Energy Secretary Rick Perry made it official on Monday: He denies the science behind human-caused climate change—specifically, the fact that burning fossil fuels increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, trapping more heat. Asked whether he believes CO2 is “the primary control knob for the temperature of the Earth and for climate,” Perry replied, “No, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in.” Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, uttered similar falsehoods in March: “I would not agree that [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Certain industry leaders have become more comfortable saying the same. Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning, also in March, said CO2 was “certainly not” causing climate change.
All three of these denials happened on the same cable news morning show—not Fox and Friends, but CNBC’s Squawk Box, where “the biggest names in business and politics tell their most important stories,” per their marketing copy. And the denials were all in response to nearly identical questions from Joe Kernen, who, of the three Squawk Box co-hosts, is clearly the most interested in climate change. Indeed, one look at Kernen’s Twitter feed reveals that he’s a fervent denier of mainstream climate science; that he believes those who accept that science are part of a “cult” who have succumbed to “groupthink;” and that, even though 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that carbon dioxide causes global warming, contrarians deserve just as much airtime to explain why they think unprecedented carbon dioxide concentrations are somehow beneficial to human life.
highly skeptical trace 0.04% atmospheric CO2 is primary climate control knob.
Though the frequency of climate discussion on Squawk Box is a recent phenomenon, the show has been a denial haven for some time. In June 2016, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch railed against President Barack Obama’s ambitious strategy to combat global warming. “It’s almost unbelievable,” Welch said, alleging that Obama’s plan would create “an Air Force that doesn’t have parts” and “an economy that won’t move.” Kernen agreed, and blasted the media for accepting mainstream scientists’ characterization of climate change. “The media are just lapdogs, yeah yeah yeah, they just lap it right up,” he said.
Princeton University physicist William Happer, who has been cited as a leading candidate to be President Donald Trump’s science adviser, appeared on Squawk Box in in 2014 episode to provide, in the chyron’s words, a “defense of carbon dioxide.” Kernan asked Happer to explain recent extreme weather caused by a shifting polar vortex, which scientists attributed to climate change. Happer described the shift as normal, and went on to say that climate models were too sensitive to be trusted. “CO2 is very clearly a benefit,” Happer said.
Happer did not escape the interview unchallenged, but only because Squawk Box co-host Andrew Ross Sorkin was present (the aforementioned interviews were one-on-ones with Kernen). “You don’t believe in climate change at all,” he told Happer, who became extraordinarily defensive. “Just a minute, just a minute, just a minute—I believe in climate change, shut up!” Happer said. “I get called a denier and anyone who objects to all the hype gets called a denier... The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world and so were the Jews.” The Holocaust comparison rightly alarmed Sorkin, but not Kernen, who ended the segment by defending Happer’s position.
Squawk Box’s periodic focus on climate science might seem odd, given that the show focuses on financial news. But Kernen, a former stockbroker, also has a science background— and a robust one at that, for someone in his line of work. According to his CNBC bio, he holds a master’s degree in molecular biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and majored in that subject at the University of Colorado. He even published peer-reviewed research in 1979 and 1980.
Perhaps this is why Kernen often uses scientific terminology to defend his own climate-change denial. For instance, he often notes that carbon dioxide only makes up .04 percent of the atmosphere, which he characterizes as “trace.” This ignores the fact that trace amounts of many substances can have huge impacts, and that the atmosphere currently contains more carbon dioxide than it ever has in human history. Indeed, as Andrew Freedman wrote at Mashable, the last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere, “Megatoothed sharks prowled the oceans, the world’s seas were up to 100 feet higher than they are today, and the global average surface temperature was up to 11°F warmer than it is now.”
Of course, a background in one scientific field does not make one an expert in another scientific field—Happer is proof enough of that. Robert Levenson, a distinguished professor of pharmacology at Penn State College of Medicine who published at leastthreepapers with Kernen, confirmed that their research was unrelated to climate science. “We did basic cellular biology,” he told me. “It had nothing to do with atmospheric science.” And when I told him that his old lab parter had become a climate denier, Levenson was surprised. “He’s not a stupid guy,” he said. “He should go stick his head in the garbage can.” Later, Levenson sent me an email: “If you speak with Joe, tell him hi from me and ask him what he’s been smoking.”
A CNBC spokesperson declined to make Kernen available for an interview, and only offered this brief statement: “Squawk Box is built for balance focusing on issues that impact business, finance, investments and economies.” If, by “balance,” CNBC is saying Squawk Box also interviews people who accept climate science, that much istrue. But such “balance” is really false equivalence: It suggests to viewers that there are two equally informed, reasonable sides to the climate debate—that whether humans are causing harmful climate change is a matter of opinion, not fact.
But that’s exactly why officials like Pruitt and Perry appear on Squawk Box in the first place. Whereas many cable news hosts would never let them get away with the nonsense claim that carbon dioxide has nothing to do with global warming—Fox News’ Chris Wallace grilled Pruitt on this very subject in April—they know that such ignorant, dangerous views will go unchallenged by Kernen. Squawk Box is their safe space, and Kernen is their megaphone.
Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, CityLab, Grist, The Guardian, High Country News, HuffPost, Medium, Mother Jones, the National Observer, New Republic, Newsweek, Reveal, Slate, Undark, Wired.