Climate Deniers Try to 'Fact Check' Real Reporting

A prominent group of deniers with a history of dark money benefactors is now trying to claim media is biased, thanks to new funding.

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CEI Director of the Center for Energy and Environment Myron Ebell in 2017.
CEI Director of the Center for Energy and Environment Myron Ebell in 2017.
Photo: Leon Neal (Getty Images)

The climate deniers are at it again.

In late December, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, released what it’s calling a “Climate Fact Check” report. The report, which was covered breathlessly by Fox News, purports to expose claims made by “climate alarmists and their media allies” in 2022 that “clashed with reality and science.” (Spoiler alert: all the “claims” covered are, in fact, in line with the scientific consensus. Go figure.)

CEI has a long history of perpetuating climate denial—its Director of Global Warming and International Environmental Policy, Myron Ebell, is one of the most high-profile deniers in the U.S.—and this report is no exception. The report contains a lot of tried-and-true climate denier tactics to try to discredit coverage of climate-related disasters in 2022 from outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC. Many of the rhetorical techniques are such old hat that there are entire academic papers and books written them. I won’t break down every false claim, scientific misdirect, and pointless non-sequitur in the report, but here are a few highlights:

  • The report says that, because Europe had a megadrought in the 1500s, “before coal-fired power plants, SUVs and cheeseburgers,” the punishing drought it experienced this year couldn’t possibly be juiced up by climate change. The existence of bad droughts in eras past has no bearing on the increased occurrence of these droughts thanks to climate change now. A rapid attribution analysis published in October found that climate change made the drought in Europe three to four times worse.
  • “While the New York Times labeled China’s drought as ‘record’ as it was supposedly the most extreme drought since records began in 1865, research reports severe megadrought in China as far back as 1637, amid a period called the Little Ice Age,” the report crows. Again, the existence of serious weather events before modern record has no bearing on whether or not this drought was astonishingly bad in context, which it was. The New York Times was being factual by calling it the worst drought on record, since official records of drought in China don’t go back to 1637.
  • The report claims that “heat waves have dramatically declined in frequency and duration in the US over the past 90 years, per the National Climate Assessment.” That 90-year figure is telling: expanding the data that far back includes the extreme heat the U.S. experienced during the Dust Bowl, when, as the National Climate Assessment itself explains, drought and damaging land use practices intensified summer temperatures. If the good people at CEI had just read the full report instead of cherry-picking a certain set of statistics, they would have seen the conclusion that heat waves are projected to become “more intense” across the U.S. as the climate continues to change.
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What’s important about this paper is not the unabashed climate denial, which is old news, but rather how it could serve as a sign of how climate denialists may try to evolve past these tired tactics. In the first page of the report, CEI singles out $8 million of funding that the Associated Press got last year from organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, the private family foundation of the founders of Wal-Mart, to set up more than two dozen climate reporting positions across the world. In an interview with Fox News, Steve Milloy, a longtime denier and Fox News commentator, went so far as to call the AP a “propaganda outfit.”

“It’s hard to claim it’s news when you’re being paid to report only one side of the climate discourse,” Milloy said. (This is a particularly rich statement coming from Milloy, who, in addition to holding a position at CEI, has a long history of getting paid to shill anti-science bullshit for both tobacco and oil companies.)

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The past several years have seen an explosion in reporting on the well-funded sources of climate denial, which became all the more relevant after Donald Trump got elected and began putting some of these dark money-funded deniers in actual positions of power (Myron Ebell was Trump’s transition head for the EPA). CEI lists the Heartland Institute, the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and the International Climate Science Coalition as co-presenters of the report; all of these groups have long resumes of perpetuating climate denial. These organizations have also repeatedly been called out for their connections to oil and gas companies and other forms of dark money—multiple times by the very media they are now trying to accuse of bias thanks to funding.

Philanthropic funding of news outlets, to be clear, usually comes with some form of stringent editorial firewall between the editorial staff and the funding source. The AP has taken philanthropic money since the early 2010s to fund various staff positions reporting on topics ranging from religion to water issues.

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When we asked the AP for comment on the CEI report, a spokesperson wrote in an email that the AP’s reporting referenced by CEI is “factual and based in science” and that the outlet stands by it. “The Associated Press works with a variety of organizations, including nonprofits and foundations, in support of its independent journalism,” the spokesperson wrote. “In all cases, AP is transparent about the source of any outside funding received and retains complete editorial control of all content.”

This report is clearly in search of a “gotcha” moment. But there’s a big difference between a nonpartisan news organization taking money to report on climate from the Walton family—which, arguably, would have more of an incentive to suppress journalism about how consumerism impacts climate change—versus taking money directly from unknown benefactors and oil companies.

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In the end, this report and many other denier claims operate under the flawed assumption that there’s somehow an advantage to be gained in perpetuating the correct science—that the huge majority of scientists who agree on decades of research and studies are really just looking to line their own pockets. But there’s a big difference between one of the most respected news outlets in the world getting a grant to report on a scientific consensus and perpetuating tired old rhetorical chestnuts that sprung full-formed from organizations fed by dark money and oil and gas interests. Someone might want to tell Fox News.