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Stop Letting Republicans Lie on TV About Climate Science

Conservatives have been repeating the same handful of absurd talking points for years. Why aren't reporters calling them out?

Rick Santorum (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Despite the Trump administration’s decision to release it on Black Friday, a new federal government report about climate change made headlines anyway. The 1,600-page Fourth National Climate Assessment, which details how global warming is already damaging the United States, got significant airtime on the prime-time cable news programs this Sunday.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, during that airtime, non-experts made numerous false and misleading statements about the climate report and the scientists who wrote it. Those statements went largely unchallenged by the journalists in charge of gatekeeping the conversations.

It’s difficult to challenge falsehoods in real-time. But that’s why high-profile political journalists like Chuck Todd and George Stephanopoulos get paid the big bucks. Plus, the majority of falsehoods spread about climate change on Sunday’s news programs weren’t exactly new or novel. They were the same global warming talking points Republicans have been using for several years. They’re all easily refutable. There’s no reason why prominent political journalists shouldn’t be able to do it by now.

Take, for example, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst’s comments on CNN’s State of the Union. “We know that our climate is changing,” she said. “Our climate always changes, and we see those ebb and flows through time.” This is perhaps the most-repeated Republican climate change talking point in the history of Republican climate change talking points. Its sole purpose is to imply that the changes we’re seeing right now are normal—which is objectively untrue. Despite regional variations, the earth’s climate as a whole has been stable for the last 12,000 years. Now, all of a sudden, it’s warming more quickly than any time in the last 66 million years. What evidence does Senator Ernst have that this is merely a coincidence? Why didn’t the show’s host, Dana Bash, ask her?

Or take Danielle Pletka’s comments on NBC’s Meet the Press. Pletka is a foreign and defense policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute—she’s “not a scientist,” she told Chuck Todd on Sunday. Because of that, she said she doesn’t know whether global warming is human-caused. But she does know this: “We just had two of the coldest years, biggest drop in global temperatures that we’ve had since the 1980s, the biggest in the last 100 years,” Pletka said. “We don’t talk about that, because it’s not part of the agenda.”

The global average temperature goes up and down every year, but the long-term trend shows rapid warming.
NOAA.gov

Wrong. Scientists and journalists don’t talk about the last two years because short-term trends don’t matter when measuring long-term climactic changes. Republicans always talk about short-term, local records when they’re trying to refute climate science—it’s why Trump has been tweeting for years about cold temperatures during the winter. But when it comes to measuring climate change, all that matters is the long-term trend. And that long-term trend shows rapid warming.

Todd needed only to cite this simple description of climate science in order to fact-check Pletka on Sunday. To be sure, he could have said more—maybe that the only reason the last two years were so much colder than 2016 was because 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, or that 2017 was still the third-hottest year on record. But none of that happened, and thus a woman who freely admitted she was not a scientist was allowed to spread pseudoscientific gobbledegook on the country’s highest-rating Sunday morning news show. (For what it’s worth, Republicans have also been spreading unscientific nonsense while claiming they’re “not scientists” for several years.)

Pletka and others on Sunday also went unchallenged in spreading baseless conspiracy theories about the 300 federal government scientists who wrote the new climate report. Pletka did this by wholly rejecting their findings while subsequently citing “the agenda” to explain her reasoning. Twice-failed Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum also accused scientists of having ulterior motives on CNN’s State Of The Union. “Look, if there was no climate change, we’d have a lot of scientists looking for work,” he said. “The reality is that a lot of these scientists are driven by the money that they receive.”

The idea that climate scientists need climate change to exist in order to get paid is an old talking point, and a false one. The climate affects every living thing on earth. “What happens when you emit a lot of carbon dioxide” isn’t the only thing climate scientists can, or do, study. Republicans who say climate scientists are getting rich off their research have never had evidence to support their claim. Their claim also strongly suggests they have never met any climate scientists, who as a group are hardly making global warming-related money hand over fist.

No one should feel comfortable making any of these baseless arguments on national televised news programs. But Republicans have learned over the years that they can—and that no one will refute them. Perhaps that’s because political journalists on television simply haven’t learned enough about climate change; they haven’t been covering it that often, after all. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: If television hosts really can’t be bothered to read the latest climate science in order to moderate informed discussions, book more people who can. I, for one, am available all week.