The Environment, Small Newspapers, and Disinformation

March 5, 2020 Updated: March 9, 2020


I recently came across a campus newspaper talking about how local farmers were having to change their farming techniques to accommodate the reality of global warming.

The headline for the online version said: “‘You’re going to see dead crops:’ How a changing climate is hurting local farmers.”

This was of interest to me. I taught environmental law for many years, and I have written quite a bit on the topic. I’ve also written and lectured specifically on global warming/climate change and on the politics underlying the debate.

Despite an alleged 97 percent consensus of scientists on the linkage between carbon pollution and higher temperatures, many people still have doubts. One reason for that is that the scientific method can’t legitimately be applied to the climate. We can’t do experiments on the entire Earth (with another Earth serving as control) to conclusively prove or disprove the theory. The scale is simply too large.

The New Zealand Climate Science Coalition has even offered a $10,000 Professor Augie Auer Award to the first applicant who can present scientific proof that man-made carbon dioxide causes dangerous global warming. The award is safe because the scientific method is simply inapplicable.

Because of that, scientists use environmental modeling to develop theories. This involves mathematical models of the environment. In the context of global warming, this means plotting carbon dioxide and other atmospheric “greenhouse gases” alongside global temperatures and making projections about the future.

Cause and Effect

Gases and temperatures have both gone up in recent decades, but the causal relationship is debated, and most models (perhaps all) have problems that raise questions about their accuracy. That leads to questions about the entire global warming theory.

The other thing that leads to questioning is that most models project linear growth in temperatures; the actual increases have been inconsistent. The 1880s saw the end of the mini ice age, and temperatures gradually climbed throughout the first half of the 20th century. (That they climbed in the pre-industrial times from 1880 to 1930 is a problem for some environmental models.) From the 1940s to the early 1970s, temperatures cooled again, and then they took off at the end of the century. They’ve fluctuated in recent years, confounding scientists and creating problems for almost all environmental models.

According to the campus newspaper, however, temperature changes have been clear, and “Mississippi farmers are having to change their farming practices to adapt to a changing climate.”

The article explained that, despite longer growing seasons, higher summer temperatures require the use of more water, and warmer winters mean that “insects and harmful pests will be around earlier in the season and for longer.” It reported that “the effects of climate change are already underway” in the local county.

This was very important. If local farmers were really changing their practices, that showed the impact of global warming more than anything I had ever seen. It was certainly far more immediate than projections based on models. I read on.

The article quoted a local organic farmer who spoke primarily of the benefits of organic farming, not the threat posed by warmer temperatures. He said, “You are what you eat. … If you put all these chemicals in your body, you lose out on a lot of the nutrients and antioxidants that you get from organically grown produce.”

Fair enough, but not really related to growing crops in increasing temperatures.

An expert was quoted explaining why organic foods cost more to produce, and the farmer suggested that the price is justified by the health benefits.

“It can be hard to justify spending more for naturally or organically grown products, but you need to think of it as a preventative medicine. … What we do to our bodies now can affect our health and quality of life for years to come,” he concluded.

The story had shifted from global warming’s impact on local farming to the benefits of organic farming.

I looked up temperature data in Mississippi. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report “National Centers for Environmental Information: State Climate Summaries,” temperatures in Mississippi were highest in the 1920s and 1930s. They cooled by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the 1960s and 1970s, but since then warmed back up.

As such, the past couple of decades have been slightly above the long-term average, but the southeastern United States hasn’t experienced overall warming since 1900. In fact, in the 1950s, Mississippi experienced an average of 10 days over 100 degrees each year. In the 21st century, there has been an average of only about three such days per year.

So, what does this mean? My point is not really about global warming or about a college newspaper. My point is that an idea can be advanced without much evidence if people don’t critically examine the claims.

The assertion of increasing temperatures is so widely accepted that most people who read that article in the campus newspaper now believe that local farmers are changing their techniques to accommodate the changed environment. Clearly, that’s wrong, but that’s a small-scale problem. Why was I concerned enough to write a column about it and ask you to read it?

It’s because this situation is instructive on the science of disinformation.

Soviet Disinformation

When considering disinformation, media manipulation, and fake news, one is naturally reluctant to pay much attention to small-market publications. Clearly, they don’t carry much weight with influence-makers. On the other hand, during the Cold War, the Soviet KGB regularly used such publications to spread disinformation. These were outlets in which agents could cultivate influence by providing content or financial assistance. Pretty soon, they would become reliable promoters of Soviet propaganda.

Regarding KGB operations against the United States during the Vietnam era, the highest-ranking defector from the Soviet bloc (and my co-author), Ion Mihai Pacepa, explained that one of the Soviet Union’s “favorite tools” was fabricating photographs and “news reports” about invented American war atrocities. They would be planted in smaller journals, sometimes dominated by the KGB, and then promoted to reputable news organizations.

“Often enough, they would be picked up. … All in all, it was amazingly easy for Soviet-bloc spy organizations to fake many such reports and spread them around the world,” Pacepa said.

I don’t believe that the global warming article in the college newspaper was intentionally misleading, nor was it planted by a foreign government. It’s important, however, to pay attention to local publications. It’s also important for reporters and editors at such publications to verify their stories—especially those that may have political implications.

Finally, it’s important for readers to read carefully, check sources, and not believe everything they see in the newspaper (or online).

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.