A fact-checking website came under fire from journalists and progressives on Wednesday when it claimed Sen. Bernie Sanders misrepresented the dangers posed by the climate crisis and the for-profit health insurance industry at Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate.
FactCheck.org, which is run by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, claimed Sanders inaccurately described the climate crisis as an "existential threat."
"Scientists agree climate change does pose a threat to humans and ecosystems, but they do not envision that climate change will obliterate all people from the planet," wrote the think tank's fact checkers.
Sanders's description of the crisis—which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says policymakers have less than 12 years to drastically mitigate to avoid its worst effects—"could use some clarification," continued the article, titled "Factchecking the October Debate."
"If taken literally to mean the end of humanity, the descriptor is incorrect," the authors wrote, before admitting:
Yet scientists are clear that climate change does pose serious risks to civilization through increased temperatures, sea level rise and extreme weather, among other factors—especially if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. In some cases, this could even mean a specific location would be uninhabitable.
The so-called "correction" was denounced by a number of critics on social media.
Sanders's urgent message about the climate—echoing the repeated messages of the world's top scientists over the past several decades about the continued burning of fossil fuels—should not be placed in the same category as inaccurate claims and lies put forward by climate change deniers, suggested Economist editor Gady Epstein.
"Looking forward to Democratic candidates describing climate change precisely as 'something short of a literally existential threat' so that they can finally debate the issue in good faith, like the GOP," Epstein wrote.
Others sarcastically joked about the usefulness of "fact-checking" resources quibbling over the meaning of the word "existential" to correct Sanders's warning about a crisis that is already causing rising sea levels and often deadly weather events, and forcing people in Bangladesh, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, and countless other regions to leave their homes.
Checkmate Bernie -- climate change will possibly leave a small band of emaciated human survivors scavenging for cockroaches in the wreckage of our ruined civilization. owned by facts and logic yet again https://t.co/3EYW29MELn
— Rb Russeau (@robrousseau) October 16, 2019
"Fact check: Sen. Sanders has called climate change an 'existential threat.' Yet existentialism typically refers to a philosophical school of thought associated with thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kirkegaard—none of whom ever wrote about climate change. Four Pinocchios" https://t.co/75e0kkWBnK
— Micah Uetricht (@micahuetricht) October 16, 2019
FactCheck.org also highlighted two comments from Sanders about healthcare.
Regarding Sanders's statement that medical expenses have led to 500,000 people "going bankrupt," the website pointed to a report in the American Journal of Public Health which showed that two-thirds of nearly 1,000 respondents to a survey said medical expenses contributed to their bankruptcies.
"Medical issues weren't the sole reason for some of those bankruptcies," the authors wrote, without explaining why the distinction was important for debate-viewers to understand in order to make an informed decision about their vote.
The article also took issue with Sanders's statement that "87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured," noting that the statistic comes from a Commonwealth Fund study which included "19.3 million who were insured when they were surveyed but had a gap in coverage in the previous year."
"Thanks for checking the fact that those people were underinsured and confirming the fact that they were underinsured," tweeted podcast host Cody Johnston.