The Planet

This Is What Climate Change Denial Looks Like

by Jed Oelbaum

May 2, 2016

What does it take to still be a public climate change denier in 2016? While overall volume of media coverage of climate issues fluctuates, in recent years we’ve seen the tone of related public arguments change significantly. No longer do media organizations (besides FOX and talk radio, of course) always feel like they have to always present “both sides of the issue,” scouring the professional landscape for the rare climate denier in a given scientific field, eating up airtime with squabbling and name-calling before finally reporting on what 97 percent or so of scientists already agree on: the Earth is warming, sea levels are rising, and if trends continue we will be, in a number of significant ways, fucked.

This shifting pattern in media coverage has been happening slowly, but for quite a while now. In a 2008 article about media coverage of climate change, the Columbia Journalism Review (perhaps prematurely) wrote, “The era of ‘equal time’ for skeptics who argue that global warming is just a result of natural variation and not human intervention seems to be largely over.”

And as beloved astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson so succinctly told CNN in 2014, “You don’t talk about the spherical earth with NASA and then say let’s give equal time to the flat-earthers … the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” (A producer for the network echoed the sentiment by saying, “There are some stories which do not have two sides. The climate change debate is one of them.”) 

This consensus, spreading past the science world into the media’s approach to coverage, sure looks like a conspiracy to those who’ve lost talking-head gigs and on-air appearance fees due to waning interest in their lost cause. (Luckily for them, the U.S. still gives “climate skeptics” more airtime than other countries do, though this is changing.) So what’s a skeptic to do when serious news networks are running out of use for their tired message?

A new film called Climate Hustle from oil-industry shill and professional liberal-antagonist Marc Morano has some tips for those clinging to the final throes of a dying movement. The movie aims to expose what its website calls the “overheated environmental con job being used to push for increased government regulations and a new ‘Green’ energy agenda.”

“Are they trying to control the climate…or you?” the film’s tagline ominously asks.

Promoting the film on his behalf is the indefatigable Sarah Palin, short-term governor and shorter term vice presidential candidate. Palin weighed in on the so-called climate debate at a Congressional event last Thursday in honor of Morano’s film. “The science is kind of getting thrown out of the window in discussions about changes in the weather,” Palin said, throwing the science out the window in in a discussion about changes in the weather. “It leads us to believe that so many things then coming from the scientists could be bogus. If this is bogus, what else are they trying to tell us and control us around?”

Palin also focused in on a particular obsession of climate change deniers that reflects their slipping traction as both supposed tellers of truths and bookable talent for news entertainment programming: Bill Nye the Science Guy. Over the last few years, Nye, who is an engineer by training, has had a resurgence in popularity. His once frenetic, blue lab-coated personality has mellowed a bit, but his lifelong dedication to science communication and education is as strong as ever, authoring books like Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation and Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World—both of which came out last year.

This kind of relevancy, of course, is anathema to those struggling like Palin on the world media stage, whose pertinence waxes and wanes with particular issues of political fancy and attention paid to her family’s very public private struggles.

“Bill Nye is as much a scientist as I am,” Palin told Climate Hustle viewers. “He’s a kids’ show actor. He’s not a scientist.” And if you’re skeptical about her scientific credentials, FactCheck.org did an examination of her claim and you can read it here.

Morano has also targeted Nye, despite the fact that between the awkward trio of Nye, Palin and Morano, America’s Science Guy is the only one who has designed devices for NASA and been awarded six honorary doctoral degrees. The two men have even debated before, and when Morano recently challenged Nye to meet him and discuss the content of the film, each man brought his own camera crew so not to be one-upped by clever editing. The following two videos are what came of the interaction:

Nye himself has been both criticized and lauded for his dedication in continuing to debate doubters of mainstream science. Some think it’s time to let deniers fade away into obscurity, damned to the historical woodpile by their own pig-headedness. Nye has stuck it out, though, pledging to continue engaging on these issues as long as a significant number of people remain unconvinced.

But despite the grace of communicators like Nye, there’s something almost sad about the fact that long-time culture warriors like Morano—a former employee of Rush Limbaugh—still seem to think the climate conversation is a scandalous source of unsettled gray area. Shouldn’t he at least be fighting trans rights with “religious freedom” bills like the rest of his peers at this point? The whole film endeavor feels impossibly retro!

And that brings us back around to the initial question. What does it take to still be a climate change denier in 2016? In a world where 175 countries just signed a United Nations document validating the need to combat global warming and where the Pope made combatting the horrors of climate change part of official Catholic doctrine and where even Exxon Mobil has been forced to admit the existence of the phenomenon, what does it mean to be a holdout? What does it mean to be, as William F. Buckley once defined a conservative American, a person who would stand “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop,’ at a time when no other is inclined to do so”? Buckley surely presented this as a description of a brave person, but in the face of overwhelming evidence, it can also easily describe a fool or a dinosaur.

Climate Hustle will be presented at 400 theaters today. I, and most others discussing the film’s arrival, have little interest or anything to say about its content. Who cares? In the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, Andrew C. Revkin notes, “Predictably, much of the buzz around the film so far has actually been around attempts to build buzz around the film,” including the involvement of Palin and Nye, both more interesting as personalities than the bizarre conspiracy theories, disgruntled academics, and Al Gore jokes that make up modern climate denialism.

So what does it take to still be a public climate denier in 2016? Oh, just forget about it. There aren’t two sides to this story anyway.  

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This Is What Climate Change Denial Looks Like