The Wall Street Journal: Dismissing Environmental Threats Since 1976

››› ››› JOCELYN FONG & JILL FITZSIMMONS

To forestall policy on climate change, the Wall Street Journal editorial board routinely downplays scientific consensus, overstates the cost of taking action, and claims that politics, not science, motivate those concerned about the climate. But an analysis of more than 100 editorials from 1976 to present shows that the Wall Street Journal used these same rhetorical tactics in previous decades on acid rain and ozone depletion and they did not stand the test of time.

The Journal's Pre-Fabricated Arguments Against Environmental Protection

For decades the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board has campaigned with industry against government action to address major environmental threats. Regardless of the specific issue, the editorials offer this familiar refrain:

  • 'We Don't Know Enough': The Journal makes claims that are out of step with the weight of scientific evidence, seizes on uncertainties, and argues for further study before any action is taken to mitigate the risk.
  • 'It Will Cost Too Much': The Journal claims regulations would have enormous economic costs, often citing unreliable industry-backed studies.
  • 'It's All Politics': To sidestep the science showing a clear threat, the Journal claims that those who want to address the problem are motivated by politics, not science.

The Wall Street Journal On Climate Change

WSJ Claims We Don't Know Enough About Climate Change. Despite a strong scientific consensus based on abundant evidence that human activities are contributing to global climate change, the Wall Street Journal editorial board continues to cast doubt on the science:

  • A December 2011 editorial said that the global warming debate requires "more definitive evidence." [Wall Street Journal, Global Warming Wash Out, 12/13/11]
  • A June 2011 editorial called global warming a "fad-scare." [Wall Street Journal, The Light Bulb Police, 6/7/11]
  • A February 2010 editorial stated: "We think the science is still disputable." It questioned "how much our current warming is man-made as opposed to merely another of the natural climate shifts that have taken place over the centuries." [Wall Street Journal, The Continuing Climate Meltdown, 2/16/10]
  • A July 2009 editorial stated "There is still serious scientific debate about the causes, effects and possible solutions for climate change." [Wall Street Journal, Listening to India, 7/25/09]

WSJ Fearmongers About The Cost Of Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office determined that the cap-and-trade legislation passed by the House in 2009 would have a "modest" impact on GDP and "only a small effect on total employment in the long run." But the Journal has painted cap-and-trade as a "tax" that would cost "millions of jobs:

  • A November 2010 editorial claimed that a national cap-and-trade program "would have cost millions of jobs." [Wall Street Journal, Cap and Retreat, 11/20/10]
  • An October 2010 editorial claimed that California's cap-and-trade program will cost "tens of thousands of jobs." [Wall Street Journal, California's Cap-And-Trade War, 10/18/10]
  • An August 2010 editorial called cap-and-trade a "tax" that would have an "enormous economic cost." [Wall Street Journal, The Death of Cap and Tax, 8/2/10]
  • An August 2009 editorial claimed that a national cap-and-trade program "would add so much to the cost of doing business in the U.S. that it would drive factories and jobs overseas." [Wall Street Journal, More Cap-and-Trade War, 8/12/09]

WSJ Claims Politics Drives Climate Concerns. Following the overblown "Climategate" controversy, the Journal editorial board has repeatedly and baselessly accused climate scientists of manipulating data to promote a political agenda. The Journal has also suggested that "advocates" have tried to shut out dissenting voices to manufacture a scientific consensus on climate change, and that politicians have stoked fear about climate change in an effort to expand government power:

  • A September 2011 editorial claimed that Al Gore and other "climate-change advocates" have "tried to bully anyone who keeps an open mind," which "is true of many political projects, but it is or ought to be anathema to the scientific method." [Wall Street Journal, 'High School Physics', 9/19/11]
  • A July 2010 editorial claimed that the Climategate emails "revealed a habit among climate scientists of trimming their scientific sails to the political winds." It concluded that climate scientists "need to start taking the politics out of the science." [Wall Street Journal, A Climate Absolution?, 7/19/10]
  • A February 2010 editorial called UN climate reports "sloppy political documents intended to drive the climate lobby's regulatory agenda." [Wall Street Journal, The Continuing Climate Meltdown, 2/16/10]
  • A February 2009 editorial said "the political class loves a cap-and-trade tax because it gives them new economic and political power." It suggested that Democrats in Congress see "political control" of cap-and-trade revenues as "a source of tens of millions in new campaign contributions from thousands of affected businesses." [Wall Street Journal, An Inconvenient Tax, 2/27/09]

The Wall Street Journal On Acid Rain

U.S. Acid Rain Program Widely Seen As A Success. After a decade of warnings from the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the National Research Council that sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants were contributing to acid rain, Congress passed and George H.W. Bush signed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which established a cap-and-trade program to reduce sulfur emissions. The program, which took effect in 1995, has "substantially reduced" acid deposition in the Northeast and has led to major improvements in air quality with "significant benefits to human health," according to a 2010 progress report from the EPA. And it has done so in a cost-effective way. A 2005 analysis estimated the annual benefits of the program in 2010 at $122 billion compared to only $3 billion in costs -- a 40:1 benefit/cost ratio. Compliance costs have been "substantially lower" than the EPA estimated when the program was enacted. Acid rain is still a problem in parts of the U.S. and some lakes have yet to fully recover, but overall the cap-and-trade program is widely seen as a success. The Economist called the acid rain program the "greatest green success story of the past decade."

WSJ Shed Doubt On Science Behind Acid Rain. In the 1980s, evidence mounted that sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants in the Midwest were contributing to acid rain, threatening hundreds of U.S. lakes and forests in the Northeast and Canada. But for more than a decade, the Journal editorial board argued that natural variability overshadowed the impact of human activity, and called for further research before taking action to limit harmful emissions:

  • A May 1980 editorial questioned the link between increased coal burning and acid rain, concluding that existing "data are not conclusive and more studies are needed." [Wall Street Journal, Acid Rain, 5/30/80, via Factiva]
  • A September 1982 editorial stated: "Scientific study, as opposed to political rhetoric, points more and more toward the theory that nature, not industry, is the primary source of acid rain." [Wall Street Journal, Gitche Gummee's pH, 9/7/82, via Factiva]
  • A January 1984 editorial called for "a few more years of research" before implementing regulations to address acid rain. [Wall Street Journal, Patience and Precipitation, 1/11/84, via Factiva]
  • A September 1985 editorial declared that "the scientific case for acid rain is dying." [Wall Street Journal, Out of the Blue, 9/24/85, via Factiva]
  • A January 1986 editorial declared: "Man-made acid rain pales by comparison with natural sources." [Wall Street Journal, All Wet on Acid Rain, 1/10/86, via Factiva]
  • A June 1989 editorial argued that we should "wait for science to understand, for example, to what extent acid rain is man-made" before enacting regulations. [Wall Street Journal, All Apocalyptics Now?, 6/16/89, via Factiva]

WSJ Claimed Politics -- Not Science -- Was Behind Efforts To Address Acid Rain. To obscure the science, the Journal editorial board claimed efforts to take action were simply driven by "politics, not science":

  • An October 1983 editorial claimed that "politics, not science, clearly is driving the acid-rain campaign. In true Madison Avenue fashion, acid rain sells..." [Wall Street Journal, Gold (Plated) Fish, 10/12/83, via Factiva]
  • A July 1987 editorial stated: "As the acid-rain story continues to develop, it's becoming increasingly apparent that politics, not nature, is the primary force driving the theory's biggest boosters." [Wall Street Journal, "No Remedies, Please", 7/27/87, via Factiva]

WSJ Wildly Overestimated The Cost of Cutting Emissions. The Journal editorial board initially opposed implementing a national program to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions because of the "immense cost":

  • A June 1982 editorial warned of the "immense cost of controlling sulfur emissions." [Wall Street Journal, Rained Out, 6/29/82, via Factiva]
  • A January 1984 editorial claimed a regulatory program for acid rain would cost "upwards of $100 billion." [Wall Street Journal, Patience and Precipitation, 1/11/84]
  • A September 1987 editorial claimed that legislation to address acid rain would cost "as much as $94 billion over a decade." [Wall Street Journal, The $94 Billion Report, 9/23/87, via Factiva]
  • A January 1990 editorial predicted that the acid rain provisions in the Clean Air Act amendments would lead to "staggering" utility costs. [Wall Street Journal, No Pap From NAPAP, 1/26/90, via Factiva]

WSJ Later Acknowledged The Acid Rain Program Was "Fabulously Successful" And Cost-Effective. A decade after the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 instituted a cap-and-trade program for sulfur dioxide emissions, the Journal acknowledged that the acid rain program was a success, and even recommended establishing a similar program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

  • A July 2001 editorial called the cap-and-trade program for sulfur dioxide "fabulously successful," noting that the program "saves about $700 million annually compared with the cost of traditional regulation and has been reducing emissions by four million tons annually." It added: "When the program is fully implemented, sometime over the next couple of years, cost savings should be as much as $2 billion a year -- that's twice as much as originally estimated by the EPA." In light of this success, the editorial called on the Bush administration to "propose a domestic cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide." [Wall Street Journal, Emissions Impossible?, 7/23/01, via Factiva]
  • An April 2004 editorial noted that cap-and-trade "worked for acid rain." [Wall Street Journal, The Mercury Scare, 4/8/04]
  • A March 2005 editorial said the acid rain program led "to big improvements," noting: "Sulfur dioxide emissions are down about 40% compared with 1980 levels, and at half the cost of doing so through the command-and-control approach." [Wall Street Journal, The Clean Air Follies Continue, 3/18/05]

The Wall Street Journal On The Ozone Hole

Due To Government Action, Ozone Layer Is Recovering. As early as 1974, scientists warned that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were commonly used as refrigerants and aerosol propellants, could break down the Earth's stratospheric ozone layer, increasing human exposure to harmful UV rays that can cause cancer. Further studies affirmed the risk of CFCs, which led the FDA, EPA and CPSC to enact a ban in 1978 on non­essential uses of CFCs in aerosols like hair sprays and deodorants. But CFCs continued to impact ozone levels, and in 1985 scientists discovered a massive hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. In the wake of that finding, 24 countries, including the U.S., signed the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which froze CFC consumption and called for a 50% reduction worldwide by 2000. Since then, over 150 countries have ratified the protocol, CFCs have been gradually phased out of consumer products in the U.S. and around the world, and consumption has fallen by 98%. As a result of these steps, "levels of most ozone-depleting chemicals in the atmosphere have been gradually declining," according to NASA. Because these chemicals remain in the atmosphere for decades, a "significant" ozone hole still recurs annually over Antarctica, and the ozone layer is not expected to fully recover until midcentury. However, the CFC phase-out has already led to major health benefits. A 2010 EPA report estimated that by 2165, CFC regulations under the Clean Air Act will have prevented more than 6.3 million skin cancer deaths in the U.S. alone and saved $4.2 trillion in health care costs -- a 76:1 benefit/cost ratio.

WSJ Shed Doubt On The Impact Of CFCs On The Ozone Layer. Even when the link between CFCs and ozone depletion was firmly established by the scientific community, the Journal editorial board maintained that it was "only a theory" and favored postponing regulatory action:

  • A January 1976 editorial said the connection between CFCs and ozone depletion "is only a theory and will remain only that until further efforts are made to test its validity in the atmosphere itself." It added that the ozone layer "is subject to constant change in thickness through natural processes that have nothing to do with aerosol cans" and concluded that "it is doubtful there could be a very significant effect" of CFCs on the atmosphere. [Wall Street Journal, A Bit of Prudence at the CPSC, 1/6/76, via Factiva]
  • A May 1979 editorial said that scientists "still don't know to what extent, if any, mankind's activities have altered the ozone barrier or whether the possibly harmful effects of these activities aren't offset by natural processes ... Thus, it now appears, all the excitement over the threat to the ozone layer was founded on scanty scientific evidence." [Wall Street Journal, Ozone Re-Examined, 5/15/79, via Factiva]
  • A March 1984 editorial said that concerns about ozone depletion were based on "premature scientific evidence" and claims that "new evidence shows that the ozone layer isn't vanishing after all; it may even be increasing." [Wall Street Journal, Heads in the Ozone, 3/5/84, via Factiva]
  • A May 1985 editorial claimed that the "ozone scare" was a result of "pop science" and suggests that it turned out to be a "false alarm." [Wall Street Journal, Another False Alarm, 5/31/85, via Factiva]
  • A March 1989 editorial called for more research on the "questionable theory that CFCs cause depletion of the ozone layer," calling on scientists to "continue to study the sky until we know enough to make a sound decision regarding the phasing out of our best refrigerants." [Wall Street Journal, Ozone Chicken Littles Are at It Again, 3/23/89, via Factiva]

WSJ Implied That CFC Ban Was Based On Politics, Not "Real Science." A February 1992 editorial stated: "It is simply not clear to us that real science drives policy in this area." [Wall Street Journal, Press-Release Ozone Hole, 2/28/92, via Factiva]

WSJ Exaggerated Costs Of CFC Alternatives. As policymakers debated how to address ozone depletion, the Journal repeatedly warned that phasing out products containing CFCs would lead to "big price increases on many consumer products." But before the CFC production ban even took effect in the U.S., the Orange County Register reported that companies were already "finding replacements for CFCs and, in some cases, making money from them." It quoted David Doniger of NRDC who noted that despite "panicking over the impending CFC ban," the electronics industry was "awash in replacements" five years later. Twenty years after the Montreal Protocol took effect, an EPA report stated that "largely due to innovative research, many alternatives are available" to ozone depleting substances. According to a 2007 analysis in the Harvard Law Review, "the relatively low expected cost of the Montreal Protocol ... turned out to be even lower than anticipated because of technological innovation." And contrary to the Journal's prediction, these alternatives haven't led to a "dramatic increase" in consumer prices. In fact, the costs of refrigerators, air conditioners and other appliances "have been falling since the late 1970s," according to researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

  • A March 1984 editorial claimed that banning CFCs "cost the economy some $1.52 billion in forgone profits and product-change expenses" and 8,700 jobs. [Wall Street Journal, Heads in the Ozone, 3/5/84, via Factiva]
  • An August 1990 editorial warned that banning CFCs would lead to "a dramatic increase in air-conditioning and refrigeration costs." It added: The likely substitute for the most popular banned refrigerant costs 30 times as much and will itself be banned by the year 2015. The economy will have to shoulder at least $10 billion to $15 billion a year in added refrigeration costs by the year 2000. [Wall Street Journal, Clean Air Revisited, 8/29/90, via Factiva]
  • A February 1992 editorial warned that accelerating the phaseout of CFCs "almost surely will translate into big price increases on many consumer products." [Wall Street Journal, Asides: Middle-Class Payments, 2/14/92, via Factiva]
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