How Media Bias Caused the Moral Panic Surrounding Climate Change

Reprinted from Law & Liberty

President Biden has put combating climate change at the very top of his national and international agenda, saying that military officials had told him that climate change was the “greatest threat to America,” and both he and Senator Bernie Sanders have recently called climate change “an existential threat.”

Dire statements like this on climate change have become so commonplace that the media now routinely attributes unusual weather events—heat waves, fires, floods, tornados, or hurricanes—to humanity’s insufficiently restrained release of CO2. The New York Times, in particular, has continued to stoke alarm. In a recent article describing President Biden’s problems with his infrastructure bill, Times reporter wrote “The impact of climate change is already being felt around the world in the form of drought, wildfires, floods, economic disruption and environmentalists say action cannot be postponed.”

However, the amazing fact is that when actual scientific sources are consulted about climate change, the story about an “existential threat”—let alone a military threat—completely falls apart. Yes, climate change is occurring, but the science says there is no evidence that it poses current dangers to mankind today or in the foreseeable future.

Indeed, the discrepancy between the claims about climate change and the actual facts is so shocking that it suggests the “climate crisis” is largely a media creation, built on sensationalistic headlines and useful solely to advancing the political agenda of the left.

Recently, two books by climate experts have pointed out that climate science does not support either the president’s urgency or the media’s catastrophism. Michael Shellenberger’s book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us Alland Steven Koonin’s Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why it Matters, both cast doubt on what the media and the politicians-with-agendas have been telling us for years.

Shellenberger, a long-time and well-known environmentalist, has written a bit of a confessional, in which he admits he was wrong about his apocalyptic visions in the past. Today, he sees many ways that climate change can be sensibly managed: “Apocalypse Never explores how and why so many of us came to see important but manageable environmental problems as the end of the world, and why the people who are most apocalyptic about environmental problems tend to oppose the most obvious solutions to solving them.” His emphasis, as his book’s title suggests, is on calming the unreasoning fears provoked by the alarmism of media figures such as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Greta Thunberg, and AOC. “The news media,” he says, “also deserves blame for having misrepresented climate change and other environmental problems as apocalyptic, and for having failed to put them in their global, historical, and economic context.”

The book is particularly strong in showing that renewables like wind and solar are a false god, popular with elites but infeasible by nature for meeting the needs of a modern industrial society. The problem, he points out, is the low energy density of renewables. “Power-dense factories and cities require energy-dense fuels because they are easier to transport and store.” He writes:  “Despite the hype, the shares of global primary energy from solar and wind in 2018 was just 3 percent… One of the largest lithium battery storage centers in the world is in Escondido, California. But it can only store enough power for twenty-four thousand American homes for four hours. There are about 134 million households in the United States.”

Koonin, a physicist who was Undersecretary for Science in the Obama Energy Department, is an experienced climate scientist who has participated in many international climate studies. More numbers-oriented than Shellenberger, he cites data to show that there is little evidence for the view that floods, fires, droughts, or hurricanes have been increasing since 1900. “The bottom line,” he writes, “is that the science says most extreme weather events show no long-term trends that can be attributed to human influence on the climate.” That statement alone deserves extensive coverage in a media that should be informing the American people rather than using unusual weather events as further support for alleged dangers of climate change theory.

On rising temperatures, regularly the focus of alarmist reports in media coverage, Koonin writes: “The annual number of high temperature records set shows no significant trend over the past century nor over the past forty years, but the annual number of record cold nights has declined since 1895, somewhat more rapidly in the past thirty years.”

In other words, summers are not getting hotter, but winters are getting somewhat milder, something no one should view with alarm, whatever the cause.

Finally, are the seas rising? Should we be prepared for coastal flooding that will inundate New York and other coastal cities? Koonin says no, and shows data that since 1900 sea levels have both risen and fallen during 18 year periods, and by some studies were higher between 1920 and 1960 than they are today.

So which is it? Steven Koonin and Michael Shellenberger, experts with deep experience in the data associated with climate, or statements in a newspaper like the New York Times that are clearly designed to force a political conclusion.

In general, what comes from reading the Koonin and Shellenberger books is that there is simply no case as yet for alarm about the climate, or, for that matter, military preparedness. If anything, the frenzied and unnecessary effort to cut the use of fossil fuels is more likely to cause a Malthusian conflict over substitute resources such as rare earths than conflicts about oil.  CO2 is rising, but its warming effect is mitigated in part (and maybe fully) by cooling effects of such things as aerosols (fine particles in the atmosphere that reflect sunlight back into space). Koonin notes that because of uncertainty about these and other complications, none of the climate models is accurate—all are based on many untested assumptions—and they are so far apart from one another that averaging them is even more misleading.

But the media has largely driven the issue through sensationalized reporting. Koonin’s data comes from the same reports by various blue ribbon national and international groups that the media regularly follow, but he shows that the media consistently takes the numbers out of context, or reports only those portions that can be spun into an alarming story. For example, after the publication of a study that concluded it could not “precisely quantify the contribution from anthropogenic factors” in hurricane intensity, the USA Today headline was “Global warming is making hurricanes stronger.” In part, these alarmist reports are caused by the inability of media reporters to understand the reservations that scientists have about the data they are reporting, but more often the desire to sell newspapers or leftist bias overwhelms careful and accurate reporting.

In the Covid-19 crisis, Americans were told by the media to “follow the science,” and, difficult as it was, Americans did their best to comply with the views of the scientists and public officials. But the media hasn’t shown the same respect for science in the field of climate change. This isn’t a difference of degree; it is a difference in kind. Medical specialists with diverging positions were given media platforms for expressing their views during the pandemic, but scientists who question the dangers of climate change are called “deniers” and get little if any media coverage. When the president of the United States tells the American people that climate change is an “existential threat” but the media suppresses contrary views by competent scientists, the future of the country is at stake. Doubts about science are fair game, but science should be heard so the public can decide.

The political aims of the climate crisis movement—the effort to limit economic growth by reducing the use of fossil fuels and changing the face of agriculture—will have a far greater long-term effect than the recent pandemic on the lives of people in the United States and around the world. US and other world leaders, who embarked on policies that scientists with relevant views do not fully endorse, are recklessly plunging ahead. Hopefully, before the US and other governments take the fateful steps that President Biden is pushing, more members of the science community will summon the courage to say that the emperor has no clothes.

Peter Wallison

Peter J. Wallison is a senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. He was General Counsel of the Treasury and White House Counsel during the Reagan Administration. His most recent book is Judicial Fortitude: The Last Chance to Rein in the Administrative State.

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