make any scientific sense. It’s just a silly thing.”

The same day, CBS Weekend News also covered the marches, including a report on rapidly melting Arctic ice and the future impacts of climate change. But it also ran a segment, “Climate Realists,” where it interviewed Joseph Bast, head of the climate-denying Heartland Institute.

Bast, who is not a scientist, falsely argued that climate change is simply the natural order of things and is beneficial because of decreased deaths from cold.[28]

The real failure here is not that CNN and CBS chose to air falsely “balanced” opinions. Or that they aired sensational, outrageous views to attract viewers. As Bill Nye said to his CNN host – reflecting the overwhelming percentage of scientists who believe that climate change is real – “you’re doing a disservice by having one climate change skeptic and not 97 or 98 scientists or engineers concerned about climate change.”[29]

Yet they well understood this disservice because the 2015 Paris summit made history when the whole world formally agreed to confront climate change. This reckless national network airing of extreme climate denial claims the very week CO2 hit 410 ppm was negligent if not criminal.

False Climate Information as Media Crime

First, to define our terms:

“Misinformation” is information that is false, but the person who is disseminating it believes it to be true. It is therefore only negligent.

“Disinformation” is information that is false, and the person who is disseminating it knows it is false. It is a deliberate lie, and serves as propaganda.

We cannot always prove the intent of the media, but we do know that the scientific state of climate change has been announced by NASA and NOAA media advisories for decades.

Extraordinary, then, (and in spite of the Media Matters study above reporting NYT’s non-climate-change-denial editorial board) that in April 2017 The New York Times, which had shut down its 9-person climate desk in 2013, hired neoconservative journalist Bret Stephens as an op-ed columnist. Stephens had backed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and had dismissed climate change as an “imaginary enemy” during the 2015 Paris climate summit.

His first column, dated April 28 and titled “Climate of Complete Certainty,” questioned the value of the certainty flowing from the scientific consensus on climate change.

His response to a firestorm of reader protest was that he’s not a climate change denier, but merely a “climate agnostic,” because the science remains unsettled and that more research is needed before acting decisively. What research, exactly, is missing? Is he qualified to say? His high-sounding “agnosticism” echoes Big Tobacco’s manufacturing of doubt in the 1960s.

The enormously influential media outlets named above are ideally positioned to help people understand that global warming is not a far-off, distant threat, but is visibly happening all around them, right now, and is profoundly affecting their lives.  

By failing to inform viewers of the full truth of climate change, TV stations and newspapers are guilty of far more than neglecting their social responsibility on a daily basis.

They are turning their backs on proven realities at the eleventh hour, 25 years after 172 nations attended the Rio Earth Summit, agreeing on the UN climate change convention.

This intentional choice goes beyond misinformation (negligence) and even disinformation (propaganda).

This choice goes beyond negligence:

Failure to use the degree of care appropriate to the circumstances, resulting in an unintended injury to another.

This choice goes further, beyond culpable negligence:

Negligent actions committed with a disregard of the consequences.[30]

The failure to use the degree of media care appropriate to preventing CO2 emissions causing ever-worsening floods, wildfires, sea level rise and mass migrations, fits the legal description of criminal negligence:

The failure to use reasonable care to avoid consequences that threaten or harm the safety of the public and that are the foreseeable outcome of acting in a particular manner.[31]

In 2013, Tom Engelhardt, recognizing that genocide is usually considered the ultimate crime, coined the term “terracide” to describe an even more ultimate crime, writing:

To destroy our planet with malice aforethought, with only the most immediate profits on the brain, with only your own comfort and wellbeing (and those of your shareholders) in mind: Isn’t that the ultimate crime? Isn’t that terracide?[32]

The fossil-fuel companies are guilty of the ultimate crime, he said, because they are earning their “profits directly off melting the planet, knowing that their extremely profitable acts are destroying the very habitat, the very temperature range that for so long made life comfortable for humanity.”[33]

However, Big Carbon could never have been able to continue its polluting ways – long after the scientific community had reached consensus about the connection between fossil-fuel emissions, global warming, and climate change – without the assistance of the media.

Corporate Media Coverage Declines as Warming Increases

Compounding the issue is that the overall media coverage of climate change has steadily declined since 2009.

Media Matters has kept track of the combined annual minutes of climate coverage by ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox News networks since 2009, the year of the Copenhagen climate summit, when a total of 205 minutes were aired.

Then followed 2010 (48 min.); 2011 (47 min.); 2012 (67 min.); 2013 (129 min.); and 2014 (154 min.).[34]

Surprisingly, 2015, the year of the much anticipated Paris climate summit held in November-December, the figure dropped to 146. The summit was overshadowed for much of its two-week duration by the San Bernardino shootings in California and by Donald Trump’s behavior, which dominated the headlines in 2015.

In 2016, the combined coverage dropped 66% to 50 minutes for the four networks, even though 2015 had been declared by NASA as by far the hottest year on record.

While in 2016 and 2017 the media began drum-beating the words “climate change,” it did so from the point of view of adapting to it rather than preventing it. A corporate media declaration that business-as-usual must change to prevent future catastrophe is never heard.

Sources of Responsible Media

With the corporate newspapers and TV networks virtually a write-off for consistent, non-political, evidence-based climate information, there are, fortunately, many alternatives online.

The British daily newspaper, The Guardian (free online), has been around since 1821 and runs researched articles on the climate crisis daily.

The Nation (a free weekly online), founded in 1865 and headquartered in Washington DC, is financed mostly by donors and reports regularly on climate change.

There are too many online progressive news sources to list, but to name a few, Climate Progress, Yes! Magazine, Mother Jones, AlterNet, and TruthOut all publish on climate change.

Peer-reviewed general science journals such as Scientific American and Nature are available by subscription.

ScienceDaily offers Climate News online; NASA offers regular articles on the website, “Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet,” and the Union of Concerned Scientists runs the website, “Confronting the Realities of Climate Change.”

Independent sources publishing without a vested interest in fossil fuels demonstrate the almost universal consensus that climate change is real and is causing global weather upheaval.

The world can only hope that the U.S. corporate media owners will soon abandon their self-interest and embrace the truth spoken by Tom Engelhardt in 2014:

The future of all other stories, of the news and storytelling itself, rests on just how climate change manifests itself over the coming decades or even century. ... Climate change isn’t the news and it isn’t a set of news stories. It’s the prospective end of all news.[35]

NOTES

22. Edward Maibach et al., A 2016 National Survey of American Meteorological Society Member Views About Climate Change: Initial Findings, George Mason University, Center for Climate Change Communication, March 2016.

23. J. Cook et al., “Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates  No. 4, 13 April 2016.

24. David Edwards, “Analysis: Only one meteorologist in entire US linked ‘climate change’ to record hot Christmas,” Raw Story, 29 December 2015.

25. C-Change Conversations, “Game Changers In Climate Change. A conversation with Steve Pacala,” 27 February 2017.

26. Robert Cox and Phaedra P. Pezzullo, Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere, 4th ed.,”

27. Ellie Shechet, “Possible Trump Science Advisor Compares Climate Science to ISIS, Tells Us Jezebel ‘Is Well Named,’” The Slot, 28 March 2017.

28. Kevin Kalhoefer, “Networks Covering March For Science Provided Platform For Climate Deniers,” Media Matters, 24 April 2017.

29. “Bill Nye Destroys climate change-denying Trump adviser William Happer,” 22 April 2017 (//climatestate.com/2017/04/24/bill-nye-destroys-climate-change-deny...).

30. West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, “Negligence,” The Gale Group, 2005.

31. Ibid., “Criminal Negligence.”

32. Tom Engelhardt, “The Biggest Criminal Enterprise in History,” TomDispatch, 23 May 2013.

33. Ibid.

34. Kevin Kalhoefer, “How Broadcast Media Covered Climate Change in 2016,” Media Matters, 23 March 2017.

35. Tom Engelhardt, “Ending the World the Human Way: Climate Change as the Anti-News,” 2 February 2014.     

 

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Dr. Peter D. Carter is the founder of the Climate Emergency Institute. He served as an expert reviewer for the IPCC's fifth climate change assessment in 2014.

Elizabeth Woodworth is a writer on climate change science and activism, co-author of Unprecedented Climate Mobilization, and co-producer of the COP21 video "A Climate Revolution For All."