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  • NBC's Meet the Press neglected climate change for years before dedicating an episode to it

    The show's recent attention to climate change is welcome -- and it needs to be sustained

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    NBC's Meet the Press dedicated its last episode of 2018 entirely to climate change -- an unprecedented occurrence on a major Sunday morning political talk show. "We're not going to debate climate change, the existence of it," host Chuck Todd said at the start of the December 30 episode. "We're not going to give time to climate deniers. The science is settled, even if political opinion is not." His guests included NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel and politicians from both sides of the aisle who have advocated climate action, such as outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and outgoing Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL).

    But it took Meet the Press, which bills itself as “the longest-running show in television history,” an awfully long time to give climate change this much attention. For years before this episode, Meet the Press lagged behind the other Sunday shows in coverage of climate change -- even though the other shows have not been doing such a hot job themselves.

    Meet the Press addressed climate change in only one other episode in 2018, and it caught a lot of flak for featuring climate denier Danielle Pletka of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute making the ridiculous claim that global temperatures have been dropping. The fact-checking website PolitiFact determined that Pletka's statement was "false." Media figures and politicians castigated Todd for allowing such drivel on the air, including ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd, who tweeted, "Lord have mercy. ... Chuck, next time why don’t you have folks on who argue the world is flat. This is crazy. Balance shouldn’t be the goal, truth should."

    Altogether in 2018, Meet the Press discussed climate change in two episodes -- fewer than ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and Fox News Sunday, and tied for last place with CNN's State of the Union.

    In 2017, Meet the Press also addressed climate change in just two episodes, and it had the last-place spot all to itself. The other four major Sunday shows each discussed climate change in at least four episodes -- twice as many as NBC's show.

    The year 2016 was even worse. Todd brought up the topic of climate change just once that year on Meet the Press, again tying for last place among Sunday shows. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who was then running for the Democratic presidential nomination, mentioned climate change numerous times during his appearances on the show in 2016, but Todd didn't engage on the topic. During one such interview, Sanders began talking about climate change and Todd actually interrupted him to change the subject, saying, "Senator, right. But I want to go back to the other point."

    Todd and Meet the Press deserve credit for finally giving serious coverage to this most serious of challenges. The other Sunday shows should follow suit.

    But this needs to represent the start of a new trend of substantive climate change coverage that's sustained throughout the year. The climate crisis deserves to be addressed every week in discussions with informed guests who understand the scale of the problem and the solutions that could help keep it in check. If Todd goes back to avoiding the topic and the Meet the Press climate episode ends up being a one-off, aired over the winter holidays when viewership was likely low, then it will look like a cynical ploy to deflect criticism over the Pletka debacle. We're hoping Todd and Meet the Press are turning over a new leaf, and we'll be watching closely in 2019 to find out.

  • California newspaper editorials connect the dots between climate change and wildfires

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    When hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit the U.S. earlier this year, conservatives including Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt and Fox News personalities argued that it wasn’t the right time to talk about climate change. But a number of local leaders and journalists in the storm-hit states of Texas and Florida disagreed. They called for attention to the fact that climate change is making disasters worse, even as they worked to address and report on the immediate needs of their affected communities.

    Now many political leaders and newspapers in California are following the lead of those in Texas and Florida -- demanding that we recognize the threat of climate change and how it’s exacerbating weather events like the wildfires that have been blazing through parts of Northern California for the last week and a half, the most deadly and destructive fires in the state’s history.

    Many scientists have pointed to climate change as a significant factor that’s intensifying fires like those in California. Columbia University bioclimatologist Park Williams, who co-authored a study last year that found climate change was markedly worsening wildfires in the American West, talked to McClatchy about the California fires last week: “The fingerprint is definitely there,” Williams said. “The connection between temperatures and fire is one we see again and again in the correlation analyses we do.”

    California Gov. Jerry Brown emphasized the connection last week: “With a warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture, these kinds of catastrophes have happened and will continue to happen,” he said.

    And five of California’s biggest papers have published editorials clearly connecting the dots between this year’s out-of-control wildfire season and climate change.

    The Los Angeles Times, the largest newspaper in California, published an editorial on October 12 explaining how the fires fit into a broader pattern of weather disasters that scientists have been telling us to expect as the world warms:

    When this is over, it may well be the state’s worst fire catastrophe in recorded history by any measure.

    This is not just bad luck. Coming on the heels of other large-scale natural disasters — Houston inundated by a slow-moving tropical storm, swaths of Florida and the Caribbean ripped to shreds by a monster hurricane, much of Puerto Rico leveled by an equally powerful hurricane, a handful of Western states swept by massive fires that burned up millions of acres — one can’t help but see a disturbing pattern emerge. Those superstorms that scientists warned would result from climate change? They are here. The day of reckoning isn’t in the future. It is now.

    The Sacramento Bee made similar points in a strong October 10 editorial and put the heat on President Trump for ignoring climate change:

    Puerto Rico is in ruins. Thousands are displaced in Houston. The Gulf Coast is bracing for a fresh round of hurricanes.

    Now, epic wildfires are incinerating California.

    [...]

    Climate change is doing what scientists predicted — amplifying storms and lengthening wildfire seasons. … If it wasn’t clear last year — or the year before, or the year before that — it is obvious now that a new normal is at hand.

    Given that, it’s ironic, if not delusional, that the Trump administration would pick this, of all weeks, to move to repeal Obama-era limits on greenhouse gases, which drive global warming.

    The San Francisco Chronicle, The Mercury News (San Jose), and The San Diego Union-Tribune all published editorials arguing that governments need to be better prepared to fight wildfires, in part because climate change is making fires more of a danger.

    Of the six largest-circulation California newspapers that publish editorials, only The Orange County Register -- whose editorial board has a record of climate denial -- failed to make mention of climate change in its editorial about the ongoing fires.

    Editorial boards beyond California are picking up the thread as well. The Miami Herald, a major paper in a state recently hit by Hurricane Irma, made note of wildfires in an editorial last week that criticized President Trump’s reversal of the Clean Power Plan, a key Obama-era policy to fight climate change: “Ironically, the repeal is being announced at a time when the impact of climate change is too powerful to deny — in hurricanes of unprecedented frequency and power, in increasing droughts, in expanded wildfires.” The Washington Post and The New York Times ran editorials last week making similar points.

    Papers in disaster-afflicted areas are right to explain the connections between climate change and extreme weather. They have a responsibility not just to report on-the-ground happenings, but to put critical events in context -- especially in their editorials.

    Newspapers and networks with national audiences should do the same, following the lead of The Washington Post and The New York Times. The U.S. has suffered through a stunning string of disasters in recent months, exactly the kinds of extreme weather events that scientists have said we'll see more of as the climate continues to heat up. Media outlets have a duty to explain that climate change is driving some of the damage and will drive far more in the future if we don't curb our greenhouse gas emissions and better prepare our communities for disasters.

    This job is all the more important given that we have a president who not only denies basic climate science, but fails to take many disasters seriously. Trump has shown callous disregard for hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico, and he has almost entirely ignored the California wildfires. He hadn't even tweeted about the fires until today, 10 days after they started. Major media outlets need to step in and help fill that void.

    -----

    This post was updated to reflect the fact that President Trump tweeted about the wildfires on October 18.

  • No, the Republican Party has not pivoted on climate change

    Don't believe the trend pieces. Just look at what's happening in California.

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The Republicans-are-about-to-turn-a-corner-on-climate-change article is a perennial hot take. Its latest iteration comes to us courtesy of Politico. But like its many predecessors in the genre, it misses the real story: Republican politicians who do anything more than give lip service to the need for climate action will get pummelled by their fellow conservatives.

    Politico's story, which ran on August 19, was titled "More GOP lawmakers bucking their party on climate change." It claimed that "an unlikely surge of Republican lawmakers has begun taking steps to distance themselves from the GOP’s hard line on climate change," and that the "willingness of some Republicans to buck their party on climate change could help burnish their moderate credentials ahead of the 2018 elections."

    The article offers two main examples to support its argument: First, the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus "has more than tripled in size since January" and now includes 26 of the House's 240 Republicans. Second, 46 House Republicans voted in July against lifting a requirement that the Defense Department study climate change's impacts on the military.

    But these House members are hardly going out on a limb. The climate caucus does not promote any specific legislation or policies. And military leaders, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, have long been concerned about climate change and have voiced no objections to studying it. Indeed, the Politico article notes, "If the Republican Party is undergoing a shift on climate, it is at its earliest, most incremental stage."

    What About California?

    What the article missed was a timely and dramatic counterexample: In California, where a handful of GOP state legislators recently provided the decisive votes in favor of actual climate legislation, they have come under brutal fire from other Republicans.

    California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a bill on July 25 to extend the state's cap-and-trade system until 2030. He had negotiated with a handful of Republican legislators and with business lobbies, among others, to craft a relatively corporate-friendly bill, not as strong as many environmental justice advocates and other progressives wanted. In the end, three Democrats in the Assembly voted against it, so it was passed only because seven of their Republican colleagues voted for it. One Republican in the state Senate also voted in favor of the bill.

    The blowback against those Republicans was immediate and intense. GOP leaders throughout California are now pushing for the ouster of Republican Assembly Leader Chad Mayes, who played a key role in negotiating the bill and rounding up other Republican votes for it.

    And the blowback has gone national: Powerful D.C.-based anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist declared open season on Mayes and the seven other Republicans who voted “yes,” co-authoring an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last week that accused Mayes of "treachery" and argued that the California legislature is a "big fat target for taxpayers who wish to go after Republicans behaving badly."

    So even in California -- the most environmentally progressive state, where 72 percent of adults support an ambitious climate law that was passed last year -- Republicans are getting slammed for voting in favor of climate legislation.

    Never mind that they actually helped companies avoid tougher regulations. Never mind that the oil and gas industry participated in drafting the bill and ultimately supported it, as did the agriculture lobby, the California Chamber of Commerce, and other major business groups. Never mind that the law could help Republicans kill the state's high-speed rail project, which they have long opposed. Never mind that the Republican Party desperately needs to change if it wants to regain a foothold in California; only 25.9 percent of the state’s voters are registered as GOP and 7 percent of those voters have told pollsters they’re considering leaving the party over its stance on climate change. Mayes and his compatriots went against GOP orthodoxy, and that’s what their fellow party members care about.

    If this kind of backlash happens in the Golden State, just imagine what would happen in D.C. if the House Climate Solutions Caucus did anything more than gently gesture at the possibility of climate action. Conservative groups in D.C. aren't even satisfied with an administration that's been aggressively rolling back environmental protections; they are pushing the EPA to debate and undermine basic climate science.

    National media should be reporting on the drama unfolding in California when they write about Republicans and climate change. It's been covered by newspapers in the state but missed by virtually all outlets beyond California's borders.

    The Mythical Republican Climate Pivot

    Politico is far from alone in pushing the idea that Republicans might be nearing a tipping point on climate change. Reporters and columnists at national outlets keep publishing versions of this seemingly counterintuitive story and glossing over a key truth: The base and the establishment of the Republican Party will enact harsh retribution on elected officials who endorse policies designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

    Vice published a piece on August 17 titled "The Republicans Trying to Fight Climate Denial in Their Own Party," which focused on the Climate Leadership Council, a group of former Republican officials who are pushing a carbon tax. The key word there is former; no current Republican members of Congress or prominent officeholders have publicly endorsed such a policy. The story made no mention of the ongoing fight in California.

    Going back a few months, Time ran an article in May headlined "Meet the Republicans Taking On Climate Change," which mentioned both the Climate Solutions Caucus and the Climate Leadership Council. The Guardian ran one in April under the headline "The Republicans who care about climate change: 'They are done with the denial.'" It claimed that "there are fresh shoots of hope that, as a party, Republicans’ climate intransigence is shifting," and it, too, cited the climate caucus.

    Journalists have been writing these sorts of stories for years. I wrote one myself in 2015 for Grist: "Getting warmer: More Republicans are starting to take climate change seriously." It was no more prescient than the others. It began by noting that then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) had come out in support of President Obama's Clean Power Plan. But the next year, the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity announced that it didn't like Ayotte's embrace of "Obama’s far-left environmental agenda," so it pulled its support from her re-election campaign, and she went on to lose to her Democratic challenger.

    Go all the way back to 2010 for a classic of the genre, a Thomas Friedman opinion column in The New York Times titled "How the G.O.P. Goes Green," which praised Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for "courageously" trying to craft a bipartisan climate bill. Less than four months later, Graham bailed from the whole enterprise and helped to ensure that no climate legislation would pass during the Obama presidency. 

    The Harsh Truth

    It's nice that a handful of congressional Republicans are taking baby steps toward acknowledging that climate change is a big problem that demands big solutions. But their moves are far from courageous, and the media adulation they get is all out of proportion to their clout. Norquist is more influential on this issue than all of the climate-concerned congressional Republicans combined, a fact most journalists are not acknowledging, and Norquist reiterated his die-hard opposition to a carbon tax just last week.

    Many of the articles about Republicans turning over a new leaf on climate cite Bob Inglis or the group he runs, RepublicEN, which promotes conservative climate solutions. Inglis was a U.S. representative from South Carolina until he got primaried out in 2010, in part because he called for a carbon tax. Norquist's organization, Americans for Tax Reform, gave a boost to Inglis' primary challenger. In the years since, Inglis has been working doggedly to get other Republicans to take climate change seriously, but if they followed his advice at this point, they'd likely get booted out in a primary too.

    Just like there's no Donald Trump pivot, there's no Republican climate pivot. We'll know we're seeing real change when more than a handful of GOP lawmakers take a risky vote for actual policy to reduce carbon emissions. Until then, journalists should avoid writing trend stories about this nonexistent trend.