Let's start with a multiple choice: If we were to turn the clock back 30 years, which of these two things did you think would happen, and which two did you think would not?
- The Chicago Cubs would win their first World Series in a century, and the Boston Red Sox would win four.
- A bombastic, controversial real estate magnate named Donald Trump would get elected President. Of the United States.
- All corners of a strong, diligent national media would process an avalanche of science data and recognize climate change as a global crisis.
- The durable core of ideologues and coal-burning politicians would give up the ghost on the flimsy talking points of climate denial.
Back in 1988, when we gave a landslide victory to a Republican who vowed to be "the environmental president," concerted action on climate change seemed right around the corner. The late George H.W. Bush also said "Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the 'White House effect.'"
Of course, those were only campaign promises. The national media's response to climate crises present and future has been mixed at best, and the willingness of Republicans remains nearly monolithic in failing to acknowledge even the possibility of a problem.
As for the multiple choice, we now know that the unlikely success of the Cubs, Red Sox and Trump are real. The climate reckoning of news media and political conservatives are not.
The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America tracked how often national newscasts connected the dots between climate change and the monstrous California wildfires earlier this month, concluding that ABC, NBC and CBS "dropped the ball" on mentioning climate change's impact. The left-leaning nonprofit gave more credit to local California news outlets for making the link.
Hurricanes Florence and Michael saw similar criticism of the networks and their cable competitors. Meanwhile, hardy perennial deniers like Rush Limbaugh offered their own Category Five spin on the storms: "For those of you asking, "What's the politics of a hurricane?" Climate change is the politics of a hurricane. And the forecast and the destruction potential doom and gloom is all to heighten the belief in climate change."
Limbaugh and his conservative cohorts have invested decades of gab into long-discredited denial memes. When the White House released, then dissed, the National Climate Assessment this past week, the most popular theme seemed to be that climate scientists are only in it for the money.
CNN had no less than three high profile deniers trot this one out: Two of its paid conservative pundits, former Senator Rick Santorum and economist Steven Moore, dove right in, joining Tom DeLay, the disgraced former House Majority Leader and ex-con.
And Fox News? Ever the denier-friendly network, Fox was also outed this week by The Daily Beast for staging an interview with then-EPA boss Scott Pruitt in which EPA staff helped fashion questions for the Fox & Friends morning show, teeing up Pruitt's answers and even scripting an intro for the segment.
Exceptions to the broadcast rule
MSNBC, true to its liberal brand, has skewered the Trump Administration's reflexive climate denial. CNN's John Avlon, too, has done a few particularly strong "Reality Check" segments.
But sadly and once again, the late night comics and satire shows have outperformed their straight-faced counterparts, including this Q&A with The Daily Show's Trevor Noah and former Vice President Al Gore.
Newspapers outperform cable news
Print-based institutions like the Washington Post and New York Times have staffed up and performed admirably. The Times splashed its coverage of the National Climate Assessment over the entire top half of its front page. Non-broadcasters, including the Associated Press, have been far less shy about making the climate-extreme weather link.
The Times also fact-checked the wealthy climate scientist fantasy.
Nonprofits, including those dedicated solely to reporting on climate and environment, have performed well, though generally to an audience that's already well aware of the problem.
Party of denial
Asked about the stark verdict of his government's National Climate Assessment, President Trump could only offer a dog-ate-my-homework answer: "I've seen it, I've read part of it, and it's fine." Dude, really? I seriously doubt you've read the Executive Summary. Or even the cover.
This came only days after the now-obligatory Presidential tweet that an unusually cold Thanksgiving on the U.S. East Coast could only be regarded as the ultimate refutation of all climate science.
Staunch climate deniers like Ted Cruz were returned to the Senate. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee congresswoman perhaps best known for her jihad against more efficient lighting, was elevated from House to Senate. Florida Governor Rick Scott won a tight Senate race despite his consistent climate denial.
Dana Rohrabacher, a 15-term Representative from Southern California and Deputy Chair of the House Science Committee, lost, with his climate denial a likely factor. But there are few other glimmers among Republican incumbents that hostility to climate science won't be a pillar of the party.
A few conservative pundits and think tankers have taken the plunge.
Max Boot, who recently left his longtime perch on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, recently outed himself in a Washington Post op-ed. And Jerry Taylor, a longtime go-to guy for libertarian skeptics in Washington,is opening some eyes with a newfound acknowledgement that we have a potentially existential problem. S.E. Cupp, a conservative CNN pundit and New York Daily News columnist, broke with orthodoxy this week with a piece calling on her right-wing compadres to give up the "conservative climate delusion."
Despite a few cracks in the climate ceiling, we have a President, Cabinet, and political party who still don't see a downside to denying climate change. And a media too timid to treat the issue with the same urgency that they devote to missing cheerleaders.
We don't have the many years it could take to change this.
A year of hurricanes, wildfires, and a bombshell climate report has hardly budged two key groups.