One of the country’s leading journalists has written a searing critique of the media’s coverage of global warming, especially climate economics.

How Much Would You Pay to Save the Planet? The American Press and the Economics of Climate Change [PDF] is by Eric Pooley for Harvard’s prestigious Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Pooley has been managing editor of Fortune, national editor of Time, Time‘s chief political correspondent, and Time‘s White House correspondent, where he won the Gerald Ford Prize for Excellence in Reporting. Before that, he was a senior editor of New York magazine.

In short, Pooley has earned the right to be heard. Journalists and senior editors need to pay heed to Pooley’s three tough conclusions abut how “damaging” the recent media of the climate debate has been:

  1. The press misrepresented the economic debate over cap and trade. It failed to recognize the emerging consensus … that cap and trade would have a marginal effect on economic growth and gave doomsday forecasts coequal status with nonpartisan ones … The press allowed opponents of climate action to replicate the false debate over climate science in the realm of climate economics.
  2. The press failed to perform the basic service of making climate policy and its economic impact understandable to the reader and allowed opponents of climate action to set the terms of the cost debate. The argument centered on the short-term costs of taking action — i.e., higher electricity and gasoline prices — and sometimes assumed that doing nothing about climate change carried no cost.
  3. Editors failed to devote sufficient resources to the climate story. In general, global warming is still being shoved into the “environment” pigeonhole, along with the spotted owls and delta smelt, when it is clearly to society’s detriment to think about the subject that way. It is time for editors to treat climate policy as a permanent, important beat: tracking a mobilization for the moral equivalent of war.

Precisely.

Pooley is one of the few major journalists in the country who understands that global warming is the story of the century — if we don’t reverse our emissions path soon, it will tragically be the story of the millennium, with irreversible impacts lasting for many, many centuries (see here).

In a conversation Saturday, Pooley told me, “I think this is the only story going forward.” That’s why, although he remains a contributor to Time magazine, he is devoting most of his time now to researching and writing a book on the politics and economics of climate change.

The first step for Pooley was an analysis of media coverage over the past 15 months. In a long introduction to the different roles reporters can play, Pooley notes:

Being a referee is harder than being a stenographer because it requires grappling with the substance of an issue in a way that many time-pressed journalists aren’t willing or able to do.

He decided to examine media coverage surrounding the 2008 Senate debate over the climate bill put forward by John Warner (R-Va.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.):

News coverage of the Lieberman-Warner debate included some shoddy, one-sided reporting and some strong work that took the time both to dive into the policy weeds — evaluating the economic assumptions used by the various players — and step back to portray those players as com-batants in a war for public opinion. But most of the reporting was bad in the painstakingly balanced way of so much daily journalism — two sides, no real meat.

He then explains his research:

My analysis of news articles published in national and regional newspapers, wire services, and newsmagazines between December 2007 and June 2008 suggests that for most reporters covering this story, the default role was that of stenographer — presenting a nominally balanced view of the debate without questioning the validity of the arguments, sometimes even ignoring evidence that one side was twisting truth. Database searches yielded a sample of 40 published news and analysis stories that explored the cost debate in some de-tail (see appendix). Of these, seven stories were one-sided. Twenty-four stories were works of journalistic stenography. And nine stories attempted, with varying degrees of success, to move past the binary debate, weigh the arguments, and reach conclusions about this thorny issue.

The bottom line:

The media’s collective decision to play the stenographer role actually helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.

He makes another interesting point, one I would not have expected from a journalist:

Mainstream news organizations have accepted the conclusions of the IPCC but have not yet applied those conclusions to the economic debate. The terms of that debate have been defined by opponents of climate action who argue that reducing emissions would “cost too much.” So the battle has been fought over the short-term price of climate action and its impact on GDP, while overlooking an extremely important variable, the long-term costs of inaction and business as usual.

Although Pooley doesn’t make the point, the problem he identifies is compounded by the fact that the mainstream economic community also overestimates the cost of action and underestimates the cost of inaction, a central point of my ongoing series on voodoo economists (see, for instance, Voodoo economists Part 3 and Part 2).

That means when the media goes out looking for a well-known climate economist to quote in an article, they typically end up with someone who doesn’t understand the scientific urgency and those who misunderstand the economics (more on that in Parts 5, 6, and 7 of the series).

If you really want to understand the fact that even a very strong cap-and trade-bill “would have a marginal effect on economic growth,” the best place to go is the the International Energy Agency and IPCC and McKinsey (see “McKinsey 2008 Research in Review: Stabilizing at 450 ppm has a net cost near zero“).

Pooley’s whole paper is a must-read, especially for advocates of climate action. Yes, the media bears much culpability for the fact that, as Pooley says, “the tipping point for climate action has not yet been reached.” But so do scientists, environmentalists, and progressives. The general state of our messaging remains lousy (see, for instance, Part 4 and Does the “Reality Campaign” need new Mad Men?).

One clear message from this study is that the climate science activists need to do a better job of spelling out the cost of inaction. Until that cost is clear to the public, the media, and policymakers, the country will never be able to mobilize to do what is needed to preserve a livable climate.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action
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