This year was a big one for environment and climate news. America moved to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants for the first time. China entered into a historic climate deal with the U.S., and 100 governments signed off on the most comprehensive report on climate science yet. Politicians bickered over the Keystone XL pipeline, the “war on coal,” and whether climate change even exists. There was drought, wildfires, and devastating pollution.
With so much news, it’s inevitable that some of the coverage would be skewed, misleading, or flat-out wrong. Indeed, some news networks ignored some of the year’s most important climate and environment news entirely, while others gave disproportionate air time to talking heads who reject the basic scientific consensus on climate change.
Here are ten times the media messed up covering the environment and the climate this year, in no particular order.
Network News Largely Ignores Major U.N. Climate Report
When the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases a report, it’s a pretty big deal. For its Fifth Assessment Report released in April, more than 1,271 people were nominated to partake in its writing, of which 309 were chosen as lead authors, and 436 as contributing authors. Almost 800 men and women of at least 73 different nationalities took part in writing it. It was an enormous, momentous effort in scientific consensus.
The results, too, were incredibly newsworthy. Among other things, the report concluded that even low levels of climate change over the next 100 years would result in the “breakdown of food systems” and an increase in violent conflict.
Despite this, network news largely ignored the report. CNN literally gave less than two minutes to it. Fox News gave it five minutes, and mostly just to say that it was irrelevant because climate change is not real.
60 Minutes Says Clean Tech Is Dead
All those were in response to a segment aired by 60 Minutes this past January which sought to document the fall of the clean tech industry. 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl deemed her story “The Cleantech Crash,” and portrayed the industry as dead on arrival.
Aside from the fact that the piece made no mention of climate change — which is one of the stronger arguments behind cleantech — the report largely passed over explosive growth in wind power, solar power, LED lights and electric vehicles.
A ThinkProgress interview with one of experts featured on the 60 Minutes segment detailed that the show knowingly ignored that growth to make its point. Robert Rapier, Chief Technology Officer at Merica International, was interviewed by 60 Minutes and spoke to them at length about cleantech’s many successes, but none of his comments about those successes were included in the segment.
NPR Guts Its Climate and Environment Staff
In October, InsideClimateNews revealed that NPR had reduced its environment and climate reporting team to one part-time reporter. Earlier in the year, the public radio station had three full-time reporters and one editor dedicated to the beat.
NPR’s senior supervising editor for its science desk Anne Gudenkauf explained the decision to reduce climate and environment reporting staff by saying she didn’t “feel like [the environment] necessarily requires dedicated reporters.” She also said the move was driven by an interest to expand coverage of other topics.
The move was met with criticism from journalists and climate advocates, including climate communications expert Dr. Robert J. Brulle. “I would have thought NPR would take a proactive stance toward the coverage of climate change, given its charter to address issues of national concern,” Brulle told Joe Romm when the news was revealed. “Sadly, it seems that instead of being part of the solution, NPR has now become part of the problem.”
60 Minutes Forgets Climate In Groundwater Scarcity Report
60 Minutes’ controversial cleantech report was not the only time the show was criticized this year for leaving out crucial information in stories about the environment. In November, Leslie Stahl ran a report on groundwater scarcity driven by drought, but did not mention climate change once in the entire segment.
While Stahl was lauded for bringing attention to the critical and little-known issue of groundwater depletion and how it impacts communities across the United States, she was also criticized for “completely ignor[ing]” climate change.
As Media Matters pointed out at the time, human-caused global warming is projected to reduce groundwater resources “significantly in most dry subtropical regions,” according to a U.N. climate science report. In addition, a study from Simon Fraser University determined that climate change “may already be exacerbating water shortages in many areas around the globe.”
The problem with neglecting to mention climate change in a discussion about groundwater depletion is that it makes it seem like the issue is one that can’t be controlled. Or at the very least, it prevents the discussion of one proposed solution to groundwater depletion: reducing carbon emissions.
Network News Repeatedly Uses False Keystone XL Jobs Claim
Multiple times in 2014, network news perpetuated a false claim that Keystone XL would create 42,000 enduring jobs. In fact, it would only create 35 full-time jobs, and 15 temporary contractors, according to the State Department.
The 42,000 jobs claim comes from the State Department’s report that the pipeline could “support,” not create, 42,100 jobs, more than 99 percent of which would be temporary. The company behind the project, TransCanada, itself has estimated that the pipeline would create no more than 2,500 to 4,650 temporary direct construction jobs for two years.
Politico Says BP ‘Didn’t Ruin The Gulf’
In October, Politico ran an article saying BP “didn’t ruin the gulf” when it spilled more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The article argued that the Gulf of Mexico has an “inherent resilience” when it comes to oil spills and that environmentalists have been overreacting about the spill’s impact.
The piece looked, on its face, like a regular piece of journalism, written by a journalist employed by Politico Magazine. Problem was, it was actually written by BP senior vice president of communications Geoff Morrell.
The original article did not include a disclaimer that the piece was an opinion, nor did it disclose that BP had written it until the bottom of the piece. The magazine eventually changed the header to clearly read “Opinion,” but not before receiving a flood of criticism over Politico’s lucrative relationship with BP as a frequent advertiser on the site’s daily email newsletter “Playbook.” At the time, a Politico spokesperson denied that ads in Playbook would have anything to do with the lack of a disclaimer in the BP oil spill article.
Meet The Press Lets Marsha Blackburn Debate Bill Nye
Network news stations had a nasty habit this year of hosting one-on-one debates featuring one person who thinks climate change is real, and one person who does not. There were two problems with this, the first being that most of the debates were between people who are not actually experts in the field of climate science. The second and more important problem is that a one-on-one debate implies to the viewer that the two sides of the “is climate change real” argument have equal value. They do not.
Every time a network news station airs a one-on-one debate over whether climate change is real, they are giving a hugely disproportionate amount of legitimacy to a claim that most scientists vehemently disagree with. Indeed, some 97 out of 100 actively publishing climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming.
All this is why it was so disappointing when NBC’s “Meet the Press” decided to hold a debate between Bill Nye, a television personality and science educator, and Marsha Blackburn, a notoriously anti-climate change Republican congresswoman from Tennessee. While host David Gregory tried nobly to steer the conversation in a productive direction, it didn’t really matter — the format of the debate meant that Blackburn would use her time to cast unsubstantiated doubt on climate science and tout the “benefits” of carbon emissions on agricultural production.
Nate Silver’s First Climate Article Uses ‘Deeply Misleading’ Data
Soon after former New York Times data guru Nate Silver launched his highly anticipated news site FiveThirtyEight this year, the site began to attract a good deal of attention — but not the kind it was hoping for. Multiple climate scientists condemned the first climate article on the site, saying it used “deeply misleading” data to make its claims.
The article and its author, Roger Pielke Jr., argued that increased wealth and development is the principal cause of growing losses from extreme weather events — not more extreme weather from climate change. But four climate scientists refuted the data analysis as too simplistic, saying it ignored data on increased disaster preparation measures and technological innovations, and only looked at rare, land-falling tropical cyclones.
Pielke strongly pushed back against the criticisms of his work, but damage had already been done. Public pressure drove Silver to publish a rebuttal to Pielke’s piece from MIT climate scientist Kerry Emmanuel, and Pielke never wrote another climate article for FiveThirtyEight again.
Media Hypes Co-Weather Channel Founder’s Climate Denial
Both Fox News and CNN gave air time this year to John Coleman, a co-founder of the Weather Channel and former TV weatherman, to preach climate denial in the wake of the latest U.N. report. On his appearance on CNN, Coleman proclaimed, “Hello America, there is no global warming.”
In his interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, Coleman was lauded as a “top meteorologist,” though he does not have a degree in meteorology. But even if he did have a meteorology degree, it wouldn’t really matter — meteorologists are not climate scientists. As pointed out by Media Matters, climatologists’ models are different than meteorologists’ and they ask different questions. Indeed, a handful of weather forecasters have been known to sometimes skew the issue, which then becomes false evidence for conservatives to back-up their climate denial.
CNN President Says Climate Coverage Is Too Boring
As you’ll remember, CNN gave this year’s major U.N. climate change report less than two minutes of coverage. About a month later, CNN President Jeff Zucker attempted to explain why, giving a glimpse of his reasoning on why the network does not cover climate change: that his audience was becoming bored by the topic.
Zucker said that his audience had a “tremendous lack of interest” in the subject, prompting conservative bloggers to proclaim that the American public was tired of CNN’s “liberal agenda.” But as ThinkProgress pointed out at the time, the only reason CNN’s viewers aren’t interested in its climate stories is because of its approach: it tells climate stories by relying heavily on talking political heads, rather than the stories of real people who are impacted, or the views of mainstream scientists.