Four Republican senators this week demanded an investigation of the National Science Foundation’s grants, accusing the federal agency of “propagandizing” by supporting a program to encourage TV meteorologists to report on climate change.
In a letter sent to the agency’s inspector general Wednesday, the senators ― Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Ky.) and James Lankford (Okla.) and Jim Inhofe (Okla.) ― said the $4 million Climate Matters program, which sponsors classes and webinars for meteorologists and provides real-time data and graphics with TV stations, went beyond the scope of the National Science Foundation’s mission of funding “basic research.” They urged the inspector general to probe whether the grants violated the 1939 Hatch Act, which bars government agencies from engaging in partisan activity.
“It is unacceptable for federal agencies to support such research which attempts to convince individuals to adopt a particular viewpoint rather than conducting objective research examining a given topic,” they wrote in the letter.
The call for an investigation came the same day NBC News published a feature on Climate Central’s efforts to train more than 500 TV weathercasters across the country on how to understand global warming and its local impacts. NBC News first reported on the letter.
In a lengthy statement to HuffPost, the NSF said its grants undergo a rigorous merit review process “considered to be the ‘gold standard’ of scientific review” and said its staff receives an annual ethics training that includes the Hatch Act.
“Nearly every proposal is evaluated by a minimum of three independent reviewers consisting of scientists, engineers and educators who do not work at NSF or for the institution that employs the proposing researchers,” Sarah Bates, an agency spokeswoman, said in the statement. “Each proposal submitted to NSF — including those deemed ‘troubling’ by Senators Paul, Cruz, Lankford and Inhofe ― is reviewed by science and engineering experts well-versed in their particular discipline or field of expertise.”
The NSF’s inspector general said it plans to “assess the issues raised by the four senators this fall.”
“We will determine an appropriate course of action once our assessment is complete,” Lisa Vonder Haar, chief of staff to the inspector general, wrote in an email.
The senators cited a six-year-old opinion column in The Washington Post that described Climate Central, the group that runs the program with researchers at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, as “an advocacy group.” They called the NSF grants “egregious” and accused Climate Central of changing “the manner in which it describes itself, perhaps due to the attention it received from The Washington Post.”
“Research designed to sway individuals of a various group, be they meteorologists or engineers, to a politically contentious viewpoint is not science ― it is propagandizing,” the senators wrote. Such efforts certainly fail to meet the standard of scientific research to which the NSF should be devoting federal taxpayer dollars.”
In reality, the Princeton, New Jersey-based nonprofit produces original research and deeply-reported feature stories. Climate Central operated a robust news site until last August, when it laid off most of its staff reporters to focus its resources on research.
“We are an independent organization and scrupulously avoid advocating for any policy or political position,” Climate Central CEO Ben Strauss, also the group’s chief scientist, wrote in an email Thursday.
He pointed out that the opinion column the senators cited was “not news reporting,” and that “it was soundly refuted at the time by then-CEO of Climate Central Paul Hanle in a letter to the editor.”
“Climate Central is not an advocacy organization, and the scientific consensus on climate change is not a political viewpoint,” he added.
The NSF funding covered less than a quarter of the Climate Matters budget over the last three years but provided a critical boost at a time when cable news’ failure to report on climate change is becoming a crisis unto itself. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox aired a combined 260 minutes of climate change coverage last year, according to a February study released by liberal watchdog Media Matters for America.
Of that, 205 minutes, or 79 percent, focused on actions or statements by the Trump administration, most often the president’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord. Nearly all coverage of climate change on the influential Sunday talk shows ― 94 of 95 minutes ― focused on the administration. At the same time, TV giant Sinclair Broadcast Group, criticized for requiring its local stations across the country to air right-wing political propaganda, is accused of forcing its meteorologists to insert climate denialism into their coverage.
In 2017, Climate Matters helped local weathercasters report on the impacts of climate change 879 times, covering 40 states and Puerto Rico.
“There have already been a few hundred stories so far in 2018,” Strauss said.
The Senators’ letter marks the latest high-profile Republican attack on federal funding to deal with climate change. Trump, who has repeatedly dismissed climate change as “a hoax,” purged federal websites of references to global warming and instructed the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department to eliminate regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel extraction in an effort to transform the country into the world’s leading oil and gas exporter. Republicans in Congress attempted to zero out funding for renewable energy subsidies in the GOP tax bill last year, despite including $25 billion in giveaways to the fossil fuel industry. Even amid an ongoing avalanche of corruption scandals, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has proposed a series of new rules to dramatically scale back the few remaining Obama-era rules to reduce planet-warming emissions, and prohibit the use of most public health studies when writing regulations, a move widely panned as an “attack on science.”
The GOP remains the only major political party in the developed world to make climate change denial a platform issue.
“The scientific consensus on climate change is not a political viewpoint.”
The senators who authored the letter are among the biggest recipients of fossil fuel donations. In a ranking of all U.S. senators over the last three decades, Cruz came in third for the all-time largest total of direct contributions from oil and gas companies, receiving over $2.7 million since he took office, including during his presidential campaign, according to data collected by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Inhofe ― who infamously brought a snowball to the Senate floor as proof of climate scientists’ supposed folly ― ranked seventh, with nearly $1.9 million. Lankford ranked 16th, with $1.1 million. Paul fell well below the others at $284,328.
Likewise, all four senators reject the overwhelming scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels causes climate change, putting them at odds not only with nearly every credible scientist but the vast majority of Americans.
Ninety-seven percent of peer-reviewed research has concluded that burning fossil fuels, deforestation and industrial farming are enshrouding the planet in heat-trapping gases, while a research review published in 2015 found significant flaws in the methodologies, assumptions or analyses used by the 3 percent of scientists who concluded otherwise. Meanwhile, 69 percent of survey respondents know global warming is happening, and 52 percent understand humans are the main cause, according to 2016 survey data from Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication.
Yet just 39 percent believe climate change is causing harm right now, according to a George Mason survey from March of 1,278 adults.
Climate communications experts say TV meteorologists are best positioned to bridge that cognitive gap by localizing the broad planetary trends, said Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, which partnered with Climate Central on Climate Matters.
“It’s important to share information with all Americans about the local impacts of climate change in their community,” Maibach, who has served as the principal investigator on all the NSF grants to fund Climate Matters, said in an email. “There is no better way to do that than through the local news.”
The program has yielded success. In 2010, only half of the 571 weathercasters George Mason surveyed believed global warming was happening, as NBC News reported, and a quarter called it “a scam.” A new survey taken last year showed that 95 percent of meteorologists believed the planet is warming.
Yet they remained divided on the cause. Just 15 percent said human activity is “largely or entirely” causing the climate to change, while 34 said it was mostly due to human activity. Twenty-one percent said natural events and human activity were equally to blame, and 13 percent said it was mostly due to natural events.
“NSF funding has helped us help TV weathercasters provide this important information to their viewers,” Maibach said. “And their viewers appreciate the information; hundreds of TV weathercasters have told us so.”
Climate communication has become a burgeoning field of study as scientists seek to better understand how people come to understand an environmental phenomenon of unprecedented proportions. The issue has the added challenge of overcoming years of misinformation spread by fossil fuel corporations, think tanks they funded and politicians who receive their patronage.
Climate denials efforts have managed to help politicize climate change even as fossil fuel emissions continue to rise and 2017 marked the most expensive year on record in damages from natural disasters linked to climate change.
On Thursday, an anonymous user with no previous submissions to Wikipedia updated Climate Central’s page to call it a “fake news” organization.
This story was updated to include statements from NSF and its inspector general.