On Earth Day, Thursday, April 22nd, at the start of the virtual global summit he had convened on climate change, President Biden confirmed the rumors: The U.S. would reduce global warming pollutants by half by 2030.
For climate activists, communicators and scientists, this was a big story. But how much did it matter to the mainstream newspapers?
YCC set out to measure media interest in two ways. First, an analysis was conducted of the front pages of the American newspapers collected for Friday, April 23rd by the Freedom Forum. Second, YCC checked to see how the editorial boards of the nation’s newspapers responded.
The results? Tepid.
Only 25% of more than 400 American front pages accessible via Freedom Forum on Friday, April 23rd acknowledged Biden’s climate summit and pledge in some way. Most of these news stories ran less than five column inches and included no photographs; many were single-column-inch previews of stories inside. In only a few cases – including in the Houston Chronicle, New York Times, and Washington Post – did the story fill a fifth or more of the front page.
Oddly, the papers that gave the story the most real estate were three small affiliated papers in South Carolina; The Beaufort Gazette, for example, devoted a third of its front page to the summit, including a large photograph above fold.
Also odd, The Miami Herald did not acknowledge the summit at all, even though a story about local impacts of sea-level rise filled a third of the front page below the fold.
The search for editorials yielded even more meager results. Despite using several different search strategies—Google, US Newstream, ProQuest, Lexis-Uni, searches at newspapers’ own websites—Yale Climate Connections found only 10 editorials. (This figure does not include opinion pieces signed by columnists or outside contributors, only editorials expressing the newspaper’s view.) These editorials are excerpted below, in chronological order.
Biden promises big on climate change. Delivering will be much harder.
The Washington Post – Editorial – April 21, 2021
Cutting the first 50 percent of the nation’s emissions total is going to be far easier than cutting the second 50 percent. Mr. Biden must show that big goals like his new Paris commitment can be met, and in an orderly and efficient manner. The planet depends on the administration and Congress getting this right.
Ambition is climate change’s antidote
The Daily Illini (student newspaper, University of Illinois) – Editorial – April 22, 2021
During his first week in office, President Joe Biden signed several executive orders aimed at positioning climate change as his administration’s cornerstone. Biden’s executive orders are necessary first steps, but they lack the required ambition this menace warrants. Local leadership and beyond must be bold… Ambition, therefore, is essential to sustaining humanity.
Biden set the right climate goal. Now we have to meet it
The Los Angeles Times – Editorial – April 22, 2021
The science is clear that human activity is propelling climate change, and the costs of delaying an effective response run well into the trillions of dollars. And historically, the U.S. has been the largest contributor to carbon emissions – it is what powered our industrial rise and wealth. It’s clear the U.S. must lead by act and moral example, and bring the rest of the world with us.
Biden’s 10-Year Climate Plan
The Wall Street Journal – Editorial – April 22, 2021
Was Biden trying to impress China’s Xi Jinping at Thursday’s climate pep rally? His [50% x 2030] pledge tees up sweeping new government controls over the economy like you might see in Mr. Xi’s five-year plans. Democrats in Congress will happily finance his 10-yr plan, starting with his $2.3 trillion much-more-than-infrastructure proposal – the Green New Deal in disguise.
Climate crisis demands action
Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, Ma. – Editorial – April 23, 2021
The data and the science have spoken – anthropogenic climate change is real, and the dangers it poses are legion. Citizens and politicians alike are also morally bound to tell it like it is. We have a choice we can’t ignore: Invest in a generational opportunity to put Americans to work building a sustainable future, or allow political inertia to poison the Earth we leave for our children.
Biden’s climate pledges resonate in Maryland, even if not with its governor.
Annapolis Capitol Gazette – Editorial – April 25, 2021
Who would have thought that Joe Biden could prove to be so, well, visionary? President Biden pledged to nearly double the U.S. target for cutting emissions by the end of this decade. That would mean significant changes in the way Americans drive, heat their homes, and work in just eight years. Create jobs, keep America strong, save the planet. It’s a pretty effective slogan.
Our view on Biden’s green revolution: it needs revolutionaries
The Guardian, US Edition – Editorial – April 25, 2021
Current policies will not keep warming to within safe limits. There needs to be a philosophical reversal. Richer countries must make available resources and technology to allow poorer ones to green themselves. The climate emergency will not be over for anyone until it is over for everyone. Mr Biden has made a definitive break in the US. It’s time to enable others to do the same.
Why Biden is talking tough on climate
Newark Star Ledger – Editorial – April 25, 2021
President Biden set an aggressive new goal on Earth Day, vowing to cut greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by the end of the decade, based on 2005 levels. The response from some congressional Republicans has been to point the finger at China. This misses the point. The best way to influence countries like India and China is to cut emissions ourselves.
Fracking jobs will disappear. Pennsylvania has to manage the decline.
The Philadelphia Inquirer – Editorial – April 26, 2021
During last week’s virtual global climate summit, President Joe Biden announced a goal of cutting greenhouse gas pollution in half by 2030, from a 2005 baseline. The U.S. will not reach the 2030 goal without Pennsylvania. Now the state has an opportunity to manage the decline of its polluting energy industry while investing in sustainable, high-paying green union jobs.
Pushing Back on Biden Energy Plan – April 27, 2021
The Wheeling, W.Va., Intelligencer – Editorial – April 27, 2021
Biden knows West Virginia’s representatives will not bow down without a fight. [They] understand the very real need to do what is right for our planet and the people living on it. But they also understand 2030 is not far enough away to make the transition in a way that doesn’t end up doing more harm than good. Biden will have to be more reasonable if we are to make progress.
Editor’s note: This April 27th editorial from The Wheeling Intelligencer came after two previous editorials – “West Virginia Is Not Just a Coal State” and “Don’t Leave West Virginia Behind with Coal” – and a news story about state leaders’ response to the summit: “Biden’s Climate Goal Is Hot Air.”
What sense can be made from these few responses?
Eight of the 10 editorials supported President Biden’s climate summit and pledge. The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and the Newark Star Ledger took the additional step of acknowledging America’s historical emissions, arguing that developing countries would not move to reduce emissions unless the U.S. leads the way.
The two editorials expressing skepticism did so for different reasons. “Socialism!” is the implied charge in The Wall Street Journal’s references to China’s five-year plans. The Wheeling Intelligencer, by contrast, circles its rhetorical wagons around West Virginia’s coal industry.
But read alongside the editorial from The Philadelphia Inquirer, which recognizes that fracking’s days are numbered, the texts from Wheeling give the impression that West Virginia is just earlier in the process of breaking off its co-dependent relationship with fossil fuels.
The fact that so many newspapers’ editorial boards did not respond – including those of major city dailies that did address the climate summit on their front pages – might be the result of other “newsy” stories that filled opinion pages that week: the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, hopeful news about vaccines and vaccinations in the U.S., and the increasingly dire news about COVID-19 in India.
The hypothetical character of the pledge and summit might also have been a factor. Editors have witnessed a succession of unkept climate promises.
But the news media play a critical role in holding governments accountable for their promises. And that role must be played even when other issues have taken center stage. Just as effective action on climate change requires action on social justice, so effective action on social justice and health issues requires careful attention to climate change. Too few news outlets met that bar on their front and editorial pages in addressing the Biden climate summit.