In reporting on the Supreme Court’s decision on West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, which effectively eliminated the agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, national TV news must provide crucial context, explaining that it's a victory for the fossil fuel industry, its political backers, and its right-wing media supporters.
The Supreme Court’s ominous recent decisions on abortion rights and gun control have rightly garnered a great deal of attention from the news media, but the court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA is on par with these other rulings in terms of impact. Not only will it severely hamper the executive branch’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, but it could also drastically limit federal agencies' rulemaking ability. And, as such, TV news should cover it widely and substantively.
This decision is especially concerning because the fossil fuel industry has been using the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine to call for continued and deepened reliance on the very products that are driving climate-fueled weather events such as the ongoing drought in the western United States, record-breaking wildfires in New Mexico, and the recent unprecedented heat waves that have gripped large swaths of the country. Rather than ignoring this backdrop, TV news must contextualize coverage of the decision with the current state of the climate crisis, which includes discussing how it will inhibit our ability to curtail irreversible warming.
Although national TV news has made some improvements in the quantity and quality of its climate coverage, outlets still largely fail to cover climate change as a political issue and to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable. Because this ruling is such a momentous decision, they must inform their viewers how and why the ruling was made and what it portends for necessary action to stave off the worst consequences of climate change. Here are three ways news outlets can rise to the grim occasion.
1. Report that the decision is a victory for the fossil fuel industry’s decadeslong strategy.
West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency is the culmination of the fossil fuel industry’s decadeslong, billion-dollar campaign to erode the public consensus on climate change, fool the public about its commitment to addressing the climate crisis, and thwart any climate action that could impact its bottom line. The fossil fuel industry has also worked closely with the Republican Party, which has been largely unified in its opposition to climate action and received about 80% of fossil fuel industry funding in nearly every election over the past 20 years.
Regarding West Virginia v. EPA and other climate cases winding their way through the judicial system, The New York Times writes:
The case, West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, is the product of a coordinated, multiyear strategy by Republican attorneys general, conservative legal activists and their funders, several with ties to the oil and coal industries, to use the judicial system to rewrite environmental law, weakening the executive branch’s ability to tackle global warming.
Coming up through the federal courts are more climate cases, some featuring novel legal arguments, each carefully selected for its potential to block the government’s ability to regulate industries and businesses that produce greenhouse gases.
“It’s a pincer move,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of the progressive watchdog group True North Research and a former senior Justice Department official. “They are teeing up the attorneys to bring the litigation before the same judges that they handpicked.”
This strategy has yielded one of its biggest victories for the fossil fuel industry and against climate action with the West Virginia v. EPA decision. The fossil fuel industry has been exploiting geopolitical conflicts for profit while driving the climate crisis and degrading the environment for billions of people, and national TV news has been reluctant to call it out. It's also failed to hold politicians accountable for thwarting needed climate action.
Coverage of federal efforts to address climate change also tends to reduce complex issues to easy narratives that focus on intraparty fighting or on a small cohort of supposedly climate-friendly Republicans. Instead, outlets must candidly report that the fossil fuel industry, in tandem with its political alliances, is the reason the United States government has failed to take meaningful climate action after being warned about the consequences of global warming more than 30 years ago. And they must explain that decisions like West Virginia v. EPA will make future climate action at the federal level much more difficult.
It is paramount that TV news outlets stop missing key opportunities to frame climate change as a political issue. For example, during Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination hearing, her answers on climate change and information about the dark money interests funding her confirmation battle were rarely mentioned and never became a part of the broader cable news coverage of her nomination. At the time, Media Matters wrote:
Although cable news shows largely ignored the obvious opportunities to explore how Barrett’s funding and climate denial places her in lockstep with a broad right-wing agenda that is focused on obstructing climate action and defanging environmental protections, it is not too late for them to incorporate the dire threat she poses to climate and environmental regulation.
Cable news shows should mirror the reporting of environmental-focused news outlets such as E&E News, DeSmog Blog, and Grist as well as national outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post that wrote clearly about how Barrett’s climate denial would make her a solid vote to thwart climate action and environmental protections. This includes reporting on how a conservative-majority Supreme Court potentially would “lock in opposition to expansive readings of the Clean Air Act that encompass greenhouse gas emissions or trigger a reexamination of the landmark 2007 climate case Massachusetts v. EPA,” upholding President Trump’s brazen Big Polluter agenda long after he has vacated the Oval Office.
2. Be clear about what this means for the EPA’s ability to regulate climate change — and what paths remain for federal climate action
National TV news finally began acknowledging that extreme weather is connected to climate change to some degree in 2021. But national TV news has consistently failed to report on the primary cause of global warming: the burning of fossil fuels. This year has already witnessed multiple aberrant weather events, including devastating heat waves in India and Pakistan, destructive tornadoes that devastated parts of the South, and an enormous ice shelf collapse in Antarctica after temperatures reached 70 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.
Transitioning away from fossil fuel is necessary to mitigate these events.
But with this decision, the worst fears of climate advocates and scientists may come true. As Scientific American wrote in February, after the oral arguments:
The current case was brought because opponents of climate action are trying to limit the scope of how EPA regulates polluters going forward. A finding in favor of the petitioners could have implications well beyond the power sector, undermining the EPA’s authority on climate change mitigation and public health protections broadly.
A ruling against the EPA could also limit its ability to factor in the latest climate science as it makes decisions about strengthening future standards. The latest data describing climate change have only become clearer, their scientific interpretation more dire, as underscored in an amicus brief filed by a number of eminent climate scientists.
Coverage should focus on the potential climate ramifications of the decision, as well as the paths that remain for federal climate action, which include a range of executive actions President Biden could take to address climate change. Coverage should also focus on how this decision could hobble the administrative state. For almost 40 years, agencies have promulgated rules pursuant to Chevron deference, which requires that courts give deference to agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes. If the Supreme Court erodes or overturns that doctrine, these regulations would be ripe for legal challenges. According to E&E News:
Legal experts are waiting to see if the ruling in West Virginia v. EPA begins to chip away at the ability of federal agencies — all of them, not just EPA — to write and enforce regulations. It would foreshadow a power shift with profound consequences, not just for climate policy but virtually everything the executive branch does, from directing air traffic to protecting investors.
3. Amplify climate experts and advocates who have expertise in climate litigation and policy
Corporate TV news rarely, if ever, gives voice to climate and environmental scientists, journalists, experts, and advocates (with the notable exception of 2021). Including the voices of people directly affected by climate change and environmental pollution, as well as those fighting and organizing to stop these harms, must form the core of climate and environmental justice reporting. With this in mind, national TV news shows should book climate scientists, journalists, and activists, including young people of color, to discuss the decision and its ramifications, especially those who have worked on developing and implementing key EPA carbon emissions regulations like the Clean Power Plan.
The Supreme Court’s ruling curtailing the executive branch’s ability to combat climate change is decidedly newsworthy. Poll after poll finds that the majority of Americans want the government to take climate action. And a recent poll conducted by progressive think tank and polling firm Data for Progress found “that almost three-quarters of all likely voters (74 percent) are concerned about air and water pollution in their communities. That includes 79 percent of Independents and 57 percent of Republicans.” The poll also found that “63 percent of likely voters are concerned about the Supreme Court removing environmental protections established under the Clean Air Act.”
National TV news must avoid siloing or ignoring this decision and its potential ramifications for climate action and the administrative state. Instead, outlets must take this opportunity to inform their viewers about how the fossil fuel industry and its media and political backers have successfully constrained already limited policy options necessary to enact urgently needed climate proposals amid an accelerating climate crisis and rapidly closing window for meaningful action.