Emitting Signals, Part I

I bow to no one in my admiration for Tom Steyer, but I do have to question one of his organization’s recent decisions:

The nonprofit launched by environmentalist Tom Steyer is shutting down its climate and energy program, in a likely signal that the billionaire is shifting resources to his organization’s political arm ahead of the presidential elections.

Next Generation, co-founded by Steyer in 2011, plans to end its climate policy work and continue as a “nonprofit incubator,” energy program leader Kate Gordon wrote in an email obtained by POLITICO.

The move doesn’t mean Steyer is giving up on his pledges to make the environment and climate change major campaign themes in 2016. In fact, it indicates that Steyer will probably shift more resources away from his organization’s policy arm and toward its political efforts, including his super PAC NextGen Climate Action.

Next Generation is a nonpartisan think tank focused on policy research on climate change, children and families, Steyer’s top priorities, and played a key role in promoting Proposition 39, a California clean energy ballot initiative that passed in 2012. But his super PAC is the part of the organization that has turned him into an increasingly prominent player in liberal Democratic politics.

It appears that Steyer’s organization is, at least for the time being, not focusing on building up a communication apparatus that will do the job the American mainstream media won’t do in terms of explaining why we must take drastic action now to reduce carbon pollution. While I give Steyer credit for trying to reclaim some of the political and cultural terrain seized by the Koch brothers, I do have to question how his goal can ultimately be accomplished if large segments of the American public haven’t been clued in to just how high the stakes are.

As California-based climate blogger Doug Craig notes, the mainstream media simply refuses to connect the climate dots, despite the fact that the Golden State is completely dry due to human-caused climate change:

Less than one month ago “a new Stanford University study found a link between global warming and California’s historic drought, which has parched farmland, strained cities and shuttered seven ski resorts in the region for lack of snow.”

Got that? A scientific link between our current drought and human-caused global warming.

But do not expect journalists to make that connection when they write stories about the drought. If you look for print or broadcast media stories linking our greenhouse gas emissions with a hotter planet that makes snow pack less likely, you will have better luck finding a liberal bias on FOX News.

One study found that not only is the link not made, the three major cable networks are barely bothering to cover the drought at all…

[M]ost media outlets are ignoring the connection. CNN covered the California drought without mentioning the cause. USA Today the same. Also, NBC News failed to make the connection. And ABC News equally silent.

Credit the Sacramento Bee that quoted Governor Jerry Brown making the connection between the drought and global warming: “‘I would hope that we don’t see this in some punitive way, but that we see the challenge,’ Brown said. ‘(The) reality is that the climate is getting warmer, the weather is getting more extreme and unpredictable, and we have to become more resilient, more efficient and more innovative. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.’”

Until print and broadcast media outlets consistently connect scientific studies of global climate change with the catastrophic climate changes we are currently experiencing, we should not be surprised that barely a third of us are concerned about the problem. Once again, the fate of the Earth depends on the daily decisions made by the men and women who decide what is important enough to be printed in our newspapers and broadcast on our televisions.

Given the fact that American mainstream media entities have abrogated their duty to cover the climate crisis comprehensively, you’d figure that Steyer’s organization would devote some resources to covering the climate crisis on its own, in a manner similar to HBO’s Vice. At the very least, harnessing the power of online media to tell this story properly shouldn’t be beyond the scope of Steyer’s organization, no?

Roger Ailes may be a profoundly evil human being, but you have to give the devil his due: he understood–and has now proven–that he who controls the media controls the political system. It’s odd that climate hawks with political clout appear not to have absorbed the lessons Ailes taught.

What will it take for climate hawks (with the financial wherewithal to do so) to realize the importance of building up a “green noise machine” that will wake Americans up to the pressing need to cut carbon pollution? Will they wait until President Jeb Bush and Vice President Scott Walker are sworn in to comprehend how crucial climate communication is?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.