Discounting climate change, EPA chief faults the media for the rise of bad environmental news

WASHINGTON — Borrowing one of President Trump’s favorite refrains, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler criticized the news media at length Monday for focusing on only dire environmental news.

“We need to fix this perception, and we need the help of the press,” Wheeler said at a luncheon at the National Press Club on Monday. “The public needs to know how far we’ve come, as a nation, protecting the environment.” He then read a number of statistics he deemed deserving “more attention,” including ones regarding the reduction of air pollutants, the decrease in particulate matter, the decrease in carbon emissions and the remediation of waterways.

“The media does a disservice to the American public, and sound policymaking, by not informing the public of the progress this nation has made,” Wheeler argued.

Though he did not say so specifically, Wheeler was clearly alluding to the growing media attention to climate change. Though virtually nonexistent in previous decades, coverage of global warming has risen sharply in recent years, spurred in part by a rise in catastrophic weather events, such as floods, wildfires and hurricanes.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler. (Photo: AP/Andrew Harnik)
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler. (Photo: AP/Andrew Harnik)

A former energy lobbyist, Wheeler has previously downplayed the effects of climate change, and Monday’s remarks began and ended with media criticism, which Wheeler delivered firmly but without employing Trump’s favored slight: “fake news.”

Wheeler began his speech by saying he needed to address his “friends” in the media. He pointed out that Americans have an increasingly negative impression of the environmental condition of the nation, citing a Gallup poll.

Wheeler did not acknowledge climate change as a possible reason Americans have an increasingly pessimistic view of the nation’s environmental health. The same Gallup poll he cited found that an increasing number of Americans believe there is insufficient coverage of global warming in the media.

Wheeler concluded his address by listing “five things that the press gets wrong about this administration and the EPA.” The first of these was that “the environment is getting worse.” Another gripe was the news media’s common reference to Wheeler as a lobbyist for the coal industry. He pointed out that he had lobbied for other aspects of the energy sector as well, including nuclear. Wheeler also disputed news reports of a “feud” between career EPA staffers and Trump political appointees.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler at the National Press Club on June 3. (Photo: AP/Andrew Harnik)
EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler at the National Press Club on June 3. (Photo: AP/Andrew Harnik)

Later, during a question-and-answer session, Wheeler accused the press of alarmist coverage of the National Climate Assessment, which was released in November and was widely seen as an urgent call to action. He said too much coverage had been afforded to Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5, or RCP 8.5. Of the four scenarios sketched out by the National Climate Assessment, RCP 8.5 is the most catastrophic. It assumes that emissions would remain where they are today. Wheeler discounted the RCP 8.5 scenario as the result of “political interference” in scientific work by the Obama administration.

The moderator asked Wheeler if his agency ought to be preparing for the worst-case scenario laid out by the National Climate Assessment. “It depends,” Wheeler said, then explained he did not necessarily trust the report’s most dire conclusions.


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