This article is from “The Climate Beat”, the weekly newsletter of Now cover the climate, a global journalistic initiative that strengthens reporting on climate history.
L.Last week, viewers followed the largest conversation on climate change ever shown in a US presidential debate. NBC News host Kristen Welker first asked candidates what they would each do to fight climate change while supporting job growth – a welcome improvement on the questions in the first presidential and vice-presidential debate that absurdly framed climate change opinion. Welker then raised a sharp question about the disproportionate level of pollution of paint communities, the first environmental justice question to ever surface in a general election debate.
In response, Trump repeated falsehoods he had used in the past. For example, he claimed that wind power was “extremely expensive” and increased the cost of Biden’s $ 2 trillion climate plan by a factor of 50, while Biden described climate change as an “existential threat” to humanity “and how he is investing public money to build a clean energy economy and create jobs. Regarding Welker’s pollution issue, Trump rejected the premise, falsely saying that the communities she mentioned were being paid for their problems. Meanwhile, Biden gave an in-depth description of the negative health outcomes “Fenceline” communities routinely face. Despite the uneven back-and-forth, it was a refreshing, all-too-rare moment in U.S. media coverage of climate history: almost 12 minutes of prime time journalism treating climate change as a serious, multidimensional topic worthwhile public discourse.
And what did the political press do with this material in its post-reporting? Mostly fumbled.
Across all media, journalists resorted to horse races that ignored science and made false assumptions, particularly focusing on Biden’s promise to move from the oil industry to renewable energy. Following Trump’s leadership on the stage, post-debate coverage showed Biden’s position as economically risky and a political obligation. Welker’s own NBC news suggested that Biden’s comments “could be costly in battlefield states.” The Washington Post wondered “How politically harmful” Biden’s comments were; she called a second story “a stumbling block on the night of debate. “Even E&E News, a point of sale that focuses exclusively on energy and the environment, asked“Will Biden’s end oil promise conjure up Trump?”
Let’s get one thing straight: if humanity is to have the chance to avoid the worst of climate change, America, like the rest of the world, has Got to Moving away from fossil fuels. It’s not politics – it’s science. The United Nations’ climate science panel says humankind must do this cut emissions in half by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate protection. Accordingly, a swift transition from fossil fuels has been central to any serious proponent of the climate for years. Such a transition through large investments in clean energy is central to the Biden climate plan proposed in July.
And yet – goddamn science – most of the news outlets focused on Republican hay tried to turn the ex-vice president’s remarks. Journalists generously quoted from dubious sources and repeated Trump’s claim that Biden’s plan would fuel the economy if the plan actually promised to create millions of jobs. At times the outlets added credibility to the attacks by dressing them in their own strong language. (Conservative, Politico wrote, accused the Democratic candidate of being calloused with the economy in its proposals to combat climate change ” [emphasis added].) In the meantime, as the climate journalist Emily Atkin stated in her newsletter Heated, the vast majority of reporting “[ignored] the fact that Trump has no climate plan at all. “Of 30 stories Atkin analyzed from the mainstream stores, all mentioned the possible consequences of tough climate action, but” only five discussed the cost of doing nothing. ”
The negative frame of coverage was also remarkably ill-informed about public opinion. Almost 80 percent of Americans prefer investments in alternative energy over fossil fuels a poll for 2020 by Pew Research, with two-thirds saying the government should do more to fight climate change. In Pennsylvania in particular, where experts have focused on the narrative “Post-Debate Political Fallout”, perspectives on fossil fuels have shifted. Recent polls show residents overwhelming favor strong climate protection measures; In addition, a slight majority is against fracking, which Trump and much of the media have identified as a wedge problem in this election, although Biden repeatedly insists that he does not intend to end the practice.
Significantly, it was climate reporters who cut through the political noise and came to terms with their audience on these issues. Bill Weir, CNN’s lead climate correspondent, referred to this year’s cascade of extreme weather events. called out Trump’s “insistence that the US continues to rely on fossil fuels despite overwhelming evidence that Hell and the 2020 floods are just the beginning.” Alex Kaufman, at HuffPost, watched “Trump’s ongoing drive to liberalize the oil and gas industry has actually cost jobs in regions hit hard by the sudden plunge in oil prices at the start of the pandemic.” By overlooking such facts, the political press gave the climate debate almost exclusively right-wing issues.
The biggest failure of the press on climate change for decades – beyond climate change unsustainable silence– the story was primarily as a question of partisan politics, although climate change is real a history of science with political implications. It is clear that many journalists have not yet given up the bad habit.
This is a shame because, by and large, general reporting on climate history has improved Jumps and leaps in the past few years. Major outlets including The Washington Post, CNN, and time have really published groundbreaking parts of climate reporting; The New York Times, Bloombergand from this month The Atlantic, The mirror, and El País have launched impressive new brands and climate areas; and we at Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration led by The guard, The nation, and Columbia Journalism Reviewhave worked with hundreds of news organizations at every level in the industry to improve their coverage.
However, the time is short. This election, regardless of who wins, gives news outlets a chance to re-engage in climate history, which will only become more important and comprehensive in the years to come. To get the story right, those in charge of the newsroom need to encourage their journalists – not just climate reporters, but reporters on every hit as well as editors, headline writers, copywriters and social media teams – to deepen their understanding of the climate crisis and its solutions and integrate this knowledge into every facet of their work.
In the few days before the elections and in the months that follow, journalists must ask themselves whether they are really conveying to their audiences the severity of the climate crisis and all the challenges and opportunities it brings. To do this means to give up the obsession with horse racing and catch up with the facts. It also means defying partisan narratives and assumptions and insisting on climate history as a matter of life and death. It is becoming increasingly clear what constitutes good climate cover. The question, as always, is whether journalists will deliver them.