Media’s Coverage of “Cap-and-Trade” May Forecast Future Climate Politics

January 15, 2011

The Beat

By BILL DAWSON

The climate issue figured prominently in numerous House and Senate races this past fall, with much of the debate centering on the House-passed climate-energy bill – also called Waxman-Markey and the American Clean Energy and Security Act, but perhaps best known for its emission-reducing mechanism, “cap-and-trade.”

The bill narrowly won House approval in the summer of 2009, and NPR reported in April that “cap-and-trade” had by then become “a toxic brand,” thanks to the conservatives’ successful effort to tar it as “cap and tax.” Efforts in the Senate to pass any sort of climate bill — with or without a cap-and-trade provision — were subsequently abandoned.

One theme of the campaign news coverage about climate involved Republicans’ widespread criticism of the cap-and-trade bill (and often of mainstream climate science), especially in races against vulnerable incumbents who voted for it in the House.

House GOP leaders, sensing a major victory in the making, in September issued a policy outline called “A Pledge to America,” which included promises on the climate issue. The Hill’s energy and environmental blogger Ben German reported:

The reference to energy policy is brief, noting only that, ‘We will fight to increase access to domestic energy sources and oppose attempts to impose a national ‘cap-and-trade’ energy tax.’

“But with the GOP expected to make major gains in the mid-term elections, it underscores the tough climb that any climate change bills would face in the next Congress regardless of which party holds the gavel.”

Also in September, The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg reported on a survey by a liberal think tank:

“All but one of the 48 Republican hopefuls for the Senate mid-term elections in November deny the existence of climatechange or oppose action on global warming, according to a reportreleased today.“

The strong Republican front against established scienceincludes entrenched Senate leaders as well as the new wave ofradical conservatives endorsed by the Tea Party activists, says areport by the Centre for American Progress.”

Evan Lehmann of ClimateWire reported in late October on Tea Party adherents who viewed climate science as “a scam” and quoted one who said the House bill was part of an attack on capitalism: “If you break the back of the people ... when cap-and-trade comes along, it’s not exactly stealing.”

Writing in the National Journal in early October, Ronald Brownstein noted that hardening of GOP opposition to the House cap-and-trade bill in 2009 was the start of a larger pattern, in which “Republicans in this country are coalescing around a uniquely dismissive position on climate change. The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones.”

In August, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker had an article that drew much attention and comment, in which she presented a detailed account of one major source of financial support for the spread of such ideas — funding from the libertarian brothers David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, a Kansas-based oil company. One passage about an advocacy group they launched:

“Americans for Prosperity has held at least eighty events targeting cap-and-trade legislation, which is aimed at making industries pay for the air pollution that they create. Speakers for the group claimed, with exaggeration, that even back-yard barbecues and kitchen stoves would be taxed.”

Reporting on individual races

Inevitably, the cap-and-trade issue played a bigger role in some races, such as a New Mexico race involving an incumbent Democratic House member, than in others.

Tim Korte of the Associated Press profiled the race in late October, leading with the climate issue:

“The southeastern New Mexico oil patch is the setting for Harry Teague’s rags-to-riches biography, a tale of his rise from high school dropout and working-class rig hand to successful business owner and U.S. congressman.

“But against that scenario, Teague’s vote to support President Barack Obama’s energy plan has become an issue in his campaign for a second House term.”

Elizabeth McGowan, reporting for SolveClimate News on Nov. 1, noted that Florida’s Republican Senate candidate, Marco Rubio, had become “a climate change denier and darling of the Tea Party Movement,” but that appeared to be “a strategic flip-flop.”

Previously, she wrote, Rubio, as speaker of the state House of Representatives, had championed “comprehensive climate legislation that rivaled California’s landmark Assembly Bill 32,” which is establishing a state cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases.

Reporting in late October on “three tight House races” in generally pro-environment Washington state, Amanda Peterka of Greenwire noted that in one of the contests, the incumbent Republican, Dave Reichert, was “one of just eight House Republicans who voted for the 2009 cap-and-trade bill” and had won the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund.

Peterka added an anecdotal detail suggesting that even such a GOP candidate was attempting to put some distance between himself and the cap-and-trade measure:

“But an audio recording made at a Republican gathering in May raised some eyebrows when Reichert said that in order to win in the 8th District, ‘you have got to pick your battles ... There are certain moves, chess pieces, strategies you have to employ.’

“He went on to imply that his pro-environment votes were just part of that strategy and that ‘I’ve taken [environmentalists]out of the game in this district. They’re out.’”

Both the Republican and Democratic candidates in coal-dependent West Virginia’s Senate race, meanwhile, were nothing but upfront about their distaste for the cap-and-trade bill.

Nicole Allan, a staff editor for TheAtlantic.com, did some truth-in-advertising work in a piece posted in late September about an ad for Republican John Raese that sought to paint Democrat Joe Manchin with the cap-and-trade brush:

“The ad singles out a bill Manchin signed in 2009 that mandates a certain percentage of the state’s energy come from renewable sources. A narrator claims that the law cuts coal usage and that ‘it’s Obama’s cap-and-trade bill, West Virginia style.’…

“It just so happens, though, that Manchin did not sign a cap-and-trade law. The bill from 2009, called the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act, does not cap emissions. It’s essentially a renewable portfolio standard, not dissimilar from the ones that exist in 33 other states (as of 2009) — except that it’s a lot more lenient toward the coal industry Raese claims Manchin is gutting.”

One of Manchin’s ads on the same issue drew a good amount of media attention, because it showed him firing a bullet from a rifle into a target labeled “cap-and-trade Bill.” As the headline on an item in the New York Times’ “Green” blog noted, however, Manchin was “Taking Aim, Literally, at a Dead Climate Bill.”

Times reporter John Collins Rudolf elaborated: “Given that cap-and-trade legislation died months ago in the Senate, some proponents of cap-and-trade see this as a low blow. …

“Mr. Manchin’s Republican opponent, however, has been running ads implying that the governor is anti-coal, supports cap-and-trade and would ‘rubber-stamp’ President Obama’s agenda.

“In fact, Mr. Manchin has been a consistently outspoken opponent to his party’s carbon-capping ambitions and is a longstanding supporter of the mining companies and unions of his state.”

What was the impact?

Republicans, of course, handily won control of the House and greatly narrowed Democrats’ margin in the Senate. In light of the heavy assault by the GOP on the cap-and-trade bill, what role did it play in the party’s big victory? That was a subject for journalistic reporting and analysis as soon as the results were known.

Greenwire got a jump on the analysis aspect of that coverage with an Election Day article, headlined on the New York Times website, “Will the Ghost of Cap-And-Trade Haunt Democrats Tomorrow — and Beyond?” The unbylined story put the subject into the broader electoral context:

“The Democrats’ anticipated loss of the House will be attributed to the sour economy and unpopular health care reform law, the Wall Street bailout and economic stimulus bills, among other things.

“But Democrats’ vote to support the House cap-and-trade climate bill has played prominently in more than a dozen races across the country and has haunted moderate Democrats across the nation, as critics call cap-and-trade one more example of an overreaching government.”

Politico reporters Darren Samuelsohn and Robin Bravender had an article the day after the election in which they wrote that Democrats who had voted for the climate bill “had a terrible night” and “were slaughtered at the ballot box.”

More than two dozen members of Congress “who favored efforts to clamp down on heat-trapping emissions were swept away on Tuesday’s anti-incumbent wave, ushering in a new class of Republicans who doubt global warming science and want to upend President Barack Obama’s environmental and energy policies,” they reported.

Time’s Bryan Walsh, writing in a story that was posted on the magazine’s website the same day, also noted that number of Democrats who voted for the cap-and-trade bill and met defeat. He cautioned, however, that the significance of the climate issue in the overall election outcome was not a clear-cut matter:

“But how big a factor was cap-and-trade on election night? In reality, not all that much. It’s worth noting that no Republican who voted in favor of cap-and-trade lost their reelection battles last night (although that’s admittedly a small sample size, as only eight Republicans supported the bill, and one of them —Delaware’s Mike Castle — lost in a primary election to a more conservative opponent). Even in the midst of a Republican tsunami, a few Democrats who supported a carbon cap still managed close victories, including Brad Miller of North Carolina and John Yarmuth of Kentucky — two conservative leaning states. …

“Indeed, aside from a few districts where climate change and energy was high on the agenda — like [Virginian] Rick Boucher’s coal-mining land — Americans voters weren’t really focused on environmental issues. This was a wave election, an expression of volcanic anger on the part of the public, and what House and Senate Democrats did or didn’t do on climate and energy likely made very little difference to the overall tide.”

The New York TimesJohn Broder, in a “Green” blog post three days after the election, reported that a scholar’s statistical analysis likewise suggested that the debate over the climate bill didn’t make much difference in the election results.

Broder noted that environmentalists and other backers of the measure were trying to evade blame for the Democrats’ losses, while Republicans were offering contrasting spin. He then added:

“Michael Levi, a fellow in energy and environmental studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, tried to take a neutral look at the results, using what he described as ‘simple multivariable linear regressions,’ to see whether or to what extent theWaxman-Markey vote affected the outcomes.

“He looked at 334 competitive House races and included the party makeup of the districts and the incumbent member’s vote on the climate bill, the health law and the stimulus package among the variables.

“He admits that the results are suggestive rather than definitive, but his bottom line is that the climate vote mattered not at all in most races and only a little in a few.”

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of SEJournal.

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