Consider the opening of a fact-checking Snopes.com posting about one main thrust in the permanent political campaign to discredit climate scientists’ consensus:
On 1 December 2016, the official Twitter account of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology tweeted an article by Breitbart News (a self-described “anti-establishment outlet for our anti-establishment times” whose ex-CEO is now the president-elect’s chief strategy advisor).
The article, titled “Global temperatures plunge. Icy silence from climate alarmists,” was little more than a regurgitation of a misleading article from the Daily Mail.
That article (“Stunning new data indicates El Niño drove record highs in global temperatures suggesting rise may not be down to man-made emissions”) attempts to make the argument that El Niño was behind the recent three year trend of record-breaking warm years, that a record-breaking drop of global temperatures over the past eight months proves this claim, and that because 2016 is not really the hottest year on record, global warming is a hoax and everything is—literally—totally cool.
Washington Post science writer Chris Mooney posted under the headline, “It’s likely Earth’s hottest year on record—and some people are talking about global cooling.” He predicted that “if past debates over the planet’s temperature are any guide, this could just be the beginning.”
Or maybe it’s the continuation and expansion. After reviewing the scientific literature, scientists writing in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in 2008 debunked the groundless, politically motivated contention that a “global cooling scare,” allegedly comparable in depth and scope to the present climate consensus, developed among scientists in the 1970s. Now, a decade and a half into the 21st century—and again on merely political grounds—that debunking itself is attacked, with parallel efforts under way to justify, purportedly scientifically, a new “global cooling scare.”
A November report in the present venue summarized the media technopolitics of the mythical 1970s “global cooling scare.” It reminded readers that the promoters seek to persuade citizens that the 1970s saw a casually—unseriously—contrived “global cooling” scientific consensus. That supposed consensus is depicted as the goofy opposite of the present, actual scientific consensus, thereby rendering climate science both then and now merely ridiculous. The November report pointed to Washington Post columnist and Fox News pundit George Will as having promoted possibly the silliest version—one based mostly on news articles, not the scientific literature.
Will has had competition in promoting fake “global cooling” news. In September at Breitbart, James Delingpole—author of Breitbart’s congressionally tweeted, Snopes-debunked “global cooling” piece—posted the article, “Massive cover-up exposed: Lying alarmists rebranded 70s global cooling scare as a myth.” Delingpole attacked that Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society study, “The myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus.” He called it “utterly mendacious,” a “pack of lies,” and a “trashy, junk-science paper.”
Another part of the “global cooling” promotion campaign has been an effort to indict physicist and presidential science adviser John Holdren for past ecological “catastrophizing,” the 2009 term of John Tierney, then a science columnist for the New York Times. Tierney has drawn attention recently for his article “The real war on science,” which mentions “global cooling” and appears in the autumn edition of the conservative City Journal. The subhead reads: “The Left has done far more than the Right to set back progress.”
In 2009, Tierney wrote that although Holdren and his ecologist coauthor Paul Ehrlich “noted that the greenhouse effect from rising emissions of carbon dioxide emissions [sic] could cause future warming of the planet, they concluded from the mid-century cooling trend that the consequences of human activities (like industrial soot, dust from farms, jet exhaust, urbanization and deforestation) were more likely to first cause an ice age.” He linked to a blog posting that called Holdren “a ‘doom peddler’ who latches onto the nightmare-scenario-du-jour—overpopulation, nuclear holocaust, global cooling, global warming (all of which he’s trumpeted at various points in his career)—and then wildly exaggerates it in order to scare the public into adopting his politicized ‘solutions.’” Earlier this month, a Forbes.com commentary cited Holdren in charging, “Before the green movement wrote about catastrophic warming, it panicked about catastrophic cooling.”
Yet another aspect of “global cooling” promotion is terminology, the refining of the old canard that so-called “global warming alarmists” have skulked in shame to the replacement term climate change because, as the allegation goes, the planet isn’t actually warming. In recent weeks, a rabidly political piece at American Thinker declared that climate change had been born as global warming, which before that had been born as global cooling. A Breitbart piece declared, “The so-called ‘science’ of global cooling-turned-global-warming has never been able to stand on it’s [sic] own.”
But the promotion isn’t mainly about “global cooling” in climate-wars history. It’s about making global cooling a new battle in the climate wars.
In 2013 the business site Forbes.com posted, “To the horror of global warming alarmists, global cooling is here.” In 2014 the blog Climate Depot posted, “Scientists and studies predict ‘imminent global COOLING’ ahead—Drop in global temps ‘almost a slam dunk.’” It listed dozens of blog postings, news articles, papers, and other documents. In 2015 Global Research—which claims more than 14 million page views monthly—republished a 2008 article proclaiming “global warming is over” under the headline “Global cooling is here.”
In 2016, media organizations calling themselves conservative have stepped up the fake “global cooling” news. In August, articles appeared at World Net Daily, the Washington Times, and the Daily Caller. An October posting at Right Wing Watch began, “Last week, televangelist Rick Joyner took to ‘The Jim Bakker Show’ to attack climate change as a hoax created by the Communist Party, reviving the myth that fears of ‘global cooling’ once dominated the scientific community.” In November, articles appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, American Thinker, and the New American, which is owned by the John Birch Society.
This month a Federalist piece resurrected the fake news about the 1970s. Cooling was implicated in a Canada Free Press article. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, bantering with former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, surmised that global cooling “evolved into global warming,” with the term climate change eventually appearing in order to cover any eventuality.
President-elect Donald Trump has also occasionally promoted “global cooling.” Right Wing Watch quoted him in July 2015: “You look back and they were calling it global cooling and global warming and global everything.” Mother Jones reported a similar comment from two months later. The notion appeared again in the candidate’s March 2016 discussion with Washington Post editors. Salon recalled earlier this month that Representative Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for CIA director, cited global cooling in 2013.
In early December, though, most journalists and observers overlooked the wider campaign to promote fake “global cooling” news. They focused on Delingpole’s congressionally tweeted Breitbart piece and its Daily Mail antecedent.
At Climate Feedback, a worldwide network of scientists who assess climate coverage, seven scientists debunked the original Daily Mail article in some detail. Climate Feedback summarized: “This article is a textbook case of cherry picking—it selects only one record, ignores the limitations of the data it comments on, and forms an argument based on only a few months of a much longer record. This is akin to claiming that sea level rise has ended because high tide in one area has ebbed.” The Washington Post’s Mooney quoted Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychology professor at the University of Bristol in the UK, who examines statistical reasoning: “Random variation will never cease and it can always be exploited by political operatives. Scientists, by contrast, consider all the evidence.”
The Weather Channel protested the fake news vigorously, in part because Breitbart used some Weather Channel video footage. The New York Daily News, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Politico, and others reported about the Weather Channel’s response. Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted about the Breitbart article, “Where’d you get your PhD? Trump University?”
Breitbart’s Delingpole responded to the protest with extensive technical detail in a 7 December piece carrying this mocking subhead: “Wow! Breitbart’s climate science has come under attack from a devastating new rhetorical technique: the argumentum ad puellam pulchram (aka the Argument from a Pretty Girl).”
The meteorologist in the two-minute video part of the Weather Channel’s response is Kait Parker. She ends by saying, “To all my fellow scientists out there: Let’s make the facts louder than the opinions.”
Snopes.com’s final paragraph addresses some of the implications of the House Science Committee tweet that brought the attention Breitbart plainly treasures:
Many were quick to criticize the committee for promoting a misleading and largely inaccurate story with its origins in a flawed tabloid article. This committee has significant power over all non-defense federal scientific research, and it oversees NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to name just a few.
But other implications lie in the realm of the media-consuming public.
On 6 December, with indirect mention of “global cooling” and with specific attention to Breitbart and Delingpole, a Guardian commentary warned that “conspiracy websites and hyperpartisan media outlets are building huge online audiences who want to hear climate change is a hoax.” It noted that Breitbart is “building its audience,” reportedly now getting 168 million page views per month, “doubling its reach in the past six months.”
On 10 December Breitbart posted some more fake news from Delingpole about “global cooling.”
Steven T. Corneliussen is Physics Today‘s media analyst. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA’s history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.