Why The Washington Post Is Running A Series Of Editorials On The “Existential Threat” Of Climate Change

The Washington Post is publishing a week of climate change editorials aimed at sparking action on what editorial page editor Fred Hiatt calls “an existential threat to the planet.”

 In an interview with Media Matters about the ongoing series, Hiatt said that the Post views this as a moment “when the debate could begin to get unstuck.” He believes that increasingly dire warnings from scientists about the threat of climate change and new regulations aimed at reducing carbon pollution could lead to new legislation on this issue. “So we wanted to encourage that process and also put forward as you'll see later in the week, a couple of approaches that we think would make a lot of sense and might at some point even be politically feasible.”

The series marks a major effort from an editorial page that has in the past been criticized by progressives for publishing misleading columns about global warming.

“Over the long run it is an existential threat to the planet, I believe that, so you don't get much bigger than that,” Hiatt said about the decision to run the week of editorials. “That doesn't mean that you can set aside other really big problems that are facing us today, but over time ... the longer we wait to do something about it, the greater the damage is likely to be and the more disruptive the response will be.”

Monday's first editorial lamented the faltering national debate on this issue, while today's offering explained why the country can't afford to “wait while the world warms.”

Among the potential solutions the paper is considering -- in an editorial slated for Wednesday -- is an effort to create some kind of carbon cap or permit fee, perhaps based on a proposal from Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), that would require utilities and others to pay a fee for levels of greenhouse gas emissions beyond a certain point.

“We have consistently said that the best way to do this is to put in some way to put a price on carbon, you can do that with carbon tax, you can do that with a cap and dividend system and we'll talk a little bit about the relative merits,” Hiatt said. “Somehow you need to put a price on the greenhouse gases that we emit into the atmosphere so that people have to pay for the damage they are doing and they have an incentive to invest in new approaches.” 

Hiatt cited editorial writer Stephen Stromberg as the “driving force” behind the series, which will run through Friday.

“We've been talking about it for quite a while,” he explained. “But whether to do it as an occasional series or all at once or call it a series or not call it a series we sort of probably decided on that a week or so ago.”

Hiatt agreed it is unusual for a newspaper to devote an entire week of editorials to one issue, but said climate change warrants the attention.

“I've done this before, we did a big series on inequality maybe 10 years ago,” he said. “I don't do it too often because I think it's asking a lot of readers who expect, they don't come to editorials for a long read. Every once in a while I think it makes sense and including as a way for us to say this is really an important issue, and one of the luxuries of an editorial page is we can write about stuff even if we don't have an immediate news peg.”

The editorial series has already drawn criticism from conservative media, including commentators on the Fox Business Network, who dismissed the paper's calls for action as economically harmful.

Hiatt said much of the goal is to spark renewed debate in Congress and elsewhere to get real solutions discussed and implemented. While the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed cap and trade legislation in 2009, the bill lacked enough support from conservative Democrats and Republicans to pass the Senate. Since Republicans took over the House in 2010 the legislative debate has stagnated.

“There's no question that the kind of paralysis in Congress has led a lot of people to say, 'okay let's move on, nothing happening here,'” he said. “And we thought to spotlight it now hopefully would be a way to say, 'number one, we can't afford to move on, this is something we've got to deal with and number two, don't give up.' There are reasons to think that the political system might yet come up with something and we'd like to give it a push in that direction.”

Hiatt admitted that climate change isn't an easy issue for the media to cover.

“It's a hard subject for the press as it is for politicians because it isn't something you can see, it isn't something that's really going to change our life for this year or next year,” he said. “So you're asking readers and/or voters to focus on something that's hugely important for the next generation and never seems quite as important as whatever the crisis of the week might be.”   

The Post editorial page's own coverage has for years come under criticism -- including from Media Matters -- for printing columns containing misleading and inaccurate information on climate change, particularly from columnist George Will. Earlier this year, climate activism group Forecast the Facts gathered more than 100,000 signatures calling on the paper to “stop publishing misinformation on its opinion pages about climate change.”

But Hiatt said the new focus on climate change does not mean those with differing views, even deniers of the problem, will be barred from the Post's opinion pages.

“We encourage robust debate on our op-ed page and for anything in general, not just any one topic,” he said. “I'm more inclined to take op-eds that challenge our editorials than just kind of join the chorus. And...we try in both letters and op-eds to make sure that nothing we print is factually inaccurate.”