How journalists helped wreck the climate debate

Summary: The public debate about public policy to fight climate change has deadlocked, as both deniers and activists misrepresent the science, exaggerate it, and lie. Here Dr. Roy Spencer looks at the role of the news media in producing this cacophony. We cannot afford their folly.

Burning Earth with smoke
ID 50590315 © Strahil Dimitrov | Dreamstime.

How the Media Help to Destroy Rational Climate Debate

By Roy Spencer at his website, 25 August 2019.
Posted with his generous permission.

An old mantra of the news business is, “if it bleeds, it leads”. If someone was murdered, it is news. That virtually no one gets murdered is not news. That, by itself, should tell you that the mainstream media cannot be relied upon as an unbiased source of climate change information.

There are lots of self-proclaimed climate experts now. They don’t need a degree in physics or atmospheric science. For credentials, they only need to care and tell others they care. They believe the Earth is being murdered by humans and want the media to spread the word. Most people do not have the time or educational background to understand the global warming debate, and so defer to the consensus of experts on the subject. The trouble is that no one ever says exactly what the experts agree upon.

When you dig into the details, what the experts agree upon in their official pronouncements is rather unremarkable. The Earth has warmed a little since the 1950s, a date chosen because before that humans had not produced enough CO2 to really matter. Not enough warming for most people to actually feel, but enough for thermometers to pick up the signal buried in the noise of natural weather swings of many tens of degrees and spurious warming from urbanization effects. The UN consensus is that most of that warming is probably due to increasing atmospheric CO2 from fossil fuel use (but we really don’t know for sure).

For now, I tend to agree with this consensus. And still I am widely considered a climate denier. Why? Because I am not willing to exaggerate and make claims that cannot be supported by data.

Take researcher Roger Pielke, Jr. as another example. Roger considers himself an environmentalist. He generally agrees with the predictions of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regarding future warming. But as an expert in severe weather damages, he isn’t willing to support the lie that severe weather has gotten worse. Yes, storm damages have increased, but that’s because we keep building more infrastructure to get damaged.

So, he too is considered a climate denier.

What gets reported by the media about global warming (aka climate change, the climate crisis, and now the climate emergency) is usually greatly exaggerated, half-truths, or just plain nonsense. Just like the economy and economists, it is not difficult to find an expert willing to provide a prediction of gloom and doom. That makes interesting news. But it distorts the public perception of the dangers of climate change. And because it is reported as “science”, it is equated with truth.

In the case of climate change news, the predicted effects are almost universally biased toward Armageddon-like outcomes. Severe weather events that have always occurred (tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts) are now reported with at least some blame placed on your SUV.

The major media outlets have so convinced themselves of the justness, righteousness, and truthfulness of their cause that they have banded together to make sure the climate emergency is not ignored. As reported by The Guardian, “More than 60 news outlets worldwide have signed on to Covering Climate Now, a project to improve coverage of the emergency”.

The exaggerations are not limited to just science. The reporting on engineering related to proposed alternative sources of energy (e.g., wind and solar) is also biased. The reported economics are biased. Unlimited “free” energy is claimed to be all around us, just waiting to be plucked from the unicorn tree.

And for most of America (and the world), the reporting is not making us smarter, but dumber.

Why does it matter? Who cares if the science (or engineering or economics) is exaggerated, if the result is that we stop polluting?

Besides the fact that there is no such thing as a non-polluting energy source, it matters because humanity depends upon abundant, affordable energy to prosper. Just Google life expectancy and per capita energy use. Prosperous societies are healthier and enjoy longer lives. Expensive sources of energy forced upon the masses by governmental fiat kill poor people simply because expensive energy exacerbates poverty, and poverty leads to premature death. As philosopher Alex Epstein writes in his book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, if you believe humans have a right to thrive, then you should be supportive of fossil fuels.

We don’t use wind and solar energy because it is economically competitive. We use it because governments have decided to force taxpayers to pay the extra costs involved and allowed utilities to pass on the higher costs to consumers. Wind and solar use continue to grow, but global energy demand grows even faster. Barring some new energy technology (or a renewed embrace of nuclear power), wind and solar are unlikely to supply more than 10% of global energy demand in the coming decades. And as some European countries have learned, mandated use of solar and wind comes at a high cost to society.

Not only the media, but the public education system is complicit in this era of sloppy science reporting. I suppose most teachers and journalists believe what they are teaching and reporting on. But they still bear some responsibility for making sure what they report is relatively unbiased and factual.

I would much rather have teachers spending more time teaching students how to think and less time teaching them what to think.

Climate scientists are not without blame. They, like everyone else, are biased. Virtually all Earth scientists I know view the Earth as “fragile”. Their biases affect their analysis of uncertain data that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Most are relatively clueless about engineering and economics. I’ve had discussions with climate scientists who tell me, “Well, we need to get away from fossil fuels, anyway”.

And maybe we do, eventually. But exaggerating the threat can do more harm than good. The late Stephen Schneider infamously admitted to biased reporting by scientists. You can read his entire quote and decide for yourself whether scientists like Dr. Schneider let their worldview, politics, etc., color how they present their science to the public. The unauthorized release of the ‘ClimateGate’ emails between IPCC scientists showed how the alarmist narrative was maintained by undermining alternative views and even pressuring the editors of scientific journals. Even The Guardian seemed shocked by the misbehavior.

It’s fine to present the possibility that human-caused global warming could be very damaging, which is indeed theoretically possible. But to claim that large and damaging changes have already occurred due to increasing CO2 in the atmosphere is shoddy journalism. Some reporters get around the problem by saying that the latest hurricane might not be blamed on global warming directly, but it represents what we can expect more of in a warming world. Except that, even the UN IPCC is equivocal on the subject.

Sea level rise stories in the media, as far as I can tell, never mention that sea level has been rising naturally for as long as we have had global tide gauge measurements (since the 1850s). Maybe humans are responsible for a portion of the recent rise, but as is the case for essentially all climate reporting, the role of nature is seldom mentioned, and the size of the problem is almost always exaggerated. That worsening periodic tidal flooding in Miami Beach is about 50% due to sinking of reclaimed swampland is never mentioned.

There are no human fingerprints of global warming. None. Climate change is simply assumed to be mostly human-caused (which is indeed possible), while our knowledge of natural climate change is almost non-existent.

Computerized climate models are programmed based upon the assumption of human causation. The models produce human-caused climate change because they are forced to produce no warming (be in a state of ‘energy balance’) unless CO2 is added to them.

As far as we know, no one has ever been killed by human-caused climate change. Weather-related deaths have fallen dramatically – by over 90% – in the last 100 years.

Whose child has been taught that in school? What journalist has been brave enough to report that good news?

In recent years I’ve had more and more people tell me that their children, grandchildren, or young acquaintances are now thoroughly convinced we are destroying the planet with our carbon dioxide emissions from burning of fossil fuels. They’ve had this message drilled into their brains through news reporting, movies, their teachers and professors, their favorite celebrities, and a handful of outspoken scientists and politicians whose knowledge of the subject is a mile wide but only inches deep.

In contrast, few people are aware of the science papers showing satellite observations that reveal a global greening phenomenon is occurring as a result of more atmospheric CO2.

Again I ask, whose child has been taught this in school? What journalist dares to report any positive benefits of CO2, without which life on Earth would not exist? No, if it’s climate news, it’s all bad news, all the time.

More Examples of Media Bias.

Here are just a few recent (and not-so-recent) examples of media reporting which only make matters worse and degrade the public debate on the subject of climate change. Very often what is reported is actually weather-related events that have always occurred with no good evidence that they have worsened or become more frequent in the last 60+ years that humans could be at least partly blamed.

The Amazon is burning.

A few days ago, The Guardian announced that “Large swathes of the Amazon rainforest are burning.” I don’t know how this has suddenly entered the public’s consciousness, but for those of us who keep track of such things, farmland and some rainforest in Amazonia and adjacent lands has been burned by farmers for many decades during this time of year so they can plant crops. This year is not exceptional in this regard, yet someone decided to make an issue of it this year. In fact, it looks like 2019 might be one of the lowest years for biomass burning. Deforestation there has gone down dramatically in the last 20 years.

The rainforest itself does not burn in response to global warming, and in fact warming in the tropics has been so slow that it is unlikely that any tropical resident would perceive it in their lifetime. This is not a climate change issue; it’s a farming and land use issue.

Greenland Is rapidly melting.

The Greenland ice sheet gains new snow every year, and gravity causes the sheet to slowly flow to the sea where ice is lost by calving of icebergs. How much ice resides in the sheet at any given time is based upon the balance between gains and losses.

During the summer months of June, July, and August there is more melting of the surface than snow accumulation. The recent (weather-related) episode of a Saharan air mass traveling through western Europe and reaching Greenland led to a few days of exceptional melt. This was widely reported as having grave consequences.

Forbes decided to push the limits of responsible journalism with a story title, “Greenland’s Massive Ice Melt Wasn’t Supposed to Happen Until 2070.” But the actual data show that after this very brief period (a few days) of strong melt, conditions then returned to normal.

Greenland ice sheet loss event

The widely reported Greenland surface melt event around 1 August 2019 (green oval) was then followed by a recovery to normal in the following weeks (purple oval), which was not reported by the media.

Of course, only the brief period of melt was reported by the media, further feeding the steady diet of biased climate information we have all become accustomed to.

Furthermore, after all of the reports of record warmth at the summit of the ice cap, it was found that the temperature sensor readings were biased too warm, and the temperature never actually went above freezing.

Was this reported with the same fanfare as the original story? Of course not. The damage has been done, and the thousands of alarmist news stories will live on in perpetuity.

This isn’t to say that Greenland isn’t losing more ice than it is gaining, but most of that loss is due to calving of icebergs around the edge of the sheet being fed by ice flowing downhill. Not from blast-furnace heating of the surface. It could be the loss in recent decades is a delayed response to excess snow accumulation tens or hundreds of years ago (I took glaciology as a minor while working on my Ph.D. in meteorology). No one really knows because ice sheet dynamics is complicated with much uncertainty.

My point is that the public only hears about these brief weather events which are almost always used to promote an alarmist narrative.

July 2019 was the hottest month on record.

The yearly, area-averaged surface temperature of the Earth is about 60°F It has been slowly and irregularly rising in recent decades at a rate of about 0.3 or 0.4°F per decade.

So, let’s say the average temperature reaches 60.4°F rather than a more normal 60°F Is “hottest” really the best adjective to use to inform the public about what is going on?

Here’s a geographic plot of the July 2019 departures from normal from NOAA’s Climate Forecast System model. {Click to enlarge.}

Global Temperature Anomaly for July 2019.July 2019 surface temperature departures from normal. The global average is only 0.3°C (0.5°F) above the 1981-2010 average, and many areas were below normal in temperature. (Graphic courtesy

Some areas were above normal, some below, yet the headlines of “hottest month ever” would make you think the whole Earth had become an oven of unbearable heat.

Of course, the temperature changes involved in new record warm months is so small it is usually less than the uncertainty level of the measurements. And, different global datasets give different results. Monitoring global warming is like searching for a climate needle in a haystack of weather variability.

Bait and Switch: Models replacing observations.

There is an increasing trend toward passing off climate model projections as actual observations in news reports. This came up just a few days ago when I was alerted to a news story that claimed Tuscaloosa, Alabama is experiencing twice as many 100°F+ days as it used to. To his credit, the reporter corrected the story when it was pointed out to him that no such thing has happened, and it was a climate model projection that (erroneously) made such a “prediction”.

Another example happened last year with a news report that the 100th Meridian climate boundary in the U.S. was moving east, with gradual drying starting to invade the U.S. Midwest agricultural belt. But, once again, the truth is that no such thing has happened. It was a climate model projection, being passed off as reality. Having worked with grain-growing interests for nearly 10 years, I addressed this bit of fake climate news with actual precipitation measurements here.

Al Gore and Bill Nye’s global warming in a jar experiment.

This is one of my favorites.

As part of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, Bill Nye produced a Climate 101 video of an experiment where two glass jars with thermometers in them were illuminated by lamps. One jar had air in it, the other had pure CO2. The video allegedly shows the jar with CO2 in it experiencing a larger temperature rise than the jar with just air in it.

Of course, this was meant to demonstrate how easy it is to show more CO2 causes warming. I’m sure it has inspired many school science experiments. The video has had over 500,000 views.

The problem is that this experiment cannot show such an effect. Any expert in atmospheric radiative transfer can tell you this. The jars are totally opaque to infrared radiation anyway, the amount of CO2 involved is far too small, the thermometers were cheap and inaccurate, the lamps cannot be exactly identical, the jars are not identical, and the “cold” of outer space was not included the experiment. TV meteorologist Anthony Watts demonstrated that Bill Nye had to fake the results through post-production video editing.

The warming effect of increasing atmospheric CO2 is surprisingly difficult to demonstrate. The demonstration is largely a theoretical exercise involving radiative absorption calculations and a radiative transfer model. I believe the effect exists; I’m just saying that there is no easy way to demonstrate it.

The trouble is that this fraudulent video still exists, and many thousands of people are being misled into believing that the experiment is evidence of how obvious it is to

Greta Thunberg’s sailboat trip.

The new spokesperson for the world’s youth regarding concerns over global warming is 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg. Greta is traveling across the Atlantic on what CNN describes as a “zero-emissions yacht” to attend the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23 in New York City.

To begin with, there is no such thing as a zero-emissions yacht. A huge amount of energy was required to manufacture the yacht, and it transports so few people so few miles over its lifetime the yacht is a wonderful example of the energy waste typical of the lifestyles of the wealthy elite. Four (!) people will need to fly from Europe to the U.S. to support the return of the yacht to Europe after Greta is delivered there.

The trip is nothing more than a publicity stunt, and it leads to further disinformation regarding global energy use. In fact, it works much better as satire. Imagine if everyone who traveled across the ocean used yachts rather than jet airplanes. More energy would be required, not less, due to the manufacture of tens of thousands of extra yachts which inefficiently carry few passengers on relatively few, very slow trips. In contrast, the average jet aircraft will travel 50 million miles in its lifetime. Most people don’t realize that travel by jet is now more fuel efficient than travel by car.

The Greta boat trip story is in so many ways the absolute worst way to raise awareness of climate issues, unless you know nothing of science, engineering, or economics. It’s like someone who is against eating meat consuming three McDonalds cheeseburgers to show how we should change our diets. It makes zero sense.

I could give many more examples of the media helping to destroy the public’s ability to have a rational discussion about climate change, how much is caused by humans, and what can or should be done about it.

Instead, the media chooses to publish only the most headline-grabbing stories, and the climate change issue is then cast as two extremes: either you believe the “real scientists” who all agree we are destroying the planet, or you are a knuckle-dragging 8th-grade educated climate denier with guns and racist tendencies.


Roy Spencer

About Roy Spencer

Roy Spencer is a meteorologist (Ph.D. 1981) is a Principal Research Scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Since 1992, Spencer has been the U.S. Team Leader for the Multichannel Imaging Microwave Radiometer (MIMR) team and the follow-on AMSR-E team; In 1994 he became the AMSR-E Science Team leader (source). Before that, he was a Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center MSFC).

He has provided congressional testimony several times on the subject of global warming. Spencer received the MSFC Center Director’s Commendation in 1989, the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1991, and the American Meteorological Society’s Special Award in 1996. See his Wikipedia entry for more information about his publications.

Dr. Spencer’s research has been entirely supported by NASA, NOAA, and DOE.

For More Information

Ideas! See my recommended books and films at Amazon.

For more about this important subject, see Why we do nothing to prepare for climate change.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about doomsters, about The keys to understanding climate change and especially these…

  1. Let’s prepare for past climate instead of bickering about predictions of climate change – Doing something is better than nothing.
  2. Focusing on worst-case climate futures doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work.
  3. The Extinction Rebellion’s hysteria vs. climate science.
  4. Activists hope that fake news about droughts will win.
  5. Listening to climate doomsters makes our situation worse.
  6. Another heartbreaking story of climate doom!
  7. How fast is the world warming? Is it burning?
  8. See how climate science becomes alarmist propaganda.

To help us better understand today’s weather

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr., prof at U of CO – Boulder’s Center for Science and Policy Research (2018).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

20 thoughts on “How journalists helped wreck the climate debate”

  1. Godfree Roberts

    sea level has been rising naturally for as long as we have had global tide gauge measurements (since the 1850s)??

    Which is when Western industrialization began to REALLY kick in and pour CO2 into the atmosphere.


    1. Godfree,

      “Which is when Western industrialization began to REALLY kick in and pour CO2 into the atmosphere. Coincidence?”

      I doubt you can find a climate scientists to support such a ridiculous statement, a violation of basic logic: “correlation does not imply causation.” Instead of amateur guessing, let’s try science! Dr. Curry recent report on sea level discusses the proxy record. The graph on page 12 compares these reconstructions.

      “In the past decade, three analyses have been published on global sea levels over the past two millennia – Grinsted et al (2009), Kopp et al. (2016) and Kemp et al. (2018) (Figure 3.2). These three analyses differ substantially, reflecting the large uncertainties in such reconstructions.

      “Changes in Kemp et al. include markedly higher sea levels circa -900 to -700 years, a sharp decline in sea level between -700 and -400 years, and substantially lower sea levels between 1100 and 1300 years. The Kopp/Kemp estimates differ markedly from Grinsted et al. (2009) that identifies global sea level variations having larger amplitude and much higher sea levels during the Medieval Warm Period. These two approaches and datasets differ considerably, and there has been no consistent assessment of the differences between the reconstructions. …

      “It is useful also to consider historical and archaeological information. Hubert Lamb’s (1995) book Climate History and Modern World offers his analysis on this issue:

      ‘The water level may have dropped by 2 meters [6.5 feet] or more between 2000 and 500 BC. What does seem certain is that there was a tendency for world sea level to rise progressively during the time of the Roman Empire, finally reaching a high stand around 400 AD comparable with, or slightly above, present. …Our survey of the European scene during the warmer centuries of the Middle Ages would not be complete without mention of the things that suggest a higher stand of the sea level, which may have been rising globally during that warm time as glaciers melted.'”

    2. Godfree,

      “sea level has been rising naturally for as long as we have had global tide gauge measurements (since the 1850s)?? Which is when Western industrialization began to REALLY kick in and pour CO2 into the atmosphere.”

      Fact-check: anthropogenic GHG emissions began to “kick in” after WWII. They were microscopic in the 19th century. To put this in perspective, the consensus of climate scientists (as expressed in the IPCC’s AR5 Working Group I):

      “It is extremely likely (95 – 100% certain) that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.”

  2. Larry,

    This climate novice says Dr. Spencer’s article was hitting on all cylinders.

    On the local front, the Lancaster group of the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), invades the LNP newspaper letters to the editor weekly, sometimes three times a week, pushing their agenda. The editorial board is all in with the “we must” articles of get on board to save the world, for the children, of course.

  3. Trump just settled it at the end of his news conference.

    “Clean air, clean water”… End of story. Alarmist’s go home.

      1. Larry,

        That my very well be the case but once again I ask. Who is pilling the strings? GoTo 1:25:40 and get back to me. The last last question asked by a journalist, the type Dr. Spencer talked about:

      2. Ron,

        Nobody is “pulling strings.” As I’ve said before, that is the daftest of conspiracy theories – pretending that citizens have no agency in order to build support for some political project.

      3. Larry,

        “Nobody is “pulling strings.” As I’ve said before, that is the daftest of conspiracy theories – pretending that citizens have no agency in order to build support for some political project.”

        Like I said, no windmills for us. And imo, that’s a good thing. I’ll keep on enjoying my IC engines that burn clean, and keep the CO2 steady by realistic means.

    1. That reporter cried like a baby when Trump walked out and dodged the climate change question.

      “”I’m not going to lose that wealth (oil) on dreams…windmills.”

  4. Yes, very fine piece.

    “For now, I tend to agree with this consensus. And still I am widely considered a climate denier.”

    Yes. Almost anyone can be a denier, no matter how persuaded they are of Global Warming. Any sort of disagreement on anything with a self appointed member of the Nomenklatura will result in the accusation. It need not have a whole lot to do with climate science, it can simply be disagreeing with the merits of various public policy proposals.

    As reported by The Guardian, “More than 60 news outlets worldwide have signed on to Covering Climate Now, a project to improve coverage of the emergency”.

    Yes, indeed. The Guardian’s style guide came out of this. So they no longer speak about warming, but it has to be heating:

    “climate change is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation; use climate emergency or climate crisis instead to describe the broader impact of climate change. However, use climate breakdown or climate change or global heating when describing it specifically in a scientific or geophysical sense eg ‘Scientists say climate breakdown has led to an increase in the intensity of hurricanes.’”

    climate science denier or climate denier
    The OED defines a sceptic as “a seeker of the truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite conclusions”.

    Most “climate sceptics”, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, deny climate change is happening, or is caused by human activity, so denier is more accurate

    One watches this hysteria with a sort of amazed disbelief.

  5. Without comment on if CO2 is bad for the planet.

    My problem is I have not seen any economic analysis on how a persons life will change if we cut so much CO2 production.

    How much will the cost of food/energy /taxes go up. Will I still be able to get fresh oranges in Iowa or will they cost too much in CO2 to ship here. Will my medications still be manufactured, do you know how much CO2 is produced to make pills? iPads, good luck.

    Disney land vacations , maybe if you live in Florida but not if you live in North Dakota. If your house burns down will you get a bill for the CO2 you dumped in the air?

    Forget pets, cows, pigs. Too much CO2.


    Obviously the rich can still afford things but the rest of us, nope.

    1. henrik,

      The Guardian, like most climate activists these days, boldly lies about climate science. Then they wonder why only a minority believes them. Quite the delusion. Future generations of historians and psychologists will wonder about this – in amazement.

    1. Ron,

      Perhaps CNN will do the same for the Republicans. That would be interesting to see. We could discover which are the biggest science deniers, and the most misinformed. I don’t know who would win that contest.

      1. Larry,

        I knew it was going to be trouble when Trump the denier got in, but this? This is unbelievable!
        One doesn’t need a college degree to understand this is 97% BS.

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