Cap-and Trade Votes: How Big an Issue?

Post-Elections Climate Analyses Through Lens of Major Newspapers

PhotoMajor national newspapers’ post-election analyses of the November 2 election results ranged from meticulous reporting on climate and related energy issues … to the incongruous.

An analysis of several major newspapers’ coverage shows the major dailies increased coverage of climate change coverage in the days after the election, with only spotty pre-election coverage and commentary (see here and here).

Candidates’ positions on climate change and climate legislation clearly were lower-tier campaign issues, behind the economy, taxes, or health care. But The New York Times‘ ClimateWire reported on Election Day, “It’s likely that more voters with doubts or denial about climate change will visit polling booths today than in years past, according to analysts and polling.”

News Analysis

Also see:
California Dailies’ Pre- and Post-Election Reporting:
Most, not All, Opposed Prop. 23 Climate Initiative

Bold front page headlines the day after the election in dozens of papers nationwide signaled one thing: a romp for Republicans. Many newspapers proclaimed an historic Republican win, some headlines adding a qualifier for Democrats. “GOP poised to recapture House” The Wall Street Journal front paged, but it tempered the narrative with “Democrats likely to retain Senate control despite losses.” The New York Times had “GOP takes House,” with a qualifier saying it was a “Setback for Obama and Democratic agenda.”

Early media coverage of the election results pointed to voters’ general rejections of many Democratic House members who had supported the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act (also known as the Waxman-Markey Bill). Politico posted a story with the headline “Greens desperate to avoid blame.” The New York Times, too, reported that “(v)oters ousted a wide swath of cap-and-trade supporters.” Some analyses of House voting records, however, suggested the relationship between those votes and electoral defeat might have been overstated. Time reported “you can’t pin the blame for Democratic losses on (the Waxman-Markey) bill.” The New York Times picked up the story on November 5 with a story headlined ”Should Democrats blame Waxman and Markey?” That story reported that 81 percent of Democrats who voted for the House climate bill had been re-elected.

Climate and Energy

Overall, climate change clearly wasn’t a major deciding factor in most mid-term results. The U.S. Senate this past summer had abandoned its work on a comprehensive energy bill and its cap-and-trade climate provisions.

However, support for that provision and for the energy bill in general was made into a top election issue in a few races, including the Virginia elections of freshman Democratic Representative Tom Perriello and of veteran Democratic Representative Rick Boucher, both losers in their elections. The two were featured prominently in a Los Angeles Times story October 27 with the imprecise headline “Global warming issue may determine key races in Virginia.”

Other news outlets pointed to the climate issue as a factor that led to Democrat victories in Senate races in West Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. The Washington Post featured West Virginia Democratic Governor Joe Manchin’s race to succeed the late Robert Byrd in the U.S. Senate. Manchin won his Senate race in part because he vocally opposed his party’s federal climate legislation, arguing it would hurt jobs in his state. But Manchin’s moment of theatrics came in the form of a campaign television commercial when he fired a rifle at a copy of the federal cap-and-trade legislation that would set limits on greenhouse gas pollution.

Cap-and-trade in many ways became a dirty word both for opponents and proponents during the campaigns, leaving some concerned that the phrase not become synonymous with the climate issue generally in the public’s mind.

Climate change was of course front-and-center in California, where, like nowhere else, the issue was squarely on the ballot. The state’s voters, across party lines, overwhelmingly defeated the Prop. 23 initiative and upheld the global warming law that limits greenhouse gas pollution. The Wall Street Journal quoted Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “This was a huge, huge victory for me, a huge victory for the state of California, for the environment, for green technology, for jobs.”

Three days after the election, a news article in the Los Angeles Times provided perspective on the bipartisan support for California’s landmark greenhouse gas legislation, quoting George P. Schultz, Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan. The story reported that Schultz and other Republicans demonstrated support for the climate law as “a national security issue because of terrorism and the economic risks from price spikes.” Schultz is quoted as saying, “What do we do with this victory? … We need to wake up our fellow Republicans.”

Obama Administration … Refocus on Clean-Energy Jobs?

Even though the GOP’s historic campaign successes were not a referendum on climate change, much of the news narrative after President Obama’s post-election press conference may have left a murky picture. That’s partly because Obama focused on the cap-and-trade approach to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and said it “was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way. It was a means, not an end.”

The Washington Post got to the bottom of the climate story with a meticulous environment and energy follow-up that included quoting an Obama administration official, who provided context: “I think you’ll see in the next few weeks the administration say, ‘Okay, you may not necessarily agree with the science on climate change, you may not see tackling greenhouse gases as a real priority, but what we can all agree on is creating jobs and investing in a clean-energy economy that’s going to leave the U.S. more competitive.’ ”

New Leaders and [Lack of?] Climate Familiarity

As the magnitude of GOP gains sunk in, news coverage emerged that highlighted growing climate skepticism and climate illiteracy among current and newly elected Republicans. The same Washington Post story mentioned above noted the sweeping effects of Republican control on climate and energy. The article also told of the probable elimination of the House committee on global warming and energy independence, and of prospects for renewed efforts to scrutinize climate scientists, an effort that could be led by climate skeptic Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), incoming chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Republican John Boehner, of Ohio, poised to replace California Democrat Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, also challenges much of the science of anthropogenic climate change, and he appeared genuinely confused and unknowledgeable on the subject in a 2009 interview with ABC News that was also posted on the Green blog in The New York Times. In that interview, Boehner had scoffed at the idea that climate change should be of concern to anyone and then made clearly erroneous statements on basics of climate science:

“The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical,” Boehner told ABC News in an April 2009 interview. “Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”

The Washington Post also had a national news story that quoted incoming Republican Senators as climate skeptics. The story leads with a quote from newly elected Wisconsin businessman Ron Johnson: “I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I think it’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity, or something just in the geologic eons of time where we have changes in the climate.”

On Sunday, November 7, the Los Angeles Times reported news of a strong “pushback against congressional conservatives who have vowed to kill regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.” The story reports on an effort by hundreds of scientists affiliated with the American Geophysical Union, AGU. That story reported that the scientists plan to speak out on climate science amidst growing efforts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of climate science. ( An earlier Yale Forum feature reported on AGU’s earlier effort as part of the December 2009 Copenhagen negotiations.)

A press release by AGU the next day stated the Los Angeles Times story — picked up widely by other news outlets and online — misrepresented the organization’s intentions for the climate science project that’s about to re-launch. AGU stated in a press release that the project “aims simply to provide accurate scientific answers to questions from journalists about climate science,” and clarified the project’s purpose is to address scientific questions and not comment on policy. In a statement, AGU Executive Director and CEO Christine McEntee said, “In contrast to what has been reported in the LA Times and elsewhere, there is no campaign by AGU against climate skeptics or congressional conservatives. AGU will continue to provide accurate scientific information on Earth and space topics to inform the general public and to support sound public policy development.”

More to Come in Court Challenges

Finally, some reporters went looking for new angles on the post-election climate perspective and filed stories on the proliferation of climate-related lawsuits and what those challenges mean for the courts.

A New York Times Greenwire story on Thursday spotlighted a study of Environmental Protection Agency litigation of greenhouse gas pollution [see related Yale Forum article], and reported that the “number of lawsuits either supporting or opposing efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions is set to triple by the end of this year as compared to last year.” Another story provided further analysis on what election results mean for EPA litigation and on how reduced Democratic numbers in the Senate could impact the 100 outstanding judicial nominations.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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2 Responses to Post-Elections Climate Analyses Through Lens of Major Newspapers

  1. Nice writeup, Lisa. I am left wondering, though, whether the papers you analyzed should be held more accountable for the bipolar nature of their climate/enviro reporting. Prior to the election, many of them (with the exception of Calif. dailies reporting on Prop. 23) hardly seemed to care about the subject, dismissing it as a non-issue in the campaign. Afterward it suddenly became a key cause for voter disaffection and the Dems’ losses. It was enough to cause reader whiplash, in my view, and was not based on quantitative evidence showing climate change issues were a significant motivator in many races.

  2. Lisa Palmer says:

    Andrew,

    Newspapers are held accountable by their subscribers and the numbers don’t look so good for print. On the other hand, the public isn’t demanding more in-depth coverage of climate change from them. Should newspapers provide an education function on climate issues, or give readers what they want?

    Also, it’s worth noting that environmental reporters are not typically assigned to cover political campaigns. The 2010 mid-term election coverage signals the importance of other news specialties to learn more about climate change and its sweeping effects. With a flatter newsroom, this problem is compounded.