Sunday shows' climate disgrace: Cluelessness and false balance could cost lives

From using the wrong words, to hosting the wrong people, to questioning science, these shows are doing real damage

Published February 19, 2014 12:44PM (EST)

This post originally appeared on the BRAD BLOG.

Now that the East Coast and parts of the Southern U.S. have been battered over and over again with extreme weather this winter, and while California is in the midst of its worst and longest drought on historical record, the Sunday "news" shows, all at once, decided this week to cover what they describe as "climate change" -- or, in the words of NBC's "Meet the Press" host, David Gregory, "The Politics of Weather."

All four of the major Sunday "news" shows --- NBC's "Meet the Press," ABC's "This Week," CBS' "Face the Nation" and Fox's "Fox 'News' Sunday" --- covered the matter in various (lousy) ways.

Out of all four of them, just "This Week" and "Face the Nation" bothered to book an actual climate scientist to take part in the conversation with their various bevies of political and journalistic deniers and non-scientists. Only "Face the Nation" offered a one-on-one with a climate scientist before then bringing on the denier.

Gregory, whom Esquire's Charlie Pierce aptly described as a "noodlebrained bag of useless flesh," tipped his hand last Friday by announcing excitedly via Twitter that "MTP" would be "debating climate change" on this week's show with Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., one of Congress' top carbon industry proponents and global warming deniers and Bill Nye "The Science Guy," a mechanical engineer turned TV science personality. No actual climate scientists necessary, apparently, to "debate" climate change in "Meet the Press" World.

Pierce called the embarrassing exchange "every bit as grim as you can imagine," and it certainly was. Here's just part of his scathing, dead-on-the-money response to it ... 

Yesterday, and I am not exaggerating a bit here, David Gregory and the Meet The Press gang presented the definitive argument not only for their mutual expulsion from the company of sentient primates, but also the single best example of why the entire elite political class of this country is one day going to be subject to a massive class-action negligence suit on the part of whatever rodents are left. Let us stipulate from the outset -- among the people who actually know what they're talking about, there is no debate about climate change. None. It is occurring. Humans are exacerbating it at an unacceptable rate and, if something isn't done, beachfront property in Indianapolis one day is going to be at a premium. Neither political party has shown itself overly willing to confront this reality, but only one of them mocks the science and slanders the scientists.

Pierce responds to Blackburn's idiotic word salad about "hypotheses or theories or unproven sciences," to say: "Hypothesis. Theories. Unproven sciences. While England drowns and Australia burns and California dies of thirst."

We've discussed the record rains and flooding in Great Britain several times of late on our Green News Report and on a television appearance last week on RT America, but we haven't written about it much here. Last week, in response to the unrelenting extreme weather and storm surges swamping much of Southern England, Great Britain's conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to promise: "The Government will do everything it can to coordinate the nation's resources. If money needs to be spent, it will be spent. If resources are required, we will provide them. If the military can help, they will be there."

The very next day, Cameron promised as he announced the deployment of the U.K. military to build a 60-meter-high sea wall in one area of the country: "Money is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed for it, will be spent."

He went on to explain that in yet another area, Somerset, "There have been more than 65 million cubic meters of flood water. There is now around 3 million tons of water being pumped out every day. The equivalent of three Wembley Stadiums."

If you're wondering what all those "scientists" and their crazy talk of "sea rise" are about, here are just a few seconds of video from over the weekend in Newlyn, Cornwall (video that the U.S. news networks apparently haven't bothered to show you) ...



Yes, even actual conservatives now, such as Cameron, have come to appreciate the dangers of global warming, even if it is only after disaster has struck his constituents, only after they are forced to deal with its costly consequences. And those consequences are becoming more and more costly by the year. Globally, in 2013, according to a recent report by reinsurance group Aon Benfield, we had the most extreme weather events in history that caused damage of $1 billion or more each, with 41 such events. "That's one more than the previous set in 2010," notes Climate Central's Brian Kahn, detailing the steady and costly increase in such catastrophes over recent decades.

In the bargain, actual conservatives in this country may also like to not notice that failure to prepare for extreme weather events hastened by global warming has cost the U.S. some $1.15 trillion over the past 30 years, according to the Department of Homeland Security's secretary for policy last week. He added, during his congressional testimony, that it's expected to cost at least another trillion over the coming decades.

But why bother doing anything about it? Denial is much easier, if much more costly.

On Sunday, NBC and Fox "News" and the others were giving airtime to jackasses like Wall Street Journal's Kimberly Strassel to explain the reason scientists use the term "climate change" now instead of "global warming." (In fact, they don't. Both terms have long been used, with climate change used even earlier than global warming, though Republican and Fox "News" contributor Frank Luntz famously wrote a memo urging the GOP to use "climate change" instead of "global warming," because he thought it was less frightening.) Strassel's answer to Chris Wallace's straw man question about why it's "climate change" now instead of "global warming": Because "you couldn't prove that there was much global warming anymore, you know."

Really? Tell that to the people of Australia, where they were recently forced to add a new color to their weather maps to denote newly extreme heat; where there were 203 heat-related deaths in Victoria alone last month; and where the frequency of such heat waves has now "surpasse[d] levels previously predicted for 2030."

"Heat waves are coming earlier, they are lasting longer and they are hotter," Tim Flannery of the Australian Climate Council told the Guardian yesterday in conjunction with the group's new report on Australia's unprecedented heat waves. "They build up for days and before you know it, elderly people, infants and the homeless are in danger."

Nonetheless, the right-wing Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott still remains in denial there, last week claiming that "there have always been tough times and lush times," as he refused to link the nation's record heat and wildfires and drought to climate change. Not enough dead people there yet, apparently.

"We're not looking at these things in a linked-up way," Flannery told the Guardian in response to Abbott's denial. "We don't seem to recognise the relationship between the number and intensity of heatwaves on bushfires, and the impact on droughts ... and people don't want to face the truth.

"Governments have a responsibility to keep Australians safe from dangers such as climate change. You need to be explicit about that threat. We have yet to see that policy yet," he said.

In this country, of course, we haven't seen it either. Here, even the non-wingnut journalists have now been cowed into not linking the human use of fossil fuels to global warming.

Despite the fact that 97 percent of the 4,000 scientific studies on the cause of global warming over the past 20 years have found that human activity is to blame for warmer global temperatures, non-wingnuts like NBC weatherman Al Roker offer viewers nonsense such as: "Is it a natural cycle? Is it due to human interference or human conditions that we have created? That remains open to debate. But there is no doubt the climate is changing."

No, humanity's contribution to climate change does not remain open to debate, at least if you bother to listen to the vast consensus of the world's climate scientists for the past several decades. But what do they know? And why should anybody want to include them on a network news show's "debate" about climate change?

"What Roker's doing here is what you might call skepticism-once-removed," the Wire's Philip Bump explains in his fact-check of Sunday's "MTP" "debate." "He's too smart and too prominent to deny that climate change exists, but he also doesn't want to get nasty emails from people who hate the idea that anyone would say climate change exists ... Roker is wrong."

But rather than climate scientists, better to offer views of TV-friendly weathermen like Roker and mechanical scientists like Nye and offer viewers the sage wisdom of Republican denialists like Blackburn and North Carolina's Gov. Pat McCrory (the 28-year former executive of Duke Energy) who appeared on two different Sunday shows this week (neither of which bothered to ask him about North Carolina's recent massive coal ash spill by Duke Energy) and "balance" that with folks like Fox's version of a "liberal," Kirsten Powers and NBC's Chuck Todd.

Powers explained on Sunday that while global warming "has become very much an article of faith on the left" (no, Kirsten, science is not "faith"), it's probably best to not talk about it all very much. We should just call for "reducing carbon emissions" because, "whether you believe in climate change or not, I think [that] is something that people should be able to get behind."

"I mean, less pollution is definitely a good thing," declared Powers, so as not to explain the truth too much to sensitive fossil fuel propagandized viewers. "So that might be a better way to make the argument rather than claiming that climate change is the cause of every single thing that happens with the weather."

Naturally, over on NBC, Todd agreed with the general let's-not-upset-everybody notion. He suggested on the "Meet the Press" roundtable on Sunday that maybe it's better to keep the actual causes of this whole human-caused global warming thing to ourselves.

"I wonder if there's too much -- you know, I know some environmentalists are frustrated with that portion of the debate -- but maybe you steer away from it and say, it doesn't matter," Todd advised. Who cares why it's happening?! Better to just discuss what we'll need to do now to mitigate it. He'd like to "table that part of the debate" regarding how we might make it all less horrific.

"We have to tackle this infrastructure problem. You got to build different higher seawalls in some places. We're going to have to figure out a different way to distribute water in California ... and the federal government is going to have to pay for this ... pay for all these things. And so I wonder if everybody should say, you know what? Let's table this debate. We know what's happening. Table that part of the debate because when you do that, then it becomes this like clubbing each other with -- with -- with political argument that takes away from what we have to do."

Esquire's Pierce found Todd's suggestion particularly absurd.

"How, precisely, would this policy approach work?" Pierce asked rhetorically. "'We will spend a few billion to build state-of-the-art seawalls but we won't bother giving a reason for why we're doing it. We're going to rearrange radically the way 38 million people get their water and we'll be apolitically vague when people ask why they woke up one morning with a fking aqueduct in their backyard.'"

Apparently, the important thing is that the Sunday "news" shows either don't mention climate change at all, or if they do, have deniers and non-climate scientists talk about it, and when they finally do talk about it, maybe it's better to just not mention the reason for it at all. That way nobody -- especially the fossil fuel industry, which is a huge sponsor of all the network news outlets and most of our elected officials in Congress -- will have to discuss reality and scare those sensitive viewers and voters with actual information.

Fox "News" disinformation not withstanding, last year was the fourth-warmest year on record globally, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They also report that the 10 hottest years on record globally have all occurred since 1998. And, yet, a Media Matters study found in January this year that NBC's "Meet the Press" "fail[ed] to offer a single substantial mention of climate change in all of 2013."

Given what David Gregory and friends offered this week, perhaps it's best they go back to not talking about it in 2014 if this is the way he and his colleagues are going to cover it while, as Pierce says, "England drowns, and Australia burns, and California dies of thirst ..."

By Brad Friedman

Investigative journalist and broadcaster Brad Friedman is the creator and publisher of The BRAD Blog. He has contributed to Mother Jones, The Guardian, Truthout, Huffington Post, The Trial Lawyer magazine and Editor & Publisher.

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