The New York Times’s Justin Gillis did yeoman work in reporting the paper’s page-one story on April 13 explaining why, based on his understanding of the latest IPCC climate mitigation report, it’s important to act seriously and soon on greenhouse gas emissions.


The New York Times’s Coral Davenport did sound journalism also in its page-one story the next day explaining why it isn’t about to happen, at least not so far as Washington politics goes.

News Analysis

Those who read only the first-day story and not the follow-up missed essential context.

The two stories stand together and are best understood as essential parts of the overall puzzle. Both are well reported and explanatory, each consistent with the sources cited and the facts as they are generally understood to stand. Both stories appear to have been carefully sourced and appropriately qualified.

“The latest stark news about climate change,” Gillis wrote from Berlin, where the IPCC report was released. He pointed to the study’s having concluded that “decades of foot-dragging by political leaders had propelled humanity into a critical situation,” but he reported also “the good news” … that “ambitious action is becoming more affordable” and that tougher building codes and vehicle efficiency standards can help cut emissions “without harming people’s quality of life.”

The Washington Post piece that same day by Darryl Fears opened with “Facing a potential climate catastrophe,” but said the IPCC report still “found that nations still have a chance” to adequately limit carbon emissions if they “aggressively turn away from relying largely on fossil fuels such as coal for energy and replace them with cleaner energy sources such as solar and wind power.” Lacking that, “nations will start to face the most debilitating effects of global warming.” (While not reporting separately on the politics of Washington, an issue it routinely does cover, the Post on April 15 editorialized on the newest IPCC report: It asked rhetorically what happens if, given the “current trajectory” and political realities, “the world overshoots its emission goals”?)

The Associated Press’s Karl Ritter, in a story published the same day, was a bit more focused on the costs issue. “Cost of fighting warming ‘modest,’ says UN Panel,” the Associated Press headlined. Its lead sentence: “The cost of keeping global warming in check is ‘relatively modest,’ but only if the world acts quickly to reverse the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.”

In his wire service piece, A.P.’s Ritter reported the IPCC estimate that shifting from fossil fuels to zero- or lo-carbon sources such as wind and solar power “would reduce consumption growth by about 0.06 percentage points per year,” a figure that does not take into account economic benefits of reduced warming. (For a more ecstatic view of the new IPCC’s control cost estimates, see blogger Joe Romm’s Climate Progress post.)

“The cost is not something that’s going to bring about a major disruption of economic systems,” Ritter quoted IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri as saying. “It’s well within our reach.”

USA Today’s Wendy Koch led her story with “A rapid shift to less-polluting energy will be needed to avoid catastrophic global warming.”

But even cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 percent by mid-century “might not be enough,” she reported: “The IPCC report, striking a particularly urgent tone, says countries might even need to enlist controversial technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

Reporting The Wall Street Journal’s news story, Gautam Naik wrote of the IPCC’s call for international action, for instance by setting carbon dioxide taxes. “Delaying action now will increase costs later and mitigating climate change won’t be achieved if companies and governments ‘advance their own interests independently,’ Naik wrote. Naik quoted IPCC working group III co-chair Ottmar Edenhofer. “Climate policy isn’t a free lunch but could be lunch [that’s] worthwhile to buy.”

But not from the standpoint of the U.S. Congress, and in particular its House Republican majority, The New York Times’s Davenport reported a day after those initial news reports. “Tax on Carbon Resisted: Lawmakers Tied to Fuel Industries,” the paper wrote in a sub-headline under “Political Divide Slows U.S. Action on Climate Laws.” (Folks who have followed the climate “action” in Washington for any period of time might consider that a non-news … Duh, No Foolin’ … headline.)

But in the context of the increasingly gloomy climate news coming from IPCC and other authoritative scientific voices (notwithstanding the genuinely modest mitigation cost estimates), the Davenport second-day story provided essential context for those less attuned to the day-in and day-out climate issue machinations generally.

“Aggressive efforts have repeatedly collided with political reality in Washington,” Davenport reported, surely a statement far more of fact than of opinion. She pointed to Republican opposition and the ascent of Tea Party politics as key factors, again a statement well supported by the record. She pointed also to “pledges” by hundreds of Republican legislators to never raise taxes, but added:

“But there has not been a huge public outcry to endorse climate change policy,” with many voters not making it a priority, Davenport wrote.

In the yin-and-yang of this century’s approach to the globe’s changing climate, reading the numerous media reports of the new IPCC mitigation report provides essential background on where the nation is on this issue and on where it may be going.

But adding to that consumption an awareness of the “political realities” reported by Davenport in the second-day follow-up provides the essential context on why, at least for now and the foreseeable future, legislative action from our divided Washington lawmakers isn’t likely to soon be part of the steps moving forward.

And that’s one would-be change virtually no one sees coming to the world of climate change policy.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...