Interviewing Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy late last year about the Obama administration's historic climate change agreement with China, MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell asked how the administration would handle Republican critics of the deal. Mitchell wondered what the White House plan was to deal with GOP “climate deniers” firmly entrenched against the carbon emissions agreement.
On the eve of the 2016 presidential season, Mitchell and the rest of the Beltway press face a similar query: How will journalists deal with Republican climate deniers on the campaign trail? The question goes to the heart of informative political reporting and the importance of holding candidates accountable.
Political jockeying over climate change was elevated last week when the U.S. Senate, for the first time in eight years, cast votes on the topic. On January 21, the Senate voted 98-1 to approve a resolution stating, “climate change is real and not a hoax.” Then the Senate rejected a second amendment that stated climate change is real and is significantly caused by humans.
“Man can't change the climate,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), announced. “The hoax is there are some people so arrogant to think they are so powerful they can change the climate.” Republicans, including possible White House candidates Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), voted overwhelmingly against the second resolution, even though the scientific evidence is nearly unanimous that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change.
Meanwhile, the flood of scientific warnings continue and the issue gains urgency. (Tuesday's New England blizzard was the latest example of severe weather that may have been exacerbated by warming seas.) In 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney did not address climate change one time during their three televised debates. But just two years later during the midterm cycle the topic came up “in at least 10 debates in Senate and governor's races” across the country, according to the New York Times. If that trend continues, climate change could well be a cornerstone topic of the next general election campaign season.
For years though, the political press' handling of Republican and conservative climate deniers has been troubling, as journalists politely make room in the debate for fact-free claims about the lack of human involvement. The pending campaign season raises the stakes in terms of holding politicians accountable. But is the press up to the challenge?
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen Tweeted last week, “This train -- climate change denialism -- is coming directly at the campaign press and they have no clue how to deal.”
The press seemed somewhat clueless last year. During midterm campaigns, a whole host of prominent Republicans refused to directly address the issue of climate change. Instead, they hid behind a gigantic caveat: “I am not a scientist.” It became the “go-to talking point for Republicans questioned about climate change in the 2014 campaigns,” reported the Times.
Of course, most Republican members of Congress aren't economists, yet they regularly pontificate and cast votes about tax and trade policy. Worse, last autumn while Republicans were insisting they weren't qualified to talk about the science of climate change they were simultaneously lecturing the White House about the science of Ebola.
Why the I'm-not-a-scientist dodge? Republicans aren't just on the wrong side of science, they are on the wrong side of public opinion. “Recent polls show that a clear majority of Americans believe the climate is in fact changing, and nearly half view that as a major threat to the country's future,” reported Slate this month.
But with the right-wing media, the Tea Party movement and, perhaps most importantly, the oil billionaire Koch brothers firmly entrenched in the climate denier camp, Republicans don't want to upset or embarrass supporters - and the deep-pocketed dirty energy industry - by conceding that climate change is real and is being caused by human activity. So they hide behind the “scientist” caveat. But that ploy only works if journalists play along and provide cover. Will they in 2016?
As Paul Waldman at the Washington Post noted (emphasis added):
Just a few years prior, the common Republican position had been that 1) climate change is occurring, and 2) the best way to deal with it is not through heavy-handed government regulation, but by harnessing the power of free markets in a “cap and trade” system, which worked so well to reduce acid rain. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and John Huntsman had all previously endorsed cap and trade.
But the current crop of potential nominees have purer records when it comes to climate denialism.
How does the press deal with this kind of dichotomy? (It's like still debating in 1974 whether it's possible to land a man on the moon.)
Perhaps the U.S. press should learn from the British Broadcasting Company. Last year, a report from the BBC Trust determined Britain's public broadcasting service should not be giving equal airtime to climate change deniers simply in order to present "both sides" of the topic.
Look at how the Senate's recent climate change votes were covered; the votes where a majority of Republicans affirmed that human activity doesn't significantly contribute to climate change, a position that put the GOP indirect conflict with science and facts and research and learning.
“Isn't that a completely disqualifying position?” wondered Jonathan Chait at New York.
That's not how the political press treated the spectacle. The New York Times published two brief articles about the Senate's climate change votes. Both focused on the political strategies surrounding the tallies (i.e. process), and neither article noted that Republicans had rejected overwhelming scientific evidence in dismissing the human role played in climate change.
Incredibly, Politico actually declared Republicans the victors of the Senate's climate change showdown, claiming crafty Republicans had outfoxed Democrats. By going on the record in opposition to virtually all published scientific findings on the matter?
Is the political press really going to reward that kind of Republican behavior in 2016?