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February 3, 2011 

FoxNews.com Article Uncritically Passes on Climate Misinformation

A January 24 FoxNews.com article, “Five Reasons the Planet May Not Be Its Hottest Ever,” uncritically repeated a number of discredited claims by climate contrarians questioning whether or not the planet is warming. The story, which does not include a byline identifying the author, featured only climate contrarians. Evidence-based conclusions about climate science were shut out.

The arguments at the heart of this piece are at this point very familiar to anyone following this issue. Here are the main claims made in the article and why they miss the point or are simply wrong:

1. First, FoxNews cited a project by climate contrarian Anthony Watts that rated weather stations used to determine global climate data. FoxNews failed to mention that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) analyzed Watts’ claims and found little difference between the stations Watts graded highly and the average for all the stations in the national network.

FoxNews then recycled unfounded climate denier allegations that NASA and NOAA “manipulate” climate data. In fact, those two agencies, along with the World Meteorological Organization and Japanese Meteorological Agency, independently collect and analyze global temperature data. All the agencies’ analyses largely agree. If any one agency were unscientifically “manipulating” data, the scientific community would know. Not only is the charge that NASA and NOAA are manipulating data erroneous, it’s grossly unfair to climate scientists dedicated to producing honest, accurate measurements—and it promotes conspiracy theories about their work.

2. The article uncritically cites Christopher Monckton, who falsely states that global sea ice is increasing. Monckton’s “evidence” is that while more Arctic ice melts in the summer, at the same time Antarctic ice increases in the winter. In essence, his argument is premised on people forgetting that when it is summer in the northern hemisphere, it is winter in the southern hemisphere, and vice-versa. In fact, summer ice extent in the Arctic has been decreasing dramatically over time, while Antarctic winter ice largely disappears each summer. While total ice extent in Antarctica has increased slightly, the total Arctic ice extent trend is decreasing by more than enough to produce a global sea ice decline.

Note that the two polar regions are very different. The Arctic includes a relatively small ocean surrounded by large continental shelf seas and continents. Antarctica, conversely, is a large continent surrounded by the southern ocean. Because of differences in each of these climates, sea ice around Antarctica is generally thinner and easier to break up than the sea ice that forms in the Arctic.

3. The article cites this year’s El Niño as a contributor to warmer temperatures. This is narrowly true, but FoxNews pretends it is a singular explanation and does not inform readers that natural climate cycles and human-induced global warming are occurring simultaneously. FoxNews also does not mention that 2010 began with a moderate-to-strong El Niño that evolved into La Niña that ended 2010 in a moderate-to-strong state, which tended to cool the planet overall. Despite those effects, 2010 was the hottest year on record. Overall, the past ten years have been the hottest decade on record, thanks largely to climate change.

4. FoxNews claims colder temperatures are on the way due to natural cycles, but fails to mention that overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases will continue to heat the planet in the coming decades and centuries. At least in the short term, colder weather is still to be expected occasionally and is not inconsistent with a warming planet overall. In fact, studies suggest that a warming Arctic may have some influence on the cold weather patterns over portions of the Northern Hemisphere, including the United States.

5. Finally, FoxNews makes the tired, false comparison between long-term climate projections and predicting the weather on a given day. FoxNews makes no mention of the nearly 200-year-old understanding of the basic physics that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat, the decades of scientific assessments that have determined global temperatures are increasing as a result, or the fact that the world’s national academies of science concur that human activities are responsible for most of the observed warming since the 1950s.

The article was only “fair” to climate contrarians and didn’t “balance” their claims with the scientific evidence that proves their conclusions are wrong.

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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