The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Climate change gets rare moment in sun on political talk shows

with Paulina Firozi


Environmentalists demanding action on climate change often complain that the news media does not pay enough attention to what they see as the biggest long-term crisis facing the world. 

But over the weekend, there was a sign that the issue of global warming is breaking though the maelstrom of political news — at least a little bit.

At least a half-dozen members of Congress and the Trump administration, including the president himself, were questioned about climate change during major network news programs Sunday. 

The interviews themselves “are news because they are complete aberrations,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, an environmental scientist at Yale who studies public perceptions of climate change. “The news networks very rarely ask about climate change.”

CBS's John Dickerson, for instance, asked Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, whose home state of Florida was rocked by Hurricane Michael last week, whether “humans are the chief contributor to climate change.”

Elsewhere on the dial, ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow whether “the president is going to do anything about” a dire report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describing how the world governments have just over a decade to avoid global temperatures creeping past 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming over preindustrial levels.

The interview subjects spanned the political spectrum, as U.S. senators such as Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were asked to weigh in on the government response to the U.N. report. In total, at least six government officials were asked about climate change during television interviews airing Sunday.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Oct. 14 said that "a few" dispute how much human activity is contributing to climate change. (Video: Reuters)

The wellspring of discussion about climate change, seemingly spurred by the publication of the U.N. report and the onset of another devastating hurricane season, stands in contrast to the dearth of discussion on the broadcast networks throughout the rest of the year.

“Had the IPCC report not come out,” Leiserowitz said, the networks would not be as likely to press hard on climate change after the hurricane.

Before this past Sunday, climate change was mentioned only three other times in all of 2018 on the three major networks' flagship Sunday morning shows, according to Media Matters for America, a left-leaning watchdog group that tracks that information. Those morning news programs are “Face the Nation” on CBS, “Meet the Press” on NBC and “This Week” on ABC.

Later in the day on CBS's "60 Minutes,” Lesley Stahl asked President Trump whether he still thinks climate change is a “hoax,” as he had used to tweet before being elected president.

Green groups cheered the increased coverage, even if it only came off the heels of the sort of rapidly intensifying hurricane that climate scientists say will be more common in this warming world.

“This is one of the most pressing crises facing humanity, and Beltway media too often treats it like a partisan game or ignores it altogether,” said Adam Beitman, deputy director of media relations at the Sierra Club. “Serious discourse on climate solutions is more than welcome, and shouldn’t only come after catastrophes.”

If the fact that interviewers decided to bring up climate change at all was encouraging to environmentalists, the responses from Republicans were less so.

While Flake, who is not running for reelection, urged Republicans “to be at the forefront” of the issue, Kudlow questioned the extent to which human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels is increasing global temperatures.

“I think they overestimate,” Kudlow said of the U.N. report.

Rubio acknowledged some role humans are playing, but demurred when asked by Dickerson whether he accepted the scientific consensus that humans are chiefly responsible for rising temperatures.

“That's what a lot of scientists say,” Rubio said. “I think there are others that dispute what percentage of that is humans and not.”

And Trump? He actually seemed to back away from comments he made before becoming president that climate change was a Chinese fabrication.

“I don't think it's a hoax,” Trump told CBS's Stahl.

But then he added, “You don't know whether or not that would have happened with or without man.”

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— Trump administration considers military bases for coal exports: The Trump administration is weighing the use of military bases as points of transport for exporting coal and gas from the United States, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told the Associated Press. The proposal is “tantamount to an end-run around" Democratically controlled West Coast state opposed to exporting coal. “I respect the state of Washington and Oregon and California,” Zinke said. “But also, it’s in our interest for national security and our allies to make sure that they have access to affordable energy commodities.”

— Meanwhile at the Energy Department: The Trump administration’s push to bolster struggling coal companies has been shelved after Energy Secretary Rick Perry spent more than a year pushing various ideas that would save coal and nuclear plants in the name of national security, Politico reports. The plan has halted “amid opposition from the president’s own advisers on the National Security Council and National Economic Council,” per the report. “It is unclear whether Trump himself has decided against following Perry’s proposal."

— “Our message is no longer welcome”: Ruth Etzel, the suspended head of the agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection chastised the Trump administration for sidelining her in an interview with CBS News. "I often think of the Office of Children's Health as the conscience of EPA, because, you know, we're kind of nagging at them: 'Is this okay for children? Are you sure this is okay for children?'" she said. "Our message is no longer welcome. The message that children are not little adults and they need special protections is not welcome… It basically means that our kids will continue to be poisoned." Etzel also said she never once met one-on-one with acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler or former administrator Scott Pruitt.


— Trump visits storm-worn region: Trump took a nearly hour-long helicopter tour of areas hit by Michael on Monday, surveying the devastated town of Mexico Beach and the damaged Tyndall Air Force Base. The president and first lady Melania Trump traveled through Florida and Georgia on Monday, according to the Associated Press.

During the visit, Trump praised Florida Gov. Rick Scott for his response to the devastation following Hurricane Michael as the Republican looks to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Trump said the “job they’ve done in Florida has been incredible,” calling Scott a “great governor.”

And during a stop at an American Red Cross facility in Macon, Ga. during his visit, Trump vowed to call on Congress for more emergency disaster funding to pay for aftermath of Michael. FEMA chief William “Brock” Long did not specify how much money would be needed in aid, saying it was too early for specifics, The Post’s Felicia Sonmez, Seung Min Kim and Patricia Sullivan report. But Congress has already "approved $1.68 billion in emergency aid after Hurricane Florence — funds that were included in a broad reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this month."

More in Michael-related news:

  • On the ground: People are still looking for family and friends who have been missing in the five days since Michael struck the Florida Panhandle. As of Monday, the official death toll from the storm from Florida to Virginia was steady at 17 as search and rescue efforts continued, the AP reports.
  • In the dark: It may be weeks until some residents regain electricity, the New York Times reports. “Gulf Power, the main utility in the area, estimated on Sunday that electricity would be restored in Lynn Haven, downtown Panama City and neighboring communities by Oct. 24, two weeks after the hurricane made landfall,” per the report. “But Duke Energy, which serves another hard-hit swath of the Florida Panhandle, including Bay County and some parts of Gulf County, said it could not yet estimate how long it might take to get the lights back on in those areas. “
  • Rumor has it: The Federal Emergency Management Agency launched a “rumor control page” on its website to report any fraudulent information about its response efforts.

— Meanwhile out West: Low humidity and severely dry Santa Ana winds are making for a tinder box of conditions in Southern California early this week, the National Weather Service is warning. “More than 13 million people are under a red-flag warning that covers parts of eight counties, including the greater Los Angeles areas,” The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. “High-wind warnings mean that gusts could be strong enough for property damage to occur, but because these winds will be blowing from high elevation to low elevation, they also increase the wildfire risk exponentially.” And in Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric announced it would preemptively turn off power in some parts of the state to avoid having their power lines spark wildfires, per the AP. 

— “I shot a whole family of baboons”: A member of Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission resigned on Monday after facing backlash for sending photos of animals he had hunted to more than 100 people after returning from a trip to Namibia last month, as. “Fellas,” Blake Fischer wrote in a Sept. 17 email, The Post’s Allyson Chiu wrote. “I have been back for a week, but have been hunting and trying to get caught up. Anyways, my wife and I went to Namibia for a week . . . first she wanted to watch me and ‘get a feel’ of Africa . . . so I shot a whole family of baboons. I think she got the idea quick.” The Idaho State Journal reported that Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter “announced that he asked for and received Fischer’s resignation.”

— Man, it’s a hot one: After a scorching September that's now the fifth-warmest September on record, 2018 is set to be the Earth’s fourth-warmest year, according to new data from NASA, Axios reports.

Here are some other climate change headlines from academia:

  • Mammals: A new study suggests it will take 3 to 7 million years for mammals to “evolve enough new species to replace the ones that we have eradicated,” the Atlantic reports. Study author Matt Davis at Aarhus University said that such damage has been inflicted on human’s own family tree that a healing process isn’t possible “on any kind of time scale that’s relevant to humans.”
  • Insects: A new report reveals insects are in a worse decline than scientists previously realized. “Huge numbers of bugs have been lost in a pristine national forest in Puerto Rico, the study found, and the forest’s insect-eating animals have gone missing, too,” The Post’s Ben Guarino reports. “The latest report, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that this startling loss of insect abundance extends to the Americas. The study’s authors implicate climate change in the loss of tropical invertebrates.”
  • Beer: A small international team of scientists is predicting there will be a beer shortage in the next 80 years. A new study in the journal Nature Plants predicts that by the end of the century, “drought and heat could hurt barley crops enough to cause intense pain to beer drinkers," the New York Times reports. “Imagine a worst case of a 20 percent drop in supply in the United States, or a doubling of prices per bottle in Ireland.”


  • The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a discussion on LNG exports.

Coming Up

  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a meeting on Thursday.
  • The Atlantic Council holds an event on “The Role of Advanced Energy in National Security and a Resilient Grid” on Thursday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks holds a field hearing on Friday.
  • The U.S. Association for Energy Economics National Capital Area Chapter holds a presentation on “What the midterm elections may mean for energy policy” on Friday.

— The last one standing: There was at least one house in Mexico Beach, Fla. that made it through the wrath of Hurricane Michael nearly unscathed. Co-owners, 68-year-old attorney Russell King and Lebron Lackey, a 54-year-old radiologist, told the New York Times that they built the so-called Sand Palace reinforced with steel cables and extra concrete to withstand “the big one.” “We just never knew we’d find the big one so fast,” Lackey said.