Climate Change Feature

Rise of Distorted News Puts Climate Scientists on Their Guard

Wary of misleading coverage, some climate researchers are avoiding publicizing results. Others prepare countermeasures to anticipate and combat skewed media reports.

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Last fall, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory ecosystem scientist Trevor Keenan had the kind of high-profile, global-scale research results that scientists dream of: He found that plants had absorbed more carbon dioxide than expected between 2002 and 2014.

Keenan was generally pleased with the media coverage his Nature Communications paper got, most of which conveyed his caveat that increased carbon uptake by plants will not stave off long-term climate change. But he also noticed that some blogs and media outlets cited his paper while falsely implying that climate change had slowed or stopped. The popular U.S. right-wing website Breitbart embellished upon the unexpected nature of the results by describing Keenan and his colleagues as “amazed” [Williams, 2016].

“It’s everybody’s fear that their results will be used as something that they’re not,” Keenan said. However, he said he felt there was little he could have done to prevent the misleading reports and hoped they would have limited impact.

Such an attitude didn’t sit well with Keenan’s friend and colleague Thomas Crowther who has since moved from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Wageningen to ETH Zurich in Switzerland. Crowther thought Keenan should have more explicitly framed his finding as a temporary fluctuation in a long-term trend to prevent misinterpretations of his paper, Crowther said in an interview.

Climate skeptics are “increasingly in power and making decisions about the world. And I would like to give them as little ammunition as possible,” Crowther explained. Keenan noted, however, that those skeptics’ “arguments are not based on logic but on passion.” “You’re not going to change their minds,” he said.

For years, climate change doubters have sought to discredit climate science with niche websites like Climate Depot and blogs like Watts Up With That? that are devoted to the topic of global warming (see https://history.aip.org/climate/20ctrend.htm#S6). They have also issued misleading think tank reports, some dating back to the 1980s [Oreskes, 2011].

Today, however, the rise of well-funded “alt-right” websites like Breitbart and an elaborate fake news ecosystem supercharged by social media has climate skepticism reaching a general audience. As a result, many climate scientists find the broader media landscape becoming a minefield. Climate science skepticism “has become weaponized on a mass scale, when before it was more of a boutique industry,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

As a result, some researchers have begun to shy away from the public eye. These scientists worry that biased reporters could twist their findings to add to misinformation about their field and make them targets of unwanted attention or even attacks. Others, however, say that developing a thick skin can make the hostile environment tolerable. Some are using the same modern communication tools deployed by fake news purveyors to counter the influence of those deceptive voices. A few even are taking the battle to the hard-core skeptics, challenging them on their own turf.

An Industry of Confusion

Blogs that distort climate science have thrived for more than a decade. In an extreme trend a few years ago, the United Kingdom even saw a rash of fake meteorological forecasts. Those appear to be on the wane, however, as audiences have wised up to the tactic, according to Adam Scaife, head of monthly to decadal prediction at the Met Office Hadley Centre in Devon.

The blogs often follow a standard playbook, said Jeff Harvey, an ecologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology who has studied how climate skeptic bloggers operate. Typical tactics, he explained, include trying to discredit all of climate science by focusing on a niche issue such as polar bear habitat and citing one or a small number of supposed “experts” (who are often not actually experts in the relevant field) to provide a veneer of authority.

What’s new is that these writers are moving beyond blogging into increasing use of the conventions of mainstream journalism. The daily news mix at well-funded, ideology-driven sites such as Breitbart and Infowars in the United States and conservative tabloids in the United Kingdom often includes stories on high-profile climate science papers, reports, and other developments. However, the media outlets that publish these stories may not follow journalistic practices that guard against biased or inaccurate reporting.

Even a misleading story by a media site often skeptical of climate research was welcomed by the climate scientist.
Despite its misleading reporting on one of his recent climate research papers, Gavin Foster (right) welcomed coverage in a media outlet often highly skeptical of climate science. That’s because of the audience it reaches, he said. In this November 2014 photograph, Foster, a geochemist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, discusses a sediment core with then U.K. minister for universities, science and cities Greg Clark. Credit: University of Southampton

A recent example was a Breitbart story that featured a paper in Nature Communications by University of Southampton, United Kingdom, geochemist Gavin Foster. Breitbart gave its story the headline “Scientists Warn of Climate Apocalypse: CO2 Emissions Will Send Earth Back to ‘Triassic Period’” [Williams, 2017]—sensational, perhaps, but not inaccurate.

After describing the study, however, the writer segued into an extended discussion about the supposed unreliability of climate proxies such as those that Foster had used, which included carbon deposits in ancient ice, sediments, and fossils. Next, the writer referred back to Breitbart’s prior coverage of Trevor Keenan’s alleged amazement at his finding of a larger than expected uptake of carbon dioxide by plants.

The article ended with a quote from William Happer, a physicist who disagrees with the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. (Happer has been floated as a possible science adviser to Donald Trump.)

Although appearing in Breitbart surprised Foster, who was not interviewed for the article, he said he actually welcomes the coverage, even if he disagrees with the way the outlet framed his results. “I think it’s great that these sorts of outlets picked up the story,” he said. “It means the people you need to convince are actually reading it.”

Climate skeptics have also mastered social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which makes sharing misleading stories as easy as clicking a mouse. Through these channels, they can even incite more-respected institutions to amplify a message. For instance, many were appalled late last year when the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology tweeted a Breitbart article, which itself cited an article in the U.K.-based Mail on Sunday that falsely claimed that global temperatures had “plummeted.”

Predict and Prepare

Increasingly aware of outlets ready and waiting to distort climate science findings, many researchers are devising tactics to counter the threat. One is to predict and prepare for misleading stories.

For example, many expect the fake news industry to pounce if, as seems likely, the average global temperature dips this year compared to last because the powerful El Niño that gave 2016 temperatures an extra boost has waned. (According to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate outlook, 2017 looks on track to be the second-warmest year on record.)

To get out in front of potentially misleading stories, the United Kingdom’s Met Office publicly released a prediction at the end of 2016 that 2017 would probably be a bit colder; Schmidt made a similar forecast in an article for the website FiveThirtyEight. Scientists plan to point back to these predictions to show that a cooler 2017 is consistent with the consensus view. “Making these forecasts well ahead of time gives us a sound foundation to go back to, when people talk about these small fluctuations from one year to the next,” Scaife said.

Expanding the media’s focus from global temperature to metrics such as sea level and land and sea ice, some of which fluctuate less on an annual basis, could also help bolster the case that global warming is a one-way trend, added Deke Arndt of NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information in Asheville, N.C. These indicators are “all singing the same song, even if they hit different notes from year to year.”

Directly confronting misleading coverage is another tactic that at least one climate change research organization in the United Kingdom has tried, with some recent success. On 5 February 2017, the UK’s Mail on Sunday published an article entitled “Exposed: How World Leaders Were Duped over Global Warming.” Once again, Breitbart covered the Mail story and the House Science Committee tweeted Breitbart’s coverage. Bob Ward, the policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in London, then lodged a formal complaint of inaccurate reporting. In July the UK’s Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO) ruled in Ward’s favor, and the Mail on Sunday article now carries a long preamble summarizing IPSO’s findings of inaccuracies.

A Tough Choice

The new media environment can be particularly challenging for young scientists, who need to promote their work but often receive little media training or guidance.

When the journal Global Change Biology accepted Martijn Slot’s recent paper on tropical forests’ ability to acclimate to higher temperatures, he thought about having a press release written. Slot, a plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, is a postdoc who hopes to eventually land a permanent research job; he could certainly have used the recognition.

Climate scientists may skip publicizing findings to avoid misleading coverage from media promoting climate skeptics’ views.
Plant physiologist Martijn Slot of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, Panama, installs a data logger for a study on leaf temperature while perched on a tower crane above the tropical forest canopy of Panama’s Parque Natural Metropolitano. Slot has not publicized some of his scientific findings to avoid skewed coverage. Credit: Camilo Rey-Sanchez

But having seen findings like his get twisted to make climate change seem less dire, he said he decided to let the paper appear without fanfare. “I don’t want to be misrepresented,” he said. “The nuance of your science [can get] lost, it becomes a one-liner, things get taken out of context; people can run with it.”

Abigail Swann, an assistant professor of atmospheric science and biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, shares Slot’s worries. Several of her team’s recent results could, in the hands of someone looking for fodder to create confusion, be used to make deforestation appear beneficial. For example, a modeling study Swann and her colleagues published in 2016 found that forest loss in the southwestern United States and the Amazon could actually cause trees to grow faster in the southeastern United States and eastern South America. “It’s a difficult line to walk,” she said. “You could try to construe this as that trees are bad in some way.”

Instead of shying away from press exposure, however, Swann has armed herself with talking points on non-climate-related benefits of trees—that forests are essential for protecting local biodiversity and water sources, for example. She said that so far, to her knowledge, only one right-wing newspaper in Australia has written a misleading article about her work.

Some scientists also try to head off misleading coverage by putting their own interpretation forward for the public. Foster, for example, published an essay in the online venue The Conversation on the same day his Nature Communications paper came out. “We thought [the study] might have some press interest, and we wanted to lay out [our case] in easy language for people,” he said. Although the essay didn’t prevent Breitbart’s misleading report, it gave interested readers Foster’s side of the story in a readily understood form.

Developing a Thick Skin

Climate scientists who insert themselves into the public dialogue need to be prepared for uncomfortable interactions, say some veterans of the fray. Nearly every climate researcher interviewed for this article had received angry or unsettling emails. In the spring of 2016, Swann endured a lecture from a customs official dismissive of climate change. Scaife collects in a binder his letters from those who think that human-induced climate change is a hoax. Michael Mann, a well-known climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, has even received death threats.

This climate scientist used talking points to avoid misleading coverage by media often skeptical about climate science.
Abigail Swann of the University of Washington in Seattle has researched forest loss in some regions, finding it prompted quicker forest growth in others. Concerned that some media might misuse her findings to extol virtues of deforestation, she prepared talking points for press interviews. Those focused on benefits that trees offer in addition to mitigating climate change by storing carbon, like sustaining water quality and biodiversity. Credit: The Daily/Lucas Boland

But most say that with a thick skin, the online smears are tolerable. “People have to understand it’s not personal,” Schmidt said. “You’re just a name that can be used to make a political point.”

A few, such as Harvey, even dive into debates in the comments sections of blogs. He described the experience as “a basic street fight or mud wrestling match” and said that he doesn’t expect to convert those who vehemently deny climate change. But he has also found that many blog readers are genuinely confused and appreciate an expert’s perspective.

“I’ve met some very good people on these blogs,” he said. “People have written me emails afterwards and thanked me personally for teaching them about a process that they didn’t understand. And I thought, I’m doing my job as a scientist.”

—Gabriel Popkin (email: [email protected]), Freelance Science Journalist

Editor’s Note, 2 October 2017: This article has been updated to remove text involving a blogger’s comments on a source’s research.  Eos could not verify these comments.

References

Oreskes, N. (2011), Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, pp. 186-190, 244-247, Bloomsbury, New York.

Williams, T. D. (2016), Scientists amazed at plants’ increasing ability to absorb carbon, Breitbart (website), 21 Nov.

Williams, T. D. (2017), Scientists warn of climate apocalypse: CO2 emissions will send Earth back to ‘Triassic period,’ Breitbart (website), 8 April.

Citation: Popkin, G. (2017), Rise of distorted news puts climate scientists on their guard, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO083163. Published on 02 October 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • tolo4zero

    Once science accepted those 97% consensus studies as legitimate proof of a consensus on dangerous warming, it proved their
    incompetence and or collusion.

  • bvee

    Far from over, you guys are losing the scientific debate.

  • cardigan

    “Climate skeptics are “increasingly in power and making decisions about the world.”

    I thought this was quite hilarious….if only. To claim that there is no genuine challenge to the “CO2 induced climate warming” claims is an insult to the many climate scientists of longstanding and impeccable credentials, who quite simply disagree with the claims being made, on totally valid scientific grounds.

    To portray Bob Ward and Michael Mann as paragons of virtuous truth, is in itself quite distorted. The Grantham Centre from where Bob Ward operates as PR director, was set up and funded by hedge fund billionaire, Jeremy Grantham. It has billionaires and renewables vested interests on its advisory board. It has direct input into UK policy by representation of Grantham scientists on the UK Climate Change Committee. Its advisory board also has the highly paid CEO’s of US Greenpeace and Environmental Defense, in turn funded by Grantham in the states. Chairman of the LSE Grantham Committee, Lord Stern, was for several years part of a carbon trading consultancy known as Idea Carbon, where the former UN IPCC head, Christiana Figueres was also a colleague. There is mega money available in carbon credit schemes, none of which can or does have any impact on climate.

    This whole article is a massive distortion of events in the real world.

  • leslie graham

    2016 was the third year in a row that the average global temperature reached a new record high.
    2017 is on track to beat even 2014 and 2015 despite no El Nino.
    The Earth is now warmer than at any time since the Holocene Thermal Optimum over 6000 years ago and is approaching temperatures not seen since the Eemian interglacial over 115,000 years ago.
    CO2 levels just hit 410ppm – a high not seen for 15 million years.
    These are simple, measurable, verifiable facts that no climate scientist on the planet disputes.
    We are in trouble and the utter insanity of those in pathological denial is just sickening.
    Pure willful ignorance bred of fear and cowardice – you don’t have the balls to face up to simple observable reality.

  • david

    OMG, this is the craziest article ever. Turning the tables on so called skeptics is so unprofessional. Faced with proof of altered data,skewed reports and unscientific process the warming fanatics come up with this while the reverse is the real truth.

    • elizabetta

      So unprofessional – ha!! Calling out supposed journalists for misrepresenting their data!! Maybe you should read some of the articles being put out by conservative news outlets and then read the actual studies that these articles were supposedly describing – then you can have an informed opinion on who is being unprofessional.

    • ThisNameInUse

      If you were going for irony, david, you totally nailed it. You’re accusing the scientists here of projecting, when it’s YOU and your cottage industry (funded well by larger industry that has trillions at stake here) ilk of dishonest distorters who are projecting your sins onto the scientific world. You’re a vandal, and an accomplice to manslaughter.

    • leslie graham

      There is absolutely zero evidence of any altered data or skewed reports.
      Just ridiculous nonsense.

      Have you idiots learned nothing from the fake ‘climategate’ smear campaign.
      Every single inquiry and investigation into that disgusting and shameful episode revealed just how low the Denial Industry will sink to protect their profits.

      Here are just a few of the comments from those inquiries.

      House of Commons Science and Technology Committee

      “The scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact”. The emails and claims raised in the controversy did not challenge the scientific consensus that “global warming is happening and that it is induced by human activity”.

      “No evidence to support claims that Jones had tampered with data or interfered with the peer-review process

      Independent Science Assessment Panel

      It found that the CRU’s work had been “carried out with integrity” and had used “fair and satisfactory” methods.

      The CRU was found to be “objective and dispassionate in their view of the data and their results, and there was no hint of tailoring results to a particular agenda.”

      Instead, “their sole aim was to establish as robust a record of temperatures in recent centuries as possible

      The repeated FOI requests made by climate change sceptic Steve McIntyre and others “could have amounted to a campaign of harassment”

      Pennsylvania State University

      “The conduct of his research, has from the beginning of his career been judged to be outstanding by a broad spectrum of scientists.” It agreed unanimously that “there is no substance” to the allegations against Mann

      Independent Climate Change Email Review

      The “rigour and honesty” of the scientists at the Climatic Research Unit were found not to be in doubt.The panel found that they did not subvert the peer review process to censor criticism as alleged, and that the key data needed to reproduce their findings was freely available to any “competent” researcher.[

      United States Environmental Protection Agency report

      The EPA examined every email and concluded that there was no merit to the claims in the petitions, which “routinely misunderstood the scientific issues”, reached “faulty scientific conclusions”, “resorted to hyperbole”, and “often cherry-pick language that creates the suggestion or appearance of impropriety

      Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Commerce

      Senator Jim Inhofe requested the Inspector General of the United States Department of Commerce to conduct an independent review

      They “did not find any evidence that NOAA inappropriately manipulated data or failed to adhere to appropriate peer review procedures”.

      National Science Foundation

      “Lacking any evidence of research misconduct, as defined under the NSF Research Misconduct Regulation, we are closing the investigation with no further action.

      As I said, what ‘Climategategate’ showed was how low the fossil fuel lobby is prepared to stoop in order to add just another few billion to the billions they already have. These disgusting sociopaths will one day face trial.

      So please give it up with your slander and libel. You just sound unhinged.

    • Toider Grey

      “Everything you thought was true is actually false and the reverse is true if you really think about it. I’m about to turn science on its HEAD, gather ’round. Listen up, (hits vape) you think you know how the world really works? Well, how deep does the rabbit hole really go? Are you brave enough to face the truth?”