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We Can Fix Our Broken Climate Debate | Commentary

The news a person watches often says a lot about his or her politics. But what does it say about how they view science?

A lot, it turns out. And that’s a problem.

We analyzed nearly 600 cable news transcripts from CNN, Fox News and MSNBC to assess how accurately hosts and guests portrayed climate science. Overall, we found that cable programs reflected what’s in the Congressional Record far more than what’s in scientific journals like Nature or Climatic Change.

Fox News Channel hosts and guests often dismissed climate science as they argued against climate policy. Sean Hannity and Greg Gutfeld, for instance, both accused scientists of manipulating or hiding climate data as they criticized liberal policy priorities on climate change. But the network wasn’t monolithic. Bill O’Reilly and Bret Baier’s programs were responsible for most of the network’s accurate coverage, including regular reporting, interviews with guests who accept the science and fact-checking overstatements from climate advocates.

On MSNBC, hosts and guests sometimes overstated the severity of climate change. For instance, some linked climate change to tornadoes, despite the lack of data scientists have on tornado patterns. But in many more cases, the network covered climate science accurately.

It seems clear that opponents of climate policy misrepresent the science much more often than supporters.

CNN sometimes split the difference. Several debates on the network pitted an environmentalist who accurately represented the science against a libertarian who didn’t.

Why do people’s politics have such influence on how they view scientific facts? According to research from Yale University’s Dan Kahan, people process scientific information based on their ideology and policy preferences rather than their level of education or science literacy.

Not surprisingly, a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll showed that 84 percent of Democrats accept the fact that the Earth is warming while opinion among Republicans is more divided. Sixty-one percent of non-tea-party Republicans recognize that the Earth is warming while only 25 percent of tea party Republicans do.

Certainly, Democrats and liberals are no strangers to ignoring or even rejecting science on other issues, or overstating risks scientists have identified, but on climate, they tend to get the science right.

Unfortunately, the political divide over climate science degrades our public discourse. If we can’t agree on the facts, we can’t effectively debate policy. Democracy and science work best when policymakers recognize the risks scientists have identified, even as they disagree on if and how to respond. It’s crucial for such disagreements to be based on our values rather than competing views of scientific reality.

As it stands, our broken climate debate creates uncertainty for businesses that are doing long-term planning. Despite the gridlock, many major energy companies are simply baking a carbon price into their business plans. Further, the risks we face from rising seas, more extreme heat, and shrinking snowpack affect all of us, regardless of our political leanings. As the effects of climate change mount, rejecting the science should become less tenable for politicians and pundits.

For instance, on the Jersey Shore, people are elevating their homes because they know sea levels will be about a foot higher by the time their new mortgages expire. In Florida and Virginia, climate change isn’t a partisan issue as much as it is an issue of people’s driveways flooding when the tide comes in.

Coastal flooding, in fact, is an area of rare agreement across the aisle. Many fiscal conservatives don’t want to see more money going to federal bailouts as seas rise. Many liberals want to see sustainable coastal development.

Republicans and Democrats also recently passed a drought bill that will help climate scientists empower water managers with information they need. When cow pastures and crops are at higher risk of drying up, reality trumps ideology.

Even Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who has gone so far as to accuse climate scientists of criminal misconduct, has partnered with colleagues across the aisle to study so-called “black carbon,” which causes climate change and degrades public health in Africa, where the senator has deep ties.

So, yes, our national climate debate is broken. But it can be fixed.

First, we need to respect the science. Second, we need political leaders to debate if and how to respond, knowing that their ideas can be rooted in very different values. Finally, we need more media coverage that sees past the spin and illuminates the realities we all face.

Aaron Huertas is a science communications officer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Previously, he worked for the office of former Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J. Rachel Kriegsman is a program assistant in UCS’s Climate and Energy Program.

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