News reports on climate change now have the tone of certainty that global warming is upon us. But there is anything but certainty when it comes to the cost of action. Shorenstein Fellow Eric Pooley says the media don't scrutinize the economic projections of pro-business groups, who rig their models to say climate change legislation will break the bank.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For years, the coverage of climate change was tinged with a false equivalency. To give the appearance of balance, reporters would devote equal space to a climatologist representing the scientific consensus as they would to a specialist often bankrolled by big oil or big business who denied the existence of global warming or man’s role in it. But in the past few years, the coverage has let go of this equivalency only to replace it with a new one. According to Eric Pooley, former managing editor of Fortune, reporters now offer a false equivalency in covering what to do about global warming. He uses as his case study the coverage of the debate over a defeated cap-and-trade bill, a measure that would have put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions but allow companies that emit less to sell their excess allotment to companies that emit more. Proponents say this would create a profit motive for going green, but groups on either side of the debate have drastically different estimates for how much it would cost. Pooley says that the dueling numbers are mistakenly given equal play by the media.
ERIC POOLEY: What I'm arguing is that there’s an emerging mainstream economic consensus that doing a well-designed cap-and-trade system won't break the bank. And it’s coming out of the academy and coming out of government studies, and it’s been completely missed by reporters because reporters are trained to look for balance and they will go and find the spokespeople who say that if we do this, it’s going to destroy the economy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you singled out two pro-business groups as essentially the main opposition to this legislation, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Council for Capital Formation.
ERIC POOLEY: Well, right now they say that putting a cap-and-trade system in place would be disastrous to the American economy. And they feed extremely negative economic assumptions into their economic model and they come up with very scary doomsday forecasts, that gasoline prices will go up to eight dollars a gallon, 4 million jobs could be destroyed, up to 669 billion dollars can be drained from the U.S. GDP. And those reports are treated with a lot of respect by the mainstream media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why should they be? Are they built on demonstrably false assumptions?
ERIC POOLEY: Yes, they are. For example, the National Association of Manufacturers report assumes that between now and 2030 we won't be bringing any more wind power online per year than we did last year. In other words, our transition to clean energy in this country has already peaked. If you have enough assumptions like that, you drive up the costs in your forecast, and reporters don't look under the hood of those reports.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you saying that the press, by giving space to the concerns of business groups, actually distorts the truth with the same false equivalency that marred the coverage of global warming for so many years?
ERIC POOLEY: The business community absolutely deserves a voice in this debate, and it has one, and it’s wrong to think that the business community is monolithically opposed to action. In fact, there’s a coalition of business groups called U.S. Cap that’s pushing for quick action on climate. It includes companies like G.E. and Dow and Alcoa. So it’s not as if we want to muzzle the business community. All I'm saying is that reporters need to assess the arguments that are being made in a more sophisticated way than they've been doing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the principal opponent to the positions taken by these business groups would be the Environmental Defense Fund. Do you see any examples of misdirections, lies of their own?
ERIC POOLEY: Some of the environmentalists have put out reports that are too rosy. They don't pass the smell test. Environmental Defense did something entirely different last year. They didn't set out to cook up a research study that would support their position. They took the five mainstream academic and governmental models that were already out there, the five consensus best reports that exist, and they averaged them together. And that’s how they came up with a report that reminded people that, look, this is affordable and we can do this. Now, that was a good piece of scholarship. That’s not to say that they didn't skew it a little bit just in the way they presented the detail, and they overlooked largely the regional impacts of a cap-and-trade system which would be significant. But if we use the proceeds from a cap-and-trade bill to cushion the impact on consumers, this is still very manageable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about this Environmental Defense Fund meta study for a second. You said that these were, you know, studies by relatively disinterested parties. They were based on their models. But models of this sort are notoriously inaccurate.
ERIC POOLEY: You’re absolutely right. These models, as I say in my paper, are not crystal balls. EDS said that right up front. You can't believe any one model. That’s why they took the five best and put them together to see if there was some sort of rough consensus emerging, and there was. However, what the opponents have been doing is taking one very skewed report and pretending that they do have a crystal ball.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the Chamber of Commerce, which stands with the National Association of Manufacturers, takes the crystal ball even further into ads in which they see people jogging to work because they can't afford to put gasoline in their cars and people cooking their breakfasts over a candle. And that’s potent P.R. But you looked at how the media treated these two sets of economic predictions.
ERIC POOLEY: We took a sample of 40 stories that explored the cost debate and we found that 7 of them were one-sided on one side or the other, 24 were balanced in a sort of stenographer sense – it was the he said/she said opposition – and then 9 stories attempted to play what I call a referee, calling one side or the other if they were playing fast and loose with the facts. And that’s my model for how you have to work a very contentious policy debate like this. Reports aren't getting the time on the beat that they need to master this material. And if you don't master the material, you can't hold the combatants to any sort of standard because they will game you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So given the problem that people may not stay on these beats as long as they ought to and that they are prey to this “he said/she said” structure, how do you think news organizations ought to tackle this subject?
ERIC POOLEY: The problem is that the climate policy beat requires expertise in science, politics and business and economics, so it really calls for a team approach. The good news is that The New York Times just created an environmental reporting team that includes all those kinds of reporters, and I think other news organizations should follow suit. Now, of course, what we're seeing is the reverse. CNN just fired its entire seven-person environmental reporting unit. I call this a disposable beat because in the age of slashed newsroom budgets and layoffs, people are getting torn off this beat and thrown at whatever the story of the moment is. And I'm arguing that this is the story of the century here. If a meteor was hurtling toward the Earth and our best scientists were telling us that we had less than 10 years to destroy or divert it, I can tell you that every news organizations worth its salt would be throwing team reporting at that and they'd be letting their people go very deep and do great enterprise journalism about it. Well, this is the equivalent of that right now, and yet our news organizations aren't responding to it that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric, thank you very much.
ERIC POOLEY: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Pooley’s paper, How Much Would You Pay to Save the Planet, was published by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.