Late last week, as the country was focusing on antacids and shopping, the Trump administration released a report on climate change prepared by its own scientific agencies. The hope was that the report and its expectations of a huge financial and human toll would be ignored and the administration could go back to pretending that it was perfectly justified in pursuing policies like pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and attempting to resuscitate coal.
That didn’t quite work out. Coverage of the report’s dramatic conclusions about the pace and costs of climate change continued to drive headlines over the weekend, and they were a featured topic on Sunday news talk shows. As the following week arrived, Trump and other officials were peppered with questions about the report.
But as the week unfolded, the administration stuck to a number of different strategies in an attempt to disavow the work of its own experts. And to further muddy the situation, television news outlets handled the situation poorly, allowing themselves to be used as a source of misinformation during their attempts to cover the new report.
One of the defenses used by the administration is something it has employed before: our air is clean, therefore carbon emissions aren’t a problem. When asked about the report, Trump said, “You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean.” That sentiment was echoed by his Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders: “The president is certainly leading on what matters most in this process, and that’s with having clean air, clean water. In fact, the United States continues to be a leader on that front.”
This approach is bizarre on two levels. Carbon emissions are perfectly “clean” from the perspective of particulates or toxic chemicals, the things we’ve successfully regulated to reduced levels, so this point is irrelevant to the climate report. And the Trump administration is attempting to reverse regulations and promote the use of extremely dirty sources like coal, so the US is not, in fact, leading on that matter.
In the same press conference that the above quote came from, Huckabee-Sanders also sampled what has become the administration’s go-to response to the report—that it was based on a worst-case model. “You have to look at the fact that this report is based on the most extreme model scenario,” Huckabee-Sanders said, “which contradicts long-established trends.” That idea was later echoed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who said, “It appears they took the worst scenarios and they built predictions on that.”
It’s a line the EPA has taken up with gusto. Acting EPA Director Andrew Wheeler first suggested it, saying, “I don’t know this for a fact—I wouldn’t be surprised if the Obama administration told the report’s authors to take a look at the worst case scenario for this report.” A short time later, a site called the Daily Caller (best known for inaccuracies and stoking racial resentment) supposedly found the smoking gun: a memo from Obama science advisor John Holdren, suggesting which carbon emissions scenarios to use. The EPA officially promoted this as evidence backing up Wheeler.
There’s a small problem with all of this. Holdren is quoted as saying, “focus on RCP 8.5 as a high-end scenario and RCP 4.5 as a low-end scenario,” which makes it clear that he wants more than one scenario considered—not just the worst case. And in fact, the recent report considers three different scenarios, including one where we start drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere before the century is over (all three scenarios were previously used in IPCC reports). This approach was confirmed by Katharine Hayhoe, a scientist who helped author this section.
In addition to misleading people, however, Trump administration officials also tried one additional tactic: pretending they knew more than the experts. “One of the problems that a lot of people like myself—we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers,” Trump said when asked about the science of the report. Soon he went on to say, “As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it.” For good measure, Trump threw in a reference to the myth that the scientific community once expected to see a new ice age. Huckabee Sanders joined him in the smarter-than-a-bunch-of-PhDs-in-climatology game, saying the “radical conclusions of the report” were “not based on facts.”
Quick, pretend the experts don’t exist!
Much of the news coverage happened before this obfuscation campaign had kicked into high gear, but that didn’t stop the networks from providing misinformation to their viewers. A common problem with the coverage of politically controversial science is what’s termed false balance, where a network will interview scientists with relevant expertise but then give time to non-scientists who are being paid to disagree. In this case, the networks avoided false balance by not inviting any scientists on.
In perhaps the worst example, Danielle Pletka of the pro-business think tank American Enterprise Institute was given a slot on NBC’s Meet the Press, and she used it to promote a blatant falsehood. “We had two of the coldest years, biggest drop in global temperatures that we have had since the 1980s, the biggest in the last 100 years,” she told the viewers. “We don’t talk about that.” Only the last part is correct, and we don’t talk about it because it is completely made up. The last two years were two of the hottest on record. Yet because NBC hadn’t invited anyone with the relevant expertise, the falsehood went completely unchallenged.
While that’s bad, CNN did worse by turning to former politician Rick Santorum. He claimed that scientists were promoting climate change because it helped them make money. This may be a common claim, but it’s a stupid one given how little scientists are paid compared to their level of training and because their work on the report was done without pay. Santorum also said, “If there was no climate change, we’d have a lot of scientists looking for work.” This also makes no sense, as we wouldn’t even be aware that climate change was an issue if we hadn’t previously been funding climate scientists.
On the science side, Santorum falsely claimed that we don’t know what’s causing the present climate change. CNN had no one competent enough to tell him that was false.
CNN followed that up by inviting former House Republican leader Tom DeLay, who went on a barely coherent rant in which he said that there are “plenty of scientists” who don’t blame humans for warming the climate (which isn’t true by most definitions of “plenty”). He also went on to accuse scientists of being in it for the money, calling the report “nothing more than a rehash of age-old 10- to 20-year assumptions made by scientists that get paid to further the politics of global warming.”
CNN did eventually invite a scientist who was one of the authors of the report in for an interview—but the news outlet then dropped the segment and had Rick Santorum back on instead.
Overall, it was a poor performance by the news media—one that will only help enable the administration’s misinformation campaign.