It’s sort of both. In some sense, I don’t really waste my time on something unless I’m reasonably confident I can get it onto page one. Then, it becomes a question of what’s the right framing to get it there and can I actually pull it off, and in the end, I don’t really control that. It goes up to a committee of people who are making these decisions. But the track record is pretty good here and I think that’s not just a function of the way I’m doing the stories. It is a sort of statement by The New York Times of the importance we attach to this issue. We’re telling you, in the way we play the stories, that we understand the need to improve public knowledge about climate change, and that we’re doing what we can.
Now, what we can do is limited. I think some people, like Joe Romm, would like us to send a bugler in a coat of mail around with the paper every morning playing taps and proclaiming that climate change is a problem. But there’s a limit to how much our readers can absorb of these long stories and we still have to cover all the other news as well. To me, it’s a remarkable thing that the paper’s devoting this sort of effort and this kind of play to climate change in an era when it would be easy to put our heads down and say, “Oh, that’s a long-term problem, we don’t have to deal with that right now.”
I was a little surprised that last week’s story about the EPA’s proposed limitations on carbon emissions from power plants was buried on page 13. If finalized, the rules would mean the beginning of the end for coal plants. Don’t they deserve more prominent coverage?
You might be overestimating the actual effect of that rule. In fact, the Obama people have been at pains this week to play down its effect. What the rule says is you’ve got to meet this standard, but any coal plant that’s already permitted or breaks ground within the next year is exempt. It also says, and this has kind of escaped people, that you can get a permit to build a coal plant as long as you convince the EPA that the plant will meet this CO2 standard over its 30-year lifespan.
That means that people would still be able to build them if they make provisions to bolt on carbon capture and storage or some technology like that ten or so years into the life of the plant, although I’m not sure how that’ll work in practice. The real reason to say the immediate impact of this is going to be fairly limited is that economics are already pulling the industry very hard in the direction of not building new coal plants and building new natural gas-fired plants instead. We have this sudden abundance of, and very low price for, natural gas from the hydro-fracking boom. So, in essence, the administration is not telling the industry to do anything it wasn’t already planning to do. On all of those grounds, I think you can argue for not treating that rule as colossal news necessarily.
Beyond the EPA’s proposed rules, there’s been little talk of climate change in Washington. Do you see any signs that it could regain traction?
The situation could be somewhat deceptive, as is often the case when trying to read politics. One way to read the counter-reaction and the politicization of the issue is that we have already come fairly close to action in the Congress. Remember, the House passed a major climate-change bill, which then died in the Senate as a consequence as much of opposition from Democrats from coal states as opposition from the Republicans. All the political noise may actually be an indicator that people sense there’s an underlying consensus to do something.