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Photo: Gage Skidmore. Adapted by Emma Kaden/Flickr. Lic: CC BY-SA 2.0

Covering the US Presidential election from a climate angle

The countdown is on. There’s less than a month left until the U.S.presidential election, and with all the dramatic events transpiring in the White House recently, all eyes are set on this contentious race. Yet despite the heightened attention, the climate change angle could easily get lost given everything else that’s at stake—even though this election, perhaps more than any other, will determine the future of the Paris Agreement and a host of other climate policies of global significance. 

With all the noise, however, it might be challenging to filter out important information. As a foreign journalist, how should you set about making sure local readers understand the true significance of this U.S. presidential race for our world’s future? We interviewed 3 leading journalists on why this election matters, potential climate angles to pay attention to and recommended resources to use. You can watch their full interviews or read about their responses below. 

Mark Hertsgaard is the executive director of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative committed to more and better coverage of the climate story. He is also the environment correspondent for The Nation and author of books including HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

Zoya Teirstein is the news writer at Grist, a nonprofit news organization providing environmental news and commentary.

Sara Acosta is the founder and editor of Ballena Blanca, a Spanish magazine focusing on environment and the economy. She has previously worked as a correspondent in the US, Paris and Brussels for different outlets.

  1. Why this election matters 

U.S. presidential elections have long been the subject of much international media attention, and rightfully so. In terms of climate action at least, the U.S. remains the world’s largest historical emitter; its leadership and cooperation could draw in more ambitious commitments from global powers and smaller countries as well. As the clock ticks down on the number of years we have to solve the climate emergency, each successive election matters more than ever. 

Not only that: this election has heightened significance considering that the incumbent, President Donald Trump, has been heading the opposite way in terms of climate action for the past 4 years. Mark Herstgaard quoted Dr. Michael Mann from Penn State—one of the most prominent climate scientists in the world—in saying, “Four more years of Donald Trump would be ‘game over for climate.’” 

Heerstgaard further emphasized that for scientists such as Dr. Mann, this wasn’t a political statement, but a scientific statement with scientific implications. “The IPCC says in 10 years we have to cut emissions by half as a globe. If we spend another 4 years under Donald Trump going in the opposite direction at full speed, it will literally scientifically be impossible to reach the IPCC goals within 10 years because we spend so much time going back.” That’s a big story, Heertsgaard said, and expressed his hope that it will be picked up by many major news organizations. 

Sara Acosta also mentioned Dr. Mann’s remarks. “From a journalistic point of view, it’s not exaggerated to say this is the most important election regarding climate issues. It will be the turning point for international climate action, and particularly for the Paris Agreement”. Sara remarked that Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw his country from the largest diplomatic attempt to grapple with climate change could be reversed should the Democrats make it to the White House. A definitive withdrawal from the multilateral process would send a strong message against climate ambition.

  1. Potential Angles 
  1. Trump vs. Biden: How they differ on climate change

So what are fundamental differences between Trump and Biden on climate, aside from the fact that one believes temperatures will simply “start getting cooler” of their own accord and the other was part of the administration that negotiated the Paris Agreement?

  • Biden believes in science, Trump does not: Similar to what we’ve seen in their attitude towards coronavirus, Biden and Trump differ on whether they trust scientists and the research behind them. 
  • Biden has a plan, and it looks awfully similar to the Green New Deal: Biden has “undergone quite a journey in climate policy since the start of his 2020 campaign,” Heertsgaard said. His plan now contains ambitious goals such as completely carbon-free electricity by 2025, which has led many to label it Biden’s a green new deal in all but name.
  • Biden is willing to cooperate with climate scientists and activists: Major highlights of Biden’s campaign have been the people he works with—in this case, climate hawks such as Tom Steyer and John Kerry as well as young activists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise Movement Founder Varshini Prakash. Teirstein recommended journalists to not only look at the two candidates but who they listen to. 
  1. The Paris Agreement & Global Cooperation 
  • A Biden administration would be willing to work with China on climate change: China gets an undue bad rep in the climate community, Heertsgaard said, while the U.S. has historically been the more uncooperative out of the two major emitters.
  • A Biden administration would rejoin the Paris Agreement and, more than that, understand that climate action is about collaboration, not competition. Acosta recognized the efforts made by several US cities and states, but said that action is also needed at an international level. An American withdrawal would reinforce deniers in other countries.
  1. Youth Climate Activism 
  • Can the Sunrise Movement make it nationally? Both Heerstgard and Teirstein credit the Sunrise Movement and similar youth-led climate advocacy groups for pushing climate change to the forefront of U.S. politics and media. The Sunrise Movement has had many notable state-level successes this year in pushing for climate candidates—whether they can succeed on the national stage is a story worth covering. 
  1. Disaster Coverage 
  • Linking worsening natural events to climate change: Climate change, while not the cause of natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, could play a big part in worsening them. This needs to be mentioned in all natural disaster coverage, Heertsgaard reminds journalists. The world is already seeing the impacts of climate change now. 
  1. The Supreme Court & Climate Regulations 

The recent passing away of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has drawn more media attention to a government wing that traditionally receives less coverage—the judicial branch. But why should journalists cover Trump and Biden’s potential nominees? Are their views on climate change important to consider? 

  • Massachusetts vs. EPA 

US laws do not stand unchallenged—they are frequently brought to court by state governments or private entities. This was the case in 2007, when Massachusetts petitioned EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act—and won. A new Supreme Court could easily overrule the EPA’s carbon dioxide regulating power if such a case comes up again. 

  • BP vs. Baltimore

The city of Baltimore went to court with the claim that big oil company BP hid the true environmental and social cost of fossil fuel from the public. This important climate case is expected to come up to the Supreme Court next year, and the outcome could decide how responsible fossil fuel corporations need to be in disclosing the hazards they cause. 

  1. Tips and Recommended Resources 

After we discussed different article angles with our guest speakers, we went on to inquire about recommended tools to aid in coverage.  Mark recommended journalists to check out Covering Climate Now’s Climate Politics Reporting Guide, which contains example articles, links to maps and useful web pages, as well as specific tips for journalists. Following social media accounts and unfolding stories from grassroots political organizations might be more helpful than emulating the coverage of big U.S. media outlets such as the New York Times or CNN. 

Zoya, meanwhile emphasizes the importance of establishing a system of verification for all articles. Journalists should make sure they reach out to diverse sources, different kinds of groups to get comments, do research, and look at funders for stories. She recommended a few websites for tracking policy development as well, such as the NRDC blog and InsideClimate News. 

Sara Acosta recommended the World Resource’s Institute’s work, which she said, can provide update climate and environment context on the election. As sources of news, she recommended the climate coverage of the New York Times and the Washington Post, but also asked to look beyond US borders, where media such as The Guardian goes a great length to cover the climate angle of the election. InsideClimate News, she said does a great job at covering American policy and politics, but also helps collect other US-based stories. Finally, she recommended Twitter as her go-to social media to keep up to date with the climate conversation in the US.