When President-elect Donald Trump made seemingly open-minded remarks about climate change during a November 22 meeting with staff of The New York Times, it set off a wave of television coverage about how Trump had supposedly “reversed course” on climate change. But few of these reports addressed any of the substantive reasons that is highly unlikely, such as his transition team’s plan to abandon the Obama administration’s landmark climate policy, indications that he will dismantle NASA’s climate research program, and his appointment of fossil fuel industry allies as transition team advisers -- not to mention the full context of Trump’s remarks to the Times.
In his interview with reporters, editors and opinion columnists from the Times, Trump contradicted his long-held stance that climate change is a “hoax” by stating that he thinks “there is some connectivity” between human activities and climate change (although even that statement doesn’t fully reflect the consensus view of climate scientists that human activities are the “dominant cause” of global warming). Trump also declined to reaffirm his earlier statements that he would “renegotiate” or “cancel” the international climate agreement reached in Paris last year, instead saying that he has an “open mind” about how he will approach the Paris agreement.
But there are many reasons to take these comments with a grain of salt. For one, Trump has given no indication that he will preserve the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which is the linchpin of the United States’ emissions reduction commitments under the Paris climate agreement. To the contrary, The Associated Press reported that internal documents from Trump’s transition team “show the new administration plans to stop defending the Clean Power Plan and other recent Obama-era environmental regulations that have been the subject of long-running legal challenges filed by Republican-led states and the fossil fuel industry.” Moreover, a senior Trump space policy adviser recently indicated that the Trump administration plans to eliminate NASA’s climate change research program, a move that would likely be accompanied by significant funding cuts to climate research.
Additionally, Trump has appointed Myron Ebell, a climate science denier from the fossil fuel-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, to lead his EPA transition team, and two other close allies of the fossil fuel industry, Kathleen Hartnett White and Scott Pruitt, are reportedly Trump’s leading contenders to run the EPA. Trump also named Thomas Pyle, president of the fossil fuel-funded American Energy Alliance, to head his Energy Department transition team. According to The Washington Post, “Hartnett-White, Pyle and Ebell have all expressed doubt about climate change and have criticized the findings of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”
Then there are Trump’s Times comments themselves, which have been “wildly misinterpreted” in the media, as Grist’s Rebecca Leber has explained. In addition to saying there is “some connectivity” between human activities and climate change, Trump said during the Times interview that there are “a lot of smart people” on the “other side” of the issue, and added: “You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, 98. You know, you can make lots of cases for different views.” Trump also appeared to reference the thoroughly debunked “Climategate” scandal about emails among climate scientists at a U.K. university, stating, “They say they have science on one side but then they also have those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists.”
Nonetheless, Trump’s two seemingly climate-friendly remarks to the Times -- that he has an “open mind” about the Paris climate agreement and that humans play some role in climate change -- generated a tremendous amount of uncritical television coverage:
- ABC: On the November 23 edition of ABC’s morning show, Good Morning America, correspondent David Wright stated that Trump “hit hard” on climate change during the campaign but is “now more noncommittal” about it. Later that day, on the network’s evening news program, World News Tonight, congressional correspondent Mary Bruce reported that Trump was “softening on a host of campaign promises,” including his pledge to “pull out of the Paris climate change deal.” And in an interview with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on the November 27 edition of ABC’s Sunday news show, This Week, chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz said that Trump had “changed his tune” on climate change.
- CBS: On the November 22 edition of CBS Evening News, anchor Scott Pelley stated that Trump “revised” his position on climate change, and national correspondent Chip Reid reported that Trump “changed his tune on the issue of climate change, and whether it`s caused by human activity.” The following morning, on CBS Morning News, correspondent Hena Daniels said that Trump “reversed course on the issue of climate change,” and on that day’s episode of CBS This Morning, co-host Gayle King similarly said that Trump is “reversing” his campaign position on climate change.
- NBC: On the November 27 edition of NBC’s Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd asked: “From the border wall to global warming, is there a change in the air?” Todd also listed climate change as one of the issues on which Trump “has either backed away from some of the rhetoric or just stayed silent.”
Trump’s climate remarks also received wall-to-wall coverage on cable news, although unlike the broadcast networks’ reports, several of the cable segments did feature pushback on the notion that Trump had actually changed his position on the issue.
Trump’s climate comments were uncritically covered on several CNN programs, including New Day, Anderson Cooper 360, and CNN Tonight with Don Lemon. And on the November 27 edition of Inside Politics, host John King and senior political reporter Manu Raju agreed that Trump’s climate remarks were a “big deal.” Some of these programs included speculation about whether Trump truly meant what he said to the Times or whether it was a negotiating ploy, but none mentioned any specific steps Trump has taken since the election that undermine claims that he has reversed course on climate change.
By contrast, several other CNN programs included pushback on the notion that Trump had “softened” or “reversed” his position on climate change. For instance, on the November 23 edition of Erin Burnett Outfront, CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein cited Trump’s plan to repeal the Clean Power Plan as evidence that although Trump is “signaling a different tone” on climate change, “when you get into the guts of the policy, he is going in the same direction”:
Similarly, in an interview with NextGen Climate founder Tom Steyer on the November 27 edition of Fareed Zakaria GPS, host Zakaria noted that despite his comments to the Times, Trump “still has a leading climate change denier [Myron Ebell] as the head of his EPA transition, [and] his actions and contradictory words have climate change activists concerned.” Zakaria added that Trump “does say he's going to reverse a lot of these executive actions that Obama has taken, whether it's on coal-fired plants or vehicle emissions.”
A couple of CNN guests also challenged the premise that Trump had shifted his stance on climate change. On the November 22 edition of CNN’s Wolf, Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) said of Trump’s climate remarks to the Times, “The real test is who is he appointing and what will his policies be.” And on the November 23 edition of CNN’s At This Hour, Michael Needham of Heritage Action for America (the sister organization of the fossil fuel industry-funded Heritage Foundation), pointed to other remarks Trump made to the Times in order to dispute the idea that Trump had accepted that climate change is “settled science.” Needham stated:
I read the actual transcript of this thing. If you look at what [Trump] says on climate change, it's pretty much what we would have said at Heritage. He said there are questions that need to be looked at, there's research on both sides of the issue, this is not settled science the way some people on the left want to say.
Finally, all of the prime-time MSNBC shows that featured substantial discussions of Trump’s climate remarks included proper context. For instance, on the December 2 edition of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, Hayes explained that incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus had “clarif[ied]” that Trump’s “default position” on climate change is “that most of it is a bunch of bunk.” Hayes also explained that a senior Trump adviser had indicated that “NASA would be limited to exploring other planets rather than providing satellite information and data about what’s happening on the only planet we currently inhabit”:
Similarly, on the November 30 edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews, Matthews aired a clip of Priebus confirming that Trump’s “default position” on climate change is that “most of it is a bunch of bunk.” And on the November 22 edition of MTP Daily, guest host Andrea Mitchell pointed out that Trump “appointed somebody from a very conservative, climate-denying, Koch-sponsored organization, policy institute, to lead the transition on energy and climate issues,” although Mitchell nonetheless maintained that Trump’s statement that he is now open to the Paris climate agreement was “a very big signal internationally.”