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But who versus?

By Dylan Matthews

James Fallows's cover story on clean coal in this month's Atlantic is, like everything Fallows writes, informative, smartly argued and a joy to read. That said, David Roberts raises good points about the piece's framing. The article is packaged to rebut the view of many climate hawks that the idea of "clean coal" is little more than coal industry propaganda. In response, Fallows argues that coal's overwhelming role in current energy production makes abandoning it impossible, and that cleaner ways of producing and burning it are possible.

But, as Roberts notes, climate hawks aren't in charge. Because of the filibuster, and now GOP control of the House, the balance of power rests with people who deny the need to take just about any action to stop climate change. So why is Fallows concerned with rebutting them, rather than trying to win over people to his right, who are actually in a position to change things?

In fairness, Fallows, like any journalist, has to target a specific audience, and chances are that the average Atlantic reader believes that manmade global warming is a serious threat, and are skeptics about clean coal insofar as they have views on the matter. Presenting the piece as a defense of coal makes more sense as a response to them than as an attempt to influence the political system.

But this creates a dangerous cycle. Longform articles published in places like the Atlantic may not be primarily targeted at policymakers, but policymakers do read them, and they can be influential. In the middle of the health-care reform debate, President Obama held multiple meetings centered around Atul Gawande's New Yorker piece on health care in McAllen, Tex.

So, if there is pressure for pieces that challenge liberal readers' assumptions, magazines are going to run more pieces that take liberal views as their target. If policymakers are paying attention, the views the articles are reacting against will be increasingly seen as wrongheaded and marginal among people in power. Perversely, catering to a liberal audience would then lead to that audience's views being shut out where it counts.

Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Dylan Matthews  | November 11, 2010; 9:40 AM ET
 
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Comments

Sort of a sidebar... Atul Gawande's piece on health care was VERY good. I'm happy to hear it was actually influential!

I've always wondered if anyone in a position of power actually reads those good articles. Good to know they do!

Posted by: JERiv | November 11, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

"Fallows argues that coal's overwhelming role in current energy production makes abandoning it impossible"

Maybe politically impossible, but not technically or economically. France gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear, and energy efficiency and solar can certainly be greatly expanded. See for example this article:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | November 11, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

But a good article can still make clear that the first best choice is believing in science, and intelligently taking appropriately strong steps to insure against the catastrophic risks of global warming. We're only forced to consider much worse alternatives because of political opposition from a party with dangerously little belief in science or thinking beyond simple-minded slogans.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | November 11, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

It may be that we have to choose between coal and nuclear. There have been far more advances in nuclear.

I do not think that under the current political regime we will get to clean coal. What I am afraid of is that we will have 10 more years of dirty coal, and then we will have reached a tipping point that will likely make the debates irrelevant. We will have locked in feedbacks that take us to 750-850 ppm CO2 that will last for millenia even after we are forced by circumstances (drought, peak oil, war, famine etc) to drastically change our lifestyle and we have stopped emitting so much CO2.

It would be so much better to deal with the issues now, but with one major political party dedicated to the biblical belief that god will take care of us (ignoring that this done by giving us the brains to think our way out) it will be
difficult to say the least.

Posted by: Mimikatz | November 11, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

@Mimikatz: "I do not think that under the current political regime we will get to clean coal."

Uhm, google "Calera Khosla" and see especially GreenTech video.

Clean coal is here with a *negative* carbon footprint.

Posted by: msa_intp | November 11, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Dylan, you are tripping across a basic fallacy in our journalistic discourse. If you wanted to challenge conventional corporate or conservative thinking, you would write and article entitled "Scientific evidence overwhelmingly points to need to cap carbon to forestall global warming." But there are two problems with that: 1) it's not news; and 2) the corp/cons aren't going to listen to you anyway - they are over in the Reason/NRO/Fox/Forbes echo chamber, and they don't listen to facts or logic as facts and logic are generally understood in the educated world.

So the debate is always a negotiation between the center and the left on how to accomodate the right. And one way for a journalist to get a lot of attention is to suddenly shout out "The corp/cons may be right about something!" That's "news" because 1) it's rare, 2) it's iconoclastic and 3) it will get plenty of reaction from thinking people.

For examples, see most things written by Will Saletan and Michael Kinsley.

Fallows' article is not a the worst example of this - it's basically a good exercise in reminding us that China is more important than us in all global issues - but you can see how this journalistic tactic informs the framing. The best way to get a reaction is to punch the hippies - once punched, they will engage you earnestly in dialogue. That's certainly preferable to the string of calls from PR people, and the lawsuit from Peabody Coal, you might get if you frame the article another way......

Posted by: Dollared | November 11, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

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