‘Every alarm bell in the planet is ringing right now’ – but political reporters aren’t listening

Forest fire

The website-leading article by Washington Post climate reporter Sarah Kaplan was blunt.

“The world is hotter than it’s been in thousands of years, and it’s as if every alarm bell on Earth were ringing,” Kaplan wrote.

Flooding in India, Japan and Vermont; heat waves in Texas, Arizona, Florida, Spain and China; the Canadian wildfires; hot oceans

“Scientists say there is no question that this cacophony was caused by climate change — or that it will continue to intensify as the planet warms,” Kaplan explained.

“The only question, scientists say, is when the alarms will finally be loud enough to make people wake up.”

She ended with an exhortation: “Maybe people are finally realizing: The alarm bells are ringing for us.”

But if Kaplan, like so many of us, is worried about people who aren’t heeding the alarm, she need look no further than to her colleagues who cover politics – at the Post and in other similarly prestigious newsrooms.

News organizations including the Post have staffed up their climate desks, and those reporters are doing important, urgent work. (The newly-hired writer of the New York Times’s new climate newsletter was working on his inaugural dispatch when flood waters invaded his Hudson Valley home. How’s that for creating a sense of urgency?)

But the political reporters who cover the executive and legislative branches don’t seem the least bit concerned about climate change.

They’re certainly not demanding their sources explain why they’re not doing anything about it. They’re not explaining it to readers themselves. They just accept inaction as normal. And therefore, not newsworthy.

One recent afternoon, there were a dozen stories on the Washington Post home page about floods and fires and heat waves — but none about how reducing the use of fossil fuels is a nonstarter on Capitol Hill because of resistance from the powerful fossil fuel lobby and its devoted acolytes in the Republican Party.

Simply making the connection between climate change and environmental disasters isn’t enough, Arielle Samuelson and Emily Atkin wrote in their wonderful climate-crisis newsletter called Heated. “To truly do the climate story justice, the news media must go further, and connect climate change to the fossil fuel companies refusing to reduce their planet-destroying emissions.”

Neither the public nor political reporters should be content with Washington standing by and doing absolutely nothing as the country bakes and the world burns.

Missing the Story

One frequent excuse political reporters have for not writing about climate change is that there’s nothing new to report.

But there was a great – or at least highly revelatory — story the other day that would have helped readers grasp exactly where the problem lies. Mainstream political reporters whiffed on it.

HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic tweeted about it, but the only full writeup I could find was one of the E&E News newsletters. There, Timothy Cama wrote about the extraordinary phenomenon of the Senate GOP hosting a lunch speaker who argues that “more fossil fuel use will actually make the world a far better place,” with “higher environmental quality and less danger from climate.”

As Cama wrote:

Republican senators heard from pro-fossil fuel advocate Alex Epstein at a closed-door Wednesday lunch.

Epstein, who leads the Center for Industrial Progress and has written books including “Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas — Not Less,” spoke with senators at a regularly scheduled lunch hosted by the Senate GOP’s Steering Committee, a conservative body led by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that includes most of the conference.

Cama ID’d several senators who toted away signed copies of the book, “including John Kennedy (R-La.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.).”

So while the nation and the world baked, Republicans were oohing and aahing over a guy who, as energy expert Arthur E. Berman wrote for Resilience.org, doesn’t simply deny climate change, he believes that a sinister deep state shadow entity he calls the “mainstream knowledge system” controls the discourse over climate change.

These people are not only beholden to the fossil fuel lobby, they’re also nuts.


Republicans have effectively blocked any move to assess costs on companies that emit carbon into the atmosphere, which many climate experts consider essential to fully fulfilling greenhouse-gas goals.

And, to be fair, President Biden took a giant step backwards on climate change when he approved the Willow Project in March, a massive Alaska oil development projected to generate 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over its 30-year lifetime.

Democrats aren’t pushing to reduce the production of fossil fuels right now, partly because of the energy crunch caused by the Russian war in Ukraine.

But over the course of a year – from late 2021 to August 2022 – President Biden oversaw a series of stunning legislative victories in which Congress agreed to spend money to reduce demand and increase alternative energy sources. The bipartisan infrastructure act  passed in late 2021, and two bills — the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Chips and Science Act – passed in August.

The IRA alone makes $369 billion in climate investments, vastly accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy.

How those funds are spent is a great national story – but perhaps an even better local story.

“This is a moment for local news to answer the need for thousands of communities to understand what’s available now federally,” Andrew Revkin told me. Revkin has been covering climate change since 1988, including 21 years for the New York Times. He now runs his own newsletter.

The government is funding a bonanza of programs that municipalities and school systems can use to modernize their transportation systems with electric vehicles, replace incandescent streetlights, install solar roofs, and so on. “But someone at the local level has to be connecting the dots,” Revkin said. “It’s a distributed media opportunity.”

For now what little national coverage there is from our traditional newsrooms  of these massive new funding opportunities tends to get filtered through a purely political lens.

Consider, for instance, this report by Eric McDaniel on NPR’s Morning Edition on Thursday. He spent the whole three minutes basically complaining that by calling attention to the economic effects of the IRA, Biden is “overshadowing what the projects collectively mean for the push to limit the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

What a waste of everyone’s time that story was.

By contrast, look to Robinson Meyer at Heatmap News, the climate media company he founded earlier this year, for an assessment of what the IRA has accomplished so far and what’s left to accomplish.

His conclusion: “The law is successful. It is transforming the American energy system. And the Biden administration is implementing it as fast as it can.” Nevertheless, he wrote, the power sector – which is so key to electrifying vehicles and the like – may not be changing fast enough.

Why Stop There?

“Every alarm bell on the planet is ringing right now,” tweeted Washington Post deputy climate editor Juliet Eilperin, linking to the Kaplan piece.

I tweeted back: “So why is this not a major topic of political reporting? They should be writing about the lack of action every day. Instead, when they write about it at all, it’s as a political football.”

Progressive blogger Lowell Feld chimed in: “Exactly, this should be blaring headlines EVERY SINGLE DAY, and the reporting should place the blame squarely where it belongs – on the fossil fuel industry and its lackeys in the Republican Party. Why doesn’t the media do that?!?”

The question answers itself, to some degree. To political reporters, this is not a story that transcends politics; it’s just another political story. And therefore it has two sides and they, as non-partisan journalists, don’t take one.

They cover it like they cover other political issues – largely in a vacuum when it comes to substance, and focused almost exclusively on who’s up, who’s down, who just made a good move and who just blundered. They focus on optics and strategy rather than policy and real-life effects. And when there’s nothing happening on the Hill, they don’t write about it at all.

Another Twitter follower called attention to how taking action on climate change stands in diametric opposition to core principles of corporate capitalism – principles that our newsrooms tend to accept without question.

And indeed, far from being non-ideological, political reporters are committed to the status quo, because they see that as neutral. They are never pro-change, because that would be “taking sides”. That makes them anti-change, which in most cases these days is basically the Republican position.

There’s really only one species of journalist who enthusiastically call out the connection between a heating planet and Washington’s unhealthy addiction to oil: political cartoonists like Ann Telnaes. (What a horrible time to be demoting the role of cartoons and firing editorial cartoonists!)

Newsroom leaders should recognize this as an essential moment for them to set the agenda. And that means bringing up climate change at every occasion, and demanding to know what people are doing about it. That means asking at the White House press conference, and at the Republican congressional leadership news conferences – and anytime they collar a member of Congress.

No elite reporter wants to look like an idiot and ask the same question all the time, but they should anyway:

“Do you recognize that these ongoing climate disasters increase the urgency to reduce the use of fossil fuels, and what are you doing about it today?”

As Revkin wrote in a recent newsletter: “We’ll never change as fast as needed. And that’s not a failure. It’s just being human…

“What would be a failure is not to wake each day and try to make progress.”



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