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Mark Hertsgaard

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Climate Cranks Gin Up the Right Wing Noise Machine

Posted: 02/21/11 11:33 AM ET

The right-wing media machine is a large part of the reason why denial of climate change persists in the United States long after the rest of the world has acknowledged the problem. Over the past few days, I've gotten a close-up look at how the machine works, because I've been its target.

Last Tuesday, February 15, I went to Capitol Hill on a mission: to confront the climate cranks who still refuse to accept what virtually every major scientific organization in the world, starting with our own National Academy of Sciences, has concluded: man-made climate change is real, happening now and extremely dangerous.

I also wanted to highlight a fact I have often marveled at during my twenty years of writing about climate change in books and for leading publications around the world, including Vanity Fair, Time, The Nation and most recently Politico. That fact is: virtually every major political party in the world -- except for the Republicans in this country -- accepts this mainstream scientific conclusion.

Yet the average American would not know this is the case. Why not? Because discussion about climate change in the U.S. is dominated by how the issue is framed by politicians and the media in Washington. And inside the Beltway, denial of mainstream climate science is regarded as a legitimate opinion rather than as an unfounded oddity.

As I wrote in an opinion article for Politico that appeared the morning I visited Capitol Hill and that seems to have enraged the right-wing, "If one judged solely by recent [U.S.] media coverage, one would think that the deniers have a point. In an embarrassing display of political gullibility and scientific illiteracy, news organizations have repeatedly played into the deniers' hands: by implicitly endorsing the deniers' unfounded accusations of fraud against scientists whose emails were stolen, by portraying a single error within a thousand page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as reason to question the entirety of mainstream climate science, and then by abandoning the climate story over the past twelve months, even as mainstream scientists were turning out one landmark study after another clarifying the extreme peril facing civilization."

And here's why this journalistic failure matters so much:

"Despite having no more scientific credibility than the Flat Earth Society, the climate cranks have held our nation's climate policy hostage for decades now. One reason the United States has done so little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the past twenty years is that our government and media have listened as much to climate cranks as to real scientists."

So, accompanied by members of the Sierra Club and Generation Hot -- the two billion young people around the world who have been condemned to spend the rest of their lives coping with the hottest climate our civilization has ever known -- I went to Capitol Hill to call the cranks to account and urge my colleagues in the rest of the media to do a better job of presenting the scientific truth about climate change.

We spoke with a number of leading deniers, most notably Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Inhofe had no response when asked why his Republicans are the only major political party in the world that still denies the science behind climate change. Instead, he said his scientists knew better than the overwhelming majority of scientists who say climate change is real and dangerous. Later, a leading public relations official for energy companies told us "the science doesn't matter."

You can watch our video of the event here:

It didn't take long for the right-wing media machine to start its attack. Inhofe's office posted its own video of our encounter a few hours later, spinning it as "an ambush" of the Senator, a charge that was repeated when the video later appeared online on the Fox network. (I don't call it Fox News for the simple reason that it's not a news outfit; it's a propaganda operation.)

It's hilarious to hear the right wing describe our questioning of Inhofe as "an ambush," thereby portraying the Senator as a victim. Here's what actually happened.

Inhofe was in a committee hearing room in a Senate office building, along with other senators. Like countless reporters have done for countless years, I waited outside in the corridor, as did a reporter from a trade journal, hoping to buttonhole one or more of the Senators when they emerged. When Inhofe came out, I walked up to him, accompanied by the Sierra Club and Generation Hot representatives, and asked if I could ask some questions about climate science. To his credit, Inhofe agreed and spent about six minutes debating with us.

Memo to the right-wing media machine: that is not "an ambush." It's called journalism, though I'm hardly surprised the Fox TV crowd doesn't recognize the distinction.

Instead of engaging on the substance -- most especially, the grievous wrong being done to the young people of Generation Hot by the deniers of climate change -- the right wing machine has tried to shift the focus to my journalistic tactics. They complain that I ambushed and took advantage of Senator Inhofe -- as if the Senator is an innocent child rather than a veteran politician who is used to being asked tough questions by journalists.

They allege that I must have something to hide because I released an edited rather than unedited version of my encounter with Inhofe. Excuse me? Editing is a basic journalistic tool, used in virtually every news story ever published, and I'm happy to share the unedited video with anyone who asks. What's more, I have tweeted links to Inhofe's own video -- that's how little I have something to hide.

I did make one mistake. In the haste of introducing myself to Inhofe, I misspoke by saying I was "with Politico." I had intended to say I "write for Politico," which I had done just that morning in the form of the above-mentioned opinion article. My words came out wrong, which I regret. But I refuse to allow this small slip of the tongue to distract from the larger issue I was pursuing with the Senator: the terrible price our children will pay for Republicans' unfounded denial of mainstream climate science.

I take the right wing media machine's attacks as a badge of honor and a sign that we drew blood. I suspect they're trying to shut down the discussion about climate science and the impacts on our kids because they know it's a losing conversation for them. So they try to distract by talking about everything else.

Nice try, guys, but it won't work. No matter how nasty and deceptive you are, we're going to stay at this and stay at it until Americans are no longer being taken in by your disinformation campaign.

Meanwhile, it would be helpful if more folks who do care about fighting climate change would speak out as well, including by circulating our video of the confrontations. We need to keep the focus on the science and our kids; that seems to scare the hell out of the cranks. These people are bullies, and the only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them.


Mark Hertsgaard is the author of six books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.