By contrast, the country’s top news sources almost all had stories on the new climate reports—but they were largely pro forma treatments. The New York Times published a piece on page A19 that rehashed the basic findings and concluded with two quotes from “climate and energy legislation advocates” who “predictably” embraced the studies. Just what we need from the paper of record: the most predictable response to a significant new warning about one of the most pressing issues of our time.
The Washington Post ran Borenstein’s AP piece, which was one of the better ones. He wrote that the Academies had ditched “its past cautious tone,” calling on lawmakers to raise the price on carbon through a direct tax or cap-and-trade system and “to cut the pollution that causes global warning by 57 percent to 83 percent by 2050.” He mentioned that the recommendation is in line with the Obama administration’s goal, which brings up the political context, another reason why the story shouldn’t be sloughed off.
Last week, senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman introduced legislation with a comparable target that would impose a system similar to cap-and-trade, without calling it that. But its prospects are uncertain. Karin Zeitvogel at Agence France-Presse noted that “cap-and-trade was declared dead by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham two months ago,” which does not bode well for the bill, as Graham had been the sole Republican supporting major energy legislation. Many pundits doubt whether Obama can get another difficult vote this year from Democrats, given the tortuous health care reform process.
Several stories touched on the pending legislation, but left it at that. None of the coverage of the Academies’ new reports included what could have been a useful sidebar with an update on the troubles facing the energy bill, called the American Power Act, or whether the new reports might prod legislators to action. Borenstein’s piece, however, mentioned that White House science advisor John Holdren said he “hoped every member of Congress would read the reports or at least their summaries.”
Perhaps we will see more in coming days, but the initial response is not promising.
In a sense, it’s understandable that the Academies’ reports would meet with indifference in editorial meetings around the country. For decades, scientists have called for action on climate change, and these latest warnings are more of the same. But they are different in important ways, too. They call for more research to clarify inevitable (if still uncertain) impacts from changes to the climate that are foregone. They also call for a strategy to adapt to those changes, and mitigate further damage, that spans all levels of civic and government organization, “down to the town manager,” Andrew Revkin noted at his Dot Earth blog. From the time they started work on the new reports, he added, the Academies set out to “ensure that this report is not only effective at conveying what is known, but also in putting policymakers in a position where they cannot just say thanks and muddle on.”
In addition to the reports released Wednesday (which Revkin called “invaluable”), the academies will release two more later this year, including one about informing effective decisions and actions. This analysis may be the most important of all, Revkin surmised—“the report that tries to figure out how to overcome the persistent disconnect between knowledge and response.”
The press seems to be afflicted with a similar disconnect. It knows well the cardinal importance of covering how we understand and address climate change, and that the Academies’ reports are a significant development in those very regards. Unfortunately, instead of responding accordingly, the media appears to be saying thanks, and muddling on.