Veteran journalist Eric Pooley in January issued a powerful critique of the American press and its coverage of the 2008 cap-and-trade debate in the U.S. Senate. His central insight was that the “he said, she said” stenography that had once plagued coverage of climate science may be migrating into the climate change economics/policy debate.

“If coverage of climate science is an at-risk adolescent,” Pooley, a contributor to Time and former managing editor of Fortune, wrote in his study for the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, “then coverage of climate policy is an infant threatened by crib death.”

News Analysis and Commentary

According to his analysis of 40 articles about the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill of 2008, many reporters gave equal value to dubious industry-funded economic studies, chiefly a flawed report by the National Association of Manufacturers. Conversely, what he saw as a solid study by Environmental Defense Fund, consolidating economic research across a broad spectrum, got shorter shrift than it deserved, according to Pooley.

The New York Times and The Washington Post were, at times, guilty of not sorting through the economic claims. And lone, scrappy reporters at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Billings Gazette are heroes in Pooley’s eye, illustrating, he wrote, that it doesn’t take an army of policy wonks to figure this stuff out.

Some reporters, in Pooley’s view, were not vetting sources and digging into the numbers. They were ignoring what Pooley sees as a “consensus” among most economists that putting a price on carbon would have only a marginal effect on the economy in the long term – less than 1 percent of GDP by 2030.

Moreover, media reports often disregarded the reality that doing nothing would also have its own very substantial costs.

Pooley uses his evidence to exhort climate journalists to become smarter, more empowered “referees.” They should, he says, “learn the difference between sound economic analysis and weapons of mass persuasion.”

Yet having published his study, which turns its fire chiefly on journalists, he now concedes that the whole ecosystem of information was askew in 2008 – and that didn’t make it easier for the journalists.

In a telephone interview with The Yale Forum, Pooley said he could have been harder on the economists, too, especially those who support cap-and-trade but fixate on small differences, creating “very distracting static.” The economists themselves, he said, are “such a cantankerous bunch that they bicker among themselves,” which of course is a characteristic, and in some cases a hallowed tradition, in many professions.

Pooley also said that, upon reflection, EDF “didn’t do the best job with [selling] their study.” The organization “didn’t have a dumbed-down high-concept headline.”

But the sharp lessons for the media are still valid, he said.

Three Ways of Looking at Pooley

Pooley’s study has its proponents, such as Joseph Romm at the liberal website And it has prominent critics, such as The New York Times‘ Andy Revkin and The Wall Street Journal‘s Keith Johnson, who writes the “Environmental Capital” blog.

Revkin, who sparred with Romm online over the study, says that it is too focused on cap-and-trade as the panacea to all our climate ills.

“I’m afraid his entire analysis suffers from a big initial presumption – that the most meaningful step in mobilizing the country (and implicitly the world) is getting a price on greenhouse-gas emissions,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Yale Forum and other outlets, also posted on Romm’s blog. “There is still lively discourse over what mix of technology and economic policy can set a course toward accelerated de-carbonization of the global energy menu.”

In an e-mail exchange, Johnson also expressed doubts: “I just don’t believe things are quite as black-and-white as the Pooley report suggests, and that any media outlet that raises questions about some consensus stand is playing into the hands of ‘deniers’ or industry groups.”

Johnson said that the economics considerations contain huge assumptions about the future – and no one has a perfect crystal ball. “Underlying all the headline conclusions,” he said, “is a very fundamental yet arcane debate over what kind of discount rate to apply to future damages and benefits.”

Choosing Among the Converted

Pooley’s scope was circumscribed: a specific piece of cap-and-trade legislation; a discrete set of articles and reporters; two competing sides, with extremely polarized views. While no doubt there can be quibbles on the margins, it makes a strong case within its limits.

What’s unclear is whether the lessons Pooley’s article draws can be extended to today – when the cap-and-trade debate has become, by any measure, more nuanced. (And to say nothing of the fact that the national and global financial crisis will have thrown off economic models and any previous assumptions about economic growth rates.)

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Ca) and Representative Henry Waxman (D-Ca) have pledged to put together their own cap-and-trade bills this year. And President Obama is committed to the issue. It’s safe to say that the center of the debate has shifted.

In the interview, Pooley said it will be tough for reporters covering some of the most important future debates on the climate change issue.

Take Exhibit A: Last month, the diverse U.S. Climate Action Partnership (CAP) – composed of groups ranging from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and EDF to General Motors and Duke Energy – issued a blueprint for a cap-and-trade system. It calls for reducing emissions to some 80 percent of 2005 levels by 2020, and to 20 percent of 2005 levels by 2050. It proposes giving out allowances to companies for free at first, though that system would be phased-out.

It’s all a relatively moderate position – but one that prompted the National Wildlife Federation to drop out of the U.S. CAP. And it’s also weaker than positions advocated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Center for American Progress, and some officials who now work in the Obama administration.

Many want deeper cuts faster, with more punitive measures on companies. Others, like U.S. CAP, see a window of political opportunity and think a decent compromise is the best path. It’s essentially a political debate, one that involves calculations about timing and viability.

“You’ve got a philosophical difference there, and it’s a profound one,” Pooley said in the interview. “I don’t think the economists can decide that one.”

Moreover, there are heated debates over whether to initially issue permits to companies for free, or whether to auction them; whether to allow companies to purchase offsets abroad; and how properly to spend the money generated by the permits. Economists line up on all different sides of these issues.

Widening the Playing Field

There’s another slow-burning area of challenge for climate journalists: what to make of the competing, parallel track of a “carbon tax.” That might be a relatively simpler way to make companies pay for greenhouse gas emissions, without a potentially Byzantine market of carbon permit trading to be set up (the kind that Europe has had trouble with).

Pooley points out that there are some prominent figures who have backed the carbon tax position: Larry Summers, Obama’s chief economic advisor; Robert Shapiro, former official in President Clinton’s administration; and Harvard professor and Democratic Party luminary Elaine Kamarck, a former advisor to Al Gore.

“There are people in the climate community who are worried that a carbon tax will gain enough momentum to kill cap-and-trade, but not enough to pass itself,” Pooley said in the interview.

Which is all to say that reporting responsibly between that carbon tax crowd and proponents of all stripes of cap-and-trade is not easy. (Bradford Plumer has a useful side-by-side analysis of the two at The New Republic‘s “Environment and Energy” blog.) No iron-clad “consensus” among economists is likely to emerge. It’s not like choosing between the National Association of Manufacturers, on the one hand, and a few hundred crack academic economists on the other.

Most left-leaning environmental and energy analysts – and Pooley himself – agree that cap-and-trade will promote clean-energy innovation faster than a carbon tax will. And that may be a decisive consideration. But that’s where the clean comparisons may end.

Some would disagree, of course.

“The playing field has gotten bigger,” Tony Kreindler, media director for climate issues at EDF, said in a phone interview with The Yale Forum. “… But when it comes to the economics, I don’t think things have changed one bit.” He noted that the EDF-backed U.S. CAP proposal tries to find the “sweet spot” and takes into account “what’s politically feasible.”

EDF hopes that the corporate CEOs getting behind such a bill – and saying that climate action can actually help grow their companies – might just “take this out of the realm of modeling” altogether, Kreindler said.

Modeling Morality

In any case, one bill, perhaps Waxman’s, may finally get its day in the sun, just in time for the Copenhagen Climate Summit at year’s end. Any of the competing factions in the U.S., though, could derail a perfectly decent bill, ending in more U.S. inaction with the world watching and waiting.

So analyzing these very difficult options could be just as important as negotiating the stormy seas between the opposing sides from the Lieberman-Warner debate. But unlike the 2008 debate that Pooley dissects, there may be no consensus among economic voices to help guide journalists this time.

The global context matters here. Assertions continue to fly that even if a U.S. cap-and-trade scheme might make sense economically, it won’t make enough of a difference in avoiding climate disaster unless India and China also act. Over time and with a recovery from the worldwide recession, their long-term growth could keep greenhouse gas levels growing and growing.

That raises issues about how essential U.S. cap-and-trade really is – and speaks to Revkin’s point that some other or additional mix of technological remedies may be worth focusing on.

But it also raises a deeper point. If philosophy gets beyond the scope of economic analysis on cap-and-trade, so certainly do ethics. There may be a need to do something grand and fast for reasons of “modeling” – but not in the financial sense.

“We in the U.S. were the first folks to cause the mess, and we have to be the first folks to start cleaning the mess,” Adil Najam, a professor at Boston University and a lead author of the IPCC report that won the Nobel Prize, said in a Yale Forum interview. “Only then will we have the moral legitimacy to ask others to pitch in.

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...