May 29, 2019

Time to Wake Up: Bad Media (for) Climate

As-prepared for delivery

Mr./Madame President, I rise today for the 243rd time to call on this chamber to wake up to the reality of climate change.  I thank Senator Cornyn for acknowledging that the days of ignoring this are over.  Now it’s time to do something, with keeping global warming below the 1.5 or 2 degrees Centigrade target. 

I speak regularly about the fossil fuel industry’s relentless grip on Congress, and how that grip prevents action on climate.  They are still at it.

But that is not the only thing slowing progress.  Another impediment is the wide swathes of our news media that cover the issue torpidly, or not at all, or as propagators of falsehood.  

Look at the big climate stories the media ought to be covering, just from 2018.

2018 brought us two landmark climate science reports.  One was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on what warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will do; the other was the Trump administration’s own National Climate Assessment.  These two studies delivered the starkest warnings on climate change ever:  that the damage from climate change is already occurring, that world economies are now at risk, and that we are almost out of time to prevent the worst consequences.

Even the fossil-fuel industry and its stooges in the Trump administration didn’t contest the science behind these reports.  They know their science denial campaign is phony; they know the real science is irrefutable; so, better to hide from it.

2018 also brought devastating natural disasters linked to climate change.  Out west, wildfires in California broke records.   Hurricanes supercharged by warming oceans slammed the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and Caribbean.  Floods, droughts, and rising seas were reported across the United States and around the globe. 

2018 also brought dire warnings of economic dangers from climate change.  At the UN climate summit in December, a group of 415 global investors, managing $32 trillion of investments, warned that unless carbon emissions are urgently cut the world faces a financial crash worse than the 2008 economic crash.  The group called for the end of fossil fuel subsidies and the introduction of substantial prices on carbon. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists found that over 300,000 coastal homes, with a collective market value over $130 billion, are at risk of chronic flooding by 2045.  UCS showed that by the end of the century, 2.4 million homes, worth more than $1 trillion, could be at risk.  Decisions we make now will determine whether those risks come to pass.  First Street Foundation found coastal property values already beginning to slide.

Unprecedented catastrophes; forceful warnings from scientists and financial experts — surely, the viewers of America’s top television networks should be aware of these things.

Or not.  According to the media watchdog Media Matters, our major television networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox – aired 45 percent less climate change coverage on their marquee news programs in 2018 than 2017.  Climate coverage on network nightly news and Sunday morning political shows fell to just 142 minutes in all of 2018, down from an already lame 260 minutes in 2017.  That’s less than one minute a day of coverage from all four major networks, combined.

Kudos to NBC, which actually upped its coverage by about a quarter from the year before.  Without NBC, the numbers look even worse.  Media Matters found CBS’s climate coverage down 56 percent from 2017 to 2018, Fox News Sunday’s down 75 percent, and ABC’s down 81 percent.

I noticed this trend, so I’ve been keeping an eye on the Sunday shows’ coverage this year.  Each month I look at how many substantive segments on climate change each show runs.  It’s not good.  In April, for instance, there were only two substantive segments on climate change across all five shows.  They’ve basically become Sunday morning political gossip columns.

Let’s move from quantity to quality.  With TV still the top way Americans get their news, the quality of TV coverage really  matters.  How are television news shows doing in that department?   Too often, also badly.

Many of these shows still give airtime to clownish climate deniers, just to create a pro and con.  The Weather Channel tracked reaction on television news to the National Climate Assessment this past fall, and found airtime still given to debunked climate nonsense:

  • The American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka’s ridiculous falsehoods about recent cold weather;
  • Conservative political commentators Rick Santorum and Stephen Moore’s argument that climate scientists cooked up the Assessment to enrich themselves; and
  • A member of Congress’s argument that “Our climate always changes and we see those ebb and flows through time.”

Allowing this falsehood on the air tilts Americans’ perception of climate change.  “Placing a climate contrarian beside a scientist is effectively shrinking the 97 percent consensus on the issue to 50 percent — two people arguing opposing sides,” the Weather Channel pointed out. 

In the Columbia Journalism Review  published last month, author and journalist Mark Hertsgaard and editor and publisher Kyle Pope describe this troubling trend:

“Climate deniers are still given respectful treatment by US news outlets across the ideological spectrum. [They] in fact deserve to have their social licenses revoked, just as tobacco companies did. More than anyone else, it is climate deniers who got us into this mess; they don’t get to decide what we do about it now.”

Again, NBC has been the best.  In December, NBC’s Meet the Press  devoted an entire show to climate coverage, delving into the science and discussing climate solutions in detail.  It began with a clear message from host Chuck Todd:

We’re not going to debate climate change, the existence of it.  The Earth is getting hotter. And human activity is a major cause, period.  We’re not going to give time to climate deniers.  The science is settled, even if political opinion is not.

That is the right place to start the discussion on climate change.   Facts are facts.  Falsehood is falsehood and does not deserve equal time.  I hope other networks take note.

If you want to cover climate denial, cover it the way it should be covered:  investigatively, as a fraudulent enterprise with big secret money behind it.  Don’t legitimize lies. 

Newspapers and online news are a mixed bag. 

As a group, our top national papers are improving their coverage of climate change.  According to the University of Colorado Boulder’s International Collective on Environment, Culture, and Politics, the five major national newspapers – the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times – published 282 articles about climate change in January 2009; a decade later, in January of this year, those papers published 469.  That is a good sign.

So too is the quality of coverage.  Big publications like the New York Times and Washington Post, and smaller, independent, and web-based publications like Inside Climate News, Years of Living Dangerously, and Grist have brought us into the midst of the climate crisis with brilliant reporting and storytelling.  The Guardian,  from overseas, may be the best of all.  The Guardian  just decided as editorial policy to use “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” instead of “climate change”; “global heating” instead of “global warming”; and “climate science denier” instead of “climate skeptic.”  These outlets all offer readers captivating photos, videos, and graphics that illustrate exactly how the climate is changing and what that will mean.

In Rhode Island, our Providence Journal  has done exceptional reporting on carbon pollution’s effects on our climate and oceans.  This year alone, the Journal has published in-depth, front-page articles on how Rhode Island’s real estate market is already experiencing the effects of climate change; on scientists’ warnings of massive flooding risk to coastal towns; and into the risks facing Providence’s hurricane barrier as sea level rise and storm surge loom in the decades to come.  That reporting included rich graphics and the voices of the state’s top experts. 

Other Rhode Island papers like the Newport Daily News, Westerly Sun, and ecoRI  cover climate change in their communities with vigor and skill.  They supply the news Rhode Islanders need to understand and prepare for the effects of climate change.

Elsewhere, the record is not so good.  Take USA Today,  a paper with a circulation of 1.8 million Americans and a broad online readership.  According to the University of Colorado, the paper ran 25 articles on climate change in January 2009; it ran only 14 this January. 

USA Today’s editorial board wrote one of the strongest climate editorials so far this year, making the case for meaningful action on climate change.  They cited real science, and dismissed Republican leaders’ cynical campaign against the Green New Deal.  “The critics owe this and future generations more than scorn; they have an obligation to put better ideas and solutions on the table,” the editorial concluded.  Bravo and well said.

The reverse is the Wall Street Journal:  pretty good news coverage, and an opinion page that emits toxic climate waste.  For decades, the Journal’s editorial page has been a haven for science denial, but they truly outdo themselves when it comes to climate.  Take a piece the Journal published just last year titled, “The Sea is Rising, but Not Because of Climate Change.”  Riddled with scientific errors, it ignores all the legitimate science on climate change.  The author, a notorious climate denier, has for years been affiliated with or funded by the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute — the rogues’ gallery of industry-funded climate denial front groups.

The sum of this is an American media too often asleep at the switch.  Washington Post  media columnist, and former public editor of the New York Times,  Margaret Sullivan, wrote this past fall:

“Just as the world, especially the United States, needs radical change to mitigate the coming crisis, so too for the news media . . . .  This subject must be kept front and center, with the pressure on and the stakes made abundantly clear at every turn . . . . Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will create change.”

There is some exceptional climate change coverage reaching readers today.  Indeed, American voters increasingly name climate change a big priority for them at the ballot box.  But climate change demands urgency.  CJR’s Hertsgaard and Pope write, “If American journalism doesn’t get the climate story right—and soon—no other story will matter.” 

I yield the floor.