How Inhofe turns balloon animals into 'news'
Photo: canopicThe professional deniers are at it again. Every chance they get, the people who are paid to spread doubt and confusion about climate change take some minor report or news event, fill it with hot air and twist it up like a balloon animal, then try to persuade everyone that it is alive and kicking — that it “proves” that the planet isn’t warming or human activities aren’t the big reason why.
This time, the professional deniers are seizing on a report [PDF] from the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general (IG).
In reality, the IG’s report upholds EPA’s efforts to address climate change, affirming that the agency followed the law when it determined that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.
But Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who says he thinks global warming is a hoax, and his team of professional deniers have been trying to pretend that their latest balloon animal is living, breathing proof that the EPA process was faulty and the underlying science flawed. And some news organizations fell for it — again.
To make his claim, Inhofe had to ignore the crystal-clear opening sentence of the IG’s report, which concludes that EPA “met statutory requirements for rulemaking” when it issued its endangerment finding, the scientific basis for action under the Clean Air Act. The IG’s report takes issue with some bureaucratic minutiae — EPA procedures that have nothing to do with the validity of the agency’s conclusions. These procedures were created by the federal Office of Management and Budget, and OMB agrees with the way EPA followed them, not with the IG’s minor criticisms.
It’s one agency squabbling with another over which boxes got checked.
Here’s how my colleague Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, put it:
Let’s be clear on what this report does not do: it does not call into question any of the underlying science. And the report affirmed that EPA complied with the law when making the endangerment finding.
EPA’s endangerment finding is based on assessments by the National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program — assessments that considered tens of thousands of peer-reviewed articles and involved thousands of scientists.
Inhofe is peddling another balloon animal. No surprise there. But let’s pull back the curtain and see how a balloon animal gets treated like news.
Step one. It all starts when Inhofe himself demands that the IG look into the endangerment finding. “This evaluation was initiated based on a request from Senator James M. Inhofe,” the IG report says — and to carry it out, “the estimated direct labor and travel costs for this report are $297,385.” So Inhofe, a putative champion of small government and enemy of bureaucratic waste, triggered almost $300,000 in unnecessary spending for the report. That’s an expensive balloon.
Step two. Inhofe breaks the IG’s embargo by putting out an overheated press release claiming that the report “calls the scientific integrity of EPA’s decision-making process into question and undermines the credibility of the endangerment finding.” In fact, it does nothing of the kind.
Step three. Inhofe’s former communications director, Marc Morano, who runs a climate denier website, trumpets the false charges, conservative outlets pick up the drum beat, and mainstream news organizations like The Washington Post and Politico quote Inhofe’s specious charges. Headlines announce that EPA “cut corners” and “needed more data before ruling.” Other journalists begin weighing in on the “wide-reaching political implications.”
Now, an IG report is news, no doubt about that. But reporters should know better than to believe that Inhofe’s balloon animal is real. Anyone who looks at it can tell it’s just a balloon. Can’t they?