How Much Would You Pay to Save the Planet?
The American Press and the Economics of Climate Change
Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government | January 2009
By Eric Pooley, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Discussion Paper 49
EXCERPT: How is the press doing on the climate solutions story? This paper attempts to answer that question by examining coverage of the economic debate over Senate Bill 2191, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008. The economics of climate policy—not the science of climate change—is at the heart of our story because the most important step toward national mobilization is putting a price on carbon emissions, either through a carbon tax or, in Lieberman-Warner's case, a mandatory declining cap. This is the great political test, and the great story, of our time. But news organizations have not been treating it that way.
Reflecting on the civil rights struggle of the 1960s in a recent lecture at the Kennedy School of Government, Georgia Congressman John L. Lewis praised the American press for its coverage of the movement, calling the press a "sympathetic referee in the struggle for social justice." When one side of a national debate carries with it such compelling, unambiguous moral authority, he suggested, the human beings who make up the media have no choice but to take sides. "Without the press," he said, "the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings."
The climate crisis represents another such moment in our public life. But I would argue that this time the press must not allow itself to become a "sympathetic referee." It should be sympathetic only to the idea that solutions must be found and that further delay is intolerable. Beyond that, what's needed isn't sympathy but honesty—a referee who calls it straight. The press has an obligation to remain clear-eyed and skeptical because with the policy issues so complex and the stakes so high, we can't afford to get this wrong. Well-crafted legislation can reduce emissions while encouraging job creation, while a bad bill could drive investment out of the energy sector yet fail to reduce emissions. Reporters need to learn the difference between sound economic analysis and weapons of mass persuasion.
Individual journalists must master the nuances of the story and devise ways to present them to readers. Since this is a big, ugly war with trillions of dollars at stake, that shouldn't be too hard. There's plenty of conflict for journalists to snack on. But the central problem confronting climate policy reporters cannot be solved by climate policy reporters. That problem is the choice news organizations have made not to devote the necessary manpower and column inches to the climate policy story. Top editors need to decide that this will no longer be a disposable beat. Until that happens, the press will continue to underreport the story of the century: the race to save the planet from a meteor known as humankind.
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