In the U.K., a Bang; In the U.S., Whimper

There are roughly 3,500 miles between Washington, D.C. and London. For journalists, those miles might as well be light years.

There are roughly 3,500 miles between Washington, D.C. and London — for journalists, those miles might as well be light years. When it comes to global warming, the political climates in the two capitals have never been farther apart, a discrepancy that was made abundantly clear in the vastly different responses in the British and American press to a recent climate report.

Sir Nicholas Stern delivered his controversial review on the Economics of Climate Change to the British government on Oct. 30. It warns that unless the international community begins to spend money on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the costs of unabated global warming will be catastrophic. Stern, formerly chief economist at the World Bank, estimates that the world needs to shell out 1 percent of global gross domestic product by 2050 in order to avoid losses of 5 percent to 20 percent in global GDP due to climate-related environmental degradation. His report is significant because it does for the economics of this issue what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did for the science — it announces a consensus. Yet unlike that august panel, and despite Stern’s stature, the report does not carry the weight of global consensus, which has dampened its impact outside the U.K.. The fact that it harbors uncertain predictions and directives is almost a given. Pundits will pick at its details for years to come, just as they continue to pick at the IPCC. But that does not diminish the agreement within British government that it is time to invest, in some way or another, in halting the proliferation of greenhouse gases around the globe.

In London, politicians welcomed the study enthusiastically, and journalists responded with a flurry of articles. Some stories were critical and some were supportive, but their prominence in the press and their detailed accounts of the germane issues reflected the fact that anti-global warming legislation is a looming reality in the U.K.. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote an opinion piece for the Sun in which he called the Stern review “the most important report on the future which I have received since becoming Prime Minister.” Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who commissioned the study and is expected to succeed Blair as PM, said the British government would use the study to assume global leadership in climate policy. That puts the ruling Labour party in line with the Tory opposition, whose leader, David Cameron, “deserves credit for forcing the environment up the political agenda,” according to the Independent. Many arguments remain — green taxes are an especially thorny issue — but they are grist for the British press corps’ expansive coverage. A great number of those stories also analyzed the U.S. reaction. But across the Atlantic, the Bush administration dubbed the Stern report a mere “contribution” to the global debate, and American journalists, sheltered from the winds of change, displayed less enthusiasm for it than their British colleagues.

That is not to say that U.S. reporters missed the story. In fact, a Wall Street Journal editorial complained that they gave too much attention to the Stern report at the expense of a meeting at the United Nations organized by Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. That organization argues that poverty, famine and disease are more pressing issues than global warming and should receive financial priority. It is true that stateside media largely ignored the Lomborg event and concentrated on the discrepancy between economic consensus in the U.K. and U.S., but the U.S. press’s acknowledgement of the Stern report’s significance was more tacit.

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.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.