Biology: Climate change misinformation affects things, including us

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“We won’t solve the climate crisis unless we solve the misinformation crisis," U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna said in the Frontline series episode “The Power of Big Oil” on PBS.

The major print media, especially newspapers of record, have run a flood of articles about the increasingly negative affects of climate change this last month. In addition to their climate change focus, the articles share two other commonalities: Most refer explicitly to “human-caused climate change.” And none of them cite someone arguing that human activities don’t cause climate change.

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This is a change for major print media, which aim to maintain objectivity by including “both sides” of most issues. As far as they are concerned, there’s only one side now, and it does not bode well for living organisms, especially us.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.

Alas, climate misinformation thrives elsewhere.

Rep. Khanna, quoted above, should know. He has a front-row seat on the interface of political and oil industry climate change misinformation. He is a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. He chairs its subcommittee on Environment overseeing federal climate change policies.

Last October, the Oversight and Reform committee called heads of America’s four largest oil companies to testify under oath. Extracting and burning oil emits greenhouse gases causing climate change.

The oil industry has cast doubt on this well-documented relationship even while their own scientists argued internally since the 1970s that their emissions did just that.

At that hearing, committee Chair Carolyn Maloney announced that she would subpoena those internal scientific reports. “We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign…,” she said.

Misinformation is simply wrong; disinformation is intentionally wrong. Maloney noted similarity in oil industry tactics to earlier tobacco industry tactics questioning the links between smoking and cancer.

Steve Rissing
Steve Rissing

Last year, the oil and gas industry spent almost $120 million on lobbying activities. In 2020 the American Petroleum Institute contributed over $5 million to the Senate Leadership Fund and individual candidates. All are Republican PACS or candidates, with the exception of a $12,000 contribution to the Biden campaign.

In likely response to this lopsided support from the fossil fuel industry and the misinformation it funds, climate change is a highly partisan issue among voters.

Last September, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reported that 87% of registered Democrats said global warming should be a high/very high priority for the president and Congress.

Only 31% of Republicans agreed.

How does this affect biology?

Earlier this month Australian officials reported that 91% of the Great Barrier Reef suffered coral bleaching from rising water temperatures.

A peer-reviewed article in Nature last month suggests that 20% of the world’s lizard, turtle and snake species are threatened by human activities, including those causing climate change.

New Mexico is confronting "potentially historic" forest fires.

California expects more extreme drought this summer after "dismal" winter precipitation. Over 6 million homeowners there confront first-ever water use restrictions.

Colorado officials have prohibited sport fishing on stretches of the Colorado River because of climate change effects on water levels and temperature stressing fish populations.

Rep. Khanna is right. We will not solve the climate crisis and its effects until we solve the well-funded misinformation crisis.

Steve Rissing is professor emeritus in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Biology: Climate change misinformation must be curbed