This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Last year, the New York Times called climate change “the most important story in the world.” So the Trump administration raised some eyebrows at a recent White House briefing when it turned to the newspaper of record for support in its effort to defend the president’s deeply unpopular decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
At the briefing, EPA chief Scott Pruitt was asked whether Trump thinks humans are warming the planet. After refusing to comment on the president’s views, Pruitt said that the “degree of human contribution” to global warming remains uncertain. That uncertainty, Pruitt suggested, makes it difficult to decide how policymakers should respond.
And then he read aloud from the now-infamous Times column written in April by conservative never-Trumper Bret Stephens. The piece, which sparked a weeks-long media firestorm, made a convoluted case for more skepticism of climate change models — which Stephens equated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign polling. “Much … that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities,” he wrote. “That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.” Last week, NBC announced that it was hiring Stephens as a contributor.
Stephens, like Pruitt, insists he isn’t a climate change denier, but the columnist’s argument was nonetheless widely rejected by scientists; a few dozen of them signed an open letter arguing that Stephens “mischaracterizes both the certainties and uncertainties regarding climate change, and misrepresents how science reports uncertainties.”
It’s hardly surprising that a misleading New York Times column would be promoted by the administration of a president who sees global warming as a Chinese hoax. Skeptics have long sought to validate their views by injecting them into respectable media outlets. And they’ve frequently been successful. Here’s a short history of climate misinformation infiltrating the mainstream news media:
1990s and 2000s: Oil companies push climate denial in the news media
In 1997, countries around the world signed the the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first serious attempt to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Months later, the New York Times reported on documents showing that the oil industry — including representatives from Exxon, Chevron, and Southern — were planning a campaign to “maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours on Congress, the media, and other key audiences.” The campaign, the Times reported, would include an effort to track “the percentage of news articles that raise questions about climate science and the number of radio talk show appearances by scientists questioning the prevailing views.” It would also develop a so-called “sound scientific alternative” to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body of scientists that evaluates climate change research.
Industry representatives told the Times that the plan was “tentative” and had not yet been approved. Nevertheless, the next decade-plus featured plenty of false-equivalency and he said/she said arguments in news stories about climate science. In many cases, the statements of scientists and other experts were “balanced” by those of deniers. In 2008, Maxwell Boykoff, who is now a University of Colorado professor, published a study in the journal Climatic Change that looked at news programs on ABC, CNN, NBC, and CBS from 1995 through 2004. He found that 70 percent of the networks’ global warming stories “perpetuated an informational bias” by including the unscientific views of climate skeptics. In another study published in 2004, Boykoff looked at coverage in major newspapers from 1988 through 2002 and found that half of the 636 randomly selected articles gave roughly the same attention to skeptics’ arguments about the supposedly natural causes of climate change as they did to the scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet.
The Washington Post, for example, published a 2004 story about a study that used climate modeling to demonstrate that climate change was leading to a greater risk of heatwaves. The story quoted the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell as saying, “Modeling is not science. This is a very small-potatoes paper based on modeling that can’t be proved or disproved” for the next 50 years. CEI is a conservative think tank that is closely associated with climate change denial and has also received funds from Koch-backed groups and other fossil fuel groups over the years. (Ebell would go on to lead the EPA transition team for the Trump administration.)
2006: CNN’s contrarian meteorologist
After a 2006 segment on global warming, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers appeared on air to deliver the day’s weather report. Anchor Miles O’Brien said to Myers: “You’re a little bit of a skeptic on global warming, I know.” Myers rejected that characterization and assured O’Brien that “CO2 is heating the atmosphere.” But he nonetheless went on to suggest that climate research may be exaggerated because of the heat island effect, in which heat retained by urban infrastructure causes cities to be artificially warmer. “Metro areas are getting warmer,” he said. “If you put the same thermometer out in the middle of a cornfield in Nebraska, maybe it wouldn’t be too much different. We’ll have to see. You know, I know this is happening; it’s just a matter of how much it is, that’s all.” (Actually, urban heat islands have a negligible effect on global temperatures, and Nebraska is indeed getting hotter).
Years later, Myers went on to publicly recant his climate contrarianism. He noted the theories he once thought were credible enough to broadcast are “now called ‘zombie theories,’ long since debunked myths about climate change that skeptics will continually bring up to counter the facts of man-made climate change.”
March 2007: NPR airs a debate on whether climate change is real
Intelligence Squared, an Oxford-style debate program that airs on NPR, hosted a