Rush Limbaugh died on February 17, 2021, and in the wake of his passing, some lauded him as a patriot, while many others decried his hateful and divisive speech. The conservative radio personality, pundit, and author was a pioneering purveyor of disinformation who defined the brand of far-right media commentators. He was well known for feeding his fans a steady diet of racism and sexism. He called President Barack Obama a “magical negro” and he once told a black caller to “remove the bone from her nose”. In many respects, he set the stage for Donald Trump, who led the most destructive federal executive branch in American history. Trump showed his gratitude by giving Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, making him the first shock-jock ever to receive such an honor. Previous recipients include Mother Teresa, Jackie Robinson, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking.
Leading climate disinformation
Limbaugh’s large and loyal following set him apart from other conservative voices. His massive audience and his longevity made him the most influential source of disinformation in the U.S. For more than 30 years he hosted the most-listened-to radio show in America. His syndicated radio talk show led U.S. ratings since at least 1987 when record-keeping began. While Republicans and the fossil fuel industry have been advancing alternative realities for years, Limbaugh galvanized his support in a way that no other ever has.
According to Talkers Magazine, Premiere Networks said that at the peak of its popularity the Rush Limbaugh Show had 20 million weekly listeners. More American listeners got their information about climate change from Limbaugh than from any other source. As reviewed by Carbon Brief in 2012, research published in Nature Climate Change found that conservative voices like Limbaugh are a major reason why a large minority of Americans doubt climate science.
In the book The Most Dangerous Man in America, J.K.Wilson describes Limbaugh as the most popular purveyor of climate denial there has ever been. “Rush Limbaugh, more than any other individual, is responsible for shifting conservative opinion to deny the existence of global warming…Limbaugh has been denying the existence of climate change for almost his entire career in talk radio. As the country’s leading denier of global climate change, he quickly became the unofficial spokesperson of the global warming deniers in the early 1990s.” (Pps.166-168)
Climate change disinformation was one of Limbaugh’s favorite topics. Limbaugh said people who subscribe to climate science are, “environmental whackos” and “dunderheaded alarmists”, he also said climate activists are “brain dead”.
The popular national conservative talk-radio host lied with predictable regularity. The Years Project, quotes Limbaugh as saying, “I’m here to tell you that the facts simply don’t jibe with the theory that catastrophic global warming is taking place.” He called global warming a “religion” and dismissed climate change as a “hoax“.
Limbaugh regularly conflated weather and climate, he said polar ice is not melting and polar bears are not suffering. His callous brand of offensive humor included comments like, “a dead polar bear is a good thing, right? I mean no methane. No expelling gas. Right?”
He repeatedly dismissed the cataclysmic impacts of climate change as fear-mongering. “Even if the global warming that is predicted by these baseless computer models, even if it were to happen exactly as the models say, it’s not the end of anything,” Limbaugh said, adding “it does not destroy the world. It does not destroy anything. It’s one of the biggest scams that has ever been perpetrated on the people of the world.”
Limbaugh erroneously claimed that there is no evidence that humans are harming the planet. “Global warming relies on the theory that we are destroying ecosystems. There is no evidence that we could destroy ecosystems.” He justified this comment by saying his views are rooted in his “belief in Creation.” Thus, according to Limbaugh, “we couldn’t destroy the earth if we wanted to.”
Limbaugh also ridiculed renewable energy and amplified the pro-fossil fuel agenda. In a Jan 24, 2001 episode of Wednesday Morning Update he dismissed climate change and added the bizarre suggestion that reductions in the burning of coal are behind rising temperatures. “For years I’ve pointed out that global warming is bogus. It’s contradicted by the most technologically advanced data, no warming trend over the last 60 years. But listen to the reasons why the UN scientists have raised their global warming predictions so dramatically. The chairman of the panel says the main reason for expectations of faster global warming is an anticipated fall in cooling agents such as sulfur dioxide, a by-product of coal.”
Disparaging climate science and the legacy of lies
Limbaugh also loved to target climate science. “Climate change is nothing but a bunch of computer models that attempt to tell us what’s going to happen in 50 years or 30. Notice the predictions are never for next year or the next 10 years. ” the conservative pundit said in a February 17, 2019, Fox News Sunday interview. “They’re always for way, way, way, way out there, when none of us are going to be around or alive to know whether or not they were true.”
These are but two of the many lies about climate science uttered by the radio personality. As supported by data like the long-term temperature record, climate change is happening now and contrary to his misrepresentation of the facts, computer models have proven to be remarkably accurate. As explained by climate scientist Zeke Hausfather in a Politifact article, projections have largely been borne out. “Broadly speaking, climate models have been quite skillful over the past 30 years in predicting warming in the years after they were published,” Hausfather said. In his best-selling book, The Way Things Ought to Be, published in 1992, Limbaugh said volcanoes cause more damage than humans while the truth is that human activities emit at least 60 times more carbon dioxide than volcanoes each year.
Despite the broad scientific consensus and clear present-day evidence of climate change, Limbaugh led millions of Americans to doubt the veracity of the science. As reported by ABC News, Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle said disinformation proliferated because people believed what Limbaugh was saying about the science. Brulle is the lead author of an attitude study in the Climatic Change journal and he explained that attacks against scientists are also part of the disinformation effort. “There’s a pattern of attacking people who speak out on climate change, by figures in the political elite such as Rush Limbaugh, that is almost rehearsed,” Brulle said. “That’s how it works,” he said. “That’s how public opinion on climate is shaped in our country.”
Limbaugh praised others who derided climate science. This includes Republican lawmakers like Congressman Mo Brooks who sought to obscure the facts during a 2019 House Science, Space, and Technology hearing on climate change. As reviewed in the Alabama Reporter, Limbaugh described Brook’s disinformation effort as “brilliant” and “one of the best attempts at persuasion I have seen.”
Limbaugh advanced conspiracy theories including the idea that the government exaggerates hurricane forecasts to prove the existence of climate change. He derided attribution science relating climate change to extreme weather which amounts to telling people they should not believe what they are seeing. He also sold the conspiracy theory that cap-and-trade is a Wall Street scam.
As Sam Thielman wrote in an NBC Think, opinion piece, “Limbaugh’s true legacy is how he persuaded people to embrace their worst selves” adding he will be remembered for “a few enduring insults, a shameful history of bullying and making it OK to hate your neighbor.”
His legacy will also be defined by his climate disinformation that succeeded in confusing millions of Americans. The influential climate denial that helped to delay climate action may be Limbaugh’s most enduring legacy. As such, history will not be kind to Limbaugh, in all likelihood he will live in infamy for having imperiled future generations with his lies.
Limbaugh’s passing will leave more oxygen for the facts. It may even cause some of his followers to question the wisdom of taking advice from a smoker who died of lung cancer after spending years denying the risks of smoking.