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With climate change, fake news is old news


For the last three decades the greatest disinformation campaign of our time convinced millions of Americans to reject the fairly basic science of greenhouse gas pollution. Like earlier tobacco campaigns, the simple purpose is protecting sales of industry products, in this case coal, oil and gas.

Increasingly, science and fact-based journalism show industry has long promoted a blend of fake news and biased reporting to undermine acceptance of climate science. Research last year from Harvard University analyzed over 180 climate-related documents published by ExxonMobil between 1977 and 2014. It showed the firm issued dozens of news-worthy statements dismissive of climate change while, simultaneously, company scientists quietly affirmed the threat. Engineers even began adapting drilling infrastructure for rising seas and other anticipated changes. The LA Times reported similar findings, sparking protests and the hashtag #Exxonknew.

{mosads}But ExxonMobil is hardly alone. Increasingly, reports describe fossil fuel industry funding of conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and others known for peddling skepticism on climate science. Their custom-crafted messages enter news cycles via conservative politicians and sympathetic media outlets. Or in the case of the Heartland Institute, supported by Peabody Energy and other coal giants, by erecting billboards likening climate scientists to serial killer Ted Kaczynski.


Climate disinformation has been expertly served to the public. Consider the so-called “climate-gate” scandal, founded on selective reading of emails stolen from researchers. First surfacing in 2009, it was debunked by eight independent investigations. Yet for years, conservative news and commentary shows pushed the story, which Republican lawmakers cited to justify inaction on climate. Research from George Mason University showed the campaign increased public skepticism about climate change, especially among conservative voters.

Like ExxonMobil’s public statements, climate-gate reflects a decades-long effort to disrupt public discourse, especially at key moments. It intensified leading up to the first global climate initiative, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S .did not ratify. Climate-gate itself came as the U.S. joined 2009 global climate treaty talks in Copenhagen. In 2016, fossil fuel interests supported and advised President Trump campaign. Trump ultimately fulfilled promises to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and appointed industry veterans to top government posts. 

With homegrown meddling like this, who needs the Russians? 

But while climate-gate is outright fakery, a more insidious concern is widespread underreporting and media bias against climate coverage. In an exhaustive examination of television news broadcasts, Media Matters found nearly 80 percent of 2017 climate change reporting focused on statements by Trump. Only minimal coverage discussed climate in connection to the year’s record-setting natural disasters, including epic Atlantic hurricanes and devastating California wildfires, which together destroyed infrastructure and tens of thousands of homes. Media Matters showed some networks even favored stories disputing connections between climate change and extreme weather. It corroborated earlier research by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Similar to Russian election interference, climate disinformation is a complex melding of forces. It entails industry money, social media algorithms, and political and cultural identity, especially within a modern conservative movement priding itself on distrust of science and journalism. The entwined results are that millions of Americans still reject climate change science, and fossil fuels maintain dominance over the energy sector.

Yet, resistance is growing. Shareholders, the Security and Exchange Commission, and several state attorneys general have launched investigations and lawsuits to determine whether ExxonMobil committed criminal deceit. And nine U.S. cities, including San Francisco and New York City, are suing dozens of fossil fuel companies. They seek billions of dollars in damages for urgently needed climate change adaptations, including new sea walls and storm-water controls.

The cases signal mounting anger among citizens stuck with high infrastructure costs tied to burning fossil fuels. Meanwhile, advances in science lend legal weight to the cases. Researchers are increasingly able to tally historical CO2 emissions and even approximate their contribution to specific meteorological events. 

It is also worth noting efforts to improve K-12 media literacy education. Media Literacy Now and others offer models for state legislation, aimed at ensuring students learn to discern between news sources and recognize persuasion techniques. Several states have adopted the laws and others are considering bills, according to Media Literacy Now.

Media literacy skills will remain important. In December, the National Association of Manufacturers formed a new trade group to oppose climate change lawsuits, and last month automakers urged regulators to dismiss established climate science. They represent a continued industry commitment to public disinformation over an earnest debate about regulation and public health.

Tim Lydon works in federal lands management and is the author of “Passage to Alaska, Two Months Sea Kayaking the Inside Passage.”

Tags Climate change climate science Donald Trump Environment Science Tim Lydon

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