New York Times and Washington Post confuse public with coverage of EPA endangerment finding

Two of the top climate reporters in the country, the Post’s Juliet Eilperin and the NYT’s Andy Revkin, have written articles on EPA’s endangerment finding that I think are quite confusing and misleading.

Eilperin’s piece, the front page story in today’s Post, is “EPA Says Emissions Are Threat To Public: Finding Could Lead to Greenhouse Gas Limits.” An otherwise pretty solid article contains this inaccurate and highly misleading third paragraph:

What happens next is unclear. The agency’s proposed finding is likely to intensify pressure on Congress to pass legislation that would limit greenhouse gases, as President Obama, many lawmakers and some industry leaders prefer. But cap-and-trade legislation, which would limit emissions and allow emitters to trade pollution allowances, is fiercely opposed by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats from fossil-fuel-dependent Midwestern states who fear that such a system would raise energy prices and hurt the nation’s economy.

Huh? First off, cap-and-trade is fiercely opposed by virtually all Congressional Republicans from everywhere in the country (with the possible exception of Maine) — see “House GOP pledge to fight all action on climate” and “”Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies and embrace Rush Limbaugh.”


And while many GOPers do repeat dubious talking points about the economic impact(see “MIT Professor tells GOP to stop ‘misrepresenting’ his work and inflating the cost to families of cap-and-trade by a factor of 10”), a large fraction simply deny the overwhelming science that makes clear global warming is a grave but preventable threat to the health and welfare of Americans.

So the GOP half of Eilperin’s final sentence above is just misleading.

Second, I just don’t think it is accurate to say “cap-and-trade legislation … is fiercely opposed by … Democrats from fossil-fuel-dependent Midwestern states.” There’s no question that many Midwestern Democrats have concerns about cap-and-trade (see “Moderate Senate Dems build ‘Gang of 16”² to influence cap-and-trade bill”). And those concerns may well translate into provisions that water down the final bill. But to create the impression that a significant number of Midwestern Democrats fiercely oppose cap-and-trade outright is misleading. I expect a cap-and trade bill will pass Congress in the next 12 to 15 months — with the support of most midwestern Dems.

Small note to Eilperin re phrase “fossil-fuel-dependent Midwestern states”: All states are currently fossil fuel dependent. All states are addicted to oil and other fossil fuels, which, as EPA found, threatens our health and well-being.Revkin’s blog post on the finding is even more confusing to the public, starting with the headline and opening lines:

CO2 = Pollution. Now What?

It’s nearly official. Carbon dioxide, the bubbles in beer, is a pollutant in the context of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed on Friday.

Uhh, no. The Supreme Court made it official that carbon dioxide was a pollutant two years ago in the landmark April 2007 Massachusetts versus EPA ruling. The majority report found that “greenhouse gases fit well within the Clean Air Act’s capacious definition of air pollutant.”

So CO2 = Pollution is old news and fully official.

Others at the NYT may be confused about this, as Revkin writes:

As John Broder wrote recently in The Times, it’s likely that the move to apply the “pollutant” label to these gases is aimed at adding pressure to congressional efforts to write new gas-limiting legislation.

And this confusion has spread — try googling “EPA says carbon dioxide a pollutant” [in quotation marks], which is the misleading headline for Broder’s piece today on the finding that is widely used (thought not by the NYT itself).


For the record, what is “nearly official” is the EPA finding that greenhouse gases pose a threat to public health and welfare. Friday’s big news was, after all, just a “proposed finding,” as EPA explains:

The proposed endangerment finding now enters the public comment period, which is the next step in the deliberative process EPA must undertake before issuing final findings.

Finally, Revkin piece ends with this incomplete anecdote:

Over all, carbon dioxide and climate remain a very tough fit for the legislative and legal arenas. This reality was on display during Supreme Court arguments in November 2006 that laid the legal foundation for today’s announcement. Confusion arose over which layer of the atmosphere was the repository for smokestack and tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide. James Milkey, assistant attorney general of Massachusetts, corrected Justice Antonin Scalia, saying: “Respectfully, Your Honor, it is not the stratosphere. It’s the troposphere.”

“Troposphere, whatever,” Justice Scalia replied. “I told you before I’m not a scientist.” Over a brief flutter of laughter from observers, he added, “That’s why I don’t want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth.”

Well, carbon dioxide and climate remain a tough fit for uber-conservative lawmakers and judges who have either ignored the issue or been infused with misinformation by the conservative-led disinformation campaign.


I discussed how ignorant Scalia and his fellow conservative justices are in a 2008 Salon piece, “No climate for old men”:

Last year, the conservative justices almost thwarted the majority in the landmark Massachusetts v. EPA case, in which the court decided 5–4 that the EPA has the authority and responsibility to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Justice Scalia, in his dissent (joined by Roberts, Thomas and Alito), argues that “carbon dioxide [and other greenhouse gases in the upper reaches of the atmosphere], which is alleged to be causing global climate change,” is in fact not an air pollutant. All four conservative justices accept and repeat almost all of the EPA’s laughable arguments. In one example, the conservative justices point out that the majority offers this requirement:

“If,” the court says, “the scientific uncertainty is so profound that it precludes EPA from making a reasoned judgment as to whether greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, EPA must say so.” Scalia and company continue that the “EPA has said precisely that — and at great length, based on information contained in a 2001 report by the National Research Council (NRC).”

Although the NRC report — which is over 6 years old now — does talk about uncertainties, it opens by saying bluntly:

“Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities… “The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.

No rational person could possibly cite the NRC report as evidence that “the scientific uncertainty is so profound” that the EPA can’t make a “reasoned judgment as to whether greenhouse gases contribute to global warming.” The fact that Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Alito swallow all of the Bush EPA’s absurd arguments without question is clear evidence that, like many conservatives, they are not open to rational argument or scientific evidence on matters related to climate change.

While climate is a complicated subject and even the most informed people sometimes make uninformed or confusing statements — including top climate journalists (!) — it is mostly conservative justices and conservative politicians who make the outrageous statements that are instantly mockable [see, for instance, Rep. Shimkus: Cutting CO2 emissions is “Taking away plant food from the atmosphere” and Rep. Barton: Climate change is ‘natural,’ humans should just ‘get shade’ “” invites ‘expert’ TVMOB (!) to testify.]

The willful ignorance of the conservatives does not, however, mean we should just throw up our hands and say:

Over all, carbon dioxide and climate remain a very tough fit for the legislative and legal arenas.

I confess I don’t understand Revkin’s point in writing that. How else could we possibly address carbon dioxide and climate if not in the “legislative and legal arenas”? Where else does it “fit”? He certainly can’t be suggesting we ignore it.

Rather than criticizing others for their lack of understanding, I think our top climate journalists should devote more effort into explaining things … accurately.