Flogging a “Dead” Climate Bill

Why the press must cover Lieberman-Warner as if it had legs

Washington, vis-à-vis the Bush Administration, has shirked its responsibility to take on global warming for years, so the Climate Security Act of 2008, up for debate next week in the Senate, is a big deal. The bill, co-written by Senators Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT) and Mark Warner (R-VA), aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 2050 to below 70 percent of business-as-usual levels. Using a complex set of incentives, including a cap and trade system for carbon similar to a system used in Europe, Lieberman-Warner is at least a symbolic step forward.

But covering a bill that some, like Grist, are calling filled with pork; environmentalists and some liberal commentators say the bill has been defanged—presents a host of problems.

It can be difficult for the press to consider as news a bill that will never become effective law. And while it’s not simply a problem with the press (I think we’re all hard-wired to find negative outcomes less significant than positive outcomes), it is the job of the press to inform its readers of noteworthy political and legislative proceedings. This is especially true when with the bill at hand is novel and complicated—Lieberman-Warner may not make it out of the Senate, but the debate will provide valuable insights and familiarity that will be useful when another, more viable bill appears before the next Congress. And no wise editor would deny that the trefoil issue of economy, energy costs, and environment (read, climate change) is a top concern of her readership.

Difficulties aside, USA Today found the story interesting enough to run a Gannett News Service article, “Senate poised to take up sweeping global warming bill,” written by Erin Kelly:

While it is unlikely to become law this year, the Climate Security Act is seen by both supporters and opponents as evidence of how far Congress has moved on the issue and how quickly a bill is likely to pass after a new president moves into the White House in January and a new Congress takes office

Kelly’s article not only gives the reader a sense of the changing attitudes in government on global warming, but a heads-up on what issues to pay attention to (no matter what side of the aisle you support) when it comes to electing politicians, choosing how to invest your money, or any number of things Americans care about. Kudos.

But surprisingly, the mainstream press has mostly relegated Warner-Lieberman to the opinion page and blogs. We saw this before, with the gas-tax holiday proposals from Senators Clinton and McCain—and it’s not a good trend.

Why does any of this matter? Because although elected officials make decisions without citizen input all the time (that’s a big part of why we elect them), on such blockbuster issues they should keep an ear open for the informed voices of their constituents. And constituents can’t be well informed without the press.

It would be good if the progress of Lieberman-Warner, and analysis of the potential effects of the bill, were laid out for readers to consider. For instance, how many voters are aware that pro-environment Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), who is managing the bill, made massive changes that provide potential exemptions and loopholes (called “emergency off-ramps”) for companies—which could eliminate any chance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions until at least 2020?

Any concerned citizen lucky enough to have hacked his way through the blogosphere might have known; but other readers were not informed, and in this regard the press failed to do its job. These sorts of holes in coverage put voters in a position to be easily manipulated by partisan talking points and TV ads from either side of the issue.

Grist’s Kate Sheppard and guest contributor Joseph Romm, however, have provided just the sort of information that the mainstream press would be wise to take note of.

Romm’s incredibly detailed piece about the Boxer amendments to Lieberman-Warner stands out. To work in newspaper form, the piece would require major editing—but the concept of doing a little science, crunching some numbers, and parsing legalese for the reader to understand represents top-notch journalism. Keith Johnson, blogging for the Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital, and Bradford Plumer blogging for The New Republic’s Energy & Environment also contributed solid reporting to the discussion of Lieberman-Warner.

To be fair, Romm is the editor of the blog Climate Progress, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. That’s why having less partisan professional journalists take a stab at the same kind of story is important.

The bottom line is that readers aren’t being served at all when partisans and lobbyists are doing the job of the press. Covering a bill like Lieberman-Warner takes more work than a standard 800-word who, what, where single-installment story. But with America finally on the verge of committing to specific reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, there’s plenty to write about—and a readership dying to know more.

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Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.