The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
The emissions train we sent rumbling down the tracks more than 200 years ago is reaching a catastrophic speed. If we don’t pull the emergency brake in the next few years, our world will suffer irreversible damage. Two recently released U.N. reports, Global Warming of 1.5 ºC and UN Emissions Gap Report, provide a warning—or rather an ultimatum—on the state of our climate. These alarming studies further confirm a reality scientists have understood for years: we need to do a lot more to curb our greenhouse gas emissions, or we risk major disruptions. Yet, a large share of the public still doesn’t understand the urgency and magnitude of global warming. Why does this discord between scientific consensus and public opinion exist?
Climate discourse is driven largely by the same multi-pronged, multi-faceted institution that guides our discussion on other policy areas: the news media. The press is charged with the monumental duty of being the objective arbiter of the truth, and many times, it succeeds in this role. But far too often, balance is mistaken for objectivity. Many journalists have been so determined to strike a balance that they create a bias in favor of anti-science, pro-pollution interests. This dynamic incentivizes climate deniers to make outrageous claims about the merits of the science. No matter how far removed their arguments are from the research, the two sides are often presented as two equally weighted perspectives. As Cenk Uygur, host of “The Young Turks” puts it, in the effort to be balanced, they end up being “neutral to the facts.”
In subtle ways, climate communication is warped due to the softening of labels assigned to those seeking to discredit decades of peer-reviewed research. The term climate skeptic has been popularized in the media to describe such people. However, “skeptic” implies an earnest effort to consider information with some modicum of openness to its validity. This distinction may seem like a small nuance, but it reveals the muddled environment in which conversations about climate change occur. Just as crucially, the term lends credibility to bad actors not backed by science, but by wealthy and powerful interests who benefit from a carbon intensive economy. These individuals should be called what they are: climate change deniers. Time after time, they distort facts, cherry pick data, and sow distrust in scientific principles.
An article by Politico with the headline “Climate change skeptics run the Trump administration” refers to 20 appointees in agency leadership positions who have expressed disbelief in climate science. Some of these officials may genuinely not accept climate science, but others—such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former EPA head Scott Pruitt—have had strong financial motivations to be ”skeptical.” Their close ties to the Koch Brothers and to others in the fossil fuel industry made it clear that they are willing to go to great lengths to push dirty energy’s agenda. These are just two examples of the many politicians across the country who have accepted large sums of money from fossil-fuel based corporations and have used their platforms and voting power to undermine progress toward a low-carbon society. The article calls this group "skeptics" despite the admission by conservative environmental lawyer Brent Fewell that some officials acknowledge behind closed doors that they accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change.
In television news, the problem of being "neutral to facts" is particularly bad. Climate change is rarely mentioned on large networks, even in the midst of the historic California wildfire that killed more than 85 people. Media Matters for America investigated coverage of the summer wildfires in the western United States. The organization found that of all relevant stories the major broadcast networks covered, fewer than 2 percent implicated climate change. When global warming is discussed, it is sometimes presented as a 50-50 debate between one person who believes in manmade climate change and another who does not.
This is not to say that true climate skeptics don’t exist. Some people have been lulled by conservative media outlets, politicians, and even local news stations into believing climate change either does not exist or that it is not caused by human activities. These forces, combined with a broken education system and a touch of head-in-the-sand syndrome, breed a culture of climate science illiteracy. This ignorance helps to empower politicians who deny the reality of manmade climate change, even though most of them know better. With some notable exceptions, the powerful few making pivotal decisions affecting every aspect of our lives are compelled by greed, not by doubt.
Climatologists say that the only chance we have of stopping runaway global warming is to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the next 12 years. Instead, this year we set a new record for CO2 emissions. A sad truth of our climate story is that a successful green transition would have been more feasible had we accelerated the shift to sustainable energy and climate policies in the 1990s, when the dangers of global warming were already recognized by the majority of scientists. Unfortunately, by then, the campaign to build mistrust in science had already begun at companies like Exxon. Their campaign to promote the myth of climate skepticism is much like the efforts by tobacco companies to manufacture dissent about the health effects of smoking just a couple of decades before. The goal of this strategy was not just to convince people that the status quo is acceptable, but to cultivate doubt long enough to extract every bit of profit out of the use of polluting fossil fuels. Although 58 percent of Americans now believe in manmade climate change, most still don’t think that it will impact them personally.
This bleak outlook doesn’t change the fact that our only option is continuing the fight to build a constructive climate discourse based on facts and solutions, not corporate-funded propaganda. There are reasons to be hopeful even in these dark times. Millennials, one of the current generations that will be hit hardest by global warming, overwhelmingly accept climate science. The solutions to succeed in our mission already exist in abundance. Renewable energy tax credits, incentives for cogeneration, the promotion of sustainable food systems, and many other ideas are at our collective disposal. The question is, will we choose to embrace the truth or the myth?
Author: Ben Topiel