Updated Jun 25, 2018

Why climate change is the easiest news to fake

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Climate change is intangible and complicated, which makes it an easy target for our era of fake news.

Why it matters: Addressing climate change, whether through government or private action, requires acknowledging a problem exists. Misinformation about the science, including inaccurate statements and articles, makes that harder. Concern about climate change has dropped over the past year among Republicans and independents, according to Gallup polling released in March.

Fake news and inaccurate climate information have been around for a long time, long before Donald Trump became president. But Trump’s election has enabled misinformation to spread by elevating leaders in politics and elsewhere who don’t acknowledge the scientific consensus on climate change.

We’ve seen this play out across different forums: media articles, congressional hearings and public speeches.

  • Republican lawmakers said at a hearing in May that rocks tumbling into the ocean were causing sea levels to rise, not warmer temperatures fueled by human activity.
  • The Wall Street Journal has run opinion pieces that question mainstream climate science consensus. Some raise important points, but others are deeply inaccurate, such as this one in May that said sea level is rising but not because of climate change.
  • Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and others in the administration have repeatedly raised doubts that humans have an impact on climate change.

When Trump said his inauguration crowd size was the largest ever, it was easy to show a photo disproving his false claim. When Trump blamed Democrats for last week’s immigration crisis, it was relatively easy to show how his own policies led directly to family separations.

With climate change, there's nothing simple about the subject — so it's harder to cut through the barrage of misinformation.

I’ve been covering this issue for nearly a decade, and I still haven’t learned the science enough to know quickly and confidently the science behind why a certain piece of information — such as that sea level rise op-ed in the Journal — is wrong, even when I know it doesn't sound right. I seek out scientists and other reputable experts to help distill it.

“There isn’t necessarily a good intuitive comparison like ‘the crowd in this photo looks a lot bigger than the crowd in this one.' Even if you are looking at lines on a chart, you are comparing abstractions of real phenomena like temperature change.”
— Joseph Majkut, climate science expert at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank

Climate change isn’t simple because it’s inherently uncertain, just like all science — and it's best to acknowledge that uncertainty. Some media articles, environmental activists and progressive politicians often over-simplify, downplay or dismiss altogether any uncertainty. That fuels the polarization on this topic.

The most important thing to know is that the overwhelming majority of scientists say human activity is driving Earth’s temperature up, according to Ed Maibach, an expert on climate-change communication at George Mason University.

Yet, just 15% of the public understands that more than 90% of scientists have reached that conclusion, according to a survey this spring by George Mason and Yale University. Nearly half underestimates the scientific consensus.

“It takes a lot of effort to dive in and learn the details about something, and we will do that when we are highly motivated to learn something," said Anthony Leiserowitz, Yale University professor who studies public perceptions of climate. "Most people aren’t willing to devote an enormous amount of brain energy to thinking about climate change.”

Changing this trend takes time and new leadership — which isn't happening in big enough numbers to shift public debate.

Climate Feedback is a voluntary initiative of well-known and respected scientists reviewing climate change articles for accuracy, whose first work came in 2015.

  • Among the articles reviewed: The Wall Street Journal op-ed on rising sea levels, which was described as “grossly” misleading to readers; and, on the other side, a highly cited New York Magazine article that the reviewing scientists said exaggerated how bad climate change could get.
  • The number of people who read the reviews of those articles are undoubtedly a fraction compared to those who read the original pieces.

People take cues from leaders, such as The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Trump administration officials.

  • Until or unless people in those positions either leave or change opinions, it could be difficult to change the masses.
  • Earlier this month, we saw one leadership change: New NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who doubted the scientific consensus on climate change when he was in Congress, said reviewing the science convinced him to change positions.
  • Bridenstine’s views are important from a substantive perspective — NASA is one of the top agencies that monitors the planet's climate. But he’s not well known enough to change a lot of people's minds.

One non-science thing that could change the debate, in the view of a new bipartisan group, is convincing people to acknowledge the problem without getting stuck debating how serious it is.

Last week, a political group funded by energy companies and supported by a bipartisan pair of former congressional leaders launched a campaign to push for a carbon tax.

One of those leaders lobbying in support, former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, said he remains skeptical of what he says are some scientists’ political motives — but that won’t be his focus.

“I’m not going to debate liberals and Democrats about the icebergs melting. I’m not going to argue how imminent a threat this is. I’m just going to say: ‘It is a problem. This is one way to address it. Let’s talk about it.’ ”
— Former Sen. Trent Lott (R.-Miss.)

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