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  • Paul D. Wilke

The Media’s Role in Addressing Climate Change


Back in November, I wrote a frustrated piece about the state of climate denial in our country. This was just after the release of the National Climate Assessment that predicted dire economic and environmental impacts in the coming years if we don't act on climate change. The response from the media that weekend was to cater to the debate, not about how to address climate change, but on whether the science itself was even sound.

Deniers like former Senator Rick Santorum and Danielle Pletka from the American Enterprise Institute were given ample air time to peddle the same old denier talking points we've been hearing for years: "I'm not a scientist" from Pletka and "follow the money" from Santorum. As usual on the denier media circuit, neither of these two are climate scientists, but rather ideologues. What was even more frustrating, Meet the Press didn't even book an actual climate scientist to challenge Pletka's claims.

Maybe it was the backlash after that weekend of shameful false equivalency, but Meet the Press did a good deed to make up for it. The last show of the year dedicated an entire hour to discuss the dangers of climate change, the economic implications, and possible policy responses.

Moderator Chuck Todd set the tone at the start of the show.

CHUCK TODD:

“This morning, we’re going to do something that we don’t often get to do, dive in on one topic....But just as important as what we are going to do this hour is what we're not going to do. We’re not going to debate climate change, the existence of it. The Earth is getting hotter and human activity is a major cause, period. We’re not going to give time to climate deniers. The science is settled, even if political opinion is not.”

And true to his word, not one minute of the program was wasted on professional obfuscators like Pletka and Santorum. Instead, MtP hosted a panel that consisted of a NASA scientist, a national security expert, an environmental journalist, a former FEMA director, and a Republican congressman out of southern Florida whose district is on the front lines of rising sea levels.

Folks, this is what the next stage of the climate discussion should look like. How do we best address the challenges? Instead of debating settled science, we should be talking about the likely national security and economic implications of climate change and how we're going to confront these threats in ways that make economic sense.

And for at least one hour, Meet the Press (transcript) tackled these tough questions. Here's a sample, though I'd encourage everyone to watch the entire program.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, speaking of that real-time, I think it's the financial impact that, maybe, will start sparking things. The National Climate Assessment, it said the following,"

CHUCK TODD:

"And just to put a finer point on this, look at this year. These are just headlines, quickly. This year alone disaster -- the cost of three disasters. Hurricane Michael, $25 billion. Insurance claims for the California fires were up to $9 billion. $50 billion for Hurricane Florence. Craig Fugate, can you convince people with dollars and cents?"

CRAIG FUGATE: "I don't know if you're going to convince them with dollars and cents. But I think you can convince them with just the sheer frequency of the events that are occurring. I mean, think about it. Every time they say, 'This is a record-setting event,' almost all of our practices of how we prepare for disasters is looking at the past to prepare for the future. It's not working. And look at all the money we're spending. And the thing I like to remind people, when FEMA's spending money, that's for uninsured losses. We've seen one of the largest transfers, in the last 20 years, from private insurance to federal programs, like FEMA, HUD, the National Flood Insurance Program. Organizations like the Pew Charitable Trust is actually actually looking at the policy of, why are we growing disaster risk in the face of climate change, with policies that incentivize growth? We're still providing flood insurance for people who build in a flood zone.

CHUCK TODD: "We shouldn’t be doing that?"

CRAIG FUGATE: "And we just reauthorized it and punted again. There's a lot of things we need to do with flood insurance. I have one simple answer. Why don't we stop writing flood insurance for people in flood zones and let the private sector insure it? And if they don't, why is the public insuring it?"

CHUCK TODD:

All right, so if dollars and cents won't do it, what about national security, Michèle Flournoy?

MICHÈLE FLOURNOY:

Well, it's interesting. Because I think there is a very strong consensus, in the U.S. military and in the national security community, that climate change is real. This is a sort of pragmatic, clear-eyed view. And for the military, they see this as leading to a change in their mission, more humanitarian assistance, disaster-relief missions abroad and at home. They see the melting of the ice cap in the Arctic, that's going to open up an area of strategic competition with both Russia and China.

CHUCK TODD:

Just pause. I mean, I don't want to gloss over that. So here we are, worried about what the melting ice caps are going to do to our life. Meanwhile, it's going to become a military fight.

MICHÈLE FLOURNOY:

Well, it's interesting. Because I think there is a very strong consensus, in the U.S. military and in the national security community, that climate change is real. This is a sort of pragmatic, clear-eyed view. And for the military, they see this as leading to a change in their mission, more humanitarian assistance, disaster-relief missions abroad and at home. They see the melting of the ice cap in the Arctic, that's going to open up an area of strategic competition with both Russia and China.

CHUCK TODD:

Just pause. I mean, I don't want to gloss over that. So here we are, worried about what the melting ice caps are going to do to our life. Meanwhile, it's going to become a military fight.

MICHÈLE FLOURNOY:

Absolutely. There's going to be new channels of commerce. And China and Russia have already kind of staked claims and made it very clear they intend to contest the space. But it's also an infrastructure problem for the military. More than half of U.S. military bases and bases overseas are estimated to be severely impacted by climate change, either severe weather and/or flooding. That's our ability to project power overseas. That's our ability to operate our U.S. military. 50% of the facilities are going to be affected.

CHUCK TODD:

And we would have to redo -- think about the cost of defense as it is today.

Why is this important? Because getting the policy right is going to be enormously complicated. It's going to take the combined efforts of local, state, and federal government all working together with private industry to come up with viable plans. All the major stakeholders should have a place at the table in drafting our responses. And in a democracy, one of the most important of those stakeholders is the voting public. The polling data on that front is both encouraging and discouraging.

On the one hand, broad public support for addressing climate change now crosses most demographics.

Likewise, public perceptions about the severity of climate change have shifted dramatically since 1999.

On the other hand, the news is not all good. Climate change as a serious problem has shifted dramatically among democrats and independents since 1999 to better align with the scientific consensus.

Republicans? Well, not so much.

15%: No change.

And so here we are, with the party of that 15% in charge, even as solid majorities of the public are in broad agreement that climate change is important.

The next stage of the debate, and arguably the most important, involves getting the policy responses right and making sure voters understand and buy into any solutions. Nevertheless, much convincing still needs to be done. I hope that going forward media coverage will follow Meet the Press's example and focus on the threat and possible responses, rather than debating a debate that science long ago settled.

Instead, those of us who care about climate change need to re-frame the conversation so that the public, and especially Republicans, understand that they have a financial and moral stake in coming up with solutions. All of us have a financial stake because climate change is already costing the government tens of billions of dollars every year in disaster relief, a trend that will only intensify in the coming decades. And if nothing else, we all have a moral obligation to future generations to address this now rather than later.

If Republican voters have a concern about big government over-regulating the economy as a response to climate change, then they should be encouraged to come up with market-friendly alternatives. In the end, the public and private sectors will need to row together to solve this problem, so some mix of government intervention combined with free-market innovation is going to be necessary. There's really no way around that. Otherwise, if climate change continues to be just another front in the culture wars, our responses will continue to zig (Obama) and zag (Trump) depending on the ideology of the party in charge.

All that said, I still applaud Meet the Press for focusing on this issue for an entire episode. Did they solve the problem in one hour? No, of course not. There's still a lot of work to do. But this is a start, even if a late one. Let's hope that more media outlets do the same. The clock is ticking, the planet is warming, and meanwhile, our political leaders are fiddling as the world burns. We can do better.


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