Fox News’ upside down report on the sun

Poor Fox News. We hate to call it out for misinformation, but its headline this week “UN admitting solar activity may play significant role in global warming” is so out of context, so upside down, we’re going to dissect it as an example of manipulating news to broadcast a desired viewpoint.

So Fox, we’re going to spank you now. (Don’t worry, conservative readers, we’ll give MSNBC its own critique shortly.)

There is no question that Fox News, like MSNBC, is a viewpoint network, not an editorial system, and one of Fox’s views is to discredit global warming. In the past three years Fox has run scores of stories suggesting the Earth is not getting hotter. But Fox’s anti-warming stance hit a bump this month when news broke the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is preparing a massive new report declaring global warming is now a proven fact. The money quotes from the IPCC report introduction include:

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”

“It is unequivocal that global mean sea level is rising.”

“1981-2010 was very likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 800 years.”

After hammering home the fact that the planet is rapidly getting hotter, the IPCC points at humans as the cause. It states atmospheric CO2 composition has increased, thanks to human activity, by 40% since 1750, 10% since 1990, and “globally, CO2 is the strongest driver of climate change compared to other changes in the atmospheric composition.” 

The report was written by 800 scientists from around the world. That’s a tough position to fight.

How Fox News responded

Apparently giving up its the-Earth-isn’t-getting-hotter strategy, Fox News found an anti-global warming blogger who posted a quote from deep in the draft IPCC report that alludes that the sun may be heating up the Earth’s atmosphere. This would be great for Fox’s viewpoint, because if the sun is to blame for rising temps, then humans and CO2 are off the hook. Fox highlighted this quote from the IPCC report, Chapter 11:

“[Results] do suggest the possibility of a much larger impact of solar variations on the stratosphere than previously thought, and some studies have suggested that this may lead to significant regional impacts on climate.”

Wow, that sounds strong. Maybe global warming is all due to sunlight? So we looked up the full report, and found the complete quote … which says the exact opposite, that sun energy has recently been lower! The IPCC noted that such continued declines in sun energy may cool our planet slightly, offsetting global warming. Bold highlights below show the difference (“RF” below refers to radiative forcing, the net balance of energy received by the Earth from the sun and the energy that bounces back into space):

“A recent satellite measurement (Harder et al., 2009) found much greater than expected reduction at UV wavelengths in the recent declining solar cycle phase. Changes in solar uv drive stratospheric O3 chemistry and can change RF [radiative forcing] … these new measurements therefore increase uncertainty in estimates of the sign of solar RF, but they are unlikely to alter estimates of the maximum absolute magnitude of the solar contribution to RF, which remains small (Chapter 8). However, they do suggest the possibility of much larger variations on the stratosphere than previously thought, and some studies have suggested that this may lead to significant regional impacts on climate (as discussed in 10.3.1.1.3), that are not necessarily reflected by the RF metric (see 8.2.16).

In summary, possible future reductions in solar irradiance would act to cool global mean surface air temperature but such cooling is unlikely to exceed -0.1 degrees C by 2050 (medium confidence).”

Did you catch that? The key points in this quote are:

  • Energy from the sun has been declining
  • Changes in energy from the sun have a small impact on RF (net change in atmosphere heat)
  • Future declines in solar energy may act as a mild cooling force between now and 2050, estimated as an offsetting force of -0.1 degrees C.

And Fox spins this to infer the sun is the cause of global warming. By pulling one quote out of context. In a thick report which clearly states that human-made CO2 is the major cause of unequivocal global warming. Written by 800 scientists.

You can almost hear the planet groan.

Why do networks spin?

It’s easy to laugh at this type of chicanery, but unfortunately misinformation pulls ratings. This has always been true. Back in the 1890s, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst battled in a “yellow journalism” newspaper fight that legend has it was so provocative, their misreporting started the Spanish-American war. The idea of neutral journalism was a modern invention in the 1960s, when the big three TV networks had to compete for the entire nation, and so were forced to report news straight down the middle. Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings were no saints; they just had to tell stories that everyone wanted to hear.

But deep inside we want to validate our opinions, and the fragmentation of cable and Internet outlets now allows us to tune into just what we want. For some reason, Fox News has decided that deriding global warming is popular among its audience (who perhaps fear big government solutions to a global problem), just as MSNBC knows that stories about raising taxes on the rich will get its viewers passionate (who on the left doesn’t want to soak the rich and big business?).

The proliferation of media outlets means we can subscribe to exactly the flavor of news that makes us feel best. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame Fox News or MSNBC for spinning anything. The Earth is getting hotter, and so is our rhetoric. All the new media does is serve up the stories we want.

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