Straight Up: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics

Must-read (again) study: “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”

Cover image of Joe Romm's book, Straight Up: America's Fiercest Climate Blogger Takes on the Status Quo Media, Politicians, and Clean Energy SolutionsIn January 2009, I blogged on a remarkable study by a leading journalist documenting the media’s mistakes and biases during the 2008 Senate debate of the Lieberman-Warner climate bill.  I posted it again last May since the media repeated the exact same mistakes in the debate over the House bill.  I included it in my new book “Straight Up” — and am reposting it here — to set the table for the roll out in the next several days of the bipartisan climate and clean energy jobs bill by Senators Graham (R-SC), Kerry (D-MA), and Lieberman (I-CT).

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 likely be the story of the millennium, with irreversible impacts lasting for many, many centuries (see “Intro to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water” and “NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe“).

Pooley told me, “I think this is the only story going forward.” That’s why he has been devoting most of his time 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 “” 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.

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11 Responses to Straight Up: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics

  1. SecularAnimist says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the misleading media coverage that you describe is the result of “mistakes” or “bungling”. I think it is entirely deliberate, driven from the top down by the people who run the handful of giant corporations that own virtually all of the mass media in America, in common cause with their ruthless and rapacious brethren in the fossil fuel corporations.

  2. As a freelance science and environmental journalist for 16+years its become nearly impossible to find a media outlet interested in solid articles on climate in the last few years. I used to have regular gigs with Cdn and US pubs now nearly everything I do is international – South American press are more interested.

    Here’s what Standford’s outspoken climate scientist Steve Schneider told me in recent interview “I’m pretty damn angry that media companies are putting profits ahead of truth. The media are deeply broken… That’s a real threat to democracy.”

    (that interview was published by a Latin American wire service

    Most of my colleagues have given up and moved on to PR agencies etc. I’m forced to ask for donations from the public to be able to keep writing under a new public media concept of Community Supported Journalism:

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    What Reporters Should Do

    The news media, and reporters, should think in these terms when deciding what to cover, how to cover it, and so forth: (assuming here that we are talking about important matters)

    They should ask, “If I were a member of the reading audience, a regular human, what would I need and want to know and understand in order to be genuinely informed, and in order to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, and in order to be able to see the baby and not be confused by the bathwater, and (in the end) in order to make informed, wise, and responsible choices that will facilitate my own good and the good of my family and humankind?”

    Then, in light of the answers to that question, news coverage should be developed and written and implemented accordingly. The news coverage should be such that it honestly facilitates the public good, as well as it possibly can, by conveying accurate understanding about things that matter in ways that are most likely to provide the understanding that the public needs in order to make choices that facilitate their own well being.

    Although I’ve put many words in those sentences (to make sure the concept is understood), the concept is quite simple. Think about it.

    This is not the same as giving the public whatever will titillate the public.

    Nor is it the same as telling the public everything about “what happened yesterday”.

    Nor is it the same as telling the public whatever fascinates you (the writer) about the latest controversy or nuance, especially since you already know and understand (hopefully) many things about your subject that your readers don’t already understand. In other words, what fascinates YOU (as writer) may not really be what the public needs to understand, and should understand, in order to achieve its own good.

    Nor is it the same as what will please (or not displease) advertisers.

    Nor is it the same as what will make “all people happy” with what you report.

    I hope, and trust, that this is not a hard concept to understand. “What do readers need to know and understand in order to make informed, and responsible, choices that will lead to their own well being, the well being of their families, the well being of future generations?”

    It’s not clear to me whether most journalists, and the news media, have lost track of the especially-important aim of their profession, or whether there is just way too much incompetence in the news media, or whether there is just way too much selfishness and irresponsibility in the news media, or, perhaps, whether too many writers just don’t understand the subjects they are writing about? Perhaps the reality involves all of these unfortunate things.

    Two things:

    What would a human need to know and understand in order to make wise, informed, responsible choices that facilitate her/his own good, the good of his family, his society, and the ongoing human enterprise?

    What is the best way to succeed in conveying that understanding?

    What have the schools of journalism been teaching all of these years, anyhow? How to smile on camera, how to appease a felon, and how to write a catchy controversial confusing headline?



  4. JR,

    Thanks. I think this article as well as Krugman’s latest piece really need to be shouted from the rooftops.

  5. J4zonian says:

    “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.”

    But climate catastrophe clearly IS an environmental issue. It’s a description of what will happen in the biosphere as a result of human interference with the regulatory mechanisms of Gaia. (not just emissions-caused greenhouse effect but deforestation, soil depletion, dead zones and extinctions, etc….) Like all ecological issues it has serious human rights, human health, social-political and other ramifications that make it crucial to pay attention to, that is, like those other issues only much much more so.

    What you’re saying is it’s bundled with all the other environmental issues that people who don’t feel or understand connection dismiss as unimportant or threatening. But the only solution to that is to help them both feel and understand connection.

    We have to make sure people don’t grow up feeling alone and separate from the world. We have to revolutionize child care and views toward psychology and psychotherapy; we have to dramatically increase the maturity of the US citizenry. Tough job, yes. Incredibly tough. But it seems unlikely we will win on anything else if we don’t do that. Politics is a function of psychology, individual and collective. As is everything else.

  6. Andy says:

    “Mainstream news organizations have accepted the conclusions of the IPCC but have not yet applied those conclusions to the economic debate.”

    Yes, and it goes beyond the economic debate. For example, our local paper published a wire story about the sea level rise argument (how high, how fast). It also carried a front page story about the local controversy of whether or not the public should be allowed to walk on the beach in front of private homes. The beach access story was big and generated a lot of opinion submittals. But, with our microtidal climate, even the mid-level scenarios of sea level rise will destroy all or almost all of our beaches, especially those with fronting homes. The article never touched on the implications of sea level rise and beach erosion.

    In this case, the reporting journalists put on blinders and simply refused to deal with climate change’s implications. As if they are too big and too scary to be real.

  7. Dan B says:

    As a friend of mine said, “Don’t give me the scary truth unless you give me something I can do about it. I won’t want to hear any more.”

    She’s a communications professional with 35 years experience in corporate, activist, and political communication.


    Also loved the quote, “..most of the reporting was bad in the painstakingly balanced way of so much daily journalism–two sides, no real meat.” Joseph Pulitzer established “professional” journalism schools. His goal was to encourage professional and balanced reporting. Taken to it’s extreme it’s produced two-slices-of-bread no-meat. It reminds me of the news coverage of 1935 Germany and from any other pre-genocidal society – two sides no comprehension that one “side” was immoral and on the verge of precipitating catastrophe.

  8. Roger says:

    You know, IMHO, one of our big societal problems relating to dealing with this climate change problem is that we’re mostly acting as if past experience were (still) the best guide for what to expect from the folks, or what to do about it.

    I think we’d all do a bit better to use our intellect—to think of things with the expectation that different thinking is required to solve the problem—kind of like in Einstein’s famous quote that starts off with “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking…”

    Why? Because: a) there’s been lots of change in the past few decades. (For example money was not quite so much the overriding driving force for the media that it now seems to be.) and b) the “life path” we are on right now has never been before followed in mans’ recorded history. (This in the sense that it is our first time through with man-caused climate change that may wipe many of us out on a global scale within 50 years.)

    So, I argue, because so much of our thinking and action is based on out-of-date behavioral guidelines, our responses have been glacially slow to produce meaningful results. What’s the solution? 1) Trying harder to “think outside the box.” 2) Accepting ideas from nontraditional sources. 3) Realizing that our insular studies of past behavior may no longer apply—whether we are natural or social scientists, or just plain folks.

    What’s my point? That we are facing a huge, life-threatening problem unlike any that we have dealt with before—call it a “ black swan squared” problem. That, because of this, and because many things have change, as noted above, our normal systems for dealing with problems—such as the media to keep us informed, and our natural instincts and/or our governments to protect us, etc.– are not working. That, furthermore, as a result, we need to be devoting our very best, collective mental, computational and other resources to the problem, regardless of the expense (since our very existence, for many—or all, may be at stake).

    What are we actually doing instead? We’re acting as if the above were not true. We’re acting as if all the established patterns of the past century or two will work. We’re acting as if the electorate will inform themselves of the true nature of the problem, or as if the media will do this. We’re acting as if the media will get to the truth and print all of it that is fit to print. We’re acting as if our elected officials will work together to figure things out on our behalf and then act in our collective interests. We’re acting as if our government will alert us to clear and present danger—and even alert us to clear and distant danger in those cases where there’s a need to act early in order to stave off some really dire consequences.

    Well, folks, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but, hear me out: our normal protective mechanisms—whether inbred or developed from centuries of hard-won experience, are simply not working. And given the circumstances described above this should not be a surprise. Nor am I the first one to notice this. Just ask the man who’s been called the world’s best climate scientist, NASA’s Dr. Jim Hansen, who has said, “democracy isn’t working.”

    So, what does one best do when one finds that certain actions aren’t working? One changes the actions to see if a new set of actions will work better. Best of all, one thinks carefully about the situation, given the pressure of time, to try to choose the alternative action that is most likely to have the best outcome, given the resources available.

    Having done this, may I toss out a suggestion as food for thought? Here it is: Why don’t ALL of the citizens, nonprofits, corporations, groups and others who are concerned about the coming climate crisis work together (a novel idea if there ever was one) to FOCUS all of their attention on the man who leads the country that has contributed more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than any other country, and that continues to drag its feet in taking BOLD action on climate change? That man would be US President Barack Obama who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20500.

    MA Senator John Kerry has told many of us in the climate movement that the fundamental reason for the bottleneck in getting stronger US climate legislation is NOT centered in Washington, but rather in the minds of the highly confused constituency back home. Back with the people who pick up some information saying that climate change might be a problem, but who then hear that it’s a huge hoax—leaving them utterly confused. These folks reason: if this were really a huge problem, the government would be doing something about it. They might even expect to have some type of government emergency warning system. They might expect the TV weatherperson to say something about how the strange weather we’ve been having might be linked to climate change.

    None of this is happening, so, constituents reason, climate change must not be a serious issue. As a result (and yes, I’m over simplifying a bit here, for the sake of brevity!) these misinformed constituents do not support strong climate action by their senators.

    What’s the fastest way for constituents to “get religion,” as we used to say? By President Obama giving a nationally televised, prime-time address that explains to misinformed Americans exactly what is at stake in terms of problems and opportunities for Americans, should we not act decisively now to deal with climate change? If there were ever a time in human history when we needed a brave leader to sound the alarm to the people who chose him as their leader, it is now.

    Let’s call a spade a spade here. Mankind is at a decision point—recognized by only a few—where we have a tough choice to make: do we let the good times roll for a few more years, at the cost of hell and high water, to be followed by a likely mass extinction of humans, and many other creatures? Or, do we show mercy to our children and grandchildren, rein in our fuelish ways, switch to profitable, clean, sustainable energy, and preserve our ability to carry on with life on Earth for the indefinite future?

    To encourage President Obama to educate and lead Americans on climate, we are urging everyone to visit where links are found to the pages that describe an Earth Day Citizens’ Climate Congress in front of the White House at 1 PM, and (for those who can’t attend the Congress) a petition asking the president to educate and lead on climate. To date, more than 1200 people from over 35 countries have signed the petition. We are expecting a much smaller, yet significant number to attend the 1 PM Congress across from the White House, in Lafayette Park, on April 22nd.

  9. johna says:

    That’s a good and necessary reread, at least for me. It’s key to look at all the economic analyses and not just focus on one study. Or even one flawed part of one study – like some defeatist projection of renewable growth rates by the EIA.

    Which (naturally enough) Joe has reported on previously.

  10. Anna Haynes says:

    re SecularAnimist #1’s “Unfortunately, I don’t think the misleading media coverage that you describe is the result of “mistakes” or “bungling””

    Joe, perhaps you already addressed this, but I’m curious and haven’t gotten an answer from the principal, so…

    Montana freelance journalist Jim Robbins has been writing about bark beetles. When his stories appear in the NYTimes, the climate causation is reticent to the point of nonexistence. When his story appeared in Yale’s Env360 last month ( ), the climate connection was front and center.

    Has anyone who’s written for the Times – or other major paper – on climate been willing to come forward afterwards and say, or show, what editorial changes were made to their work?

  11. Jeff Huggins says:

    Anna (Comment 9),

    Hello, good point, and I hope you are well.

    Yes, at some point we should all ask some key reporters to explain and document whether their articles were printed as written (and thus any problems were theirs) or whether the editors systemically insisted on changes that resulted in the problems.

    Cheers for now,