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Column / Harder Line

Trump's climate denial and the power of media

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

America's president doesn't think climate change is a problem — for the first time since it became a global issue 30 years ago. That makes coverage of it more important than ever.

Why it matters: Sitting presidents can sway public opinion and other elected leaders. Many top administration officials, including President Trump himself, have openly doubted the scientific consensus that human activity is extremely likely to be the biggest driver of Earth's temperature rise over the last century. Because Trump is the first president like this, it's even more important for journalists to accurately frame the scientific consensus without loaded language or moralizing, just as I've written that environmental groups need to find a way to engage conservatives who want to act.

Climate change wasn't a big issue in the 2016 election. But since Trump became president, his positions and those of his top advisers on climate change have taken on some prominence, particularly after Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Here's what that's revealed about the role the press plays in the climate debate:

  • Reporters across the political spectrum are pressing administration officials on the basic question of whether they acknowledge climate change is real. Fox News' Chris Wallace and CNBC's Joe Kernen have been among the most strident questioners of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
  • When questioning Pruitt and other top Trump officials, many reporters and cable TV anchors use the word "believe." That implies climate change isn't a scientific issue and is up for dispute. A better word is "acknowledge."
  • Some media outlets will always be in Trump's corner, especially those he reads and watches a lot, like Breitbart News and most of Fox News. This makes the job of unbiased media that much more difficult and crucial.

Climate change will always have some level of scientific uncertainty, much of which the media and political class alike will misconstrue and over-simplify. A case in point is Pruitt misquoting a recent column on climate change.

For his first column at The New York Times, Bret Stephens, former Wall Street Journal columnist, acknowledged human activity is the primary driver of climate change over the last century and then argued the debate needs to allow for more uncertainty about the long-term impacts and policy prescriptions. He was harshly criticized by climate activists.

In refusing to answer questions at a White House press briefing recently about Trump's views on climate change, Pruitt quoted almost verbatim from Stephens' column about the Earth's temperature rise while omitting the most relevant clause: that the "human influence on that warming" since 1880 is indisputable.

"As far as I can tell, Pruitt misquoted me by omitting a line in my column which noted that human influence is behind the warming climate," Stephens told Axios in an email. "It's a shame that a column whose point has already been widely mischaracterized by the climate-advocacy community is now being misconstrued by the administration."

An EPA spokeswoman didn't respond to requests for comment about why Pruitt omitted that line.

Historical context: This isn't the first time America is an outlier on climate change, but it's more extreme this time. in early 2001, then-Republican George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of Kyoto Protocol, the world's only other big climate accord. Even as Bush opposed that deal, he acknowledged climate change was a problem. That's a big difference compared to today, and it elevates the importance of the media's coverage this time around.

What's next? Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who now leads a conservative think tank pushing a carbon tax to address climate change, thinks that if a handful of conservative outlets and columnists would acknowledge climate change is a serious issue, the entire GOP would change its tune after denying it's a problem for nearly a decade. He puts The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Fox News in this category.

"If The Wall Street Journal editorial page changed or if Fox and Friends changed, this would be over," Inglis said. "We'd be acting."