Climate Bill Blowout

It’s a big deal. Where’s the print coverage?

Following Senator Harry Reid’s decision to pull the plug on climate legislation Thursday, news sites lit up with lit up with analyses of who was to blame. As well they should; this is a major story. But if you don’t get your news online, you were likely out of this story’s loop.

Democrats don’t have the votes to push for a bill that would cap greenhouse gases (even one aimed only at utilities) or establish renewable energy standards, Reid said. Instead, the Senate will pursue a much weaker bill. Details remain sketchy, but Mother Jones reports that the weaker bill will eliminate a cap on companies’ financial liability for oil spills, reform regulation of the oil and gas industry, and devote funds to promoting natural-gas vehicles, home energy efficiency, and the Land & Water Conservation Fund—but won’t do much toward President Obama’s campaign pledge to start to move the nation off a petroleum economy.

Accounts of Reid’s announcement began to appear on the Web sites and blogs of major news outlets just after noon yesterday. But in print, the failure of one of the Obama’s administration’s top policy priorities and campaign pillars does not seem to be front-page news. Why?

In The New York Times, the story is on A15, comprising 723 words. A search of Lexis-Nexis shows that The Washington Post ran it on page two at 457 words, the Los Angeles Times ran it on page fourteen at 659 words, and The Wall Street Journal ran it on page three at 1,035 words. The Boston Globe cobbled something together from the wires on page two, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an abridged version of the LA Times’s article on page six, McClatchy’s D.C. bureau filed a 1,075-word piece, and, according to Google, dozens of smaller papers are running articles from The Associated Press, Bloomberg, and Reuters.

While all of these articles were decent spot news accounts of Reid’s announcement, one would expect—given the substantial defeat that it represented for Democrats and the Obama administration—that a few front-page news analyses would have been in order. That’s not to say such analyses don’t exist. While its newsroom couldn’t muster any deep thoughts, The New York Times’s editorial board deserves credit for hitting hard with a lead editorial, which pointed the finger primarily at Obama and the Democrats for letting climate legislation die “with a whimper”:

[D]espite the opportunity offered by the oil spill to press for a bold energy policy, the president essentially disappeared. What has passed for advocacy by the White House in recent days has consisted largely of one op-ed article by the energy adviser, Carol Browner, and daily assurances from the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, that the White House was “working behind the scenes.”

The editorial also noted that, “Republicans obviously bear a good part of the responsibility for this failure. With a handful of exceptions, they have denied or played down the problem of global warming for years and did pretty much anything they could to protect industry from necessary regulation.” Whether climate legislation’s defeat is due to the Republican impasse or the Democrats’ inability to break to break that impasse with better strategy is a very good question and worthy of debate until we are blue in the face. But the Time’s editorial was pretty much the only thoughtful commentary to be found in print; the rest was online.

The Times’s environment blogger Andrew Revkin had an interesting enumeration of all the things that Obama has not done to promote climate legislation, including “a substantial speech focused on the responsibility of the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases to face up to the long-term risks posed by the rising human influence on the climate system and pursue the opportunities that lie in a sustained ‘energy quest.’

Elsewhere, the Times’s Web site carried two good analyses—“Sen. Reid’s Decision on Climate Bill Leaves D.C. Scrambling to Pick Up the Pieces” and “Senate Abandons Climate Effort, Dealing Blow to President”—that delved into the ramifications of the Senate leadership’s decision, but both of them came from E&E Publishing’s Climatewire, an editorial partner.

In fact, given E&E’s consistently laudable coverage of energy and environment issues on Capitol Hill, it should be no surprise that Politico—which recently made the wise decision to hire former E&E staffer Darren Samuelsohn—has come out with a few strong pieces about climate legislation’s demise. After a straight news article with Coral Davenport on Thursday, Samuelsohn and Manu Raju followed up with a piece about Obama catching “heat” over the lack of leadership on global warming. Samuelsohn also contributed a long analysis of the “blame game,” which, like the Times’s editorial, delved into the responsibility of Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists, and others. As in many such accounts, much of the culpability is laid on the Obama’s shoulders. Samuelsohn quotes quote Eric Pooley—deputy editor of Bloomberg Business Week and author of the recent book, The Climate War—who told him that, “The absence of direct, intense presidential leadership doomed this process.”

Pooley also made an appearance in one of the best explorations (and a rare print-edition treatment) of the how and why climate legislation withered on the vine. The article, by Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson (who has been hammering at the Obama’s environmental record), was actually published before Reid’s announcement, when a utilities-only cap-and-trade bill still seemed viable, but it is entirely thorough in its analysis. Again, the blame is directed mostly at Obama:

Rather than press forward with a climate bill in the Senate last summer, after the House had passed landmark legislation to curb carbon pollution, the administration repeated many of the same mistakes it made in pushing for health care reform. It refused to lay out its own plan, allowing the Senate to bicker endlessly over the details. It pursued a “stealth strategy” of backroom negotiations, supporting huge new subsidies to win over big polluters. It allowed opponents to use scare phrases like “cap and tax” to hijack public debate. And most galling of all, it has failed to use the gravest environmental disaster in the nation’s history to push through a climate bill—to argue that fossil-fuel polluters should pay for the damage they are doing to the atmosphere, just as BP will be forced to pay for the damage it has done to the Gulf.

It would be wonderful to see similar (if perhaps less advocacy-oriented), step-by-step breakdowns of how climate legislation went off the rails in national newspapers and magazines (online, Time took a better stab at it than Newsweek). It’s a blame game worth playing. Much like BP’s oil spill in the Gulf, we need to understand what, exactly, went wrong in order to fix it. And sooner rather than later, media pundits need to start thinking about where we go from here.

A good start down that road is an essay by The Breakthrough Institute’s Jesse Jenkins at The Huffington Post, in which he argues:

Cap and trade has repeatedly failed because it doesn’t address the main barrier to the widespread deployment of clean energy technologies: the technology-based price gap between new clean energy and mature fossil fuels…

Given the stakes for both the global climate and the nation’s economic outlook, we can’t afford yet another episode in the serial failure of the cap and trade strategy.

This moment demands a fundamentally new strategy designed to overcome the inherent political obstacles to carbon pricing and simultaneously achieve the primary objective upon which our climate future hinges: in real, unsubsidized terms.

I’m not sure that entirely agree with Jenkins’ assessment of cap-and-trade’s merits, but he is correct that policymakers and pundits must consider whether or not a wholly new policy strategy is in order. Here’s an idea: the team and The Breakthrough Institute has repeatedly clashed with the team at The Center for American Progressive—the former favoring a direct public investment in clean-energy technology deployment and innovation, the latter favoring a price on carbon. These organizations are great candidates to help journalists read the ashes of climate legislation, since the total failure of that legislation gives neither outfit what it wants. With the weak bill that the Senate now intends to pursue threatening to render their often-vitriolic debate about clean-tech R&D versus cap-and-trade moot, it would be interesting for reporters to ask those two now if they can find common ground toward a new policy path.

After all, if two organizations that both profess a deep concern for the environment cannot resolve their differences, what chance is their that progressive Democrats, Blue-Dog Democrats, and Republicans will ever resolve theirs? That is the kind of question the public needs to hear—and the kind more journalists should be asking.

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