The Politics of Impartiality: How Media Frames the Climate Change Debate

There are certain scientific principles that we, as a society, take for granted: that an object in motion will stay in motion; that atoms are the stuff of life; that our bodies are composed of units so tiny they can be seen only under the lens of a microscope. These principles ground us in a sense of objective reality. They give order and meaning to the world. So it is easy to imagine the fear, denial, and backlash that accompanies monumental changes in scientific thought. Suddenly faced with a new world order, communities respond by clinging fastidiously to old beliefs untilconfronted by an undeniable body of evidencethey are forced to accept a new reality. And now, at a crucial juncture in Earth’s history, science and society clash once againthis time over the issue of climate change. In the frantic scramble to frame the climate policy debate, tactics of doubt and standards of journalistic objectivity are clouding the actual science, while preserving the status quo.

Trace history back a decade, a century, a millennium, and you will find a consistent pattern of discovery, denial, and acceptance: Galileo’s support of the heliocentric universe and Darwin’s theory of evolution are watersheds in a trend of social resistance in the face of scientific revolution. In utterly different times and places, they both proposed ideas that fundamentally challenged the status quo and provoked the societies they lived in. Galileo’s beliefs cost him his life, while Darwin’s theory cast him into the margins of a creationist society. The fates of these two men reveal that science is intrinsically related to the political context it grows in, and constantly subject to the power dynamics at play between scholarship and politics.

Nowhere is this dynamic more prominent than the current climate change debate. According to NASA, 97% of climate scientists agree with the statement that “climate-warming trends over the last century are extremely likely due to human activities.” However, a 2016 Gallup survey shows that only 41% of the adult population in the United States believes that climate change has the potential to “pose a serious threat” to quality of life in the future. And, delving further, a 2014 Gallup survey ascertained that, of self-identified Democrats and Republicans, only 16% of Republicans claimed to care about global warming “a great deal,” compared with 56% of Democrats. These percentages reveal the profound disconnect between science and society. Clearly, there is a discrepancy to unpack: Although the scientific community regards climate change as an objective reality, part of the political arena persists in treating it as a subject for debate rather than a hard fact. So what accounts for this rift between the scientific community and the public at large?

It seems paradoxical that, when faced with near-unanimous scientific consensus regarding climate change, only 41% of Americans express concern about our future. Evidently, there is a third and less visible player at the helm: “big business”. Large corporations with vested interests in the current state of affairs have engaged in what the Washington Post calls a “campaign of deliberate misinformation,” doling out large sums to individuals and organizations that work to debunk climate change science. The American Enterprise Institutea conservative think tank infamous for its role in an email scandal dubbed ‘Climategatewas one of the beneficiaries of this massive undertaking, having received $3,615,000 from ExxonMobil and over $1 million from the Koch foundations. Similarly, organizations like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, and the Heartland Institute have received funding from the likes of ExxonMobil and Koch industries for their work in climate denial. The intention is to stimulate public controversy to assure that climate legislation becomes a matter of gridlock on the political agenda.

The task of casting doubt on science is largely effective. By subtly blurring the lines between dispassionate scientific evidence and emotionally-charged convictions, the fossil fuel industry has constructed a platform for the “science” of climate denial. An article published by the Heritage Foundation titled “Harvey and Irma Can’t be Blamed for Climate Change” is particularly adept in obscuring the boundaries between science and opinionso much so that it is hard, even for the most informed reader, to discern what information is actually true. Directly echoing the “era of fake news,” the article simultaneously makes use of scientific jargon and polarizing language, urging readers to “separate fact from fiction,” with the intention of casting climate change as a hoax. Unsurprisingly, the Heritage Foundation is an important beneficiary of big business patronage, directly receiving funding from the Koch Brothers.

"“By providing ‘both sides’ to the story, the media likes to believe that it is responsibly informing public opinion. But in doing so, it equates two cases that aren’t necessarily equal, giving both views the same credibility and relevance.” "

The 2015 documentary film Merchants of Doubt further illustrates the climate change denial trend in the fossil fuel industry. Marc Morano, a climate-denying journalist who features prominently in the film, elaborates: “Communication is about sales. Keep it simple. People will fill in the blank with their own, I hate to say biases, but with their own perspective in many cases…You go up against a scientist, most of them are very hard to understand, they’re very boring.” His blatant manner of speaking is startling. He talks openly and clearly about the manipulation that he performs in his work as the publisher of ClimateDepot and an advisor to politicians with strict anti-environmental agendas. “I’m not a scientist, although I do play one on TV occasionally. Uh, ok, hell… More than occasionally,” he says, laughing. And this points to the heart of the matter: standards of impartiality in media coverage frame our understanding of climate change. It explains why and how public concern for Earth’s future hovers around a scant 41% despite an inordinate body of scientific knowledge.

As a general standard, most news sources aspire to notions of journalistic objectivitytruthfulness, accuracy, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability. And rightfully so. To do otherwise would be to knowingly and deliberately manipulate public opinion. But in the name of “impartiality,” news sources cover climate change by offering dueling views: that of a legitimate climate scientist and that of a climate-denying “TV scientist” like Morano. By providing ‘both sides’ to the story, the media likes to believe that it is responsibly informing public opinion. But in doing so, it equates two cases that aren’t necessarily equal, giving both views the same credibility and relevance. Though seemingly innocuous, the visual of the split-screen with Bill Nye on one side and Morano on the other is enough for the uninformed TV viewer to assume that climate change is not a fact, but rather a matter of opinion. In this manner, the media creates a debate where there really should be no debate at all: climate change is the reality that we are livingit is not a difference of opinion.

Nevertheless, climate change will continue to be a matter of public debate in the modern age, for science is the history of intellectual catastrophism. Until rising sea levels alter coastal infrastructure, until droughts and wildfire leave farmland dry and cracked, until the evidence in our daily lives becomes too overwhelming to deny, people will continue to treat climate change as a debate. Such is the history of scientific revolutions. At the intersection of money and politics, science is uniquely positioned as an agent of intellectual and social transformation. Climate change and the debates surrounding it are teaching us that this position, however, is not invincible. It is one we must protect and uphold, cherish and defend.

About the Author

Emily Skahill '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Emily can be reached at emily_skahill@brown.edu

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