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Politi-“fact” vs truth: challenges in fact checking climate statements

February 16th, 2016 · No Comments

Senator Bernie Sanders, amid the Democratic Presidential primary, has had strong words about Republican presidential candidates and climate change.  Amid discussions of the (distorting) influence of interest group financing in politics during the 3 Feb debate with Secretary/Senator Clinton, Sanders said

Do you think there’s a reason why not one Republican has the guts to recognize that climate change is real, and that we need to transform our energy system? Do you think it has anything to do with the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil pouring huge amounts of money into the political system?

Polifact took on the this statement — in a dissected form — and went to rate it.  As an advance warning, they did so in a convoluted manner focused on “fact” that ended up leaving aside “truth”.  Before getting to Politifact, let’s lay out some climate truth:

Here is reality:
  • The earth is warming at unprecedented (in terms of humanity’s time on the planet) rate and scale.
  • Human activity (primarily the burning of fossil fuels) is driving this warming.
  • The warming — the human-driven climate change — is creating serious risks for human civilization.
  • Significant, serious, and action is required both to reduce emissions (en route a carbon-neutral (if not negative) global economy) and to prepare global society (and the United States) for deal with climate consequences.
There is not a single Republican on the South Carolina primary ballot who acknowledges/embraces “this reality”: that climate change is real and we need to “transform our energy system” to deal with it.
President Obama clearly agrees with Senator Sanders:

Sadly, Politifact is not alone … 

UPDATE 2:  17 Feb 2016
See excellent well-documented MMfA discussion of how Republican candidates cited by Politifact as aligned with climate science actually aren’t. Media Glossing Over Climate Science Denial by GOP “Establishment” Candidates ends:
Hopefully media outlets will more deeply explore how well the candidates’ comments square with climate science going forward, particularly in articles that purport to be “fact-checks.” Splitting the GOP field into “outsider” candidates who reject climate science and “establishment” candidates who accept it might make for a compelling media narrative. But it doesn’t make for an accurate one.

Politifact did not deal with the compound statement.  Politifact’s look is focused on a minutia of the wording rather than dealing with the full picture — a version of style over substance. Here is their opening to the ‘fact check’.
Not one Republican recognizes that climate change is real?
They then roll through the Republican candidates, finding that several acknowledge that humanity might have some role in climate change …

On the issue of whether climate has been changing significantly in recent decades, Bush, Christie, Fiorina, Kasich and Rubio say that it has.

Bush, Christie, Fiorina and Kasich say it’s man made. Rubio says it’s not.

Bush, Christie, Fiorina and Kasich have called for some degree of action to combat it.

Yet, when examining “Bush, Christie, Fiorina and Kasich”, it is clear that they don’t even call for half-measures let alone embracing an urgent need to “transform our energy system”.
Politifact did take a look at those “some degree of action” and seem to come down to agreement that the Republicans proposed (half (baked)) measures are far from adequate and do not represent calls to “transform” the energy system to address climate change.
Even so, Politifact judged Sander’s statement as “false”.
Perhaps, in the most narrowly conceived manner (‘do they acknowledge that the climate is changing, that humans have a role in that, and that we might need to do something’), Politifact might have something to their commentary. But, when it comes to substance rather than style, truth rather than isolated “facts”, Politifact is simply wrong.
NOTE:  The “Fact Check” community has been rather sparse in fact checking Republican statements about climate change, from Ted Cruz’s outright science denial to convoluted avoidance of the dealing substantively with the issue from Jeb Bush and others.  One way to think of it, perhaps, is that they don’t bother ‘because everyone knows that the Rs are apart from the science and reality so why bother doing this 50 times over … ? … ?”
Here is a Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, look at Huckabee and climate science (specifically, Global Cooling) notable, in part, for the relative rarity in terms of serious fact checking of Republican presidential candidate’s climate statements.  (Here is a Fact Check on Cruz that highlights some inconsistencies in his comments but doesn’t demonstrate digging into the issues to highlight how far off he is.)



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