HOW THE MEDIA CAN CHANGE PUBLIC OPINION

by Aaron Dorman

“Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”–Fahrenheit 451

You see, I bought the red car so I could dismantle it!!!!”–Judge Doom, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

IT’S HURRICANE SEASON!

But Donald Trump still doesn’t believe in climate change. Neither does Scott Pruitt, his head of the EPA. Or does he?

Countless articles over the past few weeks have tried to hold their feet to the fire (as well as countless other conservative feet) by lambasting America’s (Republican) political leadership as hopelessly stubborn in their ignorance. This is the wrong approach.

Instead, I’ll point to a small smattering of the journalism that I consider to be better approaches to covering the combined shock of hurricane season and the new EPA’s “response.” Without devolving into a laundry list of online articles, it’s good to think of general categories:

  • Articles that focus on the regional impacts of storm damage, such as chemical explosions, toxic overflow, and other problems that require immediate attention and resources (re: funding).
  • Articles that focus on the structural inadequacy of existing laws and regulations ability to protect vulnerable citizens. Mother Jones, for example, recently highlighted how Houston’s lax zoning laws could lead to Harvey victims permanently losing their homes.
  • Articles that focus on the consequences of deregulation or lax standards, thus highlighting the need for such protection. A recent Nation editorial, for example, while a bit fluffy, at least raised the question: Why is charity aid better than government aid? The answer, which Democratic congressional candidates ought to remember in 2018, has something to do with emergency preparation (i.e. “prevention is better than cure”). And a recent Associated Press article highlighted the sort of thing Scott Pruitt and Congress must be confronted on each and every day: Why are you cutting Superfund money when we’ve just seen a hurricane turn Houston into a toxic soup? 

These articles, in various ways, highlight the need for a robust EPA, and contrast that with the current destruction of the EPA from within, in as an objective manner as is possible. However, I think it is fair to assume and worry that only those who deliberately seek out this type of reporting are reading it.

 

IN ORDER for environmental concerns to transcend politics, the media must now focus on tangible impacts and avoid falling back on the easy appeal to simply “accept the science.” Otherwise, public concern will never be broad and deep enough to move Congress and the Trump Administration towards action (or better yet, boot them out of office).

Many of the people with the most access to our political leaders — pundits, celebrities, corporate leaders, and others —gape and guffaw at denialism, assume Trump is an idiot, and call it a day. At the very least, some of the largest media publications — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post — advocate in this vein. In a similar way, discussion of Trump’s decision on the Paris Agreement is largely symbolic and misses the greater danger of leaving the Clean Power Plan too weak and underfunded to enforce lower emissions. Trump and his team’s dismissal of the Paris Agreement plays to notions of American independence (“we can get a better deal”); it is a lot harder, however, to defend making our air dirtier.

I find it somewhat of a smug and lazy tactic to ask conservative politicians about their “belief” in climate change in 2017. When Americans are challenged on their belief in climate change, it simply reduces the term to a signifier of political affiliation. The fact is that the “future,” that warmer world we’d all been warned about, is already here. “Belief” in climate change is irrelevant: The science is settled and the various paths to mitigation, either through market forces or more radical means, have been laid out decisively.

Denialists like Scott Pruitt or James Inhofe — or anyone with ties to the oil and gas industry, which seems to be just about everyone appointed to a prominent role in the Trump Administration — have very obvious and well-documented ulterior motives to pretend climate change is a hoax. Most climate writers get this. One of my favorites, Naomi Klein, has been making it clear for a long time that climate deniers actually understand the implications of climate change better than a lot of science writers and progressives (including, especially even, politicians).

“In short, climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests,” Klein writes in an article she wrote last month about Hurricane Irma. “To admit that the climate crisis is real is to admit the end of their political and economic project.”

The deniers’ reactions to climate change, filtered through a well-oiled PR machine, even make sense at times: We’ve had hurricanes before; they are part of the “natural” weather cycle and there’s nothing we can do about their occurrence; it is impossible to prove how humans have contributed to the magnitude of any individual hurricane, much less blame any individual human’s carbon footprint on their damage; what exactly are the liberal alarmists expecting them to do?

And the best and most dangerous climate deniers’ arguments have evolved. Most conservatives, including Scott Pruitt, do not deny climate change outright. Instead, as with cigarettes, they play up the uncertainty factor and suggest there is no way to know how much warming is contributed by anthropogenic sources, or how much warming we can even be certain of. Recently the EPA suggested that regardless of the administrations’ beliefs, it was “insensitive” to citizens affected by storm weather to inject science into the discussion. The former tactic, disingenuous as it may be, completely neutralizes the approach of most journalists trying to trap them into saying something stupid. Unless you have the science handy, who is anyone to argue against an “expert’s’” assertion that global warming is overstated? And even if you do, any argument comes down to putting your faith in second-hand sources of expertise.

Related to this, the implication that Scott Pruitt is an idiot who’s “failing” the EPA is all wrong. Scott Pruitt isn’t screwing up his job, he is doing an amazing job! His job was to destroy the EPA, and he’s doing it faster and more successfully than anyone could have imagined. And instead of treating the new Administration as clueless to the impacts of their dismantling federal regulations and funding, I think instead it is important for reporters to approach this unfolding story as fulfilling a well-stated policy goal. Before and after the election, Trump was clear on his plans for the EPA. It was the media, and well-placed pundits, for the most part, who helped obscure this by dismissing Trump’s more obscene promises as bluster pandering to the base. They were half right.

The new EPA is not acting or communicating in good faith. Official statements and doctored reports released should not be treated as informing the public, but instead as propaganda. The media’s job is to offer some context or criteria against which opposing viewpoints can be weighed. Otherwise, the EPA will be able to antagonize reporters, as they did during both Hurricane Harvey and Irma. So galvanized are they by this new climate of “alternative facts” that the EPA’s news release even cited Breitbart. That alone should constitute a smoking gun that renders all subsequent statements suspect.

Pressing conservatives too often on climate change also allows them to pretend that it is a separate issue from conservation, i.e., that they doubt climate change but love the great American outdoors. Yet to a man, no Republican in Congress or in Trump’s Administration who vehemently denies global warming has a positive record on environmental regulation.

This has been unusually obvious during the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. Despite Trump’s obstinate tweeting, the media has turned on him and his Administration over their hesitance or even negligence to provide appropriate aid to a U.S. territory. That said, much of the criticism has focused on the racial or cultural bias implied by their indifference; I would argue that their lack of attention to Puerto Rico is just as much, if not more, about government emergency response preparation.

This is an opening the Democrats have yet to exploit. While climate change is a partisan term, it is hard to fathom the general public is against cleanup of toxic sites, or post-hurricane reclamation, or virtually any project which would protect their community’s air water and food. In short, never mind climate change; let’s talk about climate disaster and how our government is or is not dealing with it.

I am not trying to be cynical in saying “the best way to argue climate change is to ignore the issue.” I am genuinely frustrated not only with the Trump administration’s cavalier dismantling of environmental protection, but also the American public’s unique role in abetting climate change and denying its existence. Still, I’m more frustrated by the media’s inability to alter public opinion. Part of this is the role of the internet itself, and the diminishing presence of investigative journalism. We haven’t yet figured out how newer models of journalism can best inform the public. Still — this will be cynical— I do believe that many science writers resort to pandering to their audience, for various reasons: It’s easy, they don’t what else to do, maybe they don’t understand the science themselves. In the meantime, the bad guys get exactly what they want: business as usual.

 

Aaron Dorman is a freelance writer/reporter focusing on environmental and science communication.