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What happened to climate change? Fox News and the US elections

Mitt Romney and the Republicans are openly sceptical of climate change. EPA/Michael Reynolds

Climate change has been significantly absent from the US presidential election campaign. President Obama, who made climate change a key plank of his 2008 campaign, has not been anywhere near as vocal in this race.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney, recognising the active disbelief in climate science among his party base, only raises the issue to sneer at it as the obsession of a deluded middle class.

But how did we arrive at this point? Why is the defining issue of the age so pointedly absent from the most important political decision making process? Where are voters getting their information - or lack thereof - from?

Fair and balanced?

The News Corporation-owned Fox News is by far and away the most popular news channel for Republicans. And its coverage of climate issues leaves a great deal to be desired.

An analysis of prime time programs on Fox News has found that 93% of their coverage of climate science in 2012 was misleading. The report, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, analysed six months of prime time segments covering climate change in early 2012.

The Wall Street Journal, News Corporation’s other media flagship, didn’t fare much better. The report also included WSJ opinion pieces over the last year and found 81% of their climate change coverage was misleading.

To characterise this coverage as biased doesn’t capture the magnitude of their treatment of climate science. News Corporation is promoting an inversion of reality. For the past several decades, there has been a strengthening scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming.

Surveys of the climate science community since 1996 have found the percentage of climate scientists agreeing on human-caused global warming has steadily increased to the point where in the last few years, several independent surveys have found 97% agreement among actively publishing climate scientists.

Fine words from Murdoch but …

As the scientific consensus strengthened, there have been signs of improvement in media coverage of climate change. From 1988 to 2002, US prestige press newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post (and yes, the Wall Street Journal) gave disproportionate attention to climate contrarians. However, coverage improved to the point where in 2007, 96% of U.S. prestige newspaper coverage of climate change depicted human contribution to climate change as significant.

At this time, Rupert Murdoch pledged that News coverage of climate change would improve. In 2007, he said “I think when people see that 99% of scientists agree about the serious extent of global warming, it’s going to become a fact of life”. In fact, the link between perception of scientific consensus and acceptance of climate change has been demonstrated by researchers. The important consequence emerging from this research is that perception of consensus is also a strong predictor of support for climate policy.

Despite Murdoch’s promise to improve Fox coverage, this 2012 analysis shows that coverage is worse than ever at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Before we shake our heads and mutter “only in America”, we mustn’t overlook that Australian media is not immune to this form of reality inversion. An analysis of media coverage of climate change policy by News Limited newspapers from Feb to July 2011 found 82% of their coverage was negative with only 18% positive coverage.

In contrast, Fairfax newspapers were more balanced, with 56% positive articles and 44% negative. A survey of climate coverage by The Australian newspaper found that they accept contributions from climate contrarians such as Bob Carter, Ian Plimer and Christopher Monckton ten times more than recognised climate change experts such as veteran climate scientist James Hansen.

The importance of reliable information

Why does this matter? Mainstream media is where most people get their information about climate change and television is the predominant source. Fox News is the most popular cable channel in the US and the Wall Street Journal is the country’s largest newspaper. How the media covers climate change has a strong influence on public views on climate change.

Consequently, a survey of the American public published this month found that only half of Americans think most scientists agree global warming is happening. Of course, public opinion is not monolithic with different demographics showing strongly divergent views. While 65% of likely Obama voters believe that humans are causing global warming, only 27% of likely Romney voters thought the same. This is not a surprising result – a number of studies have found a strong link between conservative ideology and the rejection of climate science.

The Republican willing blindness

The conservative aversion to climate science was no more evident than during the Republican primaries when every Presidential candidate except Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman espoused views casting doubt on human-caused climate change. The peer-pressure was too great for Romney who retracted his support for climate science. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan has long been outspoken about his rejection of the scientific consensus.

However, while the recent survey of Americans was unsurprising in showing the link between conservatism and science rejection, one intriguing result did emerge from the results. It turns out 65% of undecided voters also believe global warming is human caused. This degree of acceptance of climate science is the same as likely Obama voters. This result takes on extra significance as climate change is one of the important factors that undecided voters are considering when casting their vote in the upcoming presidential election.

Perhaps this is why for Republicans, climate change has been the issue “that shall not be named”.

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