Why Aren’t We Talking About (And Debating) Climate Policy?

11:33 minutes

bernie sanders, raising his hand, on a debate stage with joe biden
Credit: Shutterstock

a stylized version of the earth with cloudsThis story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.

Another presidential debate has come and gone without a substantial discussion of climate change and how to address it—despite polls that consistently rank climate as the second-highest concern of likely Democratic voters. 

In addition, the organization Media Matters released a report this week showing that news stories about climate change accounted for under 1% of nightly and Sunday morning network news coverage in 2019.

Climate journalist Emily Atkin, creator and author of the HEATED newsletter, joins Ira to talk about the disparity in climate coverage and attention, the pledge from Jeff Bezos to contribute $10 billion to climate issues, and the collapse of a major effort in Canada to expand oil sands production.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Emily Atkin

Emily Atkin is author and founder of HEATED, a daily newsletter about the climate crisis. She’s based in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.


Because we are in a climate crisis, we open the next chapter of our series, “Degrees of Change”. Our series explores the challenges of a changing climate and how we, as a planet and a people, are adapting to the crisis. This hour we’ll be talking about the connection between building materials and the climate. Can the construction industry become carbon neutral? Why not get involved in our coverage? Please, sign up for our climate newsletter at sciencefriday.com/degreesofchange.

But first, we’re going to check in with the gatekeepers, the decision makers, the controllers of the purse strings. Earlier this month, someone with some pretty big purse strings, Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, pledged in an Instagram post to spend $10 billion of his money on climate issues, starting something called the Bezos Earth Fund. Joining me now to talk about that and other recent climate news is climate journalist Emily Atkin, founder of the Heated newsletter. Welcome back to Science Friday.

EMILY ATKIN: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, tell me about this new contribution idea

EMILY ATKIN: Oh yeah, Jeff Bezos.

IRA FLATOW: What did he do? And why did he put in, what, $10 billion into his fund?

EMILY ATKIN: $10 billion, that’s a lot of money. So he announced last week, actually, that he was creating Jeff Bezos Earth Fund. And over the next 25 years, he said he’d contribute $10 billion of his own money to invest in an adaptation and mitigation climate solutions. It’s a very big philanthropic effort. And it is very generous, but it’s going to do a lot for Jeff Bezos, personally, as well as, hopefully, for the planet.

IRA FLATOW: Are there any particulars, any details of where and how that money would be spent?

EMILY ATKIN: Oh, no. No, he’s like, I’ll tell you later. Basically, basically it was just an Instagram post of a picture of the world and him just being, like, I’m going to give some money to the world. And actually, that’s the most interesting part about it because, you know, with $10 billion Jeff Bezos is basically going to buy a lot of solutions to the climate crisis. He’s basically going to set the agenda for a lot of how we approach this problem that affects everybody. So, you know, he doesn’t say what he’s going to do. I mean, he could make a choice that a lot of people– you know, climate change isn’t a simple thing about, is it real, is it not. There’s a ton of ways that we can approach solving the problem. And by putting $10 billion into it, Jeff Bezos is exercising quite a bit of control over that situation.

IRA FLATOW: So we’ll have to just wait and see how it shakes out. Let’s move on. We’re almost at Super Tuesday. The primaries are heating up. And there is still no real climate question at the debate. They don’t ask those questions as much, do they?

EMILY ATKIN: No. This is the second debate out of 10 where there was no climate questions asked, the one in South Carolina this week. You know, that’s disappointing just given the urgency, severity, complexity of the problem of climate change, and also just the general public interest. You know, democratic voters consistently rate climate change as their number two issue, except for health care. And it’s even rising in the priority for just regular voter voters.


EMILY ATKIN: I mean, this George Mason, Yale poll just came out that said when choosing a candidate for all voters, climate change is the fifth most important priority. And when choosing a candidate for liberal democrats, it’s the first most important priority. So we should be seeing these questions, I think, as a journalist, but we’re just not right now.

IRA FLATOW: Considering that all the Democratic candidates are in favor of some kind of greening, what pointed question should they be asked?

EMILY ATKIN: Oh, my god.

IRA FLATOW: What questions would you like to hear them answer?

EMILY ATKIN: Oh, there are just so many questions that I would love to hear them answer. I mean, Bernie Sanders is the front-runner right now, actually. And one question that I would love his campaign to be forced to talk a little bit more on is their position on a carbon tax, which a lot of economists say would be one of the most effective ways to combat climate change. But there’s also a lot of people, especially in the environmental justice community, that say that solution is unacceptable. And Bernie Sanders hasn’t given a really clear answer on where he stands on the idea of one. So there’s that. I mean, I would love to hear what the candidates think about even just billionaire philanthropy when it comes to climate change.

Should solutions be more democratic? I think that would give us– or should we be depending on very rich people out of the, quote, unquote, goodness of their hearts. I think that would give so much more insight on how they would solve the problem. I actually did an open-thread discussion on my newsletter where I just said, what would you ask? And you know, we got 70 different people with different questions. I mean, there’s no there’s no shortage of material.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so just saying, you know, I would support some kind of Green New Deal, is not telling us very much.

EMILY ATKIN: That doesn’t really mean anything.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And speaking about the climate, there is a new study out this week about the media and climate coverage in 2019. Tell us a bit about that please.


IRA FLATOW: More bad news, huh?

EMILY ATKIN: Well, it just depends on how you look at it, you know? Climate coverage on broadcast news networks increased, actually, 68% over last year. Unfortunately, it’s still made up less than 1% of coverage on the major news networks. So that’s less than four hours total of climate coverage over the span of a year. So again, the coverage of the climate crisis in our general journalism outlets is just not reflecting the urgency, or the severity, or complexity, or public interest of the problem. We still have such a long way to go.

IRA FLATOW: Why are they so unconnected? If all the surveys are showing how interested people are in climate change, why are they showing so little regard for that opinion?

EMILY ATKIN: Personally?


EMILY ATKIN: Personally, I think it’s because, especially in mainstream traditional news outlets– you know, I’ve worked in these outlets. If you have to really cover climate change in a compelling way, you have to really admit that there is a problem that’s very urgent to solve. And you have to have this, sort of, you have to come from a place that’s not really grounded and level and, quote, unquote, balanced. So I think it’s really hard for some of these entrenched news editors to admit that they have to come at this problem at a place where they have to just reject one side of our debate in America, which is that climate change isn’t real and doesn’t deserve being solved. But once you do once you do sort of admit the truth of the problem that, like, that this is a problem we should solve, there’s so many interesting stories to tell. So I think there’s just a block. But I also think that– I do think we’re moving past it. And I see it every day.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Still have the question of having to spend money to hire more people to cover it, but we won’t go that way because that’s what I remember when I worked in that business. Let’s go on to there’s news this week about, I thought, something really interesting. A big oil sands project in Canada that might not be going ahead now.

EMILY ATKIN: Yeah, there’s a big oil project called the Frontier Development in Canada that just got, out of nowhere, the company just said, we’re not even going to be pursuing this project anymore. And it’s kind of crazy because, you know, this had been a fight in Canada among climate activists and pro-oil people for years and years. And ultimately, it seemed to really come down– and it was this big political debate– but ultimately, it just seemed to come down to the economics of the situation, where oil prices are low, they’re going to remain low.

Oil is sort of increasingly seen as a bad investment. Fossil fuels, in general, are kind of seen as a bad investment, especially really dirty ones like oil sands, which I know a lot of people in America don’t know about. But it’s arguably even dirtier than coal, this type of fossil fuel production.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s actually how things could change, don’t they, when big business decided that it’s just not profitable to do something. You can use all the ethical or moralistic, you know, it’s the planet, it’s our kids. But it comes down to just the money. And that’s when the spigot, so to speak, gets turned off.

EMILY ATKIN: Right. And you are seeing that increasingly. You know, there was a big story a couple weeks ago on CNBC. This investor guy was just like, I’m done with fossil fuels. I am I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to tell you how to make money. And I can’t tell you to invest in oil and gas stocks anymore because we’ve got new managers in town, you know? And there’s been so much news about financial managers, asset managers, just saying they’re moving away from fossil fuels. And that’s partially because of activist pressure.

IRA FLATOW: Finally, we– this is an interesting story also– we all know about Greta, but some conservative groups are trying to create and promote a sort of Anti-Greta teenager.

EMILY ATKIN: Yeah, they sort of took– [LAUGHS] Sorry, it’s just so ridiculous– they took, you know, what’s been working for the climate movement, which has been this figurehead, this person who’s really inspiring. And they’re sort of paying to create their own version of it but of like a far-right, young, sort of childish looking woman who says climate change is not real and oil is great. It’s very weird.

IRA FLATOW: And she’s going to be speaking at a very conservative conference coming up?

EMILY ATKIN: At CPAC, yes. So that’ll be interesting. Her mother is a lawyer for the German far-right group. It’s a very controversial German far-right group right now. She’s being paid by the Heartland Institute, which is a climate denial think-tank funded by the Mercers, billionaires. And it’s an interesting way for them to sort of admit that they really need a counter strategy. The youth are very important for the climate denial movement to influence. And so this is this appears to be their attempt.

IRA FLATOW: It reminds me when the conservatives used to say, why don’t we have a conservative Saturday Night Live comedy thing? Because if they can do it, we could do it, you know?

EMILY ATKIN: Yeah, I guess they would have to pay people a lot more to be on that show because Greta is not being paid to do what she does.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Thank you Emily for taking time to be with us today. Have anything really cool coming up you’re covering?

EMILY ATKIN: Yeah, actually. Next week my newsletter is doing a full week devoted to how the fossil fuel industry is influencing different public school curriculum around the country.


EMILY ATKIN: I’m excited for– excited, I don’t know if that’s– I’m interested to see how that goes. Yeah, I think it’s a good story.

IRA FLATOW: Come back on and talk about it, OK?

EMILY ATKIN: I would love to.

IRA FLATOW: Emily Atkin, climate journalist and founder and author of the Heated newsletter. Thanks for taking time, again, to talk with us.

EMILY ATKIN: Thanks for having me.

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As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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