Nov 1 2012

Global Disaster? Not on the Agenda

Media incurious about candidates and climate change

climate-changeJuly 2011 to June 2012 was the hottest 12-month period ever recorded for the mainland United States, the National Climatic Data Center announced in July (CNN7/9/12)―which itself turned out to be the hottest month ever in the lower 48 (CNN8/10/12). Drought produced the largest agricultural disaster area in U.S. history (Atlantic Wire7/12/12), and the accompanying wildfires burned unprecedented acreage―nearly 7 million (Mother Jones8/21/12)―while the Arctic icecap shrank to its smallest historical coverage (BBC9/19/12).But even as the devastation resulting from humanity’s ongoing alteration of the Earth’s atmosphere became more and more obvious, coverage of the 2012 presidential election campaign seemed completely impervious to the effects of climate change.

USA Today has a feature called “Etc.” that reprints quotes from other publications. On July 9, it featured an eloquent plea from Time’s Dominique Browning:

What kind of record-smashing will it take for people to understand that we have entered a period of accelerated global warming? We are well into the presidential campaign season, and neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama has seriously addressed this urgent issue. In fact, Romney has been downright cynical, and Obama has been negligent. We, the people, are letting them off the hook. It is time for voters to demand a plan of action. What we are seeing is only the beginning of climate chaos to come.

Later that record-breaking month (7/17/12), “Etc.” followed up with a statement from Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker:

Along with the heat and the drought and the super derecho, the country this summer is also enduring a presidential campaign. So far, the words “climate change” have barely been uttered. This is not an oversight. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have chosen to remain silent on the issue. There’s no discussion of what could be done to avert the worst effects of climate change, even as the insanity of doing nothing becomes increasingly obvious.

Amazingly, though, USA Today had almost nothing else to say about climate change and the election during all of 2012. There were a few references to the subject coming up in a negative way during the Republican primaries: In Romney’s commercials, the paper wrote (1/19/12), “Newt Gingrich is savaged as an ethically challenged politician who teamed up with Democrat Nancy Pelosi on global warming.” Other than that, it mainly appeared in laundry lists of issues, as when Obama’s 2008 vow to “arrest climate change” was cited as an example of the “grandiosity of the goals” of his administration (6/26/12).

And USA Today was the norm among both TV and newspaper coverage of election ’12. With corporate media adhering to the dubious convention that allows the major party nominees to determine what will and won’t be on the electoral agenda, it was difficult to find any stories at all about the ongoing global disaster and what, if any-thing, the leading presidential candidates proposed to do about it.

There were sometimes passing mentions of climate change in election stories; these could do more to misinform voters than to inform them, particularly during the Republican primaries, when candidates competed over who believed in the flattest Earth. No one provided an antidote to viewers when Rick Santorum told ABC’s This Week (1/22/12): “Look, sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi is not a particularly solid conservative thing when you’re out there, as I was, fighting this junk science of manmade global warming and cap-and-trade, and Newt was on the other side.”

In one of the very few stories to actually focus on what climate change means for (congressional) elections, the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin (7/24/12) did refer to “the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and other sources are transforming the Earth’s climate.” But most of the argumentation in the piece was unrebutted climate change denial, as when Rep. Dan Benishek (R.-Mich.) asserts without challenge: “It’s all baloney. I think it’s just some scheme…. I just don’t believe it. You know, I’m a scientist, I’m a surgeon, I’ve done scientific research papers, there’s a lot of skepticism.”

Likewise, when the views of the presidential candidates came up in a NewsHour segment (5/2/12) on climate change in education, correspondent Hari Sreenivasan did little to distinguish between science-based positions and wishful thinking:

SREENIVASAN: Mitt Romney echoed views held by many in the Republican Party.ROMNEY: My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.

SREENIVASAN: President Obama said the climate change issue will be part of his 2012 campaign in this month’s Rolling Stone magazine―quote―“I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way.”

Do we, in fact, know what’s causing global warming? Later in the piece, Sreenivasan cites the National Academy of Sciences: “The Academy says 97 percent to 98 percent of the most published climate researchers say humans are causing global warming.” He follows this immediately with a rebuttal: “Still, persistent skeptics remain unconvinced…. A well-known conservative think tank, the Heartland Institute, doesn’t trust the science behind the upcoming standards.”

A senior fellow from the industry-funded Institute then gets six sentences to make his argument that “across the board, we have seen that warmer climate, warmer temperatures have always benefited humans, and continue to do so.” To which Sreenivasan appends: “These are views challenged by scientific evidence”―though no scientific evidence was then forthcoming.

It’s hard to see who is supposed to benefit from coverage like this. Those who subscribe to Heartland’s views are unlikely to applaud NewsHour’s sense of “balance” in including them while labeling them unscientific. For people who are actually interested in what science has to say about the consequences of climate change, presumably the majority of the audience, listening to Heartland’s unrebutted propaganda won’t help them at all―as the NewsHour more or less acknowledged.

ABC’s This Week (7/8/12) had a brief discussion of why climate change wasn’t part of the political discussion―immediately following George Will’s infamous pronouncement that “summer” was the explanation for 2012’s unprecedented heat wave (Extra!9/12).

Anchor Terry Moran asked: “Is it an issue for voters? Is this salient? Is this even on the radar screen?” To which Gwen Ifill, of PBS’s Washington Week, replied:

I come back to my argument in favor of vacations. I believe this is what most voters are thinking about now. I don’t think they’re getting drawn into scientific or political discussions about climate change. They just want it to stop, and they want their power to stay on. Now, of course there are ramifications for this. And none of this comes for free. I don’t think that this election is going to be decided on it.

And Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, summed up: “If we had a heat wave in November of this kind, it’ll be part of the election…. I doubt if that’s going to be the case.”

Of course, media elites like Moran, Ifill and Zuckerman largely are the “radar screen”; they have a great deal of influence over what is considered “salient” or not. Their conclusion that they will finally include climate change in the political conversation when it’s 100 degrees in November is bad news for the inhabitants of planet Earth.

Extra! November 2012