How the status quo media failed on climate change

The Washington Post has one of the best, short analyses of the climate bill’s death that I’ve seen in the status quo media. In the print edition, it’s titled “How Washington failed on climate change.”

The author, Stephen Stromberg, gets two thirds of the main blame about right. First, he notes, “With few exceptions, Republicans have behaved shamefully on climate issues in this Congress, opposing policies that their party embraced in the 1990s (think cap-and-trade). Yet none of them will pay a price in November, and many GOP challengers will benefit.” Second, he makes a good case that “The president had the political capital and the numbers in Congress to pass something big. He chose health care” over climate.

The irony is that Stomborg is “Deputy opinions editor of,” and he is strangely silent on the role of the media, which I think deserves much more blame than Obama (but less than the GOP). The dreadful media coverage simply creates little space for rational public discourse. The media has for a long time downplayed the importance of the issue, miscovered key aspects of the debate, given equal time to pro-pollution disinformers, and generally failed to inform the public. And the Washington Post itself is worse than most, which is why it won the 2009 “Citizen Kane” award for non-excellence in climate journalism.

Even Eric Pooley, author of the must-read political history of how we got into this mess, The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, leaves out the media in his listing of Murderer’s Row for the climate bill’s homicide at Yale e360:

  1. The Professional Deniers
  2. Senate Republicans
  3. Senate Democrats
  4. The Green Group
  5. The Power Barons: When the eleventh-hour search for a compromise began, the utilities got too greedy
  6. The President: Barack Obama chose not to lead on this issue. His decision to address health care reform before energy and climate change doomed the latter.

What’s strange about this omission is that Pooley’s book certainly takes the press to task, and in fact, Pooley wrote the must-read (again) Harvard study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics “” “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.” He analyzed the 2008 media coverage of the Senate debate over the bipartisan Warner-Lieberman climate bill and concluded:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Sound familiar?

During a crucial time period for the debate, valuable print real estate and TV time was devoted to grossly imbalanced and inaccurate coverage of the stolen e-mails and the like, rather than simply explaining the science:

We have seen again and again the media skew the debate and misrepresent our increasing understanding of how dire the climate situation according to the latest science:

Often, it simply fails to inform the public at all about the likely connection between human-caused global warming and serious impacts we are seeing now:

And since this piece started with an op-ed from a deputy opinions editor at, let’s remember that the WashPost is basically the paper of record for inside the Beltway conventional wisdom. On the climate issue, the Washington Post editors shamefully abandoned journalism in 2009:

The media coverage is so bad it is an open question as to whether even a great speechmaker like president Obama could have broken through with a strong, repeated public message on the urgent need for passing a climate bill. The media would have felt a need to balance that message with bad economics and scientific disinformation from the Republicans and pro-pollution disinformers. And they would quickly have tired of presenting the message, just as they I’m tired of reporting on the basics of climate science and the countless studies that have come out in recent years that make clear urgent action is both necessary and affordable. Unfortunately, we’ll never know because Obama wimped out.


But there is no question that most of the traditional, status quo media simply doesn’t get the dire nature of the climate situation that our latest understanding of science makes clear. And that media reaches vastly more people than President Obama. If the media won’t stand up to the well-funded, poll-tested disinformation campaign, then the public’s view of climate his unlikely to change dramatically until we have a series of unambiguous signals aka mini-catastrophes aka climate Pearl Harbors?

Of course, that would still require the media to explain them to the public, or even make any connection between them and global warming whatsoever, so perhaps these are going to have to be medium-sized catastrophes. More on that shortly.

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