BENDING THE TRUTH: Examples of Media Manipulation Against Climate Change
BY LINDSEY NGO
1988 is widely agreed to be the year that scientists began to sound the alarm, agreeing that it was time for the government to take notice of a growing issue: climate change. NASA's then-director, Dr. James Hansen, stood in front of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to speak about the greenhouse effect and its detected change to the earth's climate. Back then, Dr. Hansen said that 1988 was "the warmest year on record," a record that we just keep breaking. Currently, 2020 has been the hottest year on record, at 1.84 degrees Fahrenheit (1.02 degrees Celsius). For comparison, 1988 was 57.7 degrees Fahrenheit (14.3 Celsius), but now ranks only as the 28th hottest year on record.
The New York Times article about the hearing, Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate (1988), is serious, detailing what might happen if greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked and what steps experts say need to be taken next. James Hansen’s testimony to Congress clearly stated that we need to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, and that this step is essential to reducing the effects of climate change. The problem has been presented and a solution offered, almost 40 years ago. So, why has it taken so long for so little to be done? Why is the existence of climate change still being debated? The answer lies in the fossil fuel industry, as it almost always does in matters concerning climate change.
In 1997, the United Nations introduced the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended to encourage developed nations to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, in the hopes that it would curb the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. More than 150 countries accepted but the U.S. was not one of them. Bill Clinton signed, but it was not ratified by the Senate and therefore failed to be adopted. Why did our country refuse to participate in an international treaty focused on reducing the onset of climate change? In a State Department briefing addressing the matter, it is explicitly stated that, “POTUS rejected Kyoto, in part, based on input from you."
The "you" in question is the GCC, or Global Climate Coalition, a lobbyist group that actively spread misinformation to the public to challenge government policies fighting climate change. Unsurprisingly, it was run and funded by fossil-fuel corporations and corresponding interest groups, including coal mining businesses, automobile companies, and oil companies. While the name might seem climate-friendly, their actions were anything but.
Rather than focusing on the miniscule steps that the Kyoto Protocol was attempting to take as early as 1997, the GCC wanted to look at the potential damages to the economy (i.e. their own pockets). They launched a successful campaign that turned public opinion away from the Kyoto Protocol, claiming it would only hurt the U.S. economy while bolstering others', like China or India. This was unacceptable to the public, who refused to sign themselves over to such a limiting idea that they were convinced would not work anyways.
It becomes clear the ‘The Only Thing This Treaty Cools Down Is America’s Economy’ ad is climate denial propaganda, simply by looking at the headlines and the sponsors listed at the bottom. The headline indicates that global warming does not exist, and that the planet does not need to be cooled. Furthermore, it implies the Kyoto Protocol to be anti-America’s economy, rather than anti-climate change, placing it as a direct attack on people’s financial well-being. The ad is sponsored by companies such as the Association of American Railroads, Chemical Manufacturers Association, and United Mine Workers of America, all at risk of losing money if they were forced to reduce their carbon emissions. So, it became vital for such companies to prevent the passing of the Kyoto Protocol-through "a PR campaign to ‘let the media know about the glaring holes in the Kyoto treaty’," passing off their monetary worries as the public’s.
(Image from Climate Files)
The ‘Americans Work Hard For What We Have, Mr. President.’ ad demonstrates how aggressive the GCC was in their campaign, constantly attacking Bill Clinton's decision to sign. They claimed he was risking the American family to do so, painting both him and the Kyoto Protocol as forces of destruction rather than a step towards a cleaner future.
Evidently, the campaign worked and the Kyoto Protocol never went to the Senate for ratification. The ads printed within the New York Times, a well-known and respected publication, played a role in influencing the public against the President’s choice. As a result, the U.S. failed to appropriately respond to a potential climate solution, and another opportunity slipped by.
But this was an example of when the government and public were influenced against a specific climate policy. What about the day-to-day thinking of climate change in general?
It is no secret that fossil fuel executives, including Chevron, Shell Oil, and ExxonMobil, launched a campaign of climate change misinformation to confuse the public and convince them to keep buying their products-claiming that it had no effect on the climate and that all these climate consequences were perfectly natural. In fact, they were called to testify about their "decades lying about the climate crisis" in October 2021, in front of the U.S. Oversight Committee. They denied any accusations, but internal documents soon revealed that they did knowingly aim to deny climate change, sow doubt, and ultimately delay the transition to cleaner energy- all while being fully aware of their impact on climate change.
(Image from Grist)
While the Lies, lies, and more lies graph specifically focuses on 'conservative think tanks and blogs,' the tactics that climate deniers use are the same, regardless of where they stem from. They deny climate change, or that it is caused by humans and their greenhouse gas emissions, stating the fluctuating trend of temperatures to be normal.
Climate change is a complex topic because the earth is composed of complex systems, but the media minimizes the issue by simplifying its consequences. Such articles or thinkers employ the five tactics of science denial, using fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picked facts, and conspiracy theories to further spread doubt about the reality of climate change.
(Image from BBC News)
The argument is that the Earth is getting warmer, due to global warming. Thus, any sign of specific locations getting colder means that global warming must be false. As depicted in the "If the Earth is getting warmer, why is Kentucky getting colder?" ad, climate denialism capitalizes on the false idea that global warming means the Earth is getting hotter everywhere. Obviously, climate change refers to the general increased temperature of the planet, rather than specific areas, but these headlines catch the public's attention and instill confusion. For someone uneducated on the issue of climate change or global warming, this might be enough to make them question scientists and their campaign.
An article published in 2015 criticized President Barack Obama's claim that 97% of climate scientists supported the idea of climate change and human causes, written by Ross McKitrick and titled "Putting the 'con' in consensus; Not only is there no 97% consensus among climate scientists, many misunderstand core issues." The headline makes the content of the article obvious, criticizing the lack of evidence for the specific number. It fails to mention that there is still an overall large consensus on the reality of climate change, choosing to set impossible expectations for the world’s scientists. For the author-and subsequently, their readers-it is not enough that many educated professionals agree, but rather the focus of the article is that it does not exactly align with President Obama's claim, and therefore should not be trusted at all.
The lengthy headline itself leaves an impression, helping the reader know what the article might contain just at a first glance. It is convenient and quick. They might walk away with the conclusion that scientists in fact do not agree on the climate crisis, without actually having to read the details, and then spread that misinformation amongst their circles.
On the other hand, an article written by Earl J. Ritchie, exploring the truth behind the 97% claim, is titled "Fact Checking The Claim Of 97% Consensus On Anthropogenic Climate Change" (2016). Although the author does admit that the 97% is not accurate, he reports that there is an 80% consensus overall and that it should be enough to signal a larger issue to the public. This information is located at the very end, near its conclusion. While the author’s analysis is more well-rounded in its approach to assessing the 97% claim from President Obama, the presentation is completely different and, one might say, lacking.
There is no clear answer present within the headline, no real position taken from the start. The article is lengthy and thorough in its research, looking into multiple data sets and even pondering about why there is such a specific focus on the 97% statistic. However, a casual reader would look at the title and be unable to infer any proof for climate change. In fact, the idea that the statistic needs to be fact-checked only seemingly strengthens the other article's argument: that the 97% statistic is false and therefore so is climate change because not enough scientists agree on the issue. A casual reader would simply assume that this article corresponds with the previous article, and that if they can agree, then there must be some merit in the argument against climate change.
Both the strong stance of McKitrick and the neutral headlines of Ritchie imply that climate change is an idea to be questioned, despite what their articles may actually contain. Headlines are enough to leave the reader with a certain impression and utilizing them effectively is essential when it comes to swaying the public.
It is easier for climate denialists to capture a reader's attention and to deliberately misinterpret numbers, set high expectations, or simply cherry-pick facts. It is easier to create misinformation about climate change, simply through aggressive or scandalous headlines, which can be quickly regurgitated to uninformed audiences. People remember catchy and short, which does not leave room for nuance.
What people find harder to recall are long, scientific articles explaining the intricacies of climate change, or ambiguous headlines meant to not show any 'bias'. So in the day-to-day conversation or consumption of the news, media that strongly takes a stance against climate change is more prominent than articles that refute them.
Lately, the news is getting increasingly firm on the reality of climate change, using resolute headlines of "Scientists agree: Climate change is real and caused by people" (2022), a stark contrast to the previous wishy-washy headlines of "Climate change is an obvious myth – how much more evidence do you need?" (2014) or "Opinion: Consequences of climate change are very real" (2014). There has been a clear shift in how the media depicts climate change. Could this be considered cherry picking articles? Perhaps, but these 2014 articles were published on popular websites of The Guardian and the UN, so they received a lot of traffic regardless. Fossil fuel companies and climate deniers utilized the media in such a way that reaching a public consensus on climate change became difficult, and the government felt little pressure to care. The strong stance of today does not balance the time lost to confusion and doubt, where progress was a viable option but ultimately, turned away.
Media bias is both subtle and explicit, but it has a way of burrowing into people's perceptions unconsciously. People flip past headlines and ads every day, and whether or not they consciously read it, the ideas and titles are still swallowed. When situations come up that refer to such ideas, the headlines and articles are what people will refer to, even if they do not have a full understanding of the situation. Those shortcuts shape public perception, which then influence how the issue is regarded in society.
Whether that be through the public news campaign for the Kyoto Protocol, the flawed ads of climate denial, or the misleading headlines of internet articles, these different approaches to denouncing climate change have helped set up a public skepticism about climate change-which then slows down any real progress towards change. After all, the first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it exists. So, the next time you scroll past a headline, think about what kind of world they are trying to present. Is it true?