Climate Change Through the Eyes and Wit of Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’

Jon Stewart’s highly regarded Comedy Central false-news program, “The Daily Show,” is no stranger to climate change.  But along with the humor and wit, there are times when a bit more scientific rigor might help inform his important audience.

In a 2008 episode of “The Daily Show,” host Jon Stewart had an important story to tell about the U.S. government’s response to climate change.

“Our government doesn’t operate, necessarily, in the exact manner that we learned about in high school civics,” he began. “But I’ve got a little story for you tonight that may just rekindle your sense of wonder at just how truly f***** up it all really is.”

Stewart explained that the 2007 Supreme Court ruling, Massachusetts v EPA, required the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases. But when the agency e-mailed a climate action plan to the George W. Bush White House, the administration refused to open it.

“Amazing!” Stewart said. But the punch line of the story was this: “Not opening the e-mail worked …. The EPA rewrote the policy to Bush’s liking!”

In just three and a half minutes, Stewart had summarized the complicated legal and political forces at play in Bush-era attempts to address climate change. At the same time, he illuminated the absurdity of the government’s actions, keeping his audience — one not necessarily inclined, mind you, to spend endless hours vetting peer-reviewed journals — laughing all the while.

‘Your Show is So Funny, Until … Global Warming’

Since 1999, Stewart has lampooned government, the media, and the public from his perch as the host of “The Daily Show,” Comedy Central’s fake news program. During his run, the show has racked up two Peabody Awards and 14 Emmy Awards. As recently as February 2011, the program was the most popular late-night show in America.

An April 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 16 percent of Americans regularly watched “The Daily Show” or its sister program “The Colbert Report.” (In the same survey, 17 percent said they watched “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News.)

Although the show is clearly intended to entertain, it often draws on the conventions of serious journalism. Stewart is famous for grilling guests in interviews. The show also employs a fact-checker, Adam Chodikoff, who told The Washington Post that without a factual basis, the show’s jokes are meaningless.

In a 2007 interview with journalist Bill Moyers, Stewart insisted — as he has often done — that he is nothing more than a comedian.

“Ultimately, we have very interesting reactions on our show,” he said. “People are constantly saying, ‘I love your — your show is so funny, until you made a joke about global warming, which is a serious issue, and I can’t believe you did that. And I am never watching your show again.’ You know, people don’t understand that we’re not warriors in their cause. We’re a group of people that really feel that they want to write jokes about the absurdity that we see in government and the world and all that, and that’s it.”

Reinforcing Public Misunderstanding?

When it comes to climate change, “The Daily Show” offers an often-uproarious take on the issue. Stewart has called climate skeptic Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) “the Senate’s resident denier bunny.” In a 2004 episode, Stewart opened a segment on science news by exclaiming, “Science! Fact! Testable data! There was a time when some Americans gave a crap about that!”

Although the show deftly highlights the follies of politicians and television news networks, it is prone to inaccuracies of its own in the nuances of climate science. A Yale Forum analysis found that Stewart and the show’s other correspondents have repeatedly — and mistakenly — conflated the ozone hole and climate change. At times, Stewart has appeared uncharacteristically timid in questioning guests about climate science. Meanwhile, the show’s coverage of the University of East Anglia/Climatic Research Unit 2009 e-mail controversy likely reinforced public misunderstanding of the issue.

Early Focus on Science, Then Policy

Comedy Central maintains an online archive of “Daily Show” episodes at thedailyshow.com. Using keyword searches and the site’s tagging system, The Yale Forum identified 67 episodes of “The Daily Show” that addressed global warming between 1999 and 2011. On average, about five episodes each year mentioned the issue, peaking at 13 episodes in 2009, the year the U.S. House of Representatives passed a  ”cap and trade” climate change bill and world leaders met for the Copenhagen negotiations. In 2010, only four episodes addressed the issue, and none have so far in 2011.

The show’s coverage of the issue can be divided into three eras. In the early period (roughly 1999 to early 2001), Stewart addressed the issue through reports on scientific findings, such as rising sea levels, soaring temperatures, and melting glaciers. This clip, about melting ice caps, is typical of the show’s early treatment of the subject.

After President George W. Bush announced in 2001 that the U.S. would not participate in the Kyoto Treaty, “The Daily Show” began to address political issues related to climate change. In its middle years (April 2001 to late 2005), the show satirized politicians, climate deniers, and mainstream media coverage of the issue. For example, in the following clip, Stewart explains that the top greenhouse gas emitters, the U.S. and China, remain unfettered by the Kyoto Protocol. When a spokesman for the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute says that greenhouse regulations would cause American job losses, Stewart retorts, “We’re going to need those jobs as we evolve into a black-lunged race of sun-blistered ocean dwellers.”

During this period, Stewart and other correspondents began occasionally confusing the ozone hole and climate change. For example, in a 2001 episode, comedian Lewis Black commented on the consequences of rejecting the Kyoto Protocol. Then he said, “And if they don’t get us by destroying the ozone layer, they’ll get us with mad cow disease.”

Susanne Moser, a research scientist specializing in climate science and communications, reviewed key “Daily Show” clips for The Yale Forum. “There is a very complicated relationship between ozone — in the stratosphere and in the lower atmosphere — and global warming,” she said. “Ozone-destructive chemicals are also heat-trapping gases, but the ozone depletion is not a cause of global warming.”

For Guests, ‘He Can Offer Very Difficult Questions’

In the modern period (late 2005 to the present), the show has continued to satirize politicians and the media. But guest appearances now make up a significant portion of the show’s coverage of the climate change issue. Stewart has discussed climate change with author Chris Mooney, Senator John Kerry (D-Mass), NBC network journalist Bob Woodruff, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, former vice president Al Gore, and former president Bill Clinton, among others.

Stewart is known for — at times — conducting blistering interviews. When CNBC stock market pundit Jim Cramer visited the show in 2009, Stewart trashed him for giving his viewers misleading financial advice. To former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, Stewart said, “You’re a guy that is the most adamant about his innocence as anyone I’ve ever met. So you’re either the victim of a terrible persecution or a sociopath.” In a 2007 interview, Senator John McCain (R-Az) said the Iraq War had been terribly mismanaged. Stewart replied, “But then why not be honest about that? Why attack the people who question?”

McCain: We are where we are now. We are where we are now. The question is: can we give this strategy a chance? I’m emphasizing a chance to succeed with a great general, and I think-

Stewart: Why should we? Why?

McCain: Because the architects of failure are ignoring this.

Stewart: If the architects that built the house without any doors or windows don’t admit that that’s the house they built and continue to say: “No, it’s your fault for not being able to see into it,” then I don’t understand how we’re supposed to move forward.

Lance Holbert, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University, said that Jon Stewart can be a tough interviewer in part because he is a satirist. “He can offer very difficult questions in ways that a journalist cannot, because he’s not as worried about maintaining access, and he always has an ‘out’ that he can laugh it off,” he said.

In climate-related interviews, Stewart appears to accept that warming is occurring and that people are substantially responsible. But he acknowledges that he doesn’t have a clear command of the issue. “It’s very difficult to know if people are lying to you with science,” he said in a 2005 interview with author Chris Mooney.

Perhaps as a result, Stewart appears more timid when he talks with guests about climate change and science than about the Iraq War or the financial crisis. In 2007, Stewart interviewed climate skeptic Christopher Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a prominent climate science “skeptic.”

Stewart began the interview with a subtle jab at Horner, telling him that he preferred Horner’s book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism, to the 2007 IPCC report, because the latter contains graphs and data. “I didn’t care for it,” Stewart said, to audience laughter. But when Horner unleashed a barrage of skeptical claims, including the canard that scientists in the 1970s believed Earth was cooling, Stewart didn’t correct him.

“It was a salvo of contrarian arguments — data free, as implied, and dead wrong,” said Moser. Horner’s arguments “were only mildly questioned, albeit repeatedly, by common-sense arguments on Stewart’s part.”

On Hacked E-Mails, ‘Little Corrective or Different’ to Say

Stewart again displayed a misunderstanding of climate issues in his coverage of the hacked e-mail controversy. In November 2009, e-mails stolen from a University of East Anglia server and released to the public were seen by climate skeptics as revealing misconduct by climate scientists. Climate deniers seized on an e-mail from CRU director Phil Jones, who had written, “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

“Ha! Ah see, it’s nothing!” Stewart said in his report on the subject. “He was just using a trick to hide the decline. It’s just scientist-speak for using a standard statistical technique, recalibrating data, in order to … trick you … into not knowing about the decline.”

Although Stewart acknowledged that the hacked e-mails did not disprove climate change, he lambasted scientists for mishandling data: “If you care about an issue and want to make it your life’s work, don’t cut corners!”

At the time of Stewart’s broadcast, misleading claims about the Jones e-mail were circulating widely in the media. For example, Jonah Goldberg, writing in USA Today in December 2009, erroneously claimed that scientists had discussed “the ‘trick’ of how to ‘hide the decline’ in global temperatures since the 1960s.”

But as early as November 21 — 10 days before Stewart’s report — Andrew Revkin at The New York Times had accurately reported the context of the Jones e-mail: Recent thermometer and satellite data shows a temperature rise, but tree ring data does not. Jones dropped the tree ring data because it didn’t match actual temperature records. (See also The Yale Forum‘s coverage of the subject.)

By overlooking the context of the Jones e-mail, Stewart himself was cutting corners, Moser said.

“I would assume this only perpetuated ignorance about the real issue and confirmed in Stewart’s audience a sense of suspicion of scientists,” she said. “He portrayed the media debate, but actually had little corrective or different to say about it.”

Moser said Stewart’s treatment of climate change may, at times, reinforce public misunderstanding of the problem.

“I find him considerably more effective in raising questions about political or ideological news coverage on other issues than on global warming,” she said. “I’m rather disappointed.”

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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5 Responses to Climate Change Through the Eyes and Wit of Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’

  1. As a fan of both the Yale Climate Media Forum and of John Stewart, I’m dismayed by this whole piece. I’m not taking issue with the research involved or the conclusions, other than the context in which they’re offered. Early on, the author says, “there are times when a bit more scientific rigor might help inform his important audience.” That’s certainly true but it’s not what he perceives his role to be. And taking issue with an inaccuracy in one of Lewis Black’s monologue/rants is just insane. Granted, Stewart et.al. could focus more intently on the specifics in question. He could shift to a bit more seriousness surrounding this issue. But then his audience might slip away. They don’t come to him to be just informed — they want entertainment. And the degree to which his sarcastic cynicism points a scathing finger at much of the political atmosphere surrounding climate change is, in reality, a great boon to public understanding and concern. After reporting on climate change for three decades, I choose to see Stewart’s efforts as a glass half-full rather than half-empty. His doing anything differently would push him toward advocacy and destroy the bully pulpit from which he rants.

  2. Chris says:

    I could not agree more with this article! TDS has been sooo good at taking on certain issues like Kramer and the media’s role in the financial crisis, as well as Congressional inaction for the First Responders (and very well might have helped that pass!)
    BUT I have been continuously disappointed by just how clear it is that TDS does not realize or acknowledge how serious climate change is, and in fact seems a bit suspicious of people like Al Gore, with John suggesting to Gore during an interview that Gore’s tone is too “alarmist.” We should be alarmed. Climate change is the ultimate problem of our time, and TDS has so much power to stir people to action on this, and instead it promotes a type of cautious skepticism for the issue, a stance that is fully at odds with the gravity of the problem.

  3. People who seek advocacy from scientists or the media end up getting neither good science or good journalism. And I guess that would apply to good sarcastic humor as well.

  4. Brett says:

    The purpose of The Daily Show is to entertain. Why ask Jon Stewart to have the technical command of a scientist when, clearly, he is not? So Jon Stewart doesn’t know how to interpret graphs, figures, and statistical models. 99% of the public doesn’t understand them either! It is the purpose of institutions like Yale is to educate. I can only conclude that Yale and like institutions are doing a terrible job of translating scientific findings to the public. Any accusations directed at Stewart on this matter are both petty and irrelevant.

  5. Daniel E. Rogers says:

    Is the Earth, our planet, growing warmer? I suspect it is, considering the fact that the “last” ice age is not yet over. How hard can it be to pick out, say, one hundred locations throughout the globe where accurate temperature records have been kept for, say, a century, and then to compare those records? That should settle the question of whether there is global warming taking place.

    If we find it is taking place, then we can deal with the matter of its cause without cluttering up the discussion of whether or not it is, in fact, occurring.

    Does that make sense?