Must-read (again) study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics ” The medias decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.

[In January, I blogged on this study by a leading journalist who documented the media’s mistakes and biases during the Lieberman-Warner debate.  Yet the media is making the exact same mistakes in the current debate over the Waxman-Markey energy and climate bill (see “The New Yorker (!) parrots right-wing talking points” and “David Broder” and “NYT’s Matt Wald” and “the NYT again“).  So I’m reposting it.]

One of the country’s leading journalists has written a searing critique of the media’s coverage of global warming, especially climate economics.

How Much Would You Pay to Save the Planet? The American Press and the Economics of Climate Change is by Eric Pooley for Harvard’s prestigious Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Pooley has been managing editor of Fortune, national editor of Time, Time‘s chief political correspondent, and Time‘s White House correspondent, where he won the Gerald Ford Prize for Excellence in Reporting. Before that, he was senior editor of New York magazine.

In short, Pooley has earned the right to be heard. Journalists and senior editors need to pay heed to Pooley’s three tough conclusions abut how “damaging” the recent media of the climate debate has been:

  1. The press misrepresented the economic debate over cap and trade. It failed to recognize the emerging consensus “¦ that cap and trade would have a marginal effect on economic growth and gave doomsday forecasts coequal status with nonpartisan ones”¦. The press allowed opponents of climate action to replicate the false debate over climate science in the realm of climate economics.
  2. The press failed to perform the basic service of making climate policy and its economic impact understandable to the reader and allowed opponents of climate action to set the terms of the cost debate. The argument centered on the short-term costs of taking action-i.e., higher electricity and gasoline prices-and sometimes assumed that doing nothing about climate change carried no cost.
  3. Editors failed to devote sufficient resources to the climate story. In general, global warming is still being shoved into the “environment” pigeonhole, along with the spotted owls and delta smelt, when it is clearly to society’s detriment to think about the subject that way. It is time for editors to treat climate policy as a permanent, important beat: tracking a mobilization for the moral equivalent of war.


Pooley is one of the few major journalists in the country who understands that global warming is the story of the century “” and if we don’t reverse our emissions path soon, it will tragically be the story of the millennium, with irreversible impacts lasting for many, many centuries (see “Hadley Center: Catastrophic 5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path“).

Pooley told me, “I think this is the only story going forward.” That’s why, although he remains a contributor to Time magazine, he is devoting most of his time now to researching and writing a book on the politics and economics of climate change.

The first step for Pooley was an analysis of media coverage over the previous 15 months. In a long introduction to the different roles reporters can play, Pooley notes:

Being a referee is harder than being a stenographer because it requires grappling with the substance of an issue in a way that many time-pressed journalists aren’t willing or able to do.

He decided to examine media coverage surrounding the 2008 Senate debate over the climate bill put forward by John Warner (R-VA) and Joseph Lieberman (??-CT):

News coverage of the Lieberman-Warner debate included some shoddy, one-sided reporting and some strong work that took the time both to dive into the policy weeds-evaluating the economic assumptions used by the various players-and step back to portray those players as com-batants in a war for public opinion. But most of the reporting was bad in the painstakingly balanced way of so much daily journalism-two sides, no real meat.

He then explains his research:

My analysis of news articles published in national and regional newspapers, wire services, and newsmagazines between December 2007 and June 2008 suggests that for most reporters covering this story, the default role was that of stenographer-presenting a nominally balanced view of the debate without questioning the validity of the arguments, sometimes even ignoring evidence that one side was twisting truth. Database searches yielded a sample of 40 published news and analysis stories that explored the cost debate in some de-tail (see appendix). Of these, seven stories were one-sided. Twenty-four stories were works of journalistic stenography. And nine stories attempted, with varying degrees of success, to move past the binary debate, weigh the arguments, and reach conclusions about this thorny issue.

The bottom line:

The media’s collective decision to play the stenographer role actually helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.

He makes another interesting point, one I would not have expected from a journalist

Mainstream news organizations have accepted the conclusions of the IPCC but have not yet applied those conclusions to the economic debate. The terms of that debate have been defined by opponents of climate action who argue that reducing emissions would “cost too much.” So the battle has been fought over the short-term price of climate action and its impact on GDP, while overlooking an extremely important variable, the long-term costs of inaction and business as usual.

Although Pooley doesn’t make the point, the problem he identifies is compounded by the fact that the mainstream economic community also overestimates the cost of action and underestimates the cost of inaction, a central point of my ongoing series on voodoo economists (see, for instance, Part 3: MIT and NBER (and Tol and Nordhaus) “” the right wing deniers love your work. Ask yourself “why?” and Part 2: Robert Mendelsohn says global warming is “a good thing for Canada.”).

That means when the media goes out looking for a well-known climate economist to quote in an article, they typically end up with someone who doesn’t understand the scientific urgency and those who misunderstand the economics.

If you really want to understand the fact that even a very strong cap and trade bill “would have a marginal effect on economic growth,” the best place to go is the the International Energy Agency and IPCC and McKinsey (see “McKinsey 2008 Research in Review: Stabilizing at 450 ppm has a net cost near zero“).

Pooley’s whole paper is a must read, especially for advocates of climate action. Yes, the media bears much culpability for the fact that, as Pooley says, “the tipping point for climate action has not yet been reached.” But so do scientists, environmentalists, and progressives. The general state of our messaging remains lousy (see, for instance, Part 4: The idiocy of crowds or, rather, the idiocy of (crowded) debates and Does the “Reality Campaign” need new Mad Men?

One clear message from this study is that the climate science activists need to do a better job of spelling out the cost of inaction. Until that cost is clear to the public, the media, and policymakers, the country will never be able to mobilize to do what is needed to preserve a livable climate.

Related Post:

14 Responses to Must-read (again) study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics ” The medias decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.

  1. This is a very important post. And it’s interesting–I’m reading it here in Australia, where we’re busy organizing for It’s going very well, but the most striking thing to me has been the high quality of the Aussie media on this stuff. Especially the ABC, the dominant public broadcasting service. One smart interview after another–they really understand the science and the politics.

    Which also goes to show that media messaging is crucial but not sufficient, because the Australian version of WM just got pulled before a vote, with everything delayed for another year. To me that demonstrates that we still need a movement, everywhere. I think Joe’s right that Congress will pass something this year and that it will be good for all this to finally be in play. But I think the other key from Pooley’s piece is that this is the story–the only story–going forward. It’s going to last a long time, and we’re going to need a much bigger movement to make the progress we need.

    That’s our theory at anyway, and many thanks to all for helping

  2. ecostew says:

    I agree with more focus on the cost of not acting and media bungling it, but the disingenuous Machiavellian denialism – the lies by Rs, simply sick and what are they leaving for their kids as the afford their luxury? Not to mention our climate!

  3. Nice write-up here why the Waxman-Markey bill simply won’t work and won’t make any meaningful difference on climate at all.

    Climate Impacts of Waxman-Markey

    [JR: I guess you don’t read this blog — I already debunked that piece of denier nonsense.]

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Great article Joe, thank you for highlighting this.

  5. Peter Wood says:

    I agree with everything Bill McKinnen said, except on the quality of the Australian media. There is a lot of very good quality commentary in the Australian media, but some of it is not so good. In particular, there are many news stories which will report something from a spokesperson from an emissions intensive industry, who is trying to make out that carbon pricing will be bad, but not any other view points. A good list of some of these articles is here — I don’t have a problem with the media reporting what an industry body is saying, but most of the time journalists will not get an opinion from anyone else (such as an economist or an environmentalist) commenting on whether the opinion is true or not.

  6. ecostew says:

    One might change this cartoon:

    For example:

    Swine flu = malaria
    Climate change stats
    Eating pork = climate change

  7. Phil Eisner says:

    We must all do our part to rectify this situation with the press and media in general. I am giving public lectures and have started a newspaper column on global warming in “Thealternativepress”, an on-line newspaper in New Jersey. Also, I try to help like-minded politicians in any way I can: money, photography, campaigning at election time.
    Everyone involved in “Climate Progress”, especially Joe Romm, is doing a wonderful job; the world should and will long appreciate him.

  8. Mark Shapiro says:


    OT, but kudos: CNET quotes you in Martin LaMonica’s article on Google’s clean energy initiatives, in particular its experiments with offsets. Google has been near-perfect on energy — continuously improving efficiency in its data centers, using clean energy, starting to measure upstream and downstream energy use, lobbying for clean energy (they claim), and experimenting with offsets while acknowledging their limitations.

    And LaMonica, CNET’S “green-tech” reporter, is about as good as they get.

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    Bill M,

    Glad to hear that Australia has some good climate coverage, but it isn’t all good. Tim Lambert blogs at Deltoid and has great AGW coverage, including a series he calls “the Australian’s War on Science”.

    Lambert is a smart, consistent, and funny observer on a range of issues.

  10. Ronald says:

    Okay, the Press and Journalists don’t have the correct balance to this Global Warming problem. But to be fair, lets see what scientists and scientific websites have on and emphasize.

    I went on the National Academy of Sciences website. They had one link to Climate Change in a Popular Searches box. Climate Change was even after Evolution.

    Now could someone from this website get a sense of the importance of Climate Change to the health of humans on this planet from this websites front page? They even had Evolution before Climate Change. I can get that evolution is important to many in the science community, but mostly any and every bodies opinion on evolution will not have any impact on our planet, scientists will keep doing what they are doing and the general public will keep doing what is doing. But with Climate Change, the importance is paramount to the well being of future generations.

    It’s not just the Press and Journalists who don’t have a clue, but the scientists also.

    The Biologists, Chemists, Physicists and Engineering had better come around to the idea that many of their projects and pet projects might have to come second to a livable human civilization. The press and journalists are just doing the same thing the scientists are doing and are in psychological denial about the seriousness of this and letting the big problems fall to somebody else.

  11. ecostew says:

    The climate change report is found here under special reports:

  12. Gail Denemark says:

    I certainly agree that there is much room for improvement (an understatement) in media reporting on all aspects of climate change. However, I don’t believe that we can assume that good reporting will do the trick and tip the balance of awareness and support for bold action.

    Considering both the necessity for comprehensive global action right now, paired with the complexity of the climate issue and it’s lack of readily discernible cause and effect impacts, I believe we will not be moved to the kind of bold, all-encompassing action that is necessary, until our global leaders come before the public and speak in grave tones of the looming danger and the urgency for immediate, comprehensive action. President Obama needs to tell it straight up….. “we are facing a dire EMERGENCY!”

    Until the public (and our legislators) fully appreciate that we are in EMERGENCY mode, we will continue down the business as usual path with all of the standard political wrangling and gamesmanship. Delays and dilutions will get in the way of the necessary action.

    The climate catastrophe is unlike any problem humanity has faced. It’s time that our response (and particularly that of our leaders) reflects the grave threats that climate change poses. We simply don’t have time to treat this issue like any other important social issue… figuring that progress will come in due time. When the tipping points come due, we’ll be done.

  13. Rick Covert says:

    Survival Acres,

    Your source also denies the impending peak and decline in oil production in the Middle East. I wish this were on an episode of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment, Really?! with Seth Myers and Amy Poehler.

    It would probably sound like this, “Really! So you think oil is just going to keep flowing! Really?! We can just keep using it in our single occupant Hummer H2’s and it will continue to be available at the same price and availability even though increased demand is being driven here and in China and India. Huh! Really?!”