Rupert Murdoch Has Known We’ve Been in a Climate Emergency Since 2006, Documents Show
Murdoch’s News Corp has spent the past 15 years mitigating its own climate risk while giving media outlets like Fox News carte blanche to deny climate change altogether.
by Geoff Dembicki
When Kevin Rudd was prime minister of Australia, he lived in fear of Rupert Murdoch. The Labor Party leader came to power in 2007 promising to address the climate emergency, but attacks from Murdoch-owned outlets were relentless to the point where Rudd said he’d “wake up every morning and wonder how they would seek to crucify us that day, with rusty nails.”
Papers such as the Australian, the country’s equivalent of the New York Times, ran high-profile pieces attacking Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, an attempt to force companies to pay for the climate-warming carbon they release into the atmosphere, including a front-page story about an industry report claiming the policy would cost 23,000 resource sector jobs. And it worked: Australian Parliament eventually voted against Rudd’s carbon-reduction effort, his public opinion rating tanked, his own Labor Party led a coup against him, and he resigned in 2010.
“If there was no Murdoch media here, or if, say, they only owned half the media instead of two-thirds of the media,” Rudd told VICE News, “we would have a carbon price today.”
What few people knew during all this is that the parent company of these Australian news outlets, Murdoch’s News Corporation, actually thought carbon pricing was a good idea. News Corp has meticulously documented its own carbon footprint since 2006 and sought to “take a leadership role on the issue of climate change” by reducing it, according to hundreds of pages of publicly available documents reviewed by VICE News.
Even as Murdoch-owned outlets tore down Rudd in 2010, News Corp was advocating “market-based mechanisms to support carbon reductions” in the U.S. and other places. This is according to documents submitted to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a nonprofit group that has for two decades catalogued and rated environmental reporting from more than 300 companies including Apple, Coca-Cola, and Ford Motors.
No one forced News Corp to make disclosures to the CDP, which the group publishes in a database on its website. And far from altruism, News Corp’s disclosures are cast as corporate self-interest. In 2010, for example, a filing explained that doing so would give the company “valuable expertise when responding to mandated reporting requirements” under a potential carbon pricing system, should any country implement one.
News Corp also modeled the potential financial damage it faced due to extreme weather, wildfires, and other physical dangers intensified by climate change. “The company believes it is in a better position than others to mitigate those risks,” the documents read.
News Corp has submitted yearly reports on its environmental progress to CDP since 2006, often receiving “A” grades for its efforts from the organization. Ateli Iyalla, North American managing director of the CDP, said News Corp’s disclosures place it among the world’s more responsible media corporations. “They have a strong understanding of climate issues and climate risk,” he told VICE News.
VICE News reviewed more than a decade’s worth of those submissions, and the documents show a company that’s taking steps to protect its operations and thousands of employees from a climate emergency it knows is getting worse, while giving a massive media platform to people who say the emergency isn’t real.
The documents show that News Corp privately acknowledged climate change is making hurricanes worse, even as a Wall Street Journal Europe editorial writer claimed in 2012 that “‘climate change’ shouldn’t be blamed for Hurricane Sandy.” The company in 2019 briefed employees on the dangers they could face from Australia’s “climate-related” bushfires as the Australian ran an editorial saying, “Experts keep telling us there is no direct link between climate change and bushfires; we know many fires are lit by arsonists.”
Murdoch’s company in its 2020 disclosure cited severe droughts in California that lead to wildfires as a potential example of the “physical aspects of climate change.” But his top-rated Fox News host, Tucker Carlson, attacked Democrats for “insisting without evidence that climate change is causing California wildfires.”
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In its 2020 disclosure to CDP, News Corp said it carefully evaluates the risk of sea-level rise and flooding when deciding to acquire new facilities. That disclosure states that “members of the board are periodically updated” about the company’s sustainability initiatives and the risks it faces from climate disasters. The board of directors includes Murdoch himself. It also includes his eldest son, Lachlan, who is co-chairman of News Corp as well as CEO of Fox Corporation, the current corporate owner of Fox News. Meanwhile, one of Fox News’ rising stars, Greg Gutfeld, said this May the climate crisis “does not exist.”
VICE News presented a detailed list of questions asking about these events to News Corp, Fox News, Dow Jones (which publishes the Wall Street Journal), Fox Corporation, and the Australian, but none of these outlets and companies responded.
“If there’s a buck to be made, he’ll make a buck.”
Taking serious measures to reduce corporate emissions while spreading climate denial might seem like a huge contradiction. But there may be a simple, coherent strategy at work. Murdoch is saving tens of millions of dollars due to the green initiatives, and at the same time earning record profits by feeding his global audience rage-inducing content attacking “out-of-control” liberals and downplaying the crisis.
“If there’s a buck to be made,” Rudd said of Murdoch, “he’ll make a buck.”
Rupert Murdoch, now 90, seemed to abruptly decide in 2006 that the climate emergency was real. “Until recently, I was somewhat wary of the warming debate,” he said that year during a speech in Tokyo outlining political and economic challenges facing Asia and the world in the decades to come. But he had become convinced that “the planet deserves the benefit of the doubt.” Murdoch had also made a financial calculation. “Being environmentally sound is not sentimentality,” he said. “It is a sound business strategy.”
The following year, Murdoch held an event in midtown Manhattan that was webcast to all News Corp employees. The company would be launching a Global Energy Initiative, he said, whereby it would use renewable energy and energy efficiency to become carbon-neutral by 2010. Murdoch wanted to shrink his audience’s emissions, too.
“We can set an example, and we can reach our audiences. Our audience’s carbon footprint is 10,000 times bigger than ours. That’s the carbon footprint we want to conquer,” he said. News Corp’s vast array of newspapers, TV stations, and movie studios could make the case for aggressive environmental change. “The challenge is to revolutionize the message. For too long, the threats of climate change have been presented as doom and gloom—because the consequences are so serious,” Murdoch explained.
He wanted to make the issue “dramatic, make it vivid, even sometimes make it fun. We want to inspire people to change their behavior.”
Some of News Corp’s papers seemed eager to follow their boss’s lead. “Go green with the Sun,” declared a weeklong series in 2006 on eco-friendly living run by the London-based media outlet, which had previously run stories skeptical of climate change. Australia’s Daily Telegraph that same year published multiple editorials criticizing the government for not taking climate change seriously enough. The New York Post during this period ran articles promoting New York’s Go Green Expo.
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This was an era when awareness of climate change was reaching unprecedented highs, and even prominent Republicans like Sen. John McCain of Arizona were calling for a price on carbon. But there may have been a personal reason for Murdoch’s newfound enthusiasm. “The primary mover behind it was James—Murdoch’s son,” said David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent and author of Murdoch’s World, echoing an argument that other observers of the family have made. James at the time was chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting. “I don’t think it happens without him,” Folkenflik said.
(James Murdoch has an ownership stake in VICE Media Group through his holding company, Lupa Systems.) “James is traveling and not participating in interviews right now,” spokesperson Juleanna Glover wrote to VICE News.
During this period, Lachlan Murdoch was distancing himself from the company due to personal feuds with company executives in which Rupert sided against him. That gave James, a political moderate whose wife, Kathryn, was becoming increasingly involved in climate issues, more influence over his father, Folkenflik said. In 2006, James helped arrange to have Al Gore present his film An Inconvenient Truth at a five-day gathering of News Corp executives and employees entitled “Imagining the Future” at the Pebble Beach resort in California.
Rupert Murdoch, center, with his sons Lachlan, left, and James, right, in 2016. Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images
Rupert Murdoch, center, with his sons Lachlan, left, and James, right, in 2016. Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images
But even at that early stage, tensions were visible. After the screening, Andrew Bolt, then a columnist for News Corp’s Herald Sun paper in Australia who frequently questions the science of climate change, got up to speak, according to an account in the Bulletin:
“Bolt opened his comments by congratulating Gore on his performance, then began to attack claims made by Gore in his film. Soon, according to one onlooker, the pair were involved in ‘a full-on barney.’ Gore ended up shouting at Bolt. ‘It was brilliant,’ says one onlooker. ‘Embarrassing,’ recalls another.”
In an email to VICE News, Bolt said, “I most certainly did not congratulate him on feeding the audience fake news.” He went on, “Nor was there a ‘full-on barney.’ I calmly and politely asked him to explain three misrepresentations in his presentation, and he then went red and started shouting. This is more properly described as a meltdown.”
Editors at the Australian were apparently not in agreement with Murdoch’s climate ambitions either. Asa Wahlquist, a former environmental reporter at the paper, said during an academic conference in 2010 that she had frequent fights with editors over her climate change coverage, calling it “torture” and “unbearable.” The paper’s then-editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell said at that time that “any reading of the (Australian’s) editorials on climate change would make it clear that for several years the paper has accepted man-made climate change as fact.”
In the U.S., however, Murdoch was confident he could get Fox News anchors such as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly interested in doing more climate coverage. “Probably Sean’s first reaction will be that this is some liberal cause or something, you know? But he’s a very reasonable, very intelligent man,” Murdoch said in 2007 in a rare sit-down interview with the environmental media outlet Grist. “He’ll see, he’ll understand it. As will Bill—he just likes to get debate going between people. And that has its benefits—someone says, ‘No there isn’t,’ someone says, ‘Yes there is,’ and they have it out for 10 minutes and it’s entertaining and creates more consciousness.”
Around this time, as Murdoch’s World recounts, Fox Studios created a public service announcement featuring the head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, as well as Kiefer Sutherland, star of the studio’s hit show 24. But while Sutherland proclaimed that “global warming is a crime for which we are all guilty,” Ailes’ contribution was much more muted. “I was very clear,” he says in the video, “that energy was gonna be one of the things that was going to determine leadership for countries in the future.”
“Ailes’ line is fascinating,” Folkenflik said. “He came up with something that sounded supportive but committed him to nothing. The real question is, what was Murdoch committing himself to?”
By some measures, News Corp was doing a lot. “The company has made 24 the first major television production to be carbon-neutral, helped to pioneer the use of lighter-weight eco-friendly DVD cases in the home entertainment industry, launched a global tree planting campaign tied to the DVD release of the film Avatar, built the world’s largest and most energy-efficient print plant in the U.K., commissioned a study on the most effective way to communicate to the public on climate change policy, and committed to build the largest commercial solar PV installation at a single site in the U.S.,” reads its 2010 filing to CDP.
“These are just a few examples of ways in which the company is taking action on the issue of climate change,” it explained, “and avoiding the risks faced by those companies that are slow to do the same.”
But viewers of Fox News were receiving a much different message. President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 caused a backlash among grassroots conservatives, culminating in the far-right Tea Party movement, many of whose adherents were hardcore climate change deniers. One of the movement’s targets was a major piece of U.S. carbon-pricing legislation proposed by Democrats called cap and trade. “Stopping cap and trade is a key priority for the Tea Party activists,” reads a 2010 Fox News opinion piece, referring to legislation somewhat similar to what Prime Minister Rudd had proposed in Australia.
Several months later, with Republicans and some conservative Democrats declining to support the policy, cap and trade died in the Senate.
Fox News hosts like Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Neil Cavuto cheered the Tea Party movement on, in some cases broadcasting live from Tea Party events and encouraging viewers to join the protests. This was much different than the approach to coverage taken by outlets like CNN and the New York Times. “The mainstream media hates the Tea Party,” claimed Fox News VP of News Bill Sammon in 2010.
Around that time, Sammon sent an email to Fox News staffers telling them to stress scientific uncertainty in the network’s coverage of climate change. “Given the controversy over the veracity of climate change data,” Sammon wrote in the email, which was later leaked, “we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.”
As Fox News became more successful at denying climate change, Murdoch’s views also appeared to shift—at least in public. “Climate change has been going on as long as the planet is here, and there will always be a little bit of it. At the moment, the North Pole is melting, but the South Pole is getting bigger,” he said in a 2014 interview with Sky News. The following year, Murdoch tweeted an aerial photo of Arctic ice. “Just flying over N Atlantic 300 miles of ice,” he wrote. “Global warming!”
Internally News Corp continued to take climate change seriously. By 2011 it had achieved its goal of becoming carbon-neutral across its global operations. To celebrate the occasion, James Murdoch gave a speech that was broadcast to the company’s employees. “Almost four years ago, our chairman, my father, asked us to ‘imagine the future’ for News Corp,” he said. “The goal was not superficial change, but to embed the principles of efficiency and sustainability in the core of our business.”
James Murdoch claimed that the company’s investments in green technologies—including a 4.1-megawatt solar power system in New Jersey—resulted in $180 of savings for every ton of carbon reduced. A project to more efficiently integrate News Corp’s data centers would reduce costs by $20 million per year, he said. And even smaller initiatives, such as putting heat-reflective coatings on the roofs of some facilities, could save $1.5 million annually.
“Our company continues to grow—yet, for the first time, our absolute carbon footprint is shrinking.”
“Really, the results speak for themselves,” he said. “Our company continues to grow—yet, for the first time, our absolute carbon footprint is shrinking. Imagine a future in which every company is on this same path.”
A year and a half after James’ 2011 speech, Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York City, killing 44 people, displacing thousands, and causing more than $19 billion in damage. The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece by two climate experts making the link to climate change. But its other opinion coverage of the intense and unprecedented storm was dismissive of the connection. “The idea that you can take one weather event, any given weather event, and attribute this cause to it, is from the standpoint of the research, it’s sort of a nonsense question,” Wall Street Journal Europe editorial writer Anne Jolis stated in 2012.
“There are no signs that human-caused climate change has increased the toll of recent disasters, as even the most recent extreme-event report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds,” read a separate 2012 opinion piece in the paper by University of Colorado at Boulder professor Roger Pielke Jr.
But that’s not how News Corp saw it. “In 2012, News Corporation was affected by Superstorm Sandy through filming interruptions, plant shutdowns, and box office closings in the Northeast U.S.,” its 2013 disclosure to CDP reads. “The storm indicated that News Corporation can be negatively impacted by climate-related weather impacts.”
The Wall Street Journal’s opinion coverage of Sandy wasn’t an isolated occurrence. When researchers with the advocacy organization Climate Nexus later analyzed 20 years of opinion pieces in the paper about climate change, they found a “consistent pattern that overwhelmingly ignores the science, champions doubt and denial of both the science and effectiveness of action, and leaves readers misinformed about the consensus of science and of the risks of the threat.”
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There was a similar disconnect during the horrific Australian bushfires in early 2020, which razed an area larger than all of South Korea, resulted in at least 34 deaths, and killed millions of wild animals. It was obvious to scientists the fires wouldn’t have become so extreme without dry conditions brought on by global temperature rise, yet Murdoch-owned papers instead pushed a narrative that environmentalists and arsonists were to blame.
“Bushfires: Firebugs fuelling crisis as national arson arrest toll hits 183,” read a headline in the Australian at the height of the fires. After receiving complaints, the Australian Press Council later investigated the reporting that went into the story, and while it found that the article was not misleading, it “accepts that the publication’s initial representation of the data may have led readers to consider that an unusually high number of ‘arsonists’ had been arrested since the beginning of the 2019-20 fire season.” In reality, most of the major fires were sparked by lightning.
“Our coverage has recognized Australia is having a conversation about climate change and how to respond to it,” the company said in a 2020 email to the New York Times. “The role of arsonists and policies that may have contributed to the spread of fire are, however, legitimate stories to report in the public interest.”
The story on arsonists was the top-read item on the Australian’s website that day and was given an international platform by people like Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted to his more than 6 million followers: “Truly disgusting that people would do this! God Bless Australia.”
As with Hurricane Sandy, the Australian’s parent company, News Corp, knew full well there was a strong link between the disaster and climate change. “Climate-related events such as floods, cyclones (for example, those that regularly occur in Northern Queensland), and bushfires also have an impact on News Corp Australia's ability to operate efficiently,” reads its CDP filing for 2020. “The 2019-2020 Australian wildfires added additional strain on our logistics and on our effectiveness to deliver our products to our customers.”
News Corp explained in that same document that for years it has taken measures to protect its own employees from climate-related dangers. “Prior to each bushfire and cyclone season, the Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) team works with the business units in properties that may be exposed to these weather conditions to ensure safety for staff such as editors, photographers, and journalists while they are out in the field,” it reads. “The WHS team brief staff on risks and ensure protocols are in place to secure their safety.”
News Corp also fretted about the climate risks faced by employees in the U.S. “Climate projection models make it difficult to know exactly which businesses or locations are most prone to the physical aspects of climate change,” it wrote in its 2020 CDP filing. “However, it is clear from past severe weather events that some of News Corp’s businesses are susceptible to such extreme events. Extended and severe droughts in California and Colorado that lead to an increased frequency and intensity of wildfires are a concern, and could impact employees, facilities, and productions in the region.”
You wouldn’t know about the connection between climate change and disasters from watching Fox News’ coverage of the record-smashing 2020 wildfire season on the U.S. West Coast.
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“Massive wildfires unprecedented in their scope continue to sweep across huge portions of the West tonight,” Tucker Carlson said in a September 2020 broadcast. “How did climate change do that? They didn't tell us, but they just kept saying it. In the hands of Democratic politicians, climate change is like systemic racism in the sky: You can't see it, but rest assured it's everywhere and it's deadly.”
The top executive at Fox knew that there was in fact a connection between climate change and extreme weather. As co-chairman of News Corp and member of its board of directors, Lachlan Murdoch was “periodically updated” about the company’s climate and sustainability reporting to the CDP, as News Corp’s 2020 disclosure states. And as CEO of Fox News’ parent company, Fox Corporation, he wrote in the 2020 Corporate Social Responsibility report: “We believe our main climate risk is related to business continuity in the event of more extreme weather events.”
In the summer of 2020, James Murdoch decided to step back for good from the Murdoch media empire. “My resignation is due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by the company’s news outlets and certain other strategic decisions,” he said at the time. Earlier that year, James and Kathryn had released a statement criticizing News Corp and Fox’s “ongoing denial” of climate change “given obvious evidence to the contrary.”
James Murdoch with his wife, Kathryn, in 2015 when he was CEO of 21st Century Fox.
James Murdoch with his wife, Kathryn, in 2015 when he was CEO of 21st Century Fox. Observers of the family say James is a primary reason why News Corp started taking climate change seriously. Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
But James Murdoch’s climate change legacy lives on at News Corp. His father said in 2019 during a shareholders meeting in New York that “there are no climate deniers around, I can assure you.”
The company’s 2020 disclosure to CDP explains that “our News Corp global real estate team reviews climate change risks when deciding where to purchase or lease new facilities around the world. These risks include hurricane/storm potential, water-stressed areas, and flooding risks.”
The company is attempting to reduce its emissions in line with meeting the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming threshold that scientists say is our best shot at keeping the emergency under control. Meeting previous climate goals has saved the company at least $18 million, Murdoch said during the 2019 New York meeting.
These days, even News Corp’s stridently climate-change–denying Australian media outlets may be changing their tune. According to the New York Times, several Murdoch-owned papers as well as the 24-hour Sky News channel will next month publish “features and editorials” that promote net-zero emissions by 2050. The new editorial position “could be a breakthrough that provides political cover for Australia’s conservative government to end its refusal to set ambitious emission targets,” the Times said.
Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, is skeptical, tweeting that the apparent rebrand is “Murdoch’s attempt to ‘greenwash’ themselves in the lead-up to the Glasgow climate conference. It’s all politics.”
It’s clear that Murdoch’s empire isn’t earning huge profits by making earnest statements about climate change to its viewers. In Fox Corp’s third quarter financial update for 2021, Lachlan Murdoch told investors, “Fox News channel finished this last quarter as the most-watched cable network in primetime and finished March as the most-watched cable news network overall.”
Lachlan Murdoch attributed some of this success to the launch of Gutfeld!, a new late-night program hosted by longtime Fox host and panelist Greg Gutfeld, which Lachlan said is currently drawing an audience larger than NBC’s The Tonight Show.
In May, Gutfeld did a segment attacking President Biden’s climate policies. “By the way, if you want to make electric cars the choice for Americans, you don’t try to hit them with guilt and virtue-signaling and tying it to a climate crisis that does not exist,” he said.
Gutfeld assured his viewers that extreme weather in their communities has nothing to do with global temperature rise. “Because our own data says that is not actually happening,” he said. “That is not due to the climate crisis.”