The Scandal of Casting Doubt on Climate Change

July 12th, 2013 · 3 Comments · energy policy, environment

By Denise Tessier

When future generations look back on the scandals of our age, it’ll be the unchecked rise in global temperatures, not the Benghazi talking points, that infuriate them.Ezra Klein, Washington Post

Recently, I found a folder of articles I’d used as a troop leader to help my Junior Girl Scouts achieve their “Ready for Tomorrow” badge. In it was a full Sunday Journal Dimension section front, where the page’s gigantic headline — burned in bright hues of yellow and orange — said: “Science’s Hot Topic: GLOBAL WARMING.” The story package was written by Journal science writer John Fleck (with fiery graphic charts by Carol Cooperrider). Its date was Jan. 28, 2001.

That was more than a dozen years ago.

Stories warning of global warming had, of course, been written before. Countless stories have been written since.

But as Washington Post reporter Brad Plummer reported recently, Americans generally have not felt threatened. Quoting a report by researchers at Yale, his story said:

Over many years of research, we have consistently found that, on average, Americans view climate change as a threat distant in space and time – a risk that will affect faraway places, other species, or future generations more than people here and now.

He noted that since 1991 – 10 years before Fleck’s story in the Journal – “roughly 97 percent of all published scientific papers that take a position on the question agree that humans are warming the planet.” So, the headline on Plummer’s article is a pointed summation/question:

Scientists agree on climate change, so why doesn’t everyone else?

Why, indeed.

I blame the media – including the Albuquerque Journal. Even as the state’s leading newspaper prints stories that refer matter-of-factly to “climate change” – such as today’s Associated Press story on page A3 headlined “Report shows climate change causing energy disruptions” – editors consistently confuse the issue by running opinion pieces by those who are paid to cast doubt.

Like the proverbial echo chamber, the paper also runs stories quoting those who stand to financially benefit by that doubt. And the paper publishes bits by concerned citizens who have bought into the doubt and then write pieces of their own.

The worst of the lot among the financially invested deniers are the officials, elected to represent citizens, who instead have signed pledges aligning themselves with fossil fuels billionaires Charles and David Koch.

Sound farfetched? Like Grover Norquist strong-arming members of Congress into signing an oath promising they will never raise taxes, the Koch brothers – through their nonprofit Americans for Prosperity “think tank” – have been encouraging “all elected officials and candidates” . . .“to sign the pledge and go on the record in opposition to using the climate change issue to grow the size of government.”

At their web site is a list of signatories. For each state, there are spaces even for state legislators and the governor to sign, but from the state of New Mexico there is only one signer: Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce.

The pledge was recently brought to light with the July 1 release of a two-year study delving into the political influence of the Koch brothers, conducted by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. The New Yorker, in a blog post about that report, blamed that Koch brothers pledge for Congress’ inaction on climate change – and for President Barack Obama’s decision to bypass Congress with regard to climate change.

From the New Yorker post:

Koch Industries, according to Environmental Protection Agency statistics cited in the study, is a major source of carbon-dioxide emissions, the kind of pollution that most scientists believe causes global warming. In 2011, according to the E.P.A.’s greenhouse-gas-reporting database, the company, which has oil refineries in three states, emitted over twenty-four million tons of carbon dioxide, as much as is typically emitted by five million cars.

The pledge, devised after the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency could regulate greenhouse gasses as a form of pollution, has been “remarkably successful” in preventing congressional action on climate change, according to the post:

Two successive efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions by implementing cap-and-trade energy bills died in the Senate, the latter of which was specifically targeted by A.F.P.’s pledge. By now, 411 current office holders nationwide have signed the pledge. Signatories include the entire Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, a third of the members of the House of Representatives as a whole, and a quarter of U.S. senators.

Americans for Prosperity aren’t alone in their disinformation campaigns. As Arthur Alpert and I have reported here at ABQJournalWatch, the discredited Heartland Institute not only spent thousands of dollars on billboards denouncing climate change as a farce, it funded a multi-million-dollar education project funding school curriculum materials that “contradict the established science on climate change.”

The Journal has – as have many newspapers – run numerous opinion pieces by Americans for Prosperity and Heartland pundits.

There’s no doubt the Earth is heating up. Here’s what the United States looked like last year in terms of wildfires, record high temperatures, drought, floods and other extreme weather events.

The chart that accompanied Fleck’s article 12 years ago still holds up today, and bears remarkable similarity to this ThinkProgress chart published in May.

On July 1, the Journal gave space on the Op-Ed page for the president’s official statement on his “new national plan to confront climate change,” headlining it, “U.S. must confront climate change: What’s at stake here is the world we leave to our children.”

(His official newspaper statement said his plan “will cut the dangerous carbon pollution that contributes to climate change,” and encourage businesses to use more solar and wind energy. The newspaper statement did not include, however, what he mentioned in his speech at Georgetown — that “We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions” — a statement that glossed over the health and environment dangers associated with gas obtained through fracking, and the problems that would be created via methane gas releases. But that’s fodder for another post.)

Less than a week later, however, Journal readers were subjected to Charles Krauthammer’s “Climate change should not be priority,” in which the syndicated columnist tried to turn the tables on Obama by calling him a “flat-earther” (not based in science). He said climate change “lies at the very bottom of a list of Americans’ concerns” according to a Pew poll (probably because of columns like Krauthammer’s) and that means that “Obama’s declaration of unilateral American war on global warming, whatever the cost – and it will be heavy – is either highly visionary or hopelessly solipsistic. You decide.”

Three days before the president’s column, however, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, had a piece in the Washington Post imploring the world’s leaders to address climate change – to regard it from the scientific standpoint of climate change’s effect on food supplies and hunger and to put aside politics. He pointed out the United States’ lack of action at the federal level, saying:

In the United States, states and cities have been taking the lead. California, for instance, has started by aggressively reducing diesel emissions. These emissions have a warming impact 460 to 1,500 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

He also pointedly said the “leaders of the nations that emit the most pollutants” need to phase out “fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption (including the U.S.).” Currently, he said:

. . . governments hand out more than a trillion dollars annually in fossil fuel subsidies that could instead be invested in transitioning to sustainable energies.

World leaders need to push for breakthroughs on these difficult issues, but that’s no excuse to sit still in the meantime. . . .Moving ahead, we at the bank will be looking at everything we do through a climate lens.

In a video on YouTube, Yong Kim says:

 We have to take action now. We know we can do it. And we know we can also look ahead to an inspiring, low-carbon future. We just have to work together to make it happen.

Leadership on climate, he said, has to happen at every level.

Working against this effort, not with it, has been the media.

One of the many “scandals” being obsessed over by the current Congress is one Rep. Darrell Issa will never investigate – the scandal of ignoring climate change. And for the media, the scandal is that it has been complicit in furthering the efforts of those who have continually cast doubt, hindering action.

Because of their complicity, our nation has failed to be “ready for tomorrow.”

And tomorrow is today.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Roland Penttila

    In my 64 years of life, I have found that humans only seem to want to take action when there is a crisis facing them right now. Our Congress doesn’t get much done because they refused to recognize that any crises actually exist. Everyone else just wants to get a job and buy a new iPad like their neighbor. It’ll take a tsunami that wipes out LA before they’ll start dealing with climate change. And, most agree, that will be too late. Who knew that global nuclear destruction wouldn’t be needed to wipe out the human race?

  • Roland Penttila

    The one bright star at the Journal staff is John Fleck. Somehow he manages to write straight about the environmental challenges Albuquerque and New Mexico face. Thankfully, he seems to be exempt from the fiddling and hard right-wing influence exerted by the Journal editors on other writers and subjects. I will continue to boycott the Journal until the owners change and the paper starts reporting the news without bias. But, in the meantime, we can all be thankful for John Fleck.

  • Laura F. Sanchez

    Thanks for a terrific summary of the problem.

    Studies keep showing that people simply don’t want to believe unpleasant realities, and what’s more, they ignore any evidence that threatens their denial.

    So they’re complete suckers for outfits like the Koch brothers, the Heartland Institute, fellow travelers such as the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine, lobbying groups from the US Chamber of Commerce or our local wannabes like the Rio Grande Foundation. Then throw in the Armaggedon junkies thinking that if we can just crash the planet with our own greed and stupidity, Jesus will come back and save everyone who agrees with them.

    Add on Gov. Ow! Susana and GOP Rep. Steve Pearce’s efforts to destroy every environmental protection in the state. Not to mention their far-right GOP compadres who have done a horribly effective job as portraying any ecologically sensible effort as big bad government wanting to take your jobs and freedoms.

    Then ice the whole steaming mess with our local media’s determination to ignore the problem (with the shining exception of John Fleck)

    And it’s a wonder so many people actually do catch on to the gigantic scam.

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