November was the second consecutive month in which none of the five major Sunday morning political news shows aired a single substantive climate segment. Yet the month saw the Trump administration continue its steady rollback of environmental regulations and fight against state-level climate action, and it closed with the world’s scientists releasing another set of alarming reports on climate change.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has been pushing the Sunday shows to offer more and better coverage of climate change. In May, he gave a speech from the Senate floor about the lack of climate coverage from major media outlets and the shallowness of the segments they do run. And today, Whitehouse released a scorecard on the shows' November performance:
Impeachment rolls on, as do Trump’s environmental rollbacks
The administration’s rollback of environmental regulations highlights both the brazenness and pettiness of President Donald Trump’s harmful vision.
In September, the administration issued a rule that effectively ended the energy efficiency requirements for lightbulbs enacted under President Barack Obama. In response, 15 states and a group of seven environmental and consumer groups sued the Department of Energy in early November, citing the harm these revised standards would have on the climate.
Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency “proposed relaxing two Obama-era regulations on waste products from coal-fired power plants, a move environmental groups say would prolong the risk of toxic spills or drinking water contamination,” according to a November 4 NPR article. Coal ash, a broad term for the byproducts of burning coal in coal-fired power plants, contains heavy metals that can increase the risk of cancer for humans who ingest them.
In March, a study conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project, with assistance from nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice, found that “a majority of the 265 coal plants [in the United States] have unsafe levels of at least four toxic constituents of coal ash in the underlying groundwater.”
Specific findings included:
Fifty-two percent had unsafe levels of arsenic, which can impair the brains of developing children and is known to cause cancer. Sixty percent of the plants have unsafe levels of lithium, a chemical associated with multiple health risks, including neurological damage.
Many of the coal ash waste ponds are poorly and unsafely designed, with less than 5 percent having waterproof liners to prevent contaminants from leaking into the groundwater, and 59 percent built beneath the water table or within five feet of it.
The administration’s plan to weaken the rule comes a year after utilities across the country were forced to admit their responsibility for severe groundwater contamination in at least 22 states.
The Trump administration continued its unprovoked war with California and the auto industry in mid-September by revoking a longstanding waiver that allowed California to set more stringent fuel emissions standards than the federal government. In response, California, along with more than 20 other states, filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration on November 15.
According to the Los Angeles Times:
The filing names EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in addition to federal transportation officials who have been working together to weaken fuel efficiency standards adopted under the Obama administration.
For decades, California has used its special status under the federal Clean Air Act to obtain waivers from the U.S. EPA to set its own, more stringent standards, a process the state and others that adhere to them argue is essential to improve air quality and fight climate change.
Paris climate agreement
The Trump administration formally announced on November 4 that it was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement. Although the United States could reenter the agreement at any time, America’s planned exit could set a harmful precedent for other nations.
As Foreign Policy magazine noted:
In one way, the Trump administration’s decision is huge: The United States is the world’s second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only China, and is by far the largest cumulative greenhouse gas emitter in history. With the United States outside the Paris agreement, the pact will now cover only about 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, down from 97 percent previously. That’s bad news now that global emissions are at record levels and rising fast, after several years of apparent success in stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere. With the United States abdicating any responsibility for curbing emissions, it will be that much tougher to convince China, India, and other growing sources of greenhouse gases that they have to do more.
A pair of recent studies find that countries should be dramatically ramping up carbon cutting efforts
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations released “separate and complementary” reports in the last week of November that -- together -- found that the world isn’t doing nearly enough to cut carbon emissions and, absent immediate, drastic reductions, will miss the 1.5 degree target for avoiding the most catastrophic effects of global warming.
The WMO’s Greenhouse Gas Bulletin found that in 2018, carbon levels were the highest ever recorded in human history. According to a press release issued by the organization:
Levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another new record high, according to the World Meteorological Organization. This continuing long-term trend means that future generations will be confronted with increasingly severe impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures, more extreme weather, water stress, sea level rise and disruption to marine and land ecosystems.
“There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “We need to translate the commitments into action and increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of the mankind,” he said.
Unfortunately, the United Nations’ “Emissions Gap Report 2019” shows that 2018’s record-breaking carbon dioxide levels were no fluke.
The study found that greenhouse gas emissions have increased over the last 10 years, and several of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, including the United States, Canada, Japan, Brazil, and Australia, are not on track to fulfill the reductions goals they agreed to in the Paris climate accord. Hitting the necessary reduction targets will be even harder if the United States continues to increase its carbon emissions at home and shirk meaningful climate action globally.
Sunday morning political shows should be doing a better, not worse, job of covering the climate crisis
Much like the world’s largest carbon emitters have a gap between what’s needed to curb the climate crisis and what they’re actually doing, Sunday morning political shows suffer from a coverage gap as the quantity and quality of their climate coverage is disproportionate to the scale of the emergency. Climate change is an existential threat to human existence. In the short term, catastrophic extreme weather events are making life materially precarious for millions of people across the country, including low-income and historically marginalized communities. These stories and their connection to climate change are not being told enough.
Pulling out of climate agreements, strong-arming the largest state in the country, and pushing weakened environmental regulations that threaten the health of millions of people are also political scandals. But, with a few exceptions, Sunday shows rarely press Trump administration officials and the political class of pundits, politicians, consultants, and operatives on these issues. As scientific study after study shows, the climate crisis cannot be ignored forever.
(Meet the Press ran a substantive climate segment on December 1, before this piece was published but after the month had ended.)