Part I: How the Media Help the Koch Brothers and ExxonMobil Spread Climate Doubt
[Editor's note: Elliott Negin, director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists, shows how the U.S. news media routinely fail to inform the public about the fossil fuel industry funders behind climate change contrarian think tanks. Negin provides recommendations for how journalists can better serve the public interest. This is the first in a six-part series.]
A Glaring Lapse in Climate and Energy Coverage
One of my morning rituals is half-listening to National Public Radio's (NPR) Morning Edition while I'm getting ready for work. But on Jan. 3, when a story came on about the fate of the wind industry's production tax credit, I snapped to attention. It was good news. Congress's eleventh hour "fiscal cliff" agreement had left the tax credit in place for at least one more year.
The NPR story featured a spokesman for a small Iowa wind project who explained how the tax credit benefits rural communities. For balance, it also included a naysayer: Thomas Pyle from the American Energy Alliance (AEA), who wanted Congress to kill the subsidy.
"It's not that the subsidies for the wind industry in and of themselves are bad, but it is part-and-parcel of a larger problem, and that is, is that the federal government is notoriously bad at energy policy," Pyle said. "They have been for decades, and we think it's time for them to step aside."
But who is Thomas Pyle and what is the AEA? The story didn't say.
It turns out that the AEA is a front organization for the oil and gas industry. Pyle, AEA's president, is a former lobbyist for the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association and Koch Industries, the Wichita, Kansas-based coal, oil and gas conglomerate owned by the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch (pronounced "coke"). Koch Industries is the second largest privately held company in the country.
Digging a little deeper, I learned that AEA is the political arm of the Institute for Energy Research (IER), where Pyle also serves as president. From 2006 to 2010, IRE received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industry's trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil and the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, a philanthropy controlled by Charles Koch.
Okay, but didn't Pyle say the federal government should stop subsidizing all energy? That sounds pretty evenhanded, right? In fact, as aggressive as Pyle and his benefactors are about undermining their competition, they are even more vehement about protecting themselves—and they know full well their friends in Congress wouldn't dare touch oil and gas subsidies. Indeed, legislation introduced last May to pull the plug on the billions in annual tax breaks and subsidies the oil, gas and coal industries enjoy died a quick death.
Obviously there wasn't enough time to explain all that in a four-minute news segment. But at the very least the reporter should have identified Pyle as an oil and gas industry spokesman. I emailed the reporter later that day to point that out. I got no response.
Why Don't Reporters Follow the Money?
Twenty-five years after National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist James Hansen testified at a Senate hearing that scientists know with a 99 percent certainty that burning fossil fuels—not natural climate variations—is warming the planet, there are many reasons why Congress has yet to take significant steps to curb U.S. carbon emissions. The hundreds of millions of dollars oil, coal, auto and manufacturing industries have donated to federal candidates is certainly a factor. So are the hundreds of millions of dollars they've spent to lobby them once they're elected.
But the news media are also to blame. Too often they have provided a platform for fossil fuel industry-funded think tanks and advocacy groups to make spurious claims about global warming and renewable energy and allowed them to pass themselves off as independent, disinterested parties promoting free markets and limited government.
Over the years, journalists have consistently relied on these groups to provide the "other side" in climate and energy stories when, in fact, there is no other side—at least not on the science or the fact that we have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels to avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change. All too often, however, the news media have presented these two sides as equivalent, despite the fact that one rests its argument on peer-reviewed climate science while the other promotes the distortions of industry-funded contrarians, most of whom are not climate scientists—or even scientists at all.
NPR's ombudsman addressed this deficiency two years ago. "NPR often does a lousy job of identifying the background of think tanks or other groups when quoting their experts," Alicia C. Shepard wrote in an essay posted on the network's website in April 2011, just a month before her three-year tenure ended. "NPR also rarely explains why listeners should pay attention to the experts it chooses to quote. This matters."
Shepard was right. It does matter. But her solution of just tacking on "libertarian," "conservative" or "liberal" labels doesn't sufficiently inform the public whose interests these think tanks are serving. In any case, her message apparently fell on deaf ears. The glaring omission in the Jan. 3 story is still more the rule than the exception at NPR, and the network is not alone. Most, if not all, mainstream news organizations are guilty of the same transgression.
To gauge just how widespread this failure is, I recently looked to see if elite news organizations reported funding sources for eight prominent climate contrarian groups in climate and energy stories that ran from January 2011 through December 2012. The groups—which I have dubbed the "Oil Eight"—are the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute, Heritage Foundation, Institute for Energy Research (and its political arm, American Energy Alliance) and Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. When it comes to climate, the Oil Eight share the same goals as their corporate underwriters: sow doubt about the reality or seriousness of global warming, stifle government efforts to curb carbon emissions and hinder the growth of renewable energy technologies.
Who are their corporate underwriters? From 2001 through 2011, the Oil Eight collectively received more than $23 million from one or more of the following interested parties: the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, General Motors and three Koch family foundations: the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation (now the Charles Koch Foundation), David H. Koch Charitable Foundation and Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, according to data I gleaned from federal tax filings, the Foundation Center and the Bridge Project's Conservative Transparency database.
In addition, another Charles Koch philanthropy, the relatively unknown Knowledge and Progress Fund, contributed nearly $8 million from 2005 to 2011 to a secretive, pass-through foundation called Donors Trust. From 2001 through 2011, Donors Trust and its affiliate Donors Capital Fund laundered more than $54 million of largely untraceable contributions to the Oil Eight, far outpacing ExxonMobil and the three main Koch family foundations.
Using the Nexis database and the news organizations' archives, I tracked coverage by the Associated Press, NPR, the political trade journal Politico and six leading newspapers: the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. I confined my search to stories on climate and energy, so I excluded pieces that focused on industry funding without mentioning either topic.
After poring over more than 1,000 stories, editorials, opinion columns and interviews, I narrowed my sample to 376 relevant pieces. Here's what I found: These top news organizations provided information about the Oil Eight's fossil fuel industry funding in only 32 percent of the climate and energy stories they published or aired over the two-year period.
When I was in school, 32 percent was an F.
The eight news organizations did the best job identifying the fact that the Koch brothers underwrite Americans for Prosperity, citing the Kochs as the group's funders 69 percent of the time. They were not nearly as attentive with the other groups, however. They disclosed the funders behind the Institute for Energy Research and its political arm, American Energy Alliance, in 43 percent of the stories that mentioned them in 2011 and 2012, and then their attention really faded. They mentioned the Heartland Institute's benefactors only 20 percent of the time, the Cato Institute's funders only 10 percent of the time and the supporters of the remaining four groups—the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Manhattan Institute, Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute—less than 10 percent of the time. (See the table at the top of this blog for my complete survey results.)
Politico ran the most climate and energy stories citing the Oil Eight during the two year period—86—and named their funders in 44 percent of its stories, tying it with the Los Angeles Times for the best record. The Los Angeles Times—which the Koch brothers would like to buy—ran 25 stories citing one or more of the Oil Eight, mentioning funders in 11 of them.
The news organizations that did the worst job identifying fossil fuel industry funders were USA Today, which cited them in only 18 percent of its 28 stories and op-eds, and the Wall Street Journal, which named them in only 11 percent of its 46 stories, columns and op-eds. That's very discouraging, given the two papers have the largest circulations in the country.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
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By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
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By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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By Katie Howell
A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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