Vision Quest: Part I

Could Tom Steyer’s effort to mobilize environmentally-minded voters succeed and fail at the same time?

The need to encourage those who say human-caused climate change is their most important issue to consistently vote in elections is profoundly important, and Steyer deserves credit for committing resources to the cause of making sure that Election Day is the real Earth Day:

The billionaire environmentalist Thomas F. Steyer and his political advocacy group, NextGen Climate, will spend at least $25 million on a get-out-the-vote campaign targeting young voters this year in seven mostly battleground states, the group announced on Monday.

Mr. Steyer, the single biggest political donor of the 2014 midterm election cycle, said the campaign would target at least 203 college and university campuses. He called it the largest youth voter outreach program ever undertaken by a candidate or political campaign…

While polls show that younger people are more likely to support candidates with strong environmental policies, they are also less likely to show up at the polls.

Steyer’s effort is admirable, but so long as broadcast and cable news outlets fail to comprehensively cover the climate crisis, there will be a limited return on Steyer’s investment. As Media Matters has noted, some of the most significant recent studies on the risks of unrestrained carbon pollution have received scant coverage in print and broadcast media: Sen. Bernie Sanders is not wrong to fault the press for not paying extensive attention to the warnings of climate scientists.

As my former radio colleague Betsy Rosenberg observes, broadcast and cable news outlets have a journalistic and moral obligation not to let comparatively trivial issues trump the climate crisis:

There will always be “breaking news” that bumps a breaking climate, [which is why] we need dedicated programming, “appointment TV” as they call it in the biz, where you can tune in at a certain time, preferably daily, and get all your questions and concerns about our planetary pickle(s) addressed by experts in their field who are not only knowledgeable, but passionate and gifted communicators.

And if you don’t have any questions or concerns about our changing environment, how it’s affecting humans, animals and nature-and what we can do about it-then you haven’t been paying attention. And if, as a society, we continue to focus on the sensational rather than the scientific, well then perhaps we deserve what’s coming. Because we have a choice and the television news networks have a choice. To be responsible adults and face our challenges or turn away and “face the music.”

I can’t help wondering if the lack of consistent broadcast and cable news coverage of the climate crisis is one reason why Vox’s David Roberts seems so deeply pessimistic about the efforts to forge a bipartisan consensus on the need to address climate change, despite clear evidence that such efforts are beginning to bear fruit. CBS Evening News ran an impressive segment on April 20th about Denmark’s progress on clean energy, but when’s the last time you’ve seen a segment on America’s progress on clean energy–and the activists who are working against all odds to get Republicans and Democrats to come together on solutions to the problem of carbon pollution? If you’re not seeing news segments on the comprehensive studies showing how carbon pricing will boost the economy, or the House Republicans who are standing up to the forces of climate denial (and the House Democrats who are standing with them), then you’ll obviously have a gloomy perspective on the national push to price carbon.

If Steyer wants to make a lasting impact, he should use his voice, as Sanders did before him, to urge broadcast and cable news outlets to expand their coverage of the climate crisis. The value of his words won’t be $25 million. It will be priceless.

NEXT: A miracle in Maryland?

UPDATE: More from David Roberts.

SECOND UPDATE: Politico on right-wing harassment of Steyer.

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.