The Washington Post wants to fix the climate debate -- by featuring even more deniers

The Posts' bold new editorial stance is confusingly hypocritical

Published August 27, 2014 5:43PM (EDT)

              (AP/Gerald Herbert)
(AP/Gerald Herbert)

Climate Week's come early at the Washington Post. The paper's editorial board, at a pace of one op-ed per day, has decided to acknowledge that man-made climate change is an unequivocal reality, and that the time to take action is now. In so doing, boasts Fred Hiatt, the Post's editorial page editor, it's going to "unstick" America's "devolving debate over global warming."

Almost. As Joe Romm points out at ThinkProgress, there are still some major flaws in that plan. Chief among them: the Post hasn't made it clear what an un-devolved climate debate would look like.

The Post is so, so close to getting there. Its editorial board is throwing itself fully behind the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real, and that it's almost certainly caused by human activity. That's good, because those facts are no longer up for debate.  That same realization drove the Los Angeles Times, last fall, to stop publishing letters from climate deniers who challenged those facts. "The debate right now isn’t whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does)," letters editor Paul Thorton explained at the time, "but what this evidence means for us."

Hiatt, on the other hand, told Media Matters that its avowed strong stance on climate change won't prevent it from publishing dissenting views, even from "deniers of the problem." He explained, "I'm more inclined to take op-eds that challenge our editorials than just kind of join the chorus." It's a shame that he didn't make clear where the line is going to be drawn. If, as he says, the Post will "try in both letters and op-eds to make sure that nothing we print is factually inaccurate," then it's going to have to try not to publish op-eds like this one, in which Charles Krauthammer attempted to argue that climate change is not a fact, and backed up that argument with easily debunked claims. Or guest columns from Sarah Palin in which she argues that "we can’t say with assurance that man’s activities cause weather changes." Or more or less everything written by George Will, including future columns in which he might restate his opinion, recently voiced on Fox News, that the scientists who concede that man-made climate change aren't relying on a robust field of research, but instead "pluck these things from the ether.”

These are all long-running criticisms of the Post's editorial policy, and this week would seem as good a time as any for the editorial board to address them head-on. Not just by publishing an editorial decrying those columnists for being so wrong, as Hiatt once did, but by making it clear that it's refusing to run them in the first place. Because they're wrong.

The "most reasonable climate skeptics," per the Post, are the ones who accept a) man-made b) climate change, but who take issue with two other uncertainties: precisely how much the Earth will heat in response to greenhouse gas emissions, and the specific impacts that temperature rise will have. It is presumably those issues, if used to argue that we should do little or nothing to combat climate change, will pass the editorial board's standards. And on both, the editorial board is clear about where it stands:

Neither is a good excuse for inaction. Recent papers argue for adjusting the sensitivity range up and down, but the overall picture is stable: Scientists have reason to warn against betting human welfare on the proposition that low-end estimates will pan out. Even if the experts are too pessimistic, recent research indicates, that would not eliminate the need to slash carbon dioxide emissions over the next several decades.

Scientists can also reasonably anticipate myriad negative effects in certain emissions scenarios, including sea-level rise, higher storm surges in coastal areas, more flooding elsewhere, increasingly frequent and severe heat and wildfires, extreme precipitation events, widespread changes in habitats and agricultural resources, ocean acidification with dire consequences for coral and other species, drought and the spread of disease.

Hiatt, in his conversation with Media Matters, characterized those negative effects as serious enough to pose an "existential threat" to the planet. That sentiment, too, is backed up by robust scientist. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which comprises the world's top climate scientists and represents the conservative scientific consensus on the issue, plans to release a report warning that “without additional mitigation, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally.” (The exact language will be subject to review, but the sentiment reflects the panel's previous findings.) They also could have thrown in the report recently released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "the world's largest general scientific society," which, while not claiming all questions have been answered, nonetheless cites "overwhelming evidence" that the impacts of climate change are already being felt today, and argues that the planet is at growing risk of “abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes.”

How to frame a debate around such strong assertions? Let's look again at what another news organization did: last month, the BBC Trust published a report criticizing its journalists for giving far too much air time to people with "marginal views" --  for engaging, in other words, in false balance, a phenomenon that is no longer allowed to be referenced without linking to John Oliver's take on what a mathematically fair climate debate would look like. “The Trust wishes to emphasize the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences,” the report reads. “Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.”

"If the Post is serious, it needs to start treating the story of the century as the story of the century and treating the established science as established science, not debatable politics," Romm argues. If it's going to publish even more editorials from people who disagree with the findings of the IPCC, the AAAS and other mainstream scientific organizations, its editorial page will be less representative than ever of the climate debate. And it's hard to see how that's going to serve anyone but deniers.

By Lindsay Abrams

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