04/26/2019

The Climate Effects Of A Heated Campaign Season

11:32 minutes

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 and help us make our climate change coverage more relevant by completing this short survey.


This week, former Vice President Joe Biden officially announced that he was throwing his hat in the ring for the 2020 presidential election. Biden was active on climate issues as part of the Obama presidency… but now, some analysts expect the new Biden campaign, with a heavy focus on labor groups, to not make climate policy a forefront issue. Scott Waldman, White House reporter with Climatewire and E&E News, joins Ira to talk about how the Biden campaign fits into the presidential campaign landscape on the climate front. 

They also talk about other climate-related stories, including how Facebook plans to fact-check hot button issues such as climate change, and the influence of the groups behind that fact-checking process. Plus, they take a look at the status of the White House panel reviewing climate science, and a new study that attempts to put a price tag on the effects of Arctic melting.


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Segment Guests

Scott Waldman

Scott Waldman is the White House reporter for E&E News/Climatewire, based in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. 

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Climate change is happening. And we need to deal with it now. So this week, we begin our new series, “Degrees of Change.” In the months ahead, we will explore the challenges of a changing climate and how we, as a planet and a people, are adapting. 

It is an ambitious effort. And here’s how we’re going to tackle it. Scientists studying climate change firsthand will alert us to the changes they see. Journalists in your neighborhood will share with us the actions and reactions to climate change where you live. Politicians will inform us how they will lead the country to cope with rising oceans, floods, and fires, displaced people, disrupted food. You know the list. 

Of course, climate change impacts communities differently. You may have a flood. Someone else, a drought. And that’s why we’ll look to you to help direct our coverage. What have you done to reduce your contribution to climate change? Or to adapt? Is your community tackling the problem head on or struggling to take action? Tell us. Become part of this story. 

Here’s how you can do that. Visit sciencefriday.com/degreesofchange and let us know. That’s sciencefriday.com/degreesofchange. 

So let us begin right at the top with the gatekeepers, the decision makers, the controllers of the purse strings– the politicians. Joining me now is Scott Waldman. He’s a White House reporter with Energy & Environment News and Climatewire. And he’s based in Washington. Welcome to Science Friday. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Well, Congress is in recess this week, and it was last week. So not tons of news there. But there are some new developments with the candidates for president, with Joe Biden declaring and the other candidates. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right. And this week was a big week in terms of them setting a goal for climate policy. CNN had five town halls the other day. And all the candidates are starting to get a little bit more specific with their plans. 

We have a number of candidates that have signed on for the Green New Deal– others that are a little more vague or squishy around the edges as to whether or not they’d sign on with the Green New Deal, which, of course, is the sweeping plan proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to deal with climate change and also health care and other issues. 

So we’re starting to see not just politicians commit to that, but actually come out with some specifics on what they’re going to do to address what is increasingly seen by voters as a top issue. 

IRA FLATOW: And that’s an interesting thing, because just two years ago, you could hardly hear a word being asked of politicians or politicians even mentioning climate change. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: No, that’s exactly right. And those of us that have covered this issue for a while, for a few years, we were constantly saying this is just unprecedented to have this level of attention to climate change. In places like Iowa, with democratic voters there, its polling as one of the top two issues along with health care. That is something I don’t think anybody expected. 

We have Governor Jay Inslee– former governor from Washington state– who is basically running his whole campaign looking at climate as a top priority. So this was, like you said, just not even something that was fathomable a few years ago. I think across three debates, Hillary Clinton was not even asked about climate change. But certainly, especially in these democratic debates, you can expect we’re going to hear a lot about it. 

IRA FLATOW: And as you say, each one of them. Can you go through some of their positions on some of the candidates? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Sure. This is some of what they outlined. This week so Elizabeth Warren, she was calling for a moratorium on oil drilling on federal lands. Kamala Harris wants a policy to deal with future water shortages. 

Bernie Sanders, he’s focusing on jobs that might be lost in fossil fuel industry. And he wants to create a plan that would help those fossil fuel industry workers find new jobs in the new economy, centered on clean energy and other types of occupations that are expected to grow as we wind down coal production and other jobs that have existed for decades. 

Amy Klobuchar, she wants to basically support some of the Obama administration’s major climate policies, bring back some of those that the Trump administration has been working to kill off. 

And Pete Buttigieg, who’s the youngest of all of the five candidates that were there this week on CNN, he’s 37 years old. He is sort of looking at climate as this broad, existential fight. He hasn’t really put forward many specific policy plans yet. But I expect he’ll do that soon. 

IRA FLATOW: It’s his generation that has to live in the future. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Exactly. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we are borrowing from our children. Well, let’s turn to the White House. A few weeks ago, we talked about a new White House committee to discuss climate issues. Where does that stand now? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Well, it’s still moving forward. I mean, obviously this has received a tremendous amount of criticism, not least of which is from a lot of retired military leaders and national security experts from both parties that have served both Democratic and Republican presidents. 

So the committee, from what I’m hearing and others are hearing, is still moving forward. It’s still being formed. It hasn’t been killed off or viewed as a bad idea within the White House at this point. 

Of the new developments in it is that they’ve been recruiting and working with a former nuclear expert, Paul Robinson, who, during the Cold War, was key to some of the nuclear talks and winding down nuclear buildup with Russia– with the Soviet Union, I should say. He’s a physicist. He does not have a degree in climate science. But he would have tremendous sway over this panel. 

And, again, we don’t know the members. I’ve reported, and others have, that we’ve heard some of the names in there, some of the familiar climate-skeptic scientists that have legitimate academic credentials, but nonetheless have very different findings from the vast, vast majority of the field since virtually all climate scientists have concluded long ago that humans are warming the planet at an unprecedented pace through burning fossil fuels. 

IRA FLATOW: Now, if you were going to choose a nuclear physicist, you would think you’d at least pick one who knows something about nuclear reactors– 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Well, that’s it. 

IRA FLATOW: –as an alternative, you know? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s what I think. I think that’s also where some of the skepticism that this will be a fair panel comes in from the general public. Some of these folks are known for attacking climate science for years. 

And if sort of the person leading the show himself is not a climate expert, we’re not sure where it could go. He does not really have much of a public record on climate at all. So it’s unclear exactly what direction he’ll take things in. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s move on a bit. You have a big story this week on Facebook. What’s a climate and energy guy like you doing writing about Facebook? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Well, that’s a great question. And Facebook, of course, has become– deservedly so– notorious just as a tremendous source of misinformation in this country. Obviously, the Russian government used it to exploit Americans’ appetite for misinformation, apparently, as well as some of the political divisions in the country. 

So Facebook is partnering– they have a series of partners that they use for fact checking. And some of these partners are the Associated Press, PolitiFact– both of which are, of course, Pulitzer Prize winners. 

But they also have recently, just the other week, signed on the Daily Caller’s fact-checking operation, which is called “Check Your Fact.” The Daily Caller is known for having climate coverage that really just tends to play up doubt and uncertainty, and just routinely attacks consensus science reports and quotes the very small number of, again, researchers with legitimate academic credentials that question climate science, as if they were a counterweight to a report that 300 scientists worked towards. 

So this group, Check Your Fact, could potentially have the power to downplay stories on Facebook that are produced by, say, my organization, E&E News or The New York Times or CNN that cover a report fairly, talk to experts. If Check Your Fact does not like the way it’s reported, they have the power to potentially downplay that in your newsfeed, which means those type of articles would be shared less. They wouldn’t be seen by that many people. 

And it’s unclear if the users of Facebook would even know that that has been happening. Facebook would not answer any of my questions when I reached out to them. 

IRA FLATOW: You’d think with all the pressure on Facebook now to be more, you know, accountable that they would seek to do something differently about that. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Yes, one would think. And I know there’s a senior executive at Facebook that is sort of conservative-minded. And he recruited Daily Caller and Check Your Fact to come in and do this. So it’s unclear where it will lead. But certainly, many folks are very troubled that this could lead to greater information around climate change at a time when the threat is becoming more and more clear. 

IRA FLATOW: Hm. Let’s go to the last point. And this is in climate science. There’s a new study out this week trying to do something I’ve been asking for a long time. And that has put a price tag on climate change. This one puts a price tag on Arctic ice. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Yeah. And you raise a good point. We really don’t get enough, I think, of the understanding of the economic hit that climate change could lead to. And this study, which says $70 trillion in damages could result as a result of arctic warming, certainly raised a lot of eyebrows. I think that, basically, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. 

And you have permafrost thawing there. You have less albedo, which is reflectivity of snow, which means the ground is absorbing more heat, which warms it quicker. So in other words, the Arctic sort of sets itself into this dangerous feedback loop, where just warms quicker and quicker. 

And this study sort of got at the fact that we don’t really know what that alone will do to climate change around the world. We’re talking about increased sea level rise around the world. We’re talking about if it’s going to worsen climate change, what’s coming out of the Arctic, around the world. You’re talking about droughts in Africa, deadly heatwaves in places like India. 

I mean, that has a tremendous economic hit. I mean, some folks have said that this study, if anything, is being too conservative when it looks at the cost. 

IRA FLATOW: Because you always hear that critics of climate change or of a green tax on carbon say, oh, it’s going to cost us too much. But here you actually, finally have a price tag on not doing anything. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right. I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago. There’s only one group that has put a price tag on the Green New Deal. And they’re saying it’ll cost $93 trillion. 

But that group is connected to a web of dark money and fossil fuel companies. And there’s a lot of doubt about whether that $93 trillion that conservatives have used to go after the Green Deal has any validity. 

IRA FLATOW: Hm, so $70 trillion is a pretty big number on itself– 

SCOTT WALDMAN: It certainly is. 

IRA FLATOW: –I would think. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today, Scott. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Thanks so much for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: Scott Waldman is a White House reporter with Energy & Environment News and Climatewire. And he’s based in Washington, DC.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director, 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.

About Ira Flatow

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

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