CNN Just Went a Full Year without Debating the Reality of Climate Change

May 6, 2015
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

It’s been exactly a year since CNN hosted a misleading debate about established climate science. I hope it was the last one for the network and that CNN and other news outlets can move on to debates about how society is responding to climate risks.

Climate science isn’t a political position

In our 2014 analysis Science or Spin?, we found that 30 percent of CNN’s climate change segments included misleading representations of science. More often than not, inaccurate statements about climate science aired during debates between science communicator Bill Nye and spokespeople from advocacy groups opposed to climate policy, including some with a history of fossil fuel funding. Indeed, the last debate the network aired featured Nye facing off with a Heritage Foundation economist.

If you watch the segment, you’ll see how problematic such televised debates are. The economist makes a number of cherry-picked claims about climate science that Nye isn’t given time to rebut. Indeed, the entire debate format is premised on the idea that discussions about climate science can be reduced to yet another 50 / 50 political dispute. Ironically, that particular debate was premised on the release of a major federal climate science report, which laid out the science as clearly as possible.

Naturally, our first recommendation for CNN in our report was as follows:

The biggest step that CNN could take to increase the accuracy of the information it provides to its viewers is to stop hosting debates about established climate science and instead host debates and discussions about whether and how to respond to climate change through climate policy.

Our supporters stood up for science

After we released our report, 27,000 UCS activists and more than 1,000 members of our Science Network wrote to CNN’s head of standards and practices to ask that programs stop hosting debates about established science.

It seems like the network listened.

Comedian – and UCS celebrity science champion — John Oliver certainly pitched in, too. His parody of Nye’s debates, which included having 96 scientists join Nye on stage, has been viewed more than 5 million times on YouTube.

Better climate coverage

We deserve a robust debate about how society should respond to climate change; but debating established climate science is often just as misleading as debating whether or not smoking causes lung disease (yep) or vaccines cause autism (nope).

And, of course, there’s more to climate coverage than simply avoiding misleading debates. For instance, CNN’s John Sutter is doing an entire series on climate change based on the 2 degree (C) global warming limit at the heart of international climate negotiations.

Jake Tapper has also been leading the way on holding politicians accountable for misinformation. For instance, after Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) criticized mainstream climate science during a live interview, Tapper simply and straightforwardly reminded the senator – and viewers — that the vast majority of scientists don’t agree with him. Fact-checking politicians can truly be that simple. Similarly, Tapper asked the candidates for Florida governor to debate climate policy rather than whether or not climate science is valid.

Jake Tapper interviews Sen. Inhofe

“Well, the overwhelming majority of scientists disagree with you…” Tapper told Sen. Inhofe during a November segment. (Source: CNN, via Crooks and Liars)

What’s next?

Looking ahead to the 2016 presidential contest, I hope CNN continues to make clear distinctions between what scientists know about our climate and what politicians say about it. As NYU’s Jay Rosen has noted, it’s hard to justify treating misinformation about established science as yet another political position.

Similarly, it’s also a mistake to reduce climate change to the single question of whether or not candidates accept the evident scientific reality that industrial activities are causing recent climate change. Politicians and media media outlets are catching up to the reality that communities around the United States are already dealing with the costs and consequences of a changing climate, especially people and businesses on our coasts who face rising seas. I hope journalists ask politicians how we should be responding to such climate risks. And I hope they ask presidential aspirants what role the federal government should play in protecting the places where we live and work from climate change.

Those are the questions we deserve answers to and the type of coverage we should expect from national news outlets.