Home Science & Cosmos The Capitol Riot and Climate Disinformation

The Capitol Riot and Climate Disinformation


Last week, a mob incited by President Trump stormed the United States Capitol building. Rioters broke windows, beat law enforcement officers, vandalized offices and tried to track down members of Congress with mayhem in mind. At least five people died.

For those of us who cover climate change for a living, the blatant lies about election fraud that fed the mob felt very familiar. A big part of our job is dealing with the disinformation that people and institutions spread to muddy the waters about climate change.

There’s a long and sad history of efforts by industries and interest groups to reshape the discussion of climate science and undercut the overwhelming evidence that greenhouse gases produced by humans are leading us to global catastrophe.

The tools of deception are decades old, said the historian Naomi Oreskes, in the book she wrote with Erik Conway, “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change.” In an interview, she told me that the tobacco industry’s strategy “was applied to environmental and health issues more broadly.”

Underlying many of the arguments, she said, are paeans to personal freedom that undercut the belief that government should, or even can, solve our problems.

Since the riots, Twitter, Mr. Trump’s favorite megaphone, has permanently suspended the president’s account. Twitter has also removed tens of thousand of QAnon accounts. And Twitter barred the president after Facebook, Snapchat, Twitch and other platforms imposed limits on him.

But this week has shown how resilient purveyors of disinformation can be. On Tuesday, after Mr. Trump was largely cut off from social media, my climate desk colleagues Lisa Friedman and Christopher Flavelle reported on how a Trump administration official posted online a series of debunked papers questioning the established science of climate change.

The official, David Legates, a climate denialist installed last year by the Trump administration to oversee scientific work on climate change, posted the papers on a private website that espouses climate denial. However, they included the logo of the executive office of the president and purported to be the copyrighted work of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy representing “the current state-of-the-science” on climate change.

The response from the White House science office was swift.

“These papers were not created at the direction of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy nor were they cleared or approved by O.S.T.P. leadership,” Kristina Baum, a spokeswoman for the office, said in a statement. Dr. Legates and a colleague were later relieved of their duties at the science office, though they remain employed in the government.

America’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry plummeted more than 10 percent in 2020, reaching their lowest levels in at least three decades as the coronavirus pandemic slammed the brakes on the nation’s economy, according to an estimate published this week by the Rhodium Group.

The fall in emissions nationwide was the largest one-year decline since at least World War II, the Rhodium Group said, and put the United States within striking distance of one of its major climate goals under the Paris agreement, a global pact by nearly 200 governments to address climate change. — Brad Plumer

Context: The steep drop was the result of extraordinary circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated, and experts warned that getting America’s planet-warming pollution under control will still be a major challenge.

Last year effectively tied 2016 as the hottest year on record, European climate researchers have announced, as global temperatures continued their relentless rise brought on by the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The record warmth — which fueled deadly heat waves, droughts, intense wildfires and other environmental disasters around the world in 2020 — occurred despite the development in the second half of the year of La Niña, a global climate phenomenon marked by surface cooling across much of the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

And while 2020 may tie the record, all of the last six years are among the hottest ever, said Freja Vamborg, a senior scientist with the Copernicus Climate Change Service.

“It’s a reminder that temperatures are changing and will continue to change if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions,” Dr. Vamborg said. — Henry Fountain

More to come: The finding by European scientists was one of two important annual global temperature assessments. The other, by American researchers using slightly different methods, is due Thursday. We’ll have the details in the next weekly climate briefing.

Linda Zall played a starring role in American science that led to decades of major advances. But she never described her breakthroughs on television, or had books written about her, or received high scientific honors. One database of scientific publications lists her contributions as consisting of just three papers, with a conspicuous gap running from 1980 to 2020.

The reason is that Dr. Zall’s decades of service to science were done in the secretive warrens of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Now, at 70, she’s telling her story — at least the parts she’s allowed to talk about — and admirers are praising her highly classified struggle to put the nation’s spy satellites onto a radical new job: environmental sleuthing. — William J. Broad


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