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The World Is Burning, but the Political Press Insists on its Horserace

In the few days that remain before the election and in the months that will follow, journalists must ask themselves if they’re truly conveying the gravity of the climate crisis to their audiences, as well as all the challenges and opportunities it entails.

This election, regardless of who wins, marks an opportunity for news outlets to recommit to the climate story, which will only become more important and all-encompassing in the years ahead. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News / Getty Images)

This election, regardless of who wins, marks an opportunity for news outlets to recommit to the climate story, which will only become more important and all-encompassing in the years ahead. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News / Getty Images)

Last week, audiences watched the most substantive conversation on climate change to ever feature in a US presidential debate. Moderator Kristen Welker, of NBC News, first asked the candidates what each would do to combat climate change while also supporting job growth—a welcome improvement on questions in the first presidential debate and vice-presidential debate, which absurdly framed climate change as a matter of opinion. Welker followed up with a sharp question about the disproportionate levels of pollution experienced by communities of color, the first environmental justice question to ever appear in a general election debate.

In response, Trump repeated falsehoods he’s deployed in the past—asserting, for example, that wind power is “extremely expensive” and inflating the cost of Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan by a factor of fifty—while Biden called climate change an “existential threat to humanity” and detailed how he would invest public money to build a clean energy economy and create jobs. On Welker’s pollution question, Trump rejected the premise, saying incorrectly that the communities she mentioned are paid for their trouble; Biden, meanwhile, gave an informed description of the negative health outcomes that “fenceline” communities routinely face. Despite the uneven back-and-forth, it was a refreshing, all-too-rare moment in US media coverage of the climate story: nearly 12 minutes, in primetime, during which journalism treated climate change as a serious, multi-dimensional subject worthy of public discourse.

And then what did the political press do with this material in its follow-up coverage? Fumbled it, mostly.

Across the media, journalists fell back on horserace framing that ignored science and made faulty assumptions, focusing especially on Biden’s pledge to “transition from the oil industry” to renewable energy. Following Trump’s lead on stage, post-debate coverage portrayed Biden’s position as economically risky and a political liability. Welker’s own NBC News suggested Biden’s comments “could be costly in battleground states.” The Washington Post wondered “how politically damaging” Biden’s comments were; a second story called them “a debate-night stumble.” Even E&E News, an outlet which focuses exclusively on energy and the environment, asked, “Will Biden's end-oil pledge work magic for Trump?”

Let’s get one thing straight: If humanity is to have any chance of avoiding the worst of climate change, America, like the rest of the world, must transition away from fossil fuels. That’s not politics—it’s science. The United Nations climate science panel says humanity needs to cut emissions in half by 2030, and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown. Accordingly, a speedy transition away from fossil fuels has been central to all serious climate advocacy for years. Such a transition, via heavy investments in clean energy, is central to the climate plan Biden put forward in July.

And yet—science be damned—most news outlets fixated on the hay Republicans sought to make of the former vice president’s remarks. Journalists quoted liberally from dubious sources echoing Trump’s claim that Biden’s plan would tank the economy, when the plan in fact promises to create millions of jobs. At times, outlets lent further credibility to the attacks by dressing them up in their own strong language. (Conservatives, Politico wrote, were “accusing the Democratic nominee of being callous with the economy in his proposals for tackling climate change.”) Meanwhile, as climate journalist Emily Atkin observed in her newsletter Heated, the vast majority of coverage “[ignored] the fact that Trump doesn’t have a climate plan at all.” Of 30 stories that Atkin analyzed from mainstream outlets, all mentioned the potential consequences of strong climate action, but “only five discussed the cost of doing nothing.”

The coverage’s negative framing was also remarkably ill-informed about public opinion. Nearly 80 percent of Americans favor investments in alternative energy over fossil fuels, according to a 2020 poll by Pew Research, with two-thirds saying the government should do more to fight climate change. In Pennsylvania specifically, where pundits have centered the “post-debate political fallout” narrative, perspectives have shifted against fossil fuels. Recent polling shows residents overwhelmingly favor strong climate action; moreover, a slight majority opposes fracking, which Trump and many in the media have framed as a wedge issue in this election, despite Biden’s repeated insistence that he does not intend to end the practice.

Tellingly, it was climate reporters who cut through the political noise and leveled with their audiences on these matters. Referencing this year’s cascade of extreme weather events, Bill Weir, CNN’s chief climate correspondent, called out Trump’s “insistence that the US remain reliant on fossil fuels, despite the overwhelming evidence that the hell and high water of 2020 is just the beginning.” Alex Kaufman, at HuffPost, observed that “Trump’s ongoing push to deregulate the oil and gas industry has actually cost jobs in regions badly hit by the sudden plunge in oil prices at the start of the pandemic.” By overlooking facts like these, the political press instead gave the climate discussion over almost entirely to right-wing talking points.

For decades, the press’s greatest failure when it came to climate change—beyond its indefensible silence—was casting the story primarily as a matter of partisan politics, when in fact climate change is a science story with political implications. It’s clear many journalists have yet to kick the bad habit.

That’s a shame because, broadly speaking, mainstream coverage of the climate story has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. Major outlets including The Washington PostCNN, and Time have issued truly landmark pieces of climate reporting; The New York TimesBloomberg, and, as of this month, The AtlanticDer Spiegel, and El País have launched impressive new brands and climate sections; and we at Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration led by The Guardian, The Nation, and Columbia Journalism Review, have worked with hundreds of news organizations at every level of the industry to strengthen their coverage.

Time is short, however. This election, regardless of who wins, marks an opportunity for news outlets to recommit to the climate story, which will only become more important and all-encompassing in the years ahead. To get the story right, newsroom leaders must encourage their journalists—not just climate reporters but reporters on every beat, as well as assignment editors, headline writers, copy staffs, and social media teams—to deepen their understanding of the climate crisis and its solutions and incorporate that knowledge into every facet of their work.

In the few days that remain before the election and in the months that will follow, journalists must ask themselves if they’re truly conveying the gravity of the climate crisis to their audiences, as well as all the challenges and opportunities it entails. To do so means ditching the horserace obsession and catching up with the facts. It also means resisting partisan narratives and assumptions and insisting on the climate story as the matter of life and death it is. It’s increasingly evident what makes good climate coverage; the question, as ever, is whether journalists will deliver it.

Now, here’s your weekly sampling of the latest in climate news: 

  • Grist, in cooperation with InvestigateWest, has found that, under the Trump administration, the Department of Energy has actively suppressed more than 40 reports on studies pertaining to the benefits of renewable energy. “The department has replaced [the reports] with mere presentations, buried them in scientific journals that are not accessible to the public, or left them paralyzed within the agency,” according to emails, documents, and more than a dozen interviews with current and former Department of Energy employees.
  • E&E News is out with an investigation revealing that Ford and General Motors knew as early as the 1960s that car emissions caused global warming—and nevertheless engaged in decades of deception and lobbying that stymied global efforts to mitigate climate change. “More than 50 years after the automakers learned about climate change, the transportation sector is the leading source of planet-warming pollution in the United States,” the article, which marks the culmination of nearly five months of reporting, reads. “Cars and trucks account for the bulk of those emissions.”
  • From Rolling Stone, a compelling feature that interrogates Biden’s climate plan from an environmental justice perspective. Experts call the plan historic and ambitious—not to mention singular, given that Trump offers no plan on climate at all—but there’s room for improvement. People who have made environmental justice their lifes’ calling hope that a Biden administration would seek solutions for Black farmers, address specific needs of women and girls in this realm, and meaningfully take up the issue of Indigenous sovereignty.
  • From The Guardian, an investigation—complete with impressive graphics—into how the Trump administration’s “meat cleaver” approach to public lands has changed the face of national monuments and wildlife refuges. The administration has leased 5.4 million acres of land to oil and gas companies, an area the size of New Jersey, and new drilling “could result in the equivalent of 4.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions—heating the planet as much as more than 1,051 power plants burning coal for a year.”
  • Also from The Guardian, a look at how America’s choices in this election offer radically different outcomes for the global effort to fight climate change. World leaders anticipate a Biden victory would be an opportunity to re-engage the US on critical matters of global cooperation. A Trump victory, on the other hand, is likely to lock in a more dangerous future for humanity. “It would be pretty much game over for the international system if he’s re-elected,” one source tells The Guardian. “China would feel zero pressure to do more and it would dampen ambition around the world. We’d miss the chance to avoid warming at a catastrophic level.”

***As a reminder, great Climate Politics 2020 stories are available for republication by CCNow partners in our Curated Collection from the joint coverage week and, as always, the Sharing Library. Plain text and visual assets for the stories are here.***

Mark Hertsgaard

Mark Hertsgaard

Mark Hertsgaard is the environmental correspondent and investigative editor at large at The Nation and a co-founder of Covering Climate Now. He has covered climate change since 1989, reporting from 25 countries and much of the US in his books "Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future" (1999) and "HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth" (2012),  as well as for various outlets. Follow him on his website: markhertsgaard.com and on Twitter: @markhertsgaard

 

Andrew McCormick

Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Atlantic, and Columbia Journalism Review.

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