A consensus seems to be emerging that climate change has begun exceeding its natural variability, and that accelerating global warming is something to be feared. What makes me think so? Accounts of widely shared experiences on the front pages of the newspapers that I read: forest fires; melting ice; famine, flood and drought; ecosystem collapse, and species loss. The Economist’s cover 10 days ago was, “Losing the War against Climate Change.”
What can we hope to do about it? It’s hard to tell, since, at least for the present, it seems only one problem among many: trade wars, international rivalries, urban-rural disparities, even arguments about the nature of truth. Yet many ways of narrowing differences exist, beginning with, as noted, the great but sometimes dangerous teacher of experience.
I’d like to suggest that we pay special attention to another mechanism. I think someone, not me, should carefully examine and compare the coverage that climate change receives from the three major American newspapers, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, with other nations and other languages soon to follow.
There is, obviously, a wide divergence in treatments of these issues. For example, the Aug. 5 Sunday Times magazine devoted an entire issue to a 30,000-word article accompanied by striking photographs of various disasters, titled “Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet.” Meanwhile, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, arguing that Trump administration deregulation policies were “improving consumer choice and reducing cost from health care to appliances,” celebrated the decision to freeze corporate average fuel-economy (CAFE) standards as “Trump’s Car Freedom Act.” The two issues are not tightly connected, the editorial argued, offering a crash course in the microeconomics of auto-emissions regulation in a dozen paragraphs.
The Times magazine was especially striking. Nathaniel Rich, the author, writes, “That we came so close, as a civilization, to breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels can be credited to the efforts of a handful of people, a hyperkinetic lobbyist and a guileless atmospheric physicist, who at great personal cost, tried to warn humanity of what was coming.”
Of the story’s heroes, the lobbyist, Rafe Pomerance, seemingly had been born to his role: “He was a Morgenthau – the great-grandson of Henry Sr., Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire; great-nephew of Henry Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary; second cousin to Robert, district attorney for Manhattan,” The physicist, James Hansen, had been the first to raise the alarm, as lead author of a Science paper, in 1982, then, forcefully, before a Senate hearing in the heatwave summer of 1988. Rich’s story has its villains, too: then-White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and Office of Management and then-Budget Director Richard Darman, who together blunted a drive to cap carbon emissions during the George H.W. Bush administration. And, of course, there is the author himself; the son of former Times columnist Frank Rich and HarperCollins executive editor Gail Winston. I don’t know about the three novels that Rich has published, but a previous article in the Times Magazine, about the history of a Dupont Co. product called PFOA, for perfluorooctanoic acid, was awfully good. This new article is divided into two chapters, with all the years since 1989 compressed into a short epilogue. My hunch is that they are drawn from a book in progress.
Rich’s article elicited a response from WSJ columnist Holman Jenkins, Jr., “Fuel Mileage Rules Are No Help to the Climate.” Incorporating the arguments of the paper’s editorial on the topic more or less by reference (he probably wrote the editorial), Jenkins disparaged Rich’s attachment to international climate treaties that “by their nature would have been collusion in empty gestures.” He scolded him for failing to note that “the U.S. has gone through umpteen budget and tax debates without a carbon tax — which is unpopular with the public, but so are all taxes – ever being part of the discussion.”
That seemed to be jumping the gun, given that Rich’s magazine article so clearly seemed part of a longer account. Perhaps later Rich will get around to the issue of quotas vs. prices as a way of limiting carbon dioxide emissions. Still, I was glad to see Jenkins bring up what seems to me to be the central issue of what can be done to curb global warming. He blamed “the green movement” for “hysterical exaggeration and vilifying critics” for the failure to obtain widespread support “the one policy that is nearly universally endorsed by economists, that could be a model of cost-effective self-help to other countries, that could be enacted in a revenue-neutral way that would actually have been pro-growth” (as opposed to a presumed drag on it).
I’m not so sure that the Greens, or even the Democrats, are mostly to blame. It’s true that the WSJ has periodically published op-ed pieces propounding carbon taxation – for instance, here. But if the paper’s editorial board has taken the initiative in arguing that global warming is a serious threat and that urgent measures are required to combat it, I haven’t noticed. Jenkins wrote, “A carbon tax remains a red cape to many conservatives, but in fact, it would represent a relatively innocuous adjustment to the tax code. It could solve political problems for conservatives (who want a tax code friendlier to work, savings, and investment) an as well as for liberals (who want action on climate change.)”
I was among those who were disappointed when The Times a year ago discontinued the position of its public editor. To that point it had been the leader among newspapers employing news professionals to plump for high standards of public discussion.
Other papers rely on columnists (like Jenkins) to augment debate. and preserve a semblance of even-handedness. Newspaper discourse is a little like an ongoing series of judicial proceedings. Acting as advocates – reporters, for readers; editorialists, for publishers – obey different rules to summon experts to support their pleadings. A seminal event in the saga of global climate study occurred 60 years ago when the U.S. established a carbon-dioxide observatory atop a volcano in Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Who will establish an equally disinterested project to monitor major emissions of newspaper hot air — The Times’s magazine piece, the WSJ editorial page — on the topic of global warming?
David Warsh, a long-time economics and political columnist, is the proprietor of economicprincipals.com, based in Somerville, Mass.