The false equivalence plaguing our discussions of climate change

The national GOP rejects science and any serious action. Everyone else in the U.S. and world is on the other 'side'

Credit: Tom Toles, co-author, "The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy"
Credit: Tom Toles, co-author, "The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy"

The “both sides do it” approach to modern journalism is both pervasive and dangerous. Nowhere is that clearer than in coverage of climate change, especially in an era where the most extreme climate science deniers are running the federal government.

Consider the recent “series of pieces about America’s polarized climate debate” in Axios. The first was “What Republicans are getting wrong about climate change.” The second was “What liberals get wrong about climate change.” You may already be noticing a journalistic bias, a thumb on the scale. In the headline, Axios pits an actual political party, the Republicans, on one side versus “liberals” on the other.

In reality, as the National Journal wrote in 2010, “The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones.”

CREDIT: Ryan J. Gill/NotMyEarthNotMyProblem.com
CREDIT: Ryan J. Gill/NotMyEarthNotMyProblem.com

The entire framing of the issue by Axios’s energy and climate change reporter Amy Harder is ridiculous, because it ignores the devastating cost of inaction and thus buys into the whole conservative frame that strong action is not inevitable.

Axios was founded by the co-founders of Politico, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, and, like Politico, Axios focuses on the horse-race of politics rather than whether one of the jockeys has steered the entire race toward a cliff. The fact that the site manifesto states “No bias. No nonsense.” is, well, nonsense. They are more center-right than centrist.

The “third and final piece” in the series was, literally, “What both sides are getting wrong about climate change” — or it would’ve been the third and final piece, if it hadn’t created such a backlash.

Media critic Jay Rosen of New York University, known for his critique of journalists for their “view from nowhere,” slammed this piece on Twitter for being exactly what journalists should not do: “When I teach my unit on both-sides-do-it journalism we are going to workshop this piece. It’s perfect,” he wrote.

Rosen went on to explain “this is a museum-quality artifact” of flawed journalism in which “we pile our distortion into the middle where it is less likely to be seen, and we grab some unearned cultural authority. Boom.”

Since this piece is a “perfect” example of what not to do, let’s briefly examine where it goes awry.

“The right says action on climate change will wreck the economy. The left says the clean-energy revolution will be an economic boon. Both sides are overplaying their hands,” the article begins.

All three sentences are deeply flawed.

The right is at odds with the core conclusion of essentially every major independent study on the subject — including the comprehensive review by the world’s leading scientists signed off on line-by-line by every major government — that even the strongest climate action would have no measurable impact on economic growth.

The right isn’t “overplaying their hand” as if this were a game of poker. This is simply a lie political leaders on the right are stuck with because they believe they have no choice but to parrot the talking points of key funders like the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel companies, who support the right-wing science-denial machine.

The left is supposedly overplaying its hand when it is in fact being totally accurate. There is no question whatsoever that the clean energy revolution will be an economic boon. Already renewables are cheaper than the competition in many places in the world and soon they’ll be cheaper pretty much everywhere. When you throw in the plummeting cost for batteries, the revolution becomes unstoppable.

Two new reports recently detailed how stunning drops in renewable costs have led to surging growth, even as such subsidies are being reduced.

As Bloomberg New Energy Finance explained in a major report in June, both solar and wind power will be competitive with new natural gas plants by 2023 — and by 2028, solar will beat existing gas generation — without even factoring in a price on carbon pollution. As a result, renewables will capture three-fourths of the $10 trillion the world will invest in new generation through 2040.

CREDIT: BNEF New Energy Outlook 2017
CREDIT: BNEF NEW ENERGY OUTLOOK 2017

 

So, yes, “the clean-energy revolution will be an economic boon.” If there is a net cost to climate action — and there clearly isn’t very much — it comes from the fact that we have ignored climate scientists urgent pleas for action for so long, we have to speed up the clean energy revolution while simultaneously making an orderly transition off of fossil fuels.

But that rapid transition is simply the price of not destroying a livable climate and not needlessly ruining the lives of billions of people, with catastrophic impacts that are irreversible for centuries.

Once you understand that the science makes clear aggressive action is needed to avoid catastrophe, as virtually every major political party in the world does — except one (the national GOP) — then the question is simply how to do it in as cost-effective a manner as possible. Thankfully, the clean energy revolution has provided the answer.

One could debunk all these Axios pieces line by line — they are filled with misleading statements, strawmen, and false choices — but the sad fact is that Axios isn’t alone in this both-sides nonsense. Lots of media outlets have chosen this lazy path, even the New York Times — supposedly the icon of the “liberal media” (a label which itself is a reflection of the “both sides” do it view that attempting to accurately tell the news is somehow liberal). As Stephen Colbert joked, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

Harder wrote a fourth piece in response to all the criticism. She notes, “After Trump’s comments about the Charlottesville tragedy, the term ‘both sides’ has become even more loaded.” Exactly. But then Harder goes on as if nothing has changed with her “thought bubble” (emphasis in original):

I anticipated criticism for using the term “both sides.” My verdict: It’s appropriate, because there are two sides to this debate, with the right refusing to acknowledge the scientific consensus and the left employing counterproductive tactics.”

Yes, one “side” refuses to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus accepted by 190+ nations and thus sees no need for action. And the other “side” proposes solution after solution that gets rejected by the GOP.

To be clear, these “counterproductive tactics” included Obama’s clean energy and climate bill. That bill was built around a “cap-and-trade” system that was originally devised by centrist economists and first embraced by both Ronald Reagan and later George W. Bush for reducing pollution in the most cost-effective and business-friendly way imaginable. Obama’s bill was comparable to the bill the Republican nominee for president in 2008, John McCain (R-AZ) campaigned on.

After that approach was rejected, it somehow became counterproductive to try to address the problem via the only remaining option for a President dealing with a rejectionist party — the existing legal authority under the Clean Air Act, which, in fact, was an approach that the Supreme Court had mandated. Also “counterproductive” apparently, is Obama’s efforts to work with China and 190 nations to come up with a global accord, which relied on a relatively weak U.S. pledge.

The “both sides” claim is bogus. More than that, it is bad journalism and a pernicious contributor to America’s fatally self-destructive inaction on climate.