Cheers to the Washington Post for (finally) taking human-caused climate change seriously enough to launch a series of editorials demanding a change in both dialogue and action. Jeers for suggesting the paper will now be “more inclined to take op-eds that challenge” their view that climate science is real and that the threat posed by it is “existential.”
The Post’s first editorial in the series this week was about “The country’s sinking debate over global warming.” It begins by stating “the national debate on climate change has devolved.” As the paper’s editorial board explains, it’s devolved from serious talk by both parties before Obama’s election into inaction because “a faction that rejects the science of global warming dragged the GOP into irresponsible head-in-the-sand-ism.”
But there are there other reasons that the debate has devolved into paralysis, including ones that are in the direct control of major national media outlets like the Post. In particular, if the Post is serious, it needs to start treating the story of the century as the story of the century and treating the established science as established science, not debatable politics.
Indeed, the paper’s second editorial notes, “among mainstream scientists, this paralysis is mind-boggling.” And the Post summarizes the editorial this way:
Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt explained to Media Matters why the Post took the unusual step of committing to a week of editorials on climate change: “Over the long run it is an existential threat to the planet, I believe that, so you don’t get much bigger than that.” Precisely.
In the spirit of these statements by the paper, here are six ways the Washington Post could show that it truly gets that climate change is an “existential threat.”
1. Fact-check op-eds on climate
2. Stop printing comments and letters from climate science deniers
3. End false balance
4. Restore coverage on climate change
5. Put Juliet Eilperin (and/or another top climate reporter) back on the climate beat
6. Bring on a full-time science blogger
Let’s look a little closer at those.
Fact-check op-eds on climate
Ideally, the Washington Post should simply stop publishing climate science deniers, people who spread misinformation and disinformation on the existential threat that is climate change. Of course, that would include major columnists of theirs, including George Will.
Sadly, it appears the reverse is going to be true, Media Matters reports:
But Hiatt said the new focus on climate change does not mean those with differing views, even deniers of the problem, will be barred from the Post’s opinion pages.
“We encourage robust debate on our op-ed page and for anything in general, not just any one topic,” he said. “I’m more inclined to take op-eds that challenge our editorials than just kind of join the chorus.”
Yes, the Post asserts “the science is clear” and climate change is “an existential threat” and “the national debate on climate change has devolved,” but will publish even more pieces by deniers and confusionists like George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Bjorn Lomborg, and Sarah Palin.
Does the paper publish more op-eds from people claiming cigarette smoking isn’t harmful to your health simply because the editors accept that fact? Of course not. Yet the scientific community’s certainty about human-caused climate change is as great as that of the medical community’s a certainty that cigarette smoking is bad for your health.
Bizarrely, Hiatt told Media Matters that “we try in both letters and op-eds to make sure that nothing we print is factually inaccurate.” That is patently false — see, for instance “The Washington Post op-ed page remains the home of un-fact-checked disinformation about clean energy and global warming” and “Will the Washington Post ever fact check a George Will column?” and Will yet again.
Things got so bad that the Post’s own reporters took the unprecedented step of contradicting George Will in a news article.
But even years after that debacle, the Post still publishes pieces from Will in particular that clearly have not been checked for accuracy (see “Shameless Flameout: Washington Post Once Again Publishes George Will’s Anti-Scientific Nonsense”).
If the Post’s senior editors won’t even fact-check their own op-ed page, it is hard to take seriously their seeming epiphany on climate.
Stop printing letters and comments from climate science deniers
It should be a no-brainer to stop printing false statements from readers who are no-brainers themselves. Heck, a year ago the LA Times announced its policy that “letters that have an untrue basis (for example, ones that say there’s no sign humans have caused climate change) do not get printed.” Other papers have announced similar policies. Is the Post going to treat the issue less seriously than the Times?
Extending that to comments from science deniers should be straightforward. Last year, Reddit’s popular /r/science forum announced a “de facto ban on climate denial,” as moderator and Ph.D. chemist Nathan Allen told ThinkProgress. “As moderators responsible for what millions of people see, we felt that to allow a handful of commenters to so purposefully mislead our audience was simply immoral,” he said. “So if a half-dozen volunteers can keep a page with more than four million users from being a microphone for the antiscientific, is it too much to ask for newspapers to police their own editorial pages as proficiently?”
End false balance
But now that they have acknowledged that “the science is real,” there is no longer any justification for their reporters to quote people who are simply spreading misinformation or disinformation. The paper moved beyond quoting the tobacco industry on the supposed harmlessness of their product years ago.
Two years ago NPR released an an ethics handbook for reporters that asserted “our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.” In particular, the handbook noted, “if the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports.”
Where is that clearer than in the climate discussion, where we know upwards of 97 percent of climate scientists share the understanding that human activity is driving recent global warming?
In July, BBC’s governing body released a report on its new policy to avoid false balance. It said, “science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.” As a result, BBC reporters are to sharply reduce the air time given to climate science deniers — and others with anti-science viewpoints — make make their coverage more fair and accurate.
Is the Washington Post really going to leave it to a fake news show, John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” on HBO, to be the only U.S. “media” outlet to hold a “statistically representative climate change debate” (video here)?
Restore coverage on climate change
Climate Progress has long argued that climate change is an “existential threat” and thus the story that will have the biggest impact on the lives of readers and their children in the coming decades. For the Post senior editors’ new-found seriousness on climate change be taken seriously, they must undo their gutted coverage of the story of the century.
Last year, the paper’s already abysmally low coverage of climate change dropped by one third. It is time for the Post to reverse that and start dramatically increasing their coverage.
Here’s one way to do it:
Put Juliet Eilperin (and/or another top climate reporter) back on climate beat
In early 2013, the Post announced “Juliet Eilperin will return to the world of politics to cover the White House. Juliet has had a terrific run on the environment beat, becoming one of the country’s leading reporters on climate change.”
That was an obvious blunder at the time — and doubly so now.
A paper that is serious about climate change needs to have a top climate reporter or two. I didn’t agree with all of Eilperin’s coverage, but she had a strong command of the subject — and I suspect some of my issues with her were actually issues with editors watering down her pieces or requiring false balance quotes from deniers.
The Post should put her back on the full-time climate beat. They could also bring in one of the many world-class climate reporters let go by the major media in recent years.
Bring on a full-time science blogger
Earlier this year, the Washington Post dropped star blogger Ezra Klein — one of their only consistent sources of science-based coverage of climate change. Worse, at the same time they glommed onto a libertarian, confusionist website, The Volokh Conspiracy, and gave them “full editorial control.”
As Brad Johnson explained at the time, “the Volokh Conspiracy bloggers are aptly named, as many of them have promoted conspiracy theories about anthropogenic climate change and the scientists who study it.” As if there weren’t enough confusionists writing for the Post.
Anyway, there are a lot of great climate science bloggers who can clearly explain things with charts the way Klein does. Here’s one of the best.
BOTTOM LINE: The series of editorials by the Washington Post on climate change is a good start. But they have a lot to do — and a lot to undo — if they want to convince anyone that they are genuinely serious.