Climate roller coaster back on track

With Obama talking global warming, media see ups and downs

At his first post-election press conference on Wednesday, President Obama talked about his current position on climate change in greater detail than he’s done in two years. News outlets’ attempts to interpret the meaning of his remarks produced bewilderingly disparate takes, however, whether that involved Obama’s personal commitment to addressing the issue:

“Obama vows to take personal charge of climate change in second term” (The Guardian)
“Obama Makes It Clear He Isn’t Willing To Fight for Action on Climate Change” (Slate)

Or his legislative prioritizing:

“Obama Sees Second-Term Focus on Climate Change” (Reuters)
“Obama Says Climate Change To Take Backseat To Economy” (Politico)

The problem, as journalist Keith Kloor observed in a nice roundup of the coverage, was that what Obama said was “likely reassuring, encouraging, and infuriating—all at once—to the climate concerned community.”

Obama said he’s a “firm believer” in climate change and that “we’ve got an obligation” to do something about it, but he conceded that it would be politically difficult and that any measures would have to fit within the framework of economic growth and jobs creation.

It wasn’t the aggressive statement that many wanted to hear, but the simple fact that Obama was addressing the matter was enough for many. The domestic policy debate died in 2009 along with cap-and-trade legislation. Hurricane Sandy forced the issue back into the political consciousness at the very end of the presidential campaign, however, and a once moribund dispute has crawled back to life.

But a dispute it remains, and as fierce as ever. As The Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein reported the day before Obama’s presser:

Climate change is suddenly a hot topic again. The issue is resurfacing in talks about a once radical idea: a possible carbon tax.

On Tuesday, a conservative think tank held discussions about it while a more liberal think tank released a paper on it. And the Congressional Budget Office issued a 19-page report on the different ways to make a carbon tax less burdensome on lower income people…

The conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute is so concerned about a carbon tax that on Tuesday it filed a lawsuit seeking access to Treasury Department emails discussing the idea.

Obama seems to have addressed a carbon tax at the press conference in response to a question, but it’s a little unclear what the reporter asked. Following Obama’s initial remarks about climate change, most transcripts, like the one from The New York Times have Mark Landler (a reporter for the Times) asking, “It sounds like you’re saying, though — (off mic) — probably still short of a consensus on some kind of — (off mic),” to which Obama replies:

That I’m pretty certain of. And look, we’re — we’re still trying to debate whether we can just make sure that middle-class families don’t get a tax hike. Let’s see if we can resolve that. That should be easy. This one’s hard.

The Hill’s Ben Geman reported, without any qualification about garbled audio, that Landler was asking about a carbon tax. Politico had him asking about “some kind of attack,” which fairly homonymic, so I’m guessing he said “tax.”

Whatever the case, the bottom line is that any attempt to address climate changes still faces substantial obstacles, from libertarian think tanks to the GOP. As Scientific American’s Christine Gorman reported on Wednesday, the Republicans in the running to chair the House Science, Space and Technology Committee reject even the fundamentals of climate change.

The conservative, anti-regulatory campaign that defeated legislative aspirations to address climate change once has every intention of doing it again, and it is worth watching (or re-watching) a Frontline documentary released on PBS a week before the election titled, “Climate of Doubt,” which described that campaign in great detail.

The hourlong program featured interviews with the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Chris Horner, who just launched the lawsuit seeking Treasury Department emails about a carbon tax, and Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner, one of the men seeking to lead the House science committee, in addition to other key players—and it revealed how they mounted a baseless attack on climate science in pursuit of their policy objectives.

As that effort presses forward into round two, journalists need to stay sharp. There is no dispute about the basics of climate science. Next year, the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report and the US National Climate Assessment, two of the strongest consensus statements in the field, will almost certainly express even greater confidence in the looming threat. It’s only a question of what the second Obama administration will (or won’t) do about it.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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