Political, Not Partisan: Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story
By Andrew McCormick
Every presidential election is critical in its way. Even so, 2020 manages to feel unique. With a deadly virus stalking the land and crashing the economy and political polarization so high that the truth itself is often in question, this November will certainly mark a turning point in American history.
The election is also pivotal for the climate emergency—and its solutions.
Science shows that humanity is careering toward a point of no return. To meet the Paris Agreement's preferred goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius—essential to saving millions of lives outright, not to mention avoiding "tipping points" that would bring ever more hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, and heat waves in the years ahead—humanity must cut global emissions in half by 2030. Doing this, scientists say, will require economic transformation at a speed and scale unprecedented in human history. It will take deliberate, aggressive action across industries and at all levels of government, foremost from the world's top emitters, including the US. Simply put, we need action and we need it fast. (Latest projections routinely suggest we are farther down the road to disaster than we think.)
As Justin Worland wrote in the cover story for a tour de force Time magazine special issue last week, "In the future, we may look back at 2020 as the year we decided to keep driving off the climate cliff—or to take the last exit." A serious response to the threat, he said, means spending on green energy, restricting emissions for companies that receive government bailouts, and bolstering green transportation in cities. Entrenchment in fossil fuels will instead spell climate catastrophe. "What we do now," Worland wrote, "will define the fate of the planet—and human life on it—for decades."
In any election year, it is journalists' job to inform the public and convey the full measure of what's at stake. That's why, even as the coronavirus outbreak rages—a tragic case study in ignoring science—and activists fight to topple long-standing systems of inequality, the climate crisis must be a priority for newsrooms this campaign season.
This responsibility puts journalists in a potentially tricky spot, however. If the public deserves a fair-minded accounting of candidates' positions, what's to be done when one party, broadly speaking, denies the reality of climate change or favors only weak policies to address it? Here, journalists must make a vital but nuanced point: what a society does about climate change is inherently political, but clarifying that something must be done—and that it must square with the science—is not partisan.
Climate change is political insofar as strong policies are necessary to answer its challenges. That's a plain fact of governance, not partisan opinion. Yet, for too long, journalism has tended to view climate policy through the lens of horse race politics: One candidate favors action. The other doesn't. Who will prevail? This tendency has to go. If one party or candidate offers credible policies on climate and the other does not, it's up to the other party or candidate to catch up. It's not journalists' job to wait for them in the name of false equivalence.
Donald Trump, who has falsely called climate change "a hoax," claims he has made America an environmental leader even as his administration has slashed environmental regulations and propped up flagging fossil fuel companies. Trump's campaign website makes no mention of climate change, other than to call America's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement a "promise kept." Meanwhile, former vice president Joe Biden, Trump's presumptive opponent in the fall, has committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement and proposed an ambitious $2 trillion plan to combat climate change, drawn up cooperatively with his top challenger during the Democratic primaries, US senator Bernie Sanders. Biden's plan does not explicitly back a Green New Deal, but it favors many of its components, including a transition to zero-carbon electricity nationwide by 2035, economic protections for workers in the fossil fuel industry, and well-funded commitments to environmental justice.
The two candidates' plans are, self-evidently, not equal. In the virtual absence of a plan from Trump, Biden's plan gives the country and the planet a much better shot at pulling back from the brink. And it's no endorsement of Biden to say so. It's a scientific and political judgment, not a partisan one. For the sake of humanity now and in the future, Trump and his team are welcome to catch up.
But it would be a shame if climate-related election coverage was all about Trump and Biden. State and local leaders can also do a lot to curb emissions and make communities resilient. And the issues candidates are pushed on during campaigns drive the commitments and promises they are judged against in office. So where do candidates for city council, mayor, state legislatures, and Congress stand? And what might contributions to their campaigns say about their environmental allegiances?
Questions like these should be the norm in the coming months. "It's not enough to do one story on one candidate's position on climate change and be done with it," Covering Climate Now's cofounders Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope argued recently in The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review. "The word 'climate' should be included in headlines and broadcast scripts often enough that the public can't miss it." Nor should climate change be siloed on the science beat. Political reporters and newsroom leaders must make it central to the campaign narrative, giving it equal prominence as electoral mainstays like the economy and national security. (Indeed, climate change cuts across and binds these issues; if we do not adapt, it will cripple economies and make us all less secure.)
The good news is that audiences care. Climate action is a leading issue for young voters, and an April poll by Yale and George Mason Universities found that two-thirds of all registered voters are worried about global warming; four in ten said candidates' positions on climate change will be "very important" in how they vote this fall.
Still, doing justice to the climate story will take leadership and discipline from newsrooms. Reporters and editors must step back from ephemeral shifts in the polls and all the nitnoid controversies of campaign overload. Decades from now, most of us will have forgotten the names and deeds of Donald Trump's various associates. But we will surely take note of unlivable heat and flood waters lapping at our feet if we ignore the climate crisis this campaign season. Will journalists count the 2020 election a missed opportunity, or will it be the breakthrough moment when they got the climate story right—and helped America do the same?
This story originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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