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The fossil fuel industries’ successful strategy, conning the media to doubt climate change

By demanding “balance,” the industry transformed climate change into a partisan issue. We know that was a deliberate strategy because various internal documents from ExxonMobil, Shell, the American Petroleum Institute and a handful of now-defunct fossil fuel industry groups reveal not only the industry’s strategy to target media with this message and these experts,  but also its own preemptive debunking of the very theories it went on to support.

many took the industry’s bait, routinely inserting denialist claims into stories about climate science in the interest of providing balance:

How the fossil fuel industry got the media to think climate change was debatable, WP, By Amy WesterveltAmy Westervelt is an audio and print reporter who covers climate and gender, and sometimes the intersection of the two. Her podcast Drilled is about the creation and spread of climate denial and her first book “Forget ‘Having It All'” was published by Seal Press in November 2018., January 10 2019 

Late last year, the Trump administration released the latest national climate assessment on Black Friday in what many assumed was an attempt to bury the document. If that was the plan, it backfired, and the assessment wound up earning more coverage than it probably would have otherwise. But much of that coverage perpetuated a decades-old practice, one that has been weaponized by the fossil fuel industry: false equivalence.

Although various business interests began pushing back against environmental action in general in the early 1970s as part of the conservative “war of ideas” launched in response to the social movements of the 1960s, when global warming first broke into the public sphere, it was a bipartisan issue and remained so for years. On the campaign trail in 1988, George H.W. Bush identified as an environmentalist and called for action on global warming, framing it as a technological challenge that American innovation could address. But fossil fuel interests were shifting as the industry and its allies began to push back against empirical evidence of climate change, taking many conservatives along with them.

Documents uncovered by journalists and activists over the past decade lay out a clear strategy: First, target media outlets to get them to report more on the “uncertainties” in climate science, and position industry-backed contrarian scientists as expert sources for media. Second, target conservatives with the message that climate change is a liberal hoax, and paint anyone who takes the issue seriously as “out of touch with reality.” In the 1990s, oil companies, fossil fuel industry trade groups and their respective PR firms began positioning contrarian scientists such as Willie SoonWilliam Happer and David Legates as experts whose opinions on climate change should be considered equal and opposite to that of climate scientists. The Heartland Institute, which hosts an annual International Conference on Climate Change known as the leading climate skeptics conference, for example, routinely calls out media outlets (including The Washington Post) for showing “bias” in covering climate change when they either decline to quote a skeptic or question a skeptic’s credibility.

Data on how effective this strategy has been is hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence of its success abounds. In the early 1990s, polls showed that about 80 percent of Americans were aware of climate change and accepted that something must be done about it, an opinion that crossed party lines. By 2008, Gallup found a marked partisan divide on climate change. By 2010, the American public’s belief in climate change hit an all-time low of 48 percent, despite the fact that those 20 years saw increased research, improved climate models and several climate change predictions coming true.

By demanding “balance,” the industry transformed climate change into a partisan issue. We know that was a deliberate strategy because various internal documents from ExxonMobil, Shell, the American Petroleum Institute and a handful of now-defunct fossil fuel industry groups reveal not only the industry’s strategy to target media with this message and these experts,  but also its own preemptive debunking of the very theories it went on to support.

It need not have been such a successful strategy: If news purveyors really wanted to be evenhanded on coverage of climate change, they could certainly weave in the insights of more conservative scientists — those whose predictions err on the sunnier side of apocalypse. Instead, many took the industry’s bait, routinely inserting denialist claims into stories about climate science in the interest of providing balance: In an analysis of 636 articles covering climate change that appeared in “prestige U.S. outlets” from 1988 to 2002, researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz and American University found that 52.65 percent presented climate science and contrarian theories as equal. The practice continued into the mid-2000s. As recently as 2007, PBS NewsHour invited well-known (and widely debunked) former weatherman Anthony Watts on to counterbalance Richard Muller, a former Koch-funded skeptic who had shifted his view…………

It’s well past time the media stopped allowing itself to be a tool in the fossil fuel industry’s information war. Oreskes likens the push for “balance” on climate change to journalists arguing over the final score of a baseball game. “If the Yankees beat the Red Sox 6-2, journalists would report that. They would not feel compelled to find someone to say actually the Red Sox won, or the score was 6-4,” she sayshttps://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/01/10/how-fossil-fuel-industry-got-media-think-climate-change-was-debatable/

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January 14, 2019 - Posted by | climate change, USA

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