December 20, 2016

As journalists grapple with the rise of fake news, it’s worth examining what happens when policymakers embrace misinformation instead of evidence when it comes to climate change.

In September, YourNewsWire breathlessly told its readers that thousands of scientists had declared climate change “a hoax.”

This was big news — at least on Facebook — where the YourNewsWire post was shared more than 550,000 times, making it the most popular climate story on social media in the past six months, according to one analysis.

The idea that hordes of scientists are coming out of the woodwork to challenge their peers on climate change is, of course, a myth. But it’s a persistent one. The YourNewsWire post was based on a discredited petition published all the way back in 1998, which targeted the Kyoto climate agreement.

Unfortunately, policymakers — aided by groups opposed to climate action — readily endorse such claims, with real consequences for scientists, public opinion, and climate policy.

For instance, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a longtime opponent of climate action, read the same petition during a 2003 floor speech. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was recently tapped to head the U.S. Department of Energy, referred to more and more scientists “coming forward” to dispute climate change back in 2011. And on Bill Maher’s HBO show last year, Sen. Rick Santorum used blog-derived misinformation about a survey of scientists to claim that a majority really reject human-caused warming.

These policymakers’ statements matter. A landmark social science study from 2012 found that when politicians reject climate science, it has more of an impact on public opinion than the release of major scientific reports.

Indeed, only 27 percent of Americans understand how widespread agreement is among scientists that burning fossil fuels and destroying tropical forests is causing climate change. Compared to their peers in other countries, Americans dramatically underestimate climate risks.

For Ben Santer, a climate researcher who has done pioneering work detecting the human fingerprint on modern warming, the stubborn persistence of climate misinformation in U.S. civic life is troubling.

He and other scientists refer to these bad claims as “zombie arguments” since they seem to keep coming back to life even after repeated debunking.

“All of these narratives get repeated again and again and get normalized,” he said. Policymakers who don’t want to address climate change would “rather kick the can down the road and dismiss it as a hoax, and conspiracy.”

Climate change deniers have been helped along in their misinformation campaign by hackers. Santer was one of many scientists who had his emails stolen and selectively posted online in 2009, ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit.

Scientists still don’t know who perpetrated the hack, which targeted emails at a British university, but climate denial blogs, conspiracy sites such as Infowars and right-leaning news outlets were quick to accuse researchers of fraud based on cherry-picked quotes from the email cache.

Their claims were echoed by policymakers and covered as a major controversy on front pages and newscasts around the world.

Looking back on those emails in light of the 2016 Podesta hack, Santer says, “We were the first. In a very real sense, I think [it] was the first email hack that received worldwide attention.”

In 2010, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli used debunked claims from the stolen emails to justify an investigation of climate researcher Michael Mann. A state court ultimately rejected his demands.

Sen. Inhofe, meanwhile, called for a criminal investigation of 17 climate scientists whose emails had been stolen. The late Rick Piltz, a whistleblower who once exposed attempts to water down a federal climate report, called it an “orchestrated campaign to intimidate scientists.”

In time, the scientists were exonerated. Not only by mainstream media fact checkers, but by investigations from British and American universities, the U.K. Parliament and the National Science Foundation’s inspector general.

Nevertheless, the perception of scandal lives on in the climate denial blogosphere and many policymakers continue to believe it.

Just last month, Donald Trump referred to the stolen emails when explaining to The New York Times why he rejects climate science.

Santer says the strategy was clear: “You overwhelm people with information and create this appearance of deceit and conspiracy.”

Stephan Lewandowsky, a University of Bristol cognitive scientist who has studied conspiratorial thinking, says journalists should rethink how they cover political debates in which one side rejects overwhelming evidence.

“The media have to let go of the addiction to ‘balance’,” he says, “which affords mendacious extremists as much credibility as reasonable and truthful people.”

Indeed, fact-checking is based on the unstated premises that facts themselves matter and that reliable evidence is necessary to make sound policy. Climate denial challenges these very premises.

For instance, Florida’s government banned state employees from discussing global warming. North Carolina legislators voted to ignore sea-level rise projections. Nebraska legislators backed a climate study, but only on the condition that it wouldn’t account for human-caused climate change. The U.S. House has even voted to block defense agencies from planning for climate change even though the U.S. Navy anticipates expanding Arctic operations as ice cover shrinks.

If there is a main lesson we can draw from climate change coverage it is this: Explicitly stating the facts is not enough; we have to be clear about what happens when they lose out to lies.

Aaron Huertas is a science communicator from Washington, DC. He works with several organizations that defend and promote climate research. The opinions above are his own.
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