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Climate Change Reporters: 2010 a Year of Uncertainty for Cap-and-Trade

Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin at a Belfer Center/Shorenstein Center panel discussion of media coverage of climate change. Shorenstein Center Director Alex Jones is also pictured.
Photo by Sharon Wilke

Climate Change Reporters: 2010 a Year of Uncertainty for Cap-and-Trade

Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin and BusinessWeek's Eric Pooley describe discouraging landscape for U.S. climate legislation

News

March 5, 2010

Author: Lucia Cordon

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Environment and Natural Resources

 

When thinking about climate change and the future, a word comes to mind for Juliet Eilperin. This word is "uncertainty." Eilperin, who covers environment for the Washington Post, said at a Harvard Kennedy School climate-media event Thursday that there is uncertainty in the United States today on political action, on consistency in policy making, and on public opinion regarding climate change.

Eilperin joined Eric Pooley, deputy editor of Bloomberg's Business Week, in a panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School on "Climate Policy and Politics: Covering Conflict in the Capital, Copenhagen and Beyond." Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center, and Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center, took part as discussants on the panel, which was moderated by Cristine Russell, senior fellow with the Belfer Center's Environment and Natural Resources Program.

"Uncertainty presents a challenge," said Eilperin. "How can you say climate change is a priority when there is uncertainty about where we are going?"

Journalists who cover climate change today face many obstacles while trying to inform the public about the issue, agreed Eilperin and Pooley.

Both journalists commented on their disappointment after the Copenhagen climate change conference. "Somewhat naively, I looked ahead and thought that by Copenhagen we would have some sort of tentative first step taken," said Pooley. The UN process proved to be flawed and the conference fell short of promise, he said, leaving a sense of uncertainty and lack of clarity.

Both Eilperin and Pooley noted that the Obama Administration has made trade-offs between healthcare and climate change. The protracted fight over healthcare likely detracted from cap-and-trade, Eilperin said. Moreover, she said that President Obama has not been as out-front on the issue as he could be.

"The Obama administration has demonstrated a hands-off approach to the subject," Eilperin said. "If you want clarity on this subject, there is one person who controls the pulpit. He made it clear that health care reform is his priority."

On the role of the media, Eilperin and Pooley expressed worry that newspapers' financial challenges were undermining climate change coverage. Not many reporters have time to really delve into the issues -- and instead cover it like a horse race.

On top of that, the polarized nature of the climate change debate takes a toll on reporters covering it. Eilperin said she receives a large number of emails from both climate change supporters and skeptics, and that she tries to engage with them as best she can -- but that there is only so much time in the day.

"Engaging in this polarized debate and writing about controversies takes up time," said Eilperin. She observed that young readers' attitudes seem less polarized than their seniors.

Panelists said that paid professional deniers have had successful campaigns that promote controversy and inactivity from the public on this issue. Tactics used by these deniers include exaggeration and taking facts out of context to create confusion.

"People are not receptive to information that goes against their pre-conceived opinions," Lee said.

Discussants agreed that American inaction is caused in part by not having seen enough physical change to trigger a response. They noted that other parts of the world accept the reality of climate change in large part because they have seen the results in devastating events, such as droughts.

"Do we need a weather event so catastrophic and so clearly linked to the changing probabilities of a warming world that it changes people's minds in a fundamental way?" Pooley asked.

 

For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Cordon, Lucia. "Climate Change Reporters: 2010 a Year of Uncertainty for Cap-and-Trade." News, Harvard University, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, March 5, 2010.

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