Covering Climate Now

Congress’s climate bill is a major story. Journalists are missing the most important part.

September 23, 2021

In November, world leaders will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for a summit that will go a long way toward determining whether humanity preserves a liveable planet. At COP26, the follow-up to the 2015 climate summit that gave us the Paris Agreement, countries are expected to revisit and update plans to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Together, leaders will either agree to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use, or they will fail, further exposing humanity to the rising tide of climate destruction.

Given the monumental importance of COP26, it’s not unreasonable to imagine journalists covering the runup to the summit as they would the runup to a major election: reporters everywhere pressing leaders on their diplomatic preparations; commentators trading predictions on nightly news programs; newsrooms retooling their entire staffs to support wall-to-wall coverage. None of that is happening, and that’s a problem. But this article is about a different omission by the press.

Whether or not COP26 ends in success depends in large part on whether the United States’ delegation arrives in Glasgow with a credible plan. As the world’s largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, the US is reasonably expected to enact its share of transformational climate action. America is also the world’s largest economy; with other large economies, including China and India, still reliant on fossil fuels to drive growth, the world is unlikely to strengthen emissions-reduction targets to the levels necessary unless the US is in a position to cajole, compel, and barter with its peers, as nations must at meetings like this.

That, in turn, depends almost entirely on whether the US Congress passes effective climate legislation.

Enter Democrats’ omnibus budget reconciliation plan. The measure, which bears a provisional price tag of $3.5 trillion, is the promised complement to the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in August by the Senate, now pending House approval. The $3.5 trillion plan is also the largest climate-change bill in US history, and it comes not a moment too soon.

​​American politics don’t exist in a vacuum, of course. The reconciliation bill, a current fixture of our political news cycle, is not just a story about partisan gamesmanship or the intransigence of a certain West Virginia senator. It’s a story about all of humanity’s survival and prosperity in the face of catastrophe. Passed, the bill will enable Americans to put their best foot forward at COP26. Delayed, watered down, or scuttled altogether, it will instead bind their feet.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Joe Biden knows this. As the president said Tuesday in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, “To keep within our reach the vital goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, every nation needs to bring their highest-possible ambitions to the table when we meet in Glasgow for COP26.”

And yet the importance of the reconciliation bill vis-a-vis COP26 is all but absent from the news. In many stories about the bill, in fact, the word “climate” does not appear at all. Perhaps reporters or editors imagine the summit doesn’t interest their audiences. But that undervalues COP26: At a time when scientists agree time is short for humanity to pull back from the brink, it’s no exaggeration to say the meeting’s outcomes concern every living person on Planet Earth.

To be fair, Democrats’ and the Biden administration’s messaging about the reconciliation bill has not been laser focused. Is it an infrastructure bill? A jobs bill? The Build Back Better plan? On Pod Save America, show hosts who are former staffers of the Obama administration have observed that shifting talking points have likely hindered Democrats in selling the plan to the American public, confusing all but the most insulated politics junkies.

Perhaps journalists can’t be faulted for failing to explain the implications of this plan, then. But isn’t it our job to rise above the fray? Inconsistent messaging by the administration and the Center for Disease Control on Covid-19, for example, has prompted fierce criticism from journalists, who rightly push leaders to get their stories straight as a matter of public interest. If we don’t similarly hold politicians’ feet to the fire on the reconciliation bill, and connect the dots between it and COP26’s outcomes, our audiences will fail to grasp the enormity of what’s at stake. And without that popular awareness, there can’t be the public pressure necessary to make leaders get the job done.

There are some journalists getting this right. An August piece in the environmental publication E&E News, for example, ran under the headline “U.S. global climate promises hang on reconciliation battle.” And, in an article previewing the UN General Assembly, The Washington Post drew a clear line between the $3.5 trillion package and America’s global commitments as they relate to COP26. 

But most coverage has predictably focused instead on intra-party squabbles—specifically between centrist senators Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, and the majority of the Democratic party. Republicans, who unanimously oppose the reconciliation bill and regularly traffic in climate denial and disinformation, have been given a relative pass. And, of course, no shortage of coverage has attempted to divine the bearings of these proceedings on the 2022 and 2024 elections.

Last Sunday, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Manchin, who earns hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from fossil-fuel stocks, said there was no rush or deadline to pass the reconciliation measure. Host Chuck Todd declined to challenge Manchin on this point. Instead, he asked the senator what the bill would look like if he were to write it from scratch.

But there is a deadline: A world-historic summit less than six weeks from now which COP26 president Alok Sharma, of the United Kingdom, has called humanity’s “last best chance” to tackle the climate emergency.

The reconciliation bill will affect many aspects of Americans’ lives, yes. But that is foremost because the threat of climate change necessitates a rethinking of how humanity conducts its business on this earth: A strong climate bill is also a strong infrastructure bill, with funding to rebuild roads and lift communities out of poverty. The bill is also a contract with the world, a statement that, after four years of going backwards under the Trump administration, the US is able and willing to act on climate.

The stronger the reconciliation bill, the better the chances are of success at COP26. And, as record-setting wildfires, droughts, floods, and hurricanes have demonstrated so vividly this year, humanity cannot afford failure. To the extent that Congress’s bill squares with climate science and reckons with the legacy of the fossil fuel industry, or else throws Big Oil an eleventh-hour lifeline, America will be judged.

Whatever other stories journalists want to tell about the reconciliation bill, however juicy they might seem through the lens of modern American political reportage, must be thought of in the context of climate change. We’ve got to zoom out. We have to see, and tell, the bigger story.

This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration co-founded by CJR and The Nation strengthening coverage of the climate story. The author is CCNow’s deputy director.

About Covering Climate Now

CCNow, a partner of CJR, collaborates with journalists and newsrooms to produce more informed and urgent climate stories, to make climate a part of every beat in the newsroom — from politics and weather to business and culture — and to drive a public conversation that creates an engaged public.

View other CCN articles »

Visit CCN website »