When it comes to climate, it’s quite easy for the right to use the media as a spin machine. The media, starving for plans to “counteract” the progressive Green New Deal to fulfill the everlasting need for a false dichotomy, laps up any spurious climate plan that conservatives might come out with. The most recent media grab by the GOP on climate — in which Republicans have been working on a wholly insufficient climate plan since January at least — has turned out exactly as expected.
As David Roberts writes for Vox, the narrative is “convenient” for both conservatives and the media. “This story is convenient for conservatives,” he writes, “because they have exhausted the strategy of lying about climate science and need something new to replace it.” It’s convenient for the media, because there’s a neat story about a redemption arc for the party of climate deniers.
Republicans this week are expected to unveil a plan to plant 3.3 billion trees in the U.S. every year for the next 30 years, as an attempt to somewhat green the party. The legislation, written by Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, is the answer to President Donald Trump’s commitment at Davos to a worldwide initiative to plant 1 trillion trees.
The tree bill is part of a larger plan that’s in the works in the party that amounts to nothing more than a public relations stunt. As reported by Axios, the GOP climate plan will focus on three main areas: carbon capture (that’s where the trees fit in), conservation and — stop me if you’ve heard this one — clean energy “innovation.” Details on specific legislation is scant right now, but the GOP is not exactly known for putting out good faith, effective climate policy.
The tree plan is fine, but the rationale behind the campaign that Trump joined, called 1t.org, is based on an overhyped study from last year — and would be more of a Band-Aid than a solution. Aside from the trees, carbon capture is a favored strategy by the fossil fuel industry that, in essence, gives them a free pass to continue business as usual. Conservation as part of a climate plan just pins the responsibility for the climate crisis onto consumers, instead of the oil giants that have been obfuscating research on climate for decades. Innovation is, at best, a buzzword and, at worst, coded language for developing more fossil-fuel-friendly carbon capture technology.
Meanwhile, the people in charge of coordinating the plan are against setting an emissions target, which is the single most important aspect of any effective climate plan. Rep. Garret Graves, the top Republican on the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, told Axios that he thinks emissions targets are “arbitrary.”
Over and over, Republicans have shown us that they value profit over planet. Now that the American public is increasingly understanding the threat that the climate crisis poses — and bringing that knowledge to the polls — the more savvy on the right are realizing that they have to change their ways. Or at least make it look like they’ve changed their ways.
Hence, planting trees: something that the climate movement has talked about, but that won’t affect the business of the oil and gas companies lining the pockets of the GOP. As a bonus, the trillion trees plan is based on a research article that was one of the top climate papers covered in the media in 2019 — so the plan has guaranteed media coverage.
“I see it as being pretty pernicious because it’s going to be a hard one for the Democrats to message against,” says Meaghan Daly, an environmental researcher at the University of New England. The Republican argument becomes, Daly goes on: “Well, the Democrats are so radical. They’re so hell-bent on getting their Green New Deal that they don’t even want us to plant trees.”
And by admitting that planting trees isn’t enough, as Westerman has done, the right gets to paint themselves as the reasonable ones. Many in the media, eager to give Republicans equal coverage on climate, are all too happy to comply. The reporting on this plan has been littered with mistruths and dubious framing.
Westerman has been repeatedly quoted, context-free, saying that the Republican plan won’t harm the economy — evoking the disproven idea that environmental regulation will bankrupt the country or is bad for the economy. Speaking about the recent plan, Westerman told The Washington Post, “I’m for reducing emissions, but I’m for doing it in a way that doesn’t deliver a gut punch to the economy.” He told The Hill something similar, and added, “If we totally quit using fossil fuels right now and there was some magical [way] we could quit putting man-made carbon in the atmosphere, what do [we do] with the carbon that’s already up there?”
There are several falsehoods that Westerman pushes in these quotes that these publications publish with no caveats. The “magical way” to quit emitting carbon is to stop using fossil fuels. And it has been repeatedly shown that environmental regulations are not the job- or economy-killers that the right might say they are. In fact, the opposite is true: By a huge margin, the least expensive, most economically friendly option is to act on climate sooner rather than later. Doing nothing — or slightly more than nothing, as the Republican plan goes — by contrast, would be the truly ruinous path to go down.
This particular line of attack on environmental regulation stems from the general supposed anti-regulation mindset on the right. Ronald Reagan was the first to start regularly using the phrase “job-killing regulations,” and Republicans have been passing the idea down the generations ever since. The largest retort to the Green New Deal, for instance, is that it would ruin the economy. But report after report shows that it is inaction that would be injurious.
Why are reputable publications like The Washington Post still perpetuating this lie about environmental regulations? Simply providing two or three sentences of context to these quotes would be much better than publishing them unqualified.
The issue, though, lies not only with reporters’ quoting practices, but also with the headlines that accompany these stories. “Are Republicans coming out of ‘the closet’ on climate change?,” reads The Washington Post headline. “Republicans eye legislation to rival Democrats’ sweeping climate plan,” says The Hill. These headlines reduce climate politics to the shallow dichotomy of deniers versus believers, Republican versus Democrat. But it’s not that simple, and never has been.
From the look of it, the Republican plan won’t come anywhere near “rival[ing]” the Green New Deal — but yes, some of them do acknowledge that the climate crisis is happening. That the right is coming out with any climate plans is a sign that the climate movement is winning. It’s also a sign that the mainstream conversation around climate has been changing, as it’s changed faster in the past year than it has for the past decade. The media ought to keep up.