Analysis & Opinions

Covering Climate Change under President Trump

  • Shanoor Seervai
| Feb. 22, 2017

At a time of grave uncertainty for journalists covering the start of the Trump administration, one of the most pressing questions is how actions on climate change may reverse the course of the United States’ global environmental leadership. Many of President Donald Trump’s cabinet members and nominees are skeptical about how human action contributes to global warming, but it is unclear how their ideology will translate into federal policies.

Two prominent national journalists from The Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin and Chris Mooney, spoke about the early days of reporting on President Trump’s anti-environment policies and appointments—and efforts to undo President Obama’s pro-climate legacy—at a recent public talk at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“We think we know how Washington works…but we are really in a period without precedent,” said Eilperin, the senior national affairs correspondent at the Post. She pointed out that in less than a month, Trump has set in motion an attempt to reverse dozens of Obama-era policies and regulations, ensuring that many cannot be reinstated.

Mooney, an energy and environment reporter who focuses on the intersection of science, policy and politics, reflected upon the organized resistance that scientists across the country are mounting, including a March for Science in Washington, DC on Earth Day, April 22. Under the last Republican administration with President George W. Bush, said Mooney, scientists were afraid of the circulation of incorrect information on what’s causing climate change, the suppression of accurate information about climate change from the public, and the fear that certain information would be subject to political screening. 

These concerns have magnified greatly under Trump, and two new challenges have emerged, said Mooney. The first is that federal funding for scientific research and personnel may be cut. The second is that new immigration policies would keep out talent, thereby excluding needed scientists from the workforce in the United States, he said.

At the February 14 HKS event, both reporters were careful to emphasize that although covering the Trump administration is a different beast from covering Obama’s, the press still has access to the White House. “As much as he rails against certain outlets,” Trump is speaking to reporters on the record,” said Eilperin. This is a marked change from the Obama era, which was “unbelievably restrictive” in giving the press access, she said. Eilperin noted that Obama himself granted the Post only one on-the-record interview, in 2009, in his eight-year tenure.

Under Trump, “the story changed, so that means you’re going to tell it differently,” said Mooney. One of the things journalists at the Post and elsewhere refuse to tell differently is the fact that human behavior is causing climate change. In an era of “alternative facts” and the constant undermining of journalists’ credibility, Eilperin and Mooney maintain that fair and balanced reporting does not necessitate the abandonment of overwhelming scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.

Even Trump’s cabinet nominees, thought to be staunch deniers of the strong scientific consensus on climate change, took a more measured approach in their confirmation hearings, noted Mooney. Now confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, as well as nominees Ryan Zinke (Secretary of the Interior) and Rick Perry (Secretary of Energy) have changed their tune and steadfastly avoided words like “hoax” when pressed by the Senate. Tillerson went far enough to say that the United States should have a “seat at the table” in international climate negotiations, Mooney said, adding that Trump cannot just pull out of the Paris climate agreement without significant consequences.

Independent of federal policy, greenhouse gas reductions are playing out because natural gas consumption and renewables, like wind and solar energy, are growing. “So it’s possible emissions could continue to decline under the Trump administration,” he said.

But on other contentious issues, like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, Obama’s pro-climate policies are seeing rapid reversal. Trump “really cares about pipelines,” said Eilperin, adding that he sees these as a reflection of his background in construction. In spite of protests, oil is likely to be flowing through the Dakota pipeline in months, she said.

In covering the early days of Trump’s attempts to ram through regulatory cutbacks, Eilperin is wading through the intricate workings of the Office of Management and Budget. Washington is witnessing the “biggest regulatory rollback since 1982,” she said, including two nullifications of federal rules, one to ease environmental restrictions on waste-mining companies and another to decrease financial disclosure requirements on oil and gas companies.

Although some in the new administration have sought to undermine the credibility of mainstream media organizations like the Post, “reliable information does rise to the top,” said Eilperin. Mooney added that the heightened conflict over environmental issues has actually increased reader interest.

Eilperin joined the Post in 1998 and spent her early reporting days covering the contentious House of Representatives, Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. She was also the Post’s national environmental reporter for nine years, White House bureau chief in Obama’s second term, and has written two books, one on Congress and another on sharks.

Mooney, who joined the Post in 2014, spent a decade as a freelance journalist, podcaster and speaker, with his work appearing in Wired, Harper’s, Slate, Legal Affairs, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe among others. He is the author of four books on science and climate change.

“Seismic Shift: Climate, Energy & the Media in the Age of Trump,” a standing-room-only event at HKS’ Bell Hall, was sponsored by the Environment and Natural Resources Program (ENRP) at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Cristine Russell, a freelance science journalist and ENRP senior fellow, moderated the seminar. Co-sponsors included the HKS Energy & Environment Professional Interest Council and the Climate Justice Caucus.

Shanoor Seervai is a Master in Public Policy student at Harvard Kennedy School and a journalist who has reported for the Wall Street Journal and Stat News, the Boston Globe’s new health and life-sciences publication.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Environment and Natural Resources
For Academic Citation: Seervai, Shanoor.“Covering Climate Change under President Trump.” , February 22, 2017.

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