There’s no scientific controversy over climate change. The media, heavily influenced by conservative think tanks, seems to think otherwise.

This misrepresentation of facts was recently highlighted by the “is it just me or is it cold outside, so global climate change must be a scam” bandwagon that assaulted our airwaves this past winter. To be perfectly clear, it is just you.

We had a cold winter this year because the temperature of the Earth is rising.  Arctic ice is melting, causing the ocean to absorb sunlight that otherwise would have been reflected. This causes the air above the water to heat up, pushing the arctic air current further south and creating lower temperatures in the southeastern United States. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the global temperature has increased 0.74°C (1.33°F).

A 2010 article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 97 to 98 percent of climate scientists recognize the evidence for man-made climate change. The last scientific body to hold a dissenting opinion, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, changed their position in 2007.

The Media

A recently leaked internal Fox News document posted by Media Matters states very clearly that, in the spirit of “fair and balanced” coverage, every time climate change is mentioned it must also be said that the data has been called into question by critics.

The media’s coverage of climate change plays on a very important concept within the scientific community: skepticism. Scientists are, by trade, among the least trusting people on the planet. You would be hard-pressed to find a scientist who doesn’t think there needs to be more research on climate change or other widely-held theories like evolution, or even gravity.

Under the guise of the media, the word “theory” has shifted in meaning from a well-established, tested and verified hypothesis to the random opinion of some guy in his basement. Worst of all, the word “skeptic” has been hijacked to mean an active denial of the scientific consensus. A Pew study in 2009 found that 76% of scientists feel the media is doing the public a disservice by failing to distinguish between research that is well-founded and research that is not.

To make climate change seem like more of a “controversy” than it is, the media divides air time disproportionately between the 97 percent of climate scientists who recognize the evidence for climate change and the dissenting 3 percent (as well as non-climate scientists) who do not.

No ones pays attention to the flat-earth society. Why? Because there’s no political or financial incentive to manufacture a controversy over the shape of the Earth.

Conservative Think Tanks

If someone has an economic interest in denying or advocating for something, there’s a good chance they’re spinning the truth. A 2008 study in Environmental Politics found that 92% of the 141 anti-environmentalist books published between 1972 and 2005 were funded by conservative think tanks (CTT). These books questioned the existence of climate change, ozone depletion and the like.

The list of CTTs that deny climate change while promoting corporate interests is extensive, but here are three of the top offenders.

  • The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) circulated a letter in 2006 offering $10,000 to any scientist willing to criticize a soon-to-be released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). By 2006, the AEI had received $1.6 million in funding from ExxonMobile.
  • The Heartland Institute hosts the annual International Conference on Climate Change. Their list of “climate experts” is low on actual climate scientists and their list of co-sponsors is low on actual science organizations. Their donors are kept secretive now, but according to Media Matters, they have received money from the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart) and ExxonMobil.
  • The George C. Marshall Institute has received funding from ExxonMobil and still denies that chlorofluorocarbons destroy the ozone, that second hand smoke causes cancer and that acid rain exists. One of their chairmen, William Happer, is a physicist (not a climate scientist) who testified before Congress in 2009 that increased CO2 in the atmosphere will be good for humans.

According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, climate change lobbyists spent over $500 million to influence legislation and on electoral campaigns from 2009 to 2010. Their efforts have paid off. Of the 20 Republican senate candidates for the 2010 midterm election, 19 were climate change deniers.

Research published in the December 2010 issue of Psychology Science reveals that Americans are less likely to believe in climate change if it questions their worldview. Participants in the study who believed in a just world were more likely to deny climate change when shown negative videos or articles – that is, something that shows the adverse consequences of climate change. In other words, Americans who believed the world is just, orderly and stable were likely to dismiss ideas that challenged their view.

According to a Rasmussen poll conducted in January 2011, 38% of Americans are not concerned with climate change and only 33% are taking it very seriously. As soon as the media presents climate change as a real, tangible threat rather than a matter of debate, we can move forward and start finding solutions.