A Low Bar for Climate Journalism on a Low, Low Night

Chris Wallace of Fox News raised the issue of climate change during the first presidential debate, providing what our Columbia Journalism Review colleague Jon Alsop called “a speck of light on a dark night.”

US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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Our Columbia Journalism Review colleague Jon Allsop called it “a speck of light on a dark night”: Chris Wallace of Fox News, who originally left the climate crisis off his list of intended topics, did raise the issue during last night’s debate that wasn’t.

What followed, however, was hardly elevated or informed discourse. It’s telling of just how low the bar is for discussing climate change in much mainstream media coverage that Wallace began by asking whether Trump accepts climate science at all. “What do you believe about the science of climate change,” he said, “and in the next four years what will you do to confront it?”

Trump used the opportunity to repeat falsehoods – fires in the West are primarily the result of poor forest management – and bromides about wanting “immaculate” water and air. Wallace, to his credit, pushed back. After Trump grudgingly admitted that “to an extent” human activity might be responsible for global warming, Wallace said: “But sir, if you believe in the science of climate change, why have you rolled back the Obama Clean Power Plan, which limited carbon emissions in power plants?”

But in a way Wallace was playing Trump’s game. If journalists’ questions implicitly suggest that simply believing in climate change is optional, the discourse is stunted and can hardly grapple with the scientific reality that civilization faces, in the words of 13,000-plus scientists, “a climate emergency” that requires immediate, forceful action. Going forward, journalists on and off the debate stage should lead with higher-level questions that compel politicians to address the complex, urgent threat climate change presents.

Future debate hosts – C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, NBC’s Kristen Welker, and USA Today’s Susan Page, who will moderate the vice presidential debate – might endeavor to do better. And they’ll be on solid ground with the audience. As Guardian/VICE Media poll, conducted in partnership with CCNow, showed last week that nearly three quarters (74%) of Americans want debate hosts to ask a climate question. Further, seven in ten (71%) favor strong government action to address the crisis.

It’s on all of us in the media, though, to make the climate crisis headline news this election season. CCNow’s Climate Politics 2020 joint coverage week last week went a long way towards this end. The week featured big climate politics pieces from the likes of NBC News, Reuters, The Guardian, CBS News, PBS NewsHour, VICE Media, NowThis, and many more. But the joint week was only a beginning. In the coming weeks, straight up through election day, we must continue to keep the focus on climate. Our audiences want it, and the issue objectively, scientifically, demands it.

As a reminder to our partners, all of last week’s content remains available in our Sharing Library. The select stories that were part of our Curated Collection – from The Guardian, Reuters, HuffPost, CBS News, Teen VogueRolling StoneThe Nation, Grist, Earther, The Root, Yes! Mag, and more – are available in this folder. The folder includes the complete text for the stories – to save you the labor of having to cut and paste from web articles – and in some cases illustrations and photos to go with the stories, along with credit instructions. Much of the content is relatively evergreen and will remain relevant through Election Day – so take a look!

Now, here’s your weekly sampling of the latest in climate news, from across the Covering Climate Now collaboration:

  • Xi Jinping surprised the world last week with his pledge for China to reach “peak carbon” before 2030 and to reach near-zero emissions by 2060. Experts view the pledge as a critical step forward – perhaps the largest since the Paris Agreement’s ratification in 2015 – but it won’t be easy. As The Guardian explains, for China to meet these goals will require change at a blistering pace, at a time when coal-fired power plants are in fact still on the rise in the country.
  • China is by far the world’s largest climate polluter on an annual basis – the US remains well ahead when it comes to all-time emissions – but climate protest in the country is rare, even as rampant flooding this year and other disasters signal a perhaps dire future if the country does not reverse course. As part of an impressive, all-day focus on the climate crisis last Friday, Vice News covered one young protestor from Guilin, 18-year-old Howey Ou, who has joined the international Fridays for Future movement – and who persists, even though it has meant detention by the police, having the internet at her home cut off by the government, and being banned from her school.
  • CCNow partner NowThis has launched NowThis Earth, a new platform that will focus on climate and the environment. From their announcement: “With daily planet-focused news stories, coverage of changemakers focused on these issues, interviews, op-eds, and select calls to action, NowThis aims to inspire informed decision making about the future of our common home.”
  • On CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Anderson Cooper interviewed the eminent Sir David Attenborough, the BBC correspondent who has chronicled the natural world since 1954. Attenborough was once skeptical about man-made climate change, but his new film, “A Life on Our Planet,” due on Netflix on October 4, takes a different tack. “A crime has been committed” against the planet, Attenborough told Cooper. “Our planet is headed for disaster.”
  • As oil jobs go bust, many who find themselves out of work are transitioning to new opportunities in renewable energy – not only better for the planet, but better for workers, because they’re more likely to be secure for the long-term. CBS News tracks the rise of renewable jobs in the US, at a time when more Americans than ever back renewable energy as a means to economic strength. This piece is *available for republication by CCNow partners.
  • On Friday, Trump opened up Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest national forest, to development, reports PBS NewsHour. Tongass has been described as America’s Amazon and is responsible for absorbing about 8 percent of the country’s emissions from the atmosphere. As Newshour explains, the administration’s move is just one more in a long line of regulatory cuts and rollbacks during the past three years.
  • Science is clear that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere heightens the risk of extreme weather events and, over time, will result in devastating health and economic impacts. Now, as Truthout reports, a September study shows that 1.8 billion more tons of greenhouse gases will make their way into the atmosphere as a result of Trump’s environmental rollbacks. Yet even as parts of the nation reel from wildfires, hurricanes, and powerful “derechos,” the regulatory cuts keep coming. This piece is *available for republication by CCNow partners.
  • Reuters has a short profile of Vanessa Nakate, the 23-year-old Ugandan activist who has been a foremost voice for developing countries, which she says tend to be left out of the climate conversation – despite that they will often bear the worst brunt of climate change. The Covid-19 shutdown has frustrated Nakate’s activism, but floods in her country and other parts of East Africa this year show the urgency of the climate crisis. (In a short video by Reuters, Nakate argues that the US must elect a president who will act to reduce emissions – and who will care about the lives of people around the world who will suffer if it does not.)
  • Climate so far is not playing a central role in many Senate races – but it’s still a significant motivating factor for voters, especially among the young and in the Latinx community, writes Yale Climate ConnectionsThis piece is *available for republication by CCNow partners.
  • Under a potential Biden administration, rejoining the Paris Agreement will be easy for the US – little more than a stroke of Biden’s pen, Bloomberg Green says. The hard part will be enacting policies that actually curb US emissions, fending off and fighting legal battles that the political right is sure to instigate, rebuilding international confidence in the US to lead on climate, and, ultimately, actually averting climate catastrophe.