When the study went public, the New York Times published an excellent front-page story, headlined “Budgets Falling in Race to Fight Global Warming,” about the Bush administration’s paltry contributions to energy research and development — and not just renewable technologies. Author Andrew Revkin revealed that the current federal budget for all energy R&D, $3 billion per year, is less than half of what it was in 1979, and it pales in comparison to much larger, and still growing, health and military research budgets. But the story mentioned the Stern report only in passing. Revkin covered the study in a separate article on page 14, but it was short and rather dry.


Three days later, an editorial by the Times, which cited the statistics in Revkin’s cover story, also soft-peddled the Stern report. Calling the document “necessarily conjectural” in the second sentence, it went on to affirm that its “basic point seems unassailable: failure to act now will exact much greater penalties later on.” One day before that, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times took a nearly identical approach, writing that the report was “at best guesstimating,” but then avowing that the same, “essential message cannot be ignored.” The New York Times criticized the Bush administration’s conviction that “calamity can be avoided on the cheap,” but both coasts’ leading papers stopped short of stating whether or not they found guidance or solution in Stern’s prescriptions.


Perhaps this ambiguity reflects the fact that politicians had had “no serious discussion” about carbon emissions in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, as Nicholas Kristof noted in a New York Times op-ed last Thursday. In an editorial from Sunday, the Washington Post attempted to explain the government’s intransigence: “If you strain for a reason to delay action on climate change, it’s that science and technology are evolving.” It criticized the do-nothing attitude and argued that, in the face of uncertainty, “the intelligent response is to buy insurance.” But the Post did not explain what it meant by insurance. The editorial board sounded ready to spend some money, but like its counterparts in New York and Los Angeles, it did not specify whether it thinks the Stern report provides sound advice, or merely suggests the need for some. To its credit, however, the Post was one of the few papers to carry more than one news article about the report, including a piece from last Monday headlined, “In Britain, All Parties Want to Color the Flag Green,” which described the widespread popularity of the environmental movement in the U.K..


That situation is still a long way off in the United States, especially among government officials. It is unimaginable that George W. Bush would take a cue from Tony Blair and contribute an op-ed letter to a newspaper, let alone one that advocates action on climate change. American reporters picked up some of that slack, but the Bush administration’s apathy on this issue denied them the fodder that allowed their British colleagues to be more probing in their coverage. The same has been true of reporting on the November 3 announcement by the World Meteorological Organization that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2005. And the same is true of the press reports rolling out on the U.N. Climate Change Conference that began three days ago in Nairobi, Kenya. If there were even a glimmer of hope that the Stern report, or any of these events, could provoke action by the U.S. government, we might have gotten more from our journalists.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.