Sep 1 2009

The Polluted Cap-and-Trade Debate

Media amplify climate change skeptics

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/So Xtina

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/So Xtina

On Earth Day, President Barack Obama gave a speech from Newton, Iowa, a town CNN’s report (4/22/09) placed on “the front lines of a wind-power revolution.” During his speech, which focused on energy, he outlined his proposed cap-and-trade program: “Carbon dioxide and other tailpipe emissions are harmful to the health and well-being of our people. So there’s no question that we have to regulate carbon pollution in some way…. I believe the best way to do it is through legislation that places a market-based cap on these kinds of emissions.”

While Obama drew a clear connection between pollution-reducing legislation and minimizing the environmental effects of climate change, CNN’s ensuing discussion failed to mention this link, focusing almost exclusively on the question of cost.

When CNN raised the issue on the Situation Room two days later (4/24/09), it was because climate change champion Al Gore appeared in Congress to “bolster Democratic plans to cut carbon emissions by setting up a complex system where industries would buy and sell pollution credits.” Gore met with strong resistance from Republicans, and rising planetary temperatures became a footnote to political sparring.

MSNBC covered cap and trade that same day, when Ed Schultz (4/24/09) used outrageous claims made by a Republican congressman about the bill to lead his “Psycho Talk” segment. But to emphasize his point, Schultz specifically argued that “it doesn’t matter what party you support or whether you believe or not in climate change…this week the congressman really spewed some of the most offensive comments we’ve had to date, saying that capping CO2 is a greater assault on democracy than 9/11.” It seemed as though rejecting crass comparisons to national tragedies were more important than whether humans are roasting the planet.

Fox News explored numerous cap-and-trade narratives that week—former Bill Clinton adviser Dick Morris claimed “it’s going to increase your utility bills by about 50 percent” (Your World, 4/24/09), while Bill O’Reilly (4/23/09) found a way to tie it into his continuing vendetta against GE—but the urgency of action for planetary health was not among them. In fact, climate change skepticism gets a regular platform on Fox (see sidebar below), where host Glenn Beck has called global warming a “scam” (e.g., 4/23/09) and Bret Baier, anchor of Fox’s flagship news program, refers matter-of-factly to those who acknowledge climate change as “global warming alarmists” (Special Report, 4/29/09).

Omitting global warming from the cap-and-trade debate might have been understandable if climate change were so well understood and accepted by the public that there was no need to discuss the details. Maybe you don’t need to explain that smoking is bad for your health in every story about tobacco. But this is certainly not the case for climate change.

According to Pew Research Center (5/8/08), 47 percent of Americans believe that global warming is caused by human activity, while a full 21 percent “say that no solid evidence of warming exists.” In stark contrast, another Pew poll (7/9/09) found “near consensus among scientists about global warming,” with 84 percent attributing those rising global temperatures to humans. Moreover, since the American Association of Petroleum Scientists revised its climate change statement two years ago, no scientific body has officially opposed the authoritative position of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2001):

An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system…. There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.

This dissonance between what science says and what people think science says indicates a major failure on the part of the press, one that is particularly acute during the cap-and-trade debate considering what is at stake: how the most influential country on earth plans to address the most pressing environmental crisis on earth.

One explanation for the corporate media’s poor performance is their continued loyalty to the concept of “objectivity,” often resulting in a kind of false balance (Extra!, 11-12/04). For cap and trade, this meant granting airtime and ink to an opinion that is unsupported by the weight of scientific literature—without cluing readers in about its lack of expert support.

For example, USA Today (7/9/09) introduced a debate between conservative columnist Cal Thomas and liberal strategist Bob Beckel with the teaser “Can Congress find an effective—and efficient—way to reduce greenhouse gases? Where Bob sees a world-saver, Cal sees a jobs-killer.” At one point Thomas quipped: “Are you done? I can trot out my own scientists to shout down the global warming alarmists, but lest this piece become hand-to-hand combat on climate change, let’s stick to the energy issue.”

So while global warming is again pushed to the margins of “the energy issue,” Thomas’ marginal “science” is given equal prominence to that of the “global warming alarmists”—which would include the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union and the many other organizations that have explicitly endorsed the scientific consensus on climate change (Science, 12/3/04). Beckel had specifically cited the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which combines the research of 13 federal departments and agencies to back up its finding that human activity is warming the planet. While allowing Thomas to dismiss this overwhelming consensus by waving at his “own scientists” may seem superficially balanced, blind evenhandedness can obscure truth as much as blind partisanship.

Similarly, when CNN (Situation Room, 4/24/09) reported on Gore’s trip to Congress in support of cap and trade, it presented the debate over the existence of global warming as unresolved: CNN correspondent Brianna Keilar countered Gore’s statement that “there is a consensus on the science” with Rep. Steve Scalise’s retort, “You must have been listening to our testimony that we have had for the last few days with dozens of experts that have come in who have given completely different views.”

While discussing widespread public support for laws restricting CO2 emissions, a front-section Washington Post article (6/25/09) also noted a dissenter who “does not think greenhouse gases are causing climate change. She said she read a report on the Internet saying climate change was linked to changes in the sun’s activity.” An article published in the Chicago Tribune (7/5/09) after the cap-and-trade bill was passed by Congress included this opposing view: “‘Public skepticism is growing about the man-made climate fears,’ said Marc Morano, a former Republican on the Senate environment committee who edits the global-warming-skeptic website”

Both of these reports presented climate-change skepticism as a valid point of view without noting that scientists overwhelmingly reject that position. Likewise, a Minneapolis Star Tribune piece (5/4/09) described Rep. Michele Bachmann’s denial of global warming not as putting her at odds with scientific opinion, but as “making her a lighting rod for attacks from the left.”

Once again, corporate media appear afraid to take sides in the climate-change debate by pointing out that the science is overwhelmingly on one side of it. In the case of cap and trade, the entire point of which is to attack the climate change crisis, that meant stunting the debate before it even started.



For Denialists, Climate Is Just a Bowl of Cherries

One common ploy to reject the scientific consensus on climate change is to cherry-pick weather data and parade it as legitimate scientific critique.

For example, Fox News host Sean Hannity (7/6/09) protested: “This is the eighth coolest June on record. The eighth coolest, and they’re going back to the 1800s.” Hannity turned out to be talking about temperatures in New York City’s Central Park (Media Matters, 7/7/09)—yet he was willing to argue on the basis of this single local statistic that “most people may be buying into Al Gore’s movie, but it’s not reality, and it’s not science.” In a report after the cap and trade bill passed, discussing the futility of U.S. emissions capping if India and China don’t follow suit, Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes ventured (Fox News Special Report, 7/20/09): “The Indians can look and see what is happening in so-called global warming, which isn’t happening. The globe has not warmed in the last decade.”

Of course, one can’t discredit changes in global weather patterns by citing a random year or month. As the Washington Post (3/21/09) acknowledged after star columnist George Will (2/15/09) made a similarly erroneous claim, “It is a misinterpretation of the data and of scientific knowledge to point to one year as the warmest on record…and then to extrapolate that cooler subsequent years invalidate the reality of global warming and its effects.”