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To the media: Don’t help the “Merchants of Doubt”

Climate change denier William O’Keefe recently wrote in the Hill, “The belief that carbon dioxide emissions lead to climate change has become an article of faith even though it is contradicted by climate history, physics and the pause in warming that began in 1998.” 

This is climate denial, plain and simple — and The Hill is responsible for broadcasting it. 

{mosads}At Forecast the Facts, a climate accountability organization, we believe printing falsehoods runs counter to the media’s responsibility to educate the public. That’s why, in conjunction with the release of the film Merchants of Doubt, we’ve launched a campaign asking news directors to stop giving air time to those who deny the basic science of climate change — that it is real, it is man-made, and it urgently needs to be addressed. Of course, the same goes for print and online media. 

Before addressing the inaccurate statements O’Keefe made, it’s crucial to make clear just how big a conflict of interest he has in writing about climate change. O’Keefe — one of the climate deniers profiled in the film Merchants of Doubt — is listed as CEO of the George Marshall Institute in The Hill. What’s omitted, however, is that O’Keefe was a paid lobbyist for ExxonMobil for years. Worse yet, The Hill fails to mention that the George Marshall Institute has taken more than $350,000 from Koch foundations and more than $800,000 from ExxonMobil, and has repeatedly published reports attempting to undermine basic climate science. Newsweek even called the organization a “central cog in the [climate change] denial machine.” 

Several of O’Keefe’s claims in his most recent piece are patently false. First, O’Keefe cites climate history to dispute the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. But 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the earth is warming and carbon pollution is the cause, and there are no national or major scientific institutions anywhere in the world that dispute the theory of man-made climate change. In fact, most of the leading scientific organizations (nearly 200 worldwide) have issued public statements emphasizing that the scientific evidence of man-made climate change is clear and the threats are significant. 

O’Keefe also points to a global warming pause, a distortion of fact frequently employed by climate deniers. It is true that — most likely due to natural factors — increases in air temperatures have indeed slowed in recent years, but that does not contradict global warming in the slightest. Over 90 percent of the earth’s warming is absorbed by our oceans, and when considering the clear rise in ocean temperatures, climate scientists have shown definitively that our world has been warming rapidly and without pause

This is hardly the first time O’Keefe has taken to the media to disseminate lies. He wrote in a December 19 op-ed, also published in The Hill, that “the real problem is not increasing carbon dioxide emissions… The real climate problem is the fact that climate always changes and can’t be predicted.” In fact, there’s always been a direct link between the burning of greenhouse gasses and global warming: when CO2 levels have risen quickly, so have global temperatures

Why does it matter if media outlets like The Hill do or don’t publish false statements on climate change? As Merchants of Doubt depicts, slick pundits like William O’Keefe are paid to sow doubt in the media on a whole host of issues — from chemicals to tobacco to climate change — and disconcertingly, the strategy of these “merchants of doubt” is working. The gap between what the public understands about climate change and the scientific consensus is troublingly wide. While 97 percent of the scientific community recognizes our role in climate change, only 50 percent of Americans believe that human activities are mostly to blame, according to a 2011 study by the Yale Center for Climate Communication

But climate deniers can’t confuse the public alone — they need a soapbox first. That’s exactly what outlets like The Hill provide when they allow deniers like William O’Keefe to publish climate denial, without even disclosing massive conflicts of interest. It’s time outlets like The Hill took responsibility for their role in misleading the public on climate change — and put an end to it.

Stein is a campaigner at Forecast the Facts, a grassroots human rights organization dedicated to ensuring that Americans hear the truth about climate change.


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