02/18/2009 11:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will-fully Wrong

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Igor Volsky

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In Sunday's Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will attacked Secretary of Energy (and Nobel-Prize winning physicist) Steven Chu for describing that, "in a worst case," "global warming might melt 90 percent of California's snowpack." Chu was referring to "the persistent and dramatic decline in the snowpack of many mountains in the West," a phenomenon scientists attribute to "human-induced global warming." In fact, in response to the statewide drought, "the nation's biggest public utility voted on Tuesday to impose water rationing in Los Angeles for the first time in nearly two decades." Without refuting Chu's claim, Will chastised the secretary for "doomsaying" about global warming, arguing that concerns about climate change are just "eco-pessimism." "On graphs tracking public opinion, two lines are moving in tandem and inversely: The sharply rising line charts public concern about the economy, the plunging line follows concern about the environment," Will wrote. "Real calamities take our minds off hypothetical ones." But as Climate Progress's Joe Romm observed, "I don't know whether it is more pathetic that Will believes this or that the Washington Post simply lets him publish this lie again and again." Indeed, despite Will's history of spreading misinformation about global climate change, the Post and other media outlets have eagerly provided platforms for climate skeptics to distort the scientific consensus around global warming and mislead the public.

WILL IS WRONG: As evidence to support his point, Will wrote that "according to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979," and he seized on a "since corrected BBC News article" to argue that the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has found that "there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." But as TPMmuckraker reported, the Arctic Climate Research Center (ACRC) quickly disputed Will's conclusion. "We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km," ACRC wrote in a statement shortly after the Post published Will's column. Similarly, the WMO has written that "the long-term upward trend of global warming, mostly driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is continuing." "The decade from 1998 to 2007 has been the warmest on record, and the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74C since the beginning of the 20th Century." In fact, according to the California Climate Change Center, "by the end of century, snowpack could decrease by as much as 90% in the higher amount of warming -- almost double the losses expected under theower warming cases." Unfortunately, this isn't the first time Will has trotted out these discredited arguments. As the Wonk Room's Brad Johnson pointed out, "Will is also recycling his own work, republishing an extended passage from a 2006 column...almost word for word." Then, as now, Will saw a report that "appeared to confirm what he believes and straight into the Washington Post it went. Neither did Will's editors at the Post seem to care enough about not misinforming their readers to take ten minutes to delve into any of this."

THE MEDIA'S FALSE DEBATE: While Will has a long track record of twisting scientific evidence to deny global warming, the media -- including the Washington Post -- have historically facilitated a false debate over climate change. According to the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), "despite the consistent assertions of the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that human activities have a 'discernible' influence on the global climate and that global warming is a serious problem that must be addressed immediately, 'he said/she said' reporting has allowed a small group of global warming skeptics to have their views greatly amplified." As FAIR's Ross Gelbspan explained, the professional canon of journalistic fairness requires reporters to "present competing points of view on a scientific question as though they had equal scientific weight, when actually they do not." In fact, one FAIR media study of news articles from the major national papers found that "53 percent of the articles gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations," and "35 percent emphasized the role of humans while presenting both sides of the debate." More recent media analyses have suggested that the media are slowly "eliminating false balance when addressing human activity's role in global warming." The Post opinion pages, however, are an exception. "There is, it seems, a striving for 'fair and balanced' rather than accurate and truthful when it comes to Washington Post editorial decisions about articles and opinion pieces on climate issues," Get Energy Smart Now observed.

MEDIA 'BALANCE' MISLEADS PUBLIC: Given the media's eagerness to prop-up global warming skeptics, it's no surprise that "only 40 percent of Americans believe that 'most' scientists agree that 'global warming is happening." As te Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) noted, the media is misinforming the public on climate change. The media "have caused confusion about what scientists agree upon and what they don't by relying on he-said/she-said reporting; when no context or weight is given to the relative merits of each argument, such reporting can create a false sense of balance in the minds of readers and viewers," CJR reporter Curtis Brainard argued. In fact, biased media coverage even has some climate skeptics claiming victory. In January, while hosting prominent global warming denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) on his show, Bill Bennett opened up the conversation by telling Inhofe, "I think you've prevailed on this." "I really believe it," replied Inhofe, claiming that his opponents "won't say global warming any more, they're trying to say climate change." Last week, Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes similarly argued, "The more the case for man-made warming falls apart, the more hysterical Gore gets about an imminent catastrophe. The more public support his bill loses, the more Obama embraces fear-mongering."