May 1 2013

Kicking Carbon

The climate solution that dares not speak its name

Fossil Fuel Not Cool (cc photo: Darel Propst)

Carbolitionism: the understanding that fossil fuels need to be eliminated, not just decreased. (cc photo: Darel Propst)

Just as the mainstream media are evolving away from the era of false balance (Extra!, 11/04) to accept the reality of what scientists call “anthropogenic global warming,” a different type of denial has taken hold: a refusal to acknowledge the fact that the solution to the climate crisis requires humanity to stop depending on fossil fuels for energy.

Earth’s dire atmospheric situation was confirmed by November 2012 reports from such tree-hugging pinkos as the World Bank and PriceWaterhouse Coopers. PWC’s most recent edition of its annual Low Carbon Economy Index declares, “To give our-selves a more than 50 percent chance of avoiding a 2 degrees [Centigrade] rise in average global temperature will require a six-fold improvement in our rate of decarbonization.” (Two degrees is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has designated as the threshold of dangerous global warming.)

Last summer, environmental leader and author Bill McKibben wrote a 6,000-plus-word article in Rolling Stone magazine, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” (8/2/12), pointing out that if we are to prevent catastrophic rise of sea level, drought, deadly heat waves and more, we must rapidly wean off of fossil fuels as our major energy source.

Bill McKibben of laid out the math on why we must quit fossil fuels.

Bill McKibben of laid out the math on why we must quit fossil fuels.

“We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books [in proven reserves] as climate scientists think is safe to burn,” McKibben wrote. “We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate.” He labels the fossil-fuel industry “Public Enemy No. 1 to the survival of our planetary civilization,” and calls for “a real movement” in favor of “a transformative challenge to fossil fuel.”

Drawing a parallel to the abolitionist movement against slavery—which understood that slavery needed to be eliminated, not just decreased—one could call this new cause “carbolitionism.”

The need to kick carbon hasn’t exactly escaped notice in the “green” press or even the business press—Bloomberg BusinessWeek (11/1/12) spelled out some of the implications in an article headlined “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” followed by online magazine Grist’s “The 14 Fossil-Fuel Projects Poised to Fuck Up the Climate” (1/22/13). But those have self-selected audiences; more general-interest publications have mostly failed to engage this topic, much less give it regular and prominent placement alongside, say, the federal budget impasse.

The New York Times and Washington Post have reflexively covered the climate-and-energy nexus through the conventional frames of political wrangling, regulations and treaties—but they seldom provide room for debate on what the Earth needs now, save for the occasional op-ed or letter to the editor. These historic news leaders are no longer leading.

Extra! looked at the two papers’ climate change–related news, business, health/ science and editorial stories (based on headline terms) in the Nexis news media database from July 19, 2012, when McKibben’s article was published, through February 21, 2013, a week after the giant rally in Washington protesting the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. (Letters, op-eds, false positives and sections other than those noted above were excluded.)

Despite a series of high-profile events in which the need to stop burning carbon was explicitly or implicitly raised, the Times and Post—if they covered them at all—usually reflected the most powerful governments’ incremental approach to the climate crisis, in which fossil fuel dependence is still a given for the foreseeable future.

Extra! found no news stories or editorials in the Washington Post focused on the scientific “climate math” in McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, with the exception of a Juliet Eilperin piece (11/8/12) on Obama’s plans to curb greenhouse gasses that mentioned it in passing. (The paper did publish an op-ed—11/11/12—by McKibben himself regarding the president’s plans for the Keystone pipeline.)

The New York Times made no mention of it in news coverage, though it came up in two opinion pieces, including an op-ed column by food writer Mark Bittman (7/18/12):

The first page alone of the Rolling Stone article will scare the pants off you, but the chorus needs to grow bigger, louder and stronger…. A similar movement—one that, as McKibben told me, “identifies the fossil fuel industry as the real enemy in the climate fight, which is ultimately a moral battle’’—could possibly get things moving.

The next major event was the launch in November 2012 of environmental group’s Fossil Free campaign, now working on campuses to get schools, governments and other institutions to divest their portfolios of fossil fuels. Again, Extra! found nothing from the Post on the movement—except a scornful op-ed column from George F. Will (2/3/13). The Times (12/5/12) also had only one item, a fair-minded 1,350-word story on page one of the business section by then-environmental beat reporter Justin Gillis.

The COP-18 UN Climate Change Conference took place in Doha, Qatar—fossil fuel central—from November 26 to December 8, 2012, working toward a “universal climate-change agreement,” among other things.

Coverage during that timeframe—three news stories by the Times, two stories and an editorial by the Post—did rightly note with concern that, as the Post (12/4/12) put it, “The science…counsels both faster action and larger emissions reductions than countries have pledged.” But fossil fuels were usually referenced only in passing; there were no editorials hooked to that side of the story.

Senators Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders offered a plan to limit global warming.

Senators Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders offered a plan to limit global warming.

Speeches by President Obama at both his second inauguration (1/22/13) and State of the Union address (2/12/13) put unprecedented emphasis on fighting climate change. In the first, he famously pledged:

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations…. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.

Both the Times and the Post noted this, the Times with an almost 1,200-word page-one analysis (1/22/13), which traced the path of Obama’s pledges along with past and possible actions. The Post (1/23/13) had a page-8 piece about his “legacy” that gathered responses to the new climate emphasis. Obama didn’t specifically mention getting off fossil fuels, though, and neither did the papers.

As for the SOTU, the Post’s two lengthy articles on the speech mentioned fossil fuels only in passing, although an editorial around that time (2/15/13) cheered the development of shale gas as “a low-cost alternative to dirtier fossil fuels” with “decades of supply left.” The Times didn’t publish any news articles or editorials about climate or fossil fuels at this time.

Then, on February 14, Democratic senators Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer announced they would introduce a comprehensive climate bill (actually two measures—the Climate Protection Act and Sustainable Energy Act) close to commensurate with what science says is needed to limit catastrophic warming.

As written, these measures would, as the Nation (2/14/13) reported, “reduce green-house gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.” The bill “lays out an actual solution to the climate crisis” by, among other things, taxing carbon emissions at their source, “the largest fossil fuel polluters, which covers 85 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions”; removing fossil fuel subsidies; and (according to the Congressional Budget Office) raising $1.2 trillion in revenue to fund clean energy and energy efficiency.

Neither paper covered the proposal at all, even though the Post’s editorial board has repeatedly called for a carbon tax because it would “marshal the market’s power” (1/13/13) to cut carbon “without unduly burdening taxpayers, consumers and businesses” (12/16/12).

Finally, there was the February 17 rally in Washington against the Keystone XL pipeline, one of the largest environmental protests in history. One of the organizers’ main messages was, to quote a sign one marcher carried, “Read My Lips: No New Carbons.” (NASA climate scientist James Hansen, among others, has called the oil-sands pipeline the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet”—Inside Climate News, 8/29/11.)

The Times published one he said/she said story (2/18/13) mentioning the rally—in the business section—that worried more about the president than the planet (“Obama Faces Risks in Pipeline Decision”). The 1,500-word story gave 200 words to the rally and its carbolitionist goals. There was also a snarky column by Joe Nocera (2/19/13) whose headline said it all: “How Not to Fix Climate Change.” (See FAIR Blog, 2/20/13.)

The Post’s two articles included one pre-rally (2/14/13) that focused on a smaller February 13 demonstration at the White House, and a page A5 day-after report (2/18/13) that included a straightforward account of protesters’ demands (also pointing out that President Obama wasn’t there to hear them as he was “playing golf with Tiger Woods”). The paper’s editorial board has come out in favor of the pipeline—in, for example, “Keystone XL Is Coming Back” (1/24/13). As McKibben pointed out in a letter to the paper (1/28/13), that editorial didn’t even mention climate change.

Maybe the leading papers were addressing the threat of continued carbon-burning in stand-alone news articles or editorials, not pegged to major news events? We looked for such pieces, but didn’t find them.

FAIR identified 25 additional items (by climate-change terms in their headline) in the Times; 14 of these mentioned fossil fuels. Of the Post’s 25 additional hits, 19 mentioned fossil fuels.

But none of the articles in either paper addressed extant carbolitionist proposals or proactively explored the topic.

Instead, the Times’ pieces were mostly politics or economics pieces discussing or advocating the status quo of incrementalism—small, gradual emissions-cut goals in an “all of the above” energy economy, in which cleaner-burning natural gas developed via fracking would play an important role as a “bridge fuel.”

Several of the Post’s offerings in the timeframe did touch on the climate/fossil fuel connection (for example, “Power Industry Wants Role in Setting EPA Rules to Curb Greenhouse Gases,” 2/4/13). The paper also had urgent stories like “Warmer Still: Extreme Climate Predictions Appear Most Accurate, Report Says” (11/9/12)—albeit on page A5.

Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center/U.S. Dept. of Energy

Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center/U.S. Dept. of Energy

These findings are not really surprising, but reflect trends about climate-change reporting at the papers. When they discuss solutions, they overwhelmingly center on reducing or abating emissions rather than applying a remedy whose strength is proportionate to the scale of the problem.

Both papers did report on futuristic attempts at geoengineering the problem away. The Times had a page-one story (10/19/12) about a vigilante attempt to dump iron dust into the ocean; the Post offered an almost 1,500-word science-section piece (“Can We Engineer a Fix to Our Climate Problems?”, 11/6/12). But preventing the burning of fossil fuels in the first place was rarely mentioned.

Interestingly, during the period studied, the Times published some 113 blog posts about climate change-related news that mentioned fossil fuels at least in passing. (Washington Post blogs do not appear in the Nexis database.) These columns—mostly Dot Earth, the blog of former climate reporter Andrew Revkin, and Green, the blog of its science desk—mix original and repurposed reporting with opinion to engage more deeply with the topic. But why should discussing the major factor contributing to catastrophic climate change be relegated to a newspaper’s blogs?

Unfortunately, even that forum for fossil-fuel coverage is being downsized: On March 1, the Times killed its Green blog, perhaps the last vestige of the vaunted seven-person climate desk it assembled in late 2009 but dismantled in January 2013. (It still finds room and budget, however, for a variety of business and entertainment stories and blogs.)

Also in March, the Post moved Eilperin, its lead environmental reporter—who has done many enterprise stories on climate—onto the White House beat instead. She has said she will continue to write about climate from the White House, and is about to be replaced on the eco beat by former sports reporter Lenny Bernstein. But both papers’ moves send a troubling message about their seriousness.

These trends are symptomatic of a new era of shriveled budgets and staff reorganizations, in which environmental reportage in general has declined precipitously. The beat has, arguably, become low priority: As a lengthy Inside Climate News story (1/17/13) revealed, there are only “About a Dozen Environment Reporters Left at Top 5 U.S. Papers.”

A couple of weeks later, a January 2013 report by the nonprofit Project for Improved Environmental Coverage announced what this has wrought: “Environmental stories represent just 1 percent of news headlines in the U.S.,” dwarfed by entertainment and crime items.

But lack of dedicated staff is no excuse: If climate change and its solution matter, the erstwhile papers of record can license original, deeply reported articles on the subjects from dedicated independent, nonpartisan media outlets such as Inside Climate News, Climate Central and the Daily Climate* for a fraction of a reporter’s compensation package, much as it might from the wire services.

Why is this happening? It’s clear that newspapers want to avoid alienating important sources (and advertorial-buyers) such as the American Petroleum Institute (Extra!, 2/13). Kevin Anderson, former director of Britain’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and Alice Bows of the Sustainable Consumption Institute argued in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change (9/12) that “climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth,” often the stated rationale for maintaining a fossil-fuel economy.

Wen Stephenson, a former editor of the Boston Globe who recently quit his job at NPR to become a climate activist, offers another compelling explanation in the (recently kaput) Boston Phoenix (11/5/12). He writes about trying to get colleagues to take the climate crisis more seriously, and concludes that they have not yet had what he called a “‘holy shit!’ moment.”

Or, as he reiterated in the February 2013 webinar “The Crisis in Climate Change Reporting,” journalists need to lose their fear of being seen as advocates and adopt “a new mindset” he frankly calls “radical.”

“We’re not going to solve the coverage crisis with small incremental shifts in journalism, any more than we’ll solve the climate crisis [that way],” Stephenson said, adding that the press has “a higher responsibility than the simple-minded pretext of objectivity.”

Miranda C. Spencer is a long-time Extra! contributor who often writes about environmental issues. She blogs about oil and gas fracking at

*I am a part-time employee of Environmental Health Sciences, the parent company of the Daily Climate, although currently on hiatus.