The Media’s Climate Change Misinformation Campaign

The recent surge of attention surrounding anthropogenic climate change (APC) has resulted coverage by various media outlets and influenced social, business, and political actions. The climate change issue is fundamentally scientific at its core, yet the news that is reported and the opinions that are broadcasted reveal the political and social biases continue to manipulate the information. In order for the right steps to be taken to address APC, consensus is essential. Scientific studies consistently find that between 95 and 98 percent of climate scientists believe in APC, and according to the National Academy of Sciences, the few dissenters are on average far lower in expertise. However, the Pew Research Center recently found that among those who identify with the Tea Party, only 9% believe there is solid evidence of APC. Among all Republicans, that number rises modestly to 23 percent. Most shockingly, of all Americans, this number is only 44 percent [1].

cameron climate change

Over the summer, the International Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said itwas as certain of APC as scientists are that cigarettes kill and vitamins promote health, which is between 95 and 100 percent certain [2]. Of peer-reviewed climate studies that take a position on APC, 97 percent support it [3]. Of course, climate science is so esoteric that it’s practical to say that we should simply put our trust in the judgments of the experts, but these survey results imply that over half of Americans are failing to do so. A study recently found that only 45 percent of Americans believe there is a scientific consensus on APC [4].  Why is this so? To find the answer, let’s closely survey the misinformation campaign waged by various sects of the media.

When the climate science is so esoteric, we have trust the scientists, but it’s especially important that we trust only the right scientists.

One of the most common and simplest forms of misinformation has been the biased selection of experts in experimental samples. Although only about 3 percent of climate scientists doubt APC, 33 percent of experts quoted in the right-leaning CNBC were APC doubters. Even in the left-leaning Los Angeles Times, this number was 29 percent, and among major newspapers, it was 28 percent. Of course, there are some media outlets like ABC, NBC, and CNN who don’t have this sort of false balance, but there are still organizations like the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, of whose guests 50 percent and 69 percent cast doubt on APC. This sort of misrepresentation is a major reason that so many Americans think there isn’t “solid evidence” of APC. BBC Editor Ehsan Masood says that having a “balance” is important so as not to be guilty of “shutting out dissenting voices”. Although, most of the population does not have the intellectual means to evaluate the arguments of each side and this “false balance” gives “readers the impression that we scientists know much less about climate change than we actually do, and that the subject is much more controversial among scientific experts than it really is,” Professor Richard Somerville of UC San Diego explains [5]. These reports have a significant impact on people’s perspectives of climate change since recent studies have shown that, rather than inquiring as to what scientists tend to believe, people generally form their opinions about APC from media coverage [6].

cameron climate change 2

So who are these “experts” that the media employs as devil’s advocate? 50 percent of all APC-accepting guests on major news networks were climate scientists and 81 percent of APC deniers had no formal background in climate science [5]. Over the last several months CNBC has covered climate change extensively, and all nine guests on the show have been businesspersons, politicians, or advocates—not a single one had any background in climate science. The hosts often spread climate change misinformation more than anyone. Hosts Larry Kudlow and Joe Kernen have referred to climate change as “scam analysis” and climate change advocates as a “bona-fide cult” and the “eco-Taliban”[7].

Another misinformation technique that has been used to counter the compelling 95 to 98 percent figures is “TILT”—The Impressive Letter Technique—where climate change deniers band together to suggest scientific consensus does not actually exist. This technique uses false experts with unfounded credentials and authority to support their opinions. One example that garnered significant publicity was a letter that 49 ex-NASA scientists sent NASA criticizing its stance on APC; the letter asserts that claims of APC are “unsubstantiated” and argues that with “hundreds of well-known climate scientists and tens of thousands of other scientists publicly declaring their disbelief in the catastrophic forecasts”, the issue is “not settled” [8]. This is exactly the type of content the right-wing media likes to capitalize on, of course failing to note that not a single one of the signers has background in anything even closely related to climate science [9,10].  So-called experts may have access to all of the same climate data as the real experts, but they lack the crucial skills and knowledge to interpret these data in a historic and scientific context. For exactly this reason, the National Academy stresses that among the climate scientists whose research specializes in this area, consensus about APC is essentially universal. However, it admittedly might be possible to gather 49 real climate scientists for a petition doubting APC, especially because of self-selection bias.

Can these deniers muster up a legitimate poll in their defense? The answer is a resounding “no.” As of last year, the “OISM Petition Project” claimed to have signatures from 31,487 scientists who doubt the consensus view. What percentage are climate scientists? A tenth of one percent. And although anyone with a Bachelor’s of Science degree could sign (20.5 million people in the U.S.), only 15 tenths of a percent did [11]. There’s even reason to doubt the validity of these numbers, as the verification methods were so lousy that that Charles Darwin, members of the Spice Girls, and characters from Star Wars signed the poll [12]. Of course, while the National Academy responded to the petition by calling it a “a deliberate attempt to mislead scientists and to rally them in an attempt to undermine support for the Kyoto Protocol,” [13] the right-wing media, such as Fox News and CBN said it was even more of a “beating” to the idea of consensus [14, 15, 16]. There are many other “TILTS” spread by the right-wing media such as this one [17,18,19]. Climate science is a complex, scientific issue that the majority of the population does not understand. We have to trust the scientists, but it’s especially important that we trust only the right scientists with the proper background and credentials.

Studies consistently find that between 95 and 98 percent of climate scientists believe in APC, and according to the National Academy of Sciences, the few dissenters are on average far lower in expertise.

Now the most important question left unanswered is why. Why is the media so intent on portraying the climate change debate as unsettled? A detailed answer is far beyond the scope of this article. In brief, however, the answer depends on the faction of media. For the center- and left-leaning outlets, they’re likely engaged in a timeless game of sensationalism to engage their audience. For the right-wing media, climate change skepticism or denial supports the “I-don’t-need-scientific-proof-because-liberals-lie”-Rush-Limbaugh style to please the viewing base [20]. The third group is farthest from the limelight yet arguably the most influential: the corporate-funded think tanks. With strategies, goals, and personnel the same as Big Tobacco’s, companies like ExxonMobil have funneled millions of dollars into right-wing think tanks to deny climate change [21]. Unarguably the most prolific of the APC-denying think tanks, the Heartland Institute, which is one of the groups responsible for TILTs, has received millions from tens of large corporations with financial interests in fossil fuels such the Koch Brothers [22]. Last year it was revealed that the Heartland Institute was planning to develop, with the help of a prominent coal-industry consultant, a “global-warming curriculum” for elementary schools that would present APC as a “major scientific controversy”[23]. This part of the media is arguably the most influential because its research is propagated by media sources across the political spectrum. And although their arguments, which mainly consist of magnifying the voices of deniers by, for example, brandishing TILTs, and cherry-picking data, can be easily refuted, the mere fact that these arguments exist is enough to portray the debate as unsettled [24,25].

Large corporations, especially those with financial stakes in the future of fossil fuels, are unlikely to stop their think tank-funding efforts. The right-wing media is probably always going to have faulty research to cite to please their ideological readers. The most reasonable hope is that the mainstream media will one day abandon its false balance and portray the consensus more accurately. Climatologist Stephen Schneider says that the mainstream media’s false balance is like giving a flat-earth proponent equal time to a modern astrophysicist in a debate about the shape of the earth, but this analogy fails to capture what’s truly harmful about the media’s climate change coverage. The everyday person already knows the earth is not flat and that scientists are in universal agreement about this. No amount of flat earth propaganda will convince him. The average American, however, knows little about the APC issue, drawing almost exclusively from the representation he sees in the news. Until the mainstream media presents the climate change debate as what it truly is, Americans across the political spectrum will be left in the dark.


[1] Pew Research Center, “Climate Change: Key Data Points from Pew Research.” Last modified 00011 05, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[2] Associated Press/CBS News, “U.N. panel 95 percent certain climate change is man-made.” Last modified 00009 26, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[3] Cook, John, Dana Nuccitelli, Sarah Green, Mark Richardson, Barbel Winkler, Rob Painting, Robert Way, and Peter Jacobs. “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature.” Environmental Research Letters. no. 024024 (2013).

[4] Nisbet, Matthew, and Teresa Myers. “The Polls—Trends: Twenty Years of Public Opinion about Global Warming.” Public Opinion Quarterly. no. 3 (2007).

[5] Greenberg, Max, Denise Robbins, and Shauna Theel. Media Matters for America, “STUDY: Media Sowed Doubt In Coverage Of UN Climate Report.” Last modified 00010 10, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[6] Reis, Patrick, and Marina Koren. National Journal, “Americans Don’t Care What Scientists Think About Climate Science.” Last modified 00008 20, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[7] Greenberg, Max, and Denise Robbins. Media Matters for America, “REPORT: CNBC Still Deeply In (Climate) Denial.” Last modified 00009 18, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[8] Cullum, Blanquita. The SPPI Blog, “Former NASA scientists, astronauts admonish agency on climate change position.” Last modified 00004 10, 2012. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[9] Klimas, Liz. The Blaze, “‘IT IS CLEAR THE SCIENCE IS NOT SETTLED’: 49 EMPLOYEES CALL OUT NASA FOR UNSUBSTANTIATED CLIMATE SCIENCE.” Last modified 00004 10, 2012. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[10] Sheppard, Noel. Info Wars, “31,000 Scientists Rejecting Global Warming Theory to be Named Monday.” Last modified 00005 19, 2008. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[11] Otto, Shawn. Huffington Post, “From a Boy Who Loved NASA: How 49 Heroes Lost the Right Stuff and Sullied Their Names.” Last modified 00004 13, 2012. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[12] Herbert, Josef. Associated Press, “ODD NAMES ADDED TO GREENHOUSE PLEA.” Last modified 00005 01, 1998. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[13] Johnson, Brad. Think Progress, “Revolting: GM Executive Bob Lutz Denies Global Warming, Trashes His Company’s Car.” Last modified 00009 18, 2008. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[14] Bast, Diane. Heartland Institute, “30,000 Scientists Sign Petition on Global Warming.” Last modified 00007 01, 2008. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[15] Dietz, Rob. Media Matters for America, “On Fox’s Special Report, Hume cited debunked Oregon Petition on global warming.” Last modified 00006 06, 2007. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[16] Brown, Joe. Media Matters for America, “700 Club anchor touted global warming skeptics’ petition reportedly signed by non-scientists, fictitious characters.” Last modified 00002 14, 2006. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[17] Morano, Marc. Newsmax, “1,000 Scientists Challenge Global Warming in New Report.” Last modified 00001 04, 2011. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[18] Watts, Anthony. Free Republic, “Shredding the “climate consensus” myth: More Than 1000 International Scientists Dissent.” Last modified 00012 08, 2010. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[19] Climate Depot, “More Than 1000 International Scientists Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims.” Last modified 00012 08, 2010. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[20] Fong, Jocelyn, and Shauna Theel. Media Matters for America, “Rush Limbaugh: Climate Change Misinformer of the Year.” Last modified 00012 19, 2011. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[21] Union of Concerned Scientists, “Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air.” Last modified 00001 2007. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[22] Israel, Josh, and Brad Johnson. Think Progress, “EXPOSED: The 19 Public Corporations Funding The Climate Denier Think Tank Heartland Institute.” Last modified 00002 17, 2012. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[23] Johnson, Brad. Think Progress, “INTERNAL DOCUMENTS: The Secret, Corporate-Funded Plan To Teach Children That Climate Change Is A Hoax.” Last modified 00002 14, 2012. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[24] Nuccitelli, Dana. The Guardian, “97% global warming consensus meets resistance from scientific denialism.” Last modified 00005 28, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2014.

[25] Romm, Joe, and John Cook. Alternet, “99 One-Liners that Rebut Climate Change Denier Talking Points.” Last modified 00005 07, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2014.

Image Credit:

[1] Fox News Sign, November 25, 2007. Courtesy of Flixster, Ario

[2] Instrumental Temperature Record, June 20, 2010. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, NASA


Cameron Davis is a philosophy and economics major at Johns Hopkins University interested in various political and public policy issues. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.