The Election’s GOP Wave Will Alter D.C. Debate, But New Opportunities Likely for E-Journalists

January 15, 2011

E-Reporting Biz

By BUD WARD

Journalists tracking federal actions — and inaction — on climate change policy will have plenty to report on in coming months. It all begins with just how the Republican Party’s historic congressional and state-house election victories play out over the next two years, if not beyond.

And, of course, there are the unknowns arising from the emergence in Washington of the tea party interests.

For certain, there will be a far different frame on the climate change debate in the nation’s capital — far different than what appeared to be the obvious direction just two years ago.

With a Republican-controlled House, expect the focus to shift from what to do about climate change to its underlying science. Expect the details of cap and trade versus carbon taxes and the give-and-take negotiations that characterized last year’s House and Senate maneuvering over compromises (off-shore drilling or not? support for nuclear power or not?) to fall away like pumpkin decorations in December.

In the newly Republican House, where the GOP majority is nearly a post-World War II high, the early focus has been on the new chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, led these past two years by liberal California Democrat Henry Waxman, a highly regarded politician and legislator and long a leader on climate and other environmental issues. It virtually goes without saying that moving from Waxman to any elected Republican is bound to have a major impact on prospects for climate legislation.

Most dramatic would be the ascension of Texas Republican and climate skeptic Joe Barton, who opened post-election season trying to convince the House GOP leadership to waive its own rules limiting committee chairmanship terms (the Democrats have no such rule). Among several Republican legislators clamoring for the post, the odds-on favorite to succeed Waxman was Fred Upton of Michigan. While generally more moderate than Barton on climate issues, Upton shows no sign of being a friend of those seeking action on greenhouse gases, even if he does attract some barbs from his party’s most conservative wing.

Another House committee likely to warrant close watching is Oversight and Government Reform, where California Republican Darrell Issa probably will become chairman. He’s wavered on whether he might step up scrutiny of what the Democratic leadership had pretty much considered to be “settled science” on climate change. How far Issa goes in unearthing what he sees as lingering controversies surrounding the “climategate” hacked emails remains something of an unknown. But prominent climate scientists who have led much of the groundbreaking research on climate change causes and effects say they expect difficult hearings, perhaps involving subpoenas.

Reporters had expected that the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming would also be a House lightning rod for reporters to watch. It has been chaired over the past two years by liberal Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey. Initial post-election punditry had more or less assumed the Republican House leadership might just as well eliminate the potentially nettlesome (under Markey) committee. Sure enough, in early December, Rep. John Boehner, in line to be the new speaker in Congress, did just that, telling reporters that “the global warming committee doesn’t need to be a separate committee.”

In November, a House Science and Technology subcommittee on energy and environment — chaired by now-retired Democrat Brian Baird of Washington, one of the few members with a strong science background, focused on the impacts of human-caused climate change, including an emphasis on troubling national security implications. The hearings, with most witnesses generally sympathetic to the predominant IPCC view of climate science and open to confronting the thorny issue, appeared from the outset to be an attempt by outgoing Democrats to “educate” considerably less supportive incoming members.

The first clue of new directions in the GOP-led House of Representatives may come from close scrutiny of witness lists. The pendulum between climate “believers” and climate “contrarians” — terminology virtually all involved with the climate issue appreciate as being overly generalized and barely adequate — is certain to shift toward the more skeptical side.

Expect upcoming hearings in the new Congress to focus on whether warming is happening at all. Is it human caused? Natural? The sun? Aren’t there some benefits from a warming world? Do we really know? And what, precisely what, can we do about it if it’s happening in any event?

In the lame-duck hiatus between the November 2 elections and the seating of the new House and Senate, it was not surprising to see the chairs-in-waiting kept their powder somewhat dry and their options open. All the same, the early rumblings send a pretty clear signal of big changes ahead.

For environmental journalists, the coming months are likely to present some new and ever-more-challenging, yet stimulating, reporting opportunities. A new type of climate change “journalism” — with reporters being urged to “engage” more with the issue — may be starting to peek over the horizon. And it may pose mind-bending riddles for reporters loyal to the historic tradition of journalists as observers and not as participants. But, at the same time new opportunities may open to journalists sorely in need of some new path.

With all hopes for major federal legislative activity dashed, many experts on all sides of the climate change debate expect gridlock, even with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined to move forward, over GOP opposition, with regulatory efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. As a result, the importance of climate change communication initiatives may grow. Surely these new communications efforts, in order to be serious, will need to include tried-and-true journalists.

Organizations ranging from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation* to the “learned societies” such as the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are focusing more on the communications aspects of their science work. Activist organizations also have their oars in this water in their expanding efforts to involve and “engage” media in their climate communications campaigns.

With the much heralded arrival of the victorious 112th Congress to the nation's Capitol in midwinter, journalists can expect the climate change debate in both halls of the legislature to take on a whole new shape.
Photo: By Dominic Campbell via Flickr

A particularly intriguing example may be one championed by Matthew C. Nisbet, who spends much of his time in this new nexus of journalism and communication as an academic at American University. Nisbet recently penned a “post-partisan plan” for engaging the public on climate change issues.

Nisbet said he knows full well of the inevitable “new challenges to climate science” fromTea Party and like-minded politicians. He knows, too, of recent data pointing to “further disengagement and inattention” on the part of the public when it comes to climate change.

Drawing from a white paper he was commissioned to write for the National Academies, Nisbet recently outlined “a detailed and achievable blueprint for how to create …new communications opportunities for Americans.” After pointing to several of what he sees as “promising climate policy proposals” (like everything in the climate field, others are certain to find them far less promising), Nisbet allowed that “the challenge for these ideas and others is to gain substantive media and policy attention amidst the pending hyper-partisan noise. For advocates and journalists, the perceived ‘war’ between the left and the right on climate change will be a distracting yet very easy story to tell, one that is likely to be self-serving by rallying the base, selling copy, and avoiding complexity.”

Where will that lead? Nisbet leaves little doubt of his own concerns — “Perhaps the greatest damage from the pending hyper-partisan debate will be to civic engagement and public participation on the issue.”

His vision is that media interests might join — yes join — with expert institutions such as national scientific societies, and with government agencies, universities, foundations, business, and affiliated professional groups. Join not to defend climate change science or even to increase climate literacy, Nisbet writes ... but rather to “promote relevant areas of knowledge beyond just technical understanding of climate science” to include issues such as costs and benefits of various climate management proposals and of options to mitigate its impacts and to adapt.

Nisbet’s proposal sees all this emerging from a “new communications infrastructure and participatory culture” … coupled with a serious way to communicate to the public and to communicate to policy makers an accurate representation of public opinion on the issues, something he says they now lack. He outlines a strategy focused not at the national level, but rather at the state and regional levels “where there is the greatest need and demand.”

There’s more to the ideas Nisbet lays out in his “Eye on 2012: A Post- Partisan Plan to Engage the Public on Climate Change,” much of it relevant to the business of journalism on the wide-ranging climate change issues. See the website, where there are also important links for those journalists and journalism educators thirsting for more on the subject.

Nisbet’s are not the only provocative original ideas contributing to the mosaic of what may eventually emerge in the brave new world of environmental journalism and “mainstream” journalism. But for those current reporters wanting to help shape the field’s future, and not merely be bystanders, he offers fertile food for thought.

Try taking some big bites. My bet is that you’ll like it, and that you’ll come back for seconds. Is it too much to hope for that that could even lead to both a healthier climate …and to a better journalism?

Bud Ward, a founding SEJ board member, is an independent journalism educator and former editor of Environment Writer. He edits The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.

*Disclosure: As the editor of the online Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, the author of this article is himself a participant in an NSF-funded effort to help broadcast meteorologists better understand and communicate on climate change issues, and he has conducted a number of NSF-funded workshops over the years for leading climatologists and journalists.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2010-11 issue.