This CNN Host Plans to Hold Biden’s Feet to the Fire on Climate Change
“We’re all destined to become climate reporters,” said the newly appointed CNN chief climate correspondent—and it's high time the media started covering the crisis more rigorously.
Bill Weir has a stark warning to anyone who thinks there is hope of ever turning back the clock on climate change.
“Goldilocks is dead,” the globe-trotting journalist told The Daily Beast in an interview about his new role as CNN’s chief climate correspondent.
Weir, who joined CNN in 2013 after spending a decade as an anchor and reporter for ABC News, is perhaps best-known to CNN viewers as the host of travel series The Wonder List with Bill Weir, which featured him traveling the world to highlight unique places and cultures struggling to deal with seismic changes in climate and modern society.
And now, in a new climate-focused role, Weir plans to hold President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration accountable on its promises to address climate change. Though, in conversation with The Daily Beast, Weir expressed both cautious optimism over Biden’s policy proposals and skepticism that he and his selected officials will actually do what is necessary to reverse or at least slow the alarming trends ravaging the planet. He also lamented how his colleagues in the media often shy away from climate coverage, fearing its complexities and “buzzkill” nature may turn away viewers.
Though he has long functioned as a “proud generalist,” Weir said he has “seized on” a climate-reporting role because while people may look at “climate as a menu item,” it is in fact “the whole restaurant.”
“Public health and the economy and foreign policy all depend on a livable planet,” he explained. “And it covers history and psychology, energy, and housing, and transportation, and food.”
Some of the burden in energizing the public’s focus in fighting a climate crisis is on the mainstream media, which has long been criticized for ignoring often complicated environmental stories in favor of more salacious political material or, more generally, presenting anthropogenic climate change as a “both sides” argument—with one side denying the scientific consensus but being given huge platforms.
Weir expressed hope that the media is now well-positioned not only to cover the current climate crisis but also hold a new president’s feet to the fire when it comes to his record and policies.
The CNN reporter, for his part, believes that “people are coming around to this story” due to the wide-ranging climate disasters they’ve now witnessed firsthand. For years, he explained, climate change and conservation seemingly took a back seat because of other political matters.
“We had turned the corner on the conversation [in the mid-2000s],” he said. “But then came the Great Recession. And Obama went all-in on health care early in his time, and then people stopped talking about it. I think it's changed now.”
While he thinks legacy media “still hasn’t connected the dots” on climate stories, not realizing that it’s now about property values and shrinking tax bases and “not starving polar bears,” the veteran journalist sees the way normal life has been upended by the pandemic as a way to get the media to care more about climate reporting.
“And you know, the coronavirus has done climate reporters a great service because our biggest challenge is getting people to imagine a future or everything is unpredictable,” he stated. “Well, we’re living that right now! You know, we grew up with the sort of sense that Yankee games and Broadway shows and trips to grandma on Thanksgiving are guaranteed. Obviously they’re not, and this is just the opening credits for what’s coming in an unpredictable world.”
He further insisted that “we’re all destined to become climate reporters” as it will impact so many aspects of our life going forward, saying the conservation will be taken to the next level for reporters when “people really sort of instinctively connect the dots between this natural disaster I’m seeing on TV and the safety of my neighborhood and my future right now.”
Even as more time and effort is being given to climate-related topics in the media, Weir granted that one of the reasons global warming isn’t discussed more is because “it’s the ultimate buzzkill” and causes “existential dread,” creating huge psychological barriers.
But the fight is more important than ever, he suggested, noting how President Donald Trump spent the past four years denying or denigrating climate science despite the “mountain of scientific and observable evidence” showing the planet is drastically warming due to human activity.
Weir explained that this has created a “sort of pent-up energy” surrounding the policies and innovations that could possibly come from a new administration. “And so we’re getting a lot of really super-ambitious climate pledges from both the private and public sector. And I think it's incumbent on us to sift through, you know, what’s greenwashing,” Weir explained. “What makes a good bumper sticker and what is really getting done on the ground level and all these different corners of the country?”
One commitment made by the incoming administration Weir suggested could make an immediate difference, however, is the president-elect’s announcement that the United States will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which Trump pulled the U.S. out of early in his term.
“I think the biggest factor in rejoining the Paris Climate Accord is that it signals the world that the United States believes in science again,” he said. “And that we're not walking away from a mess that we make, in a big way. And I just think that’s huge.”
Adding that “just being back at the table is a seismic moment” for the international climate community as it could “help uncork the kind of innovation needed” to tackle this crisis, Weir predicted that despite the president’s current assault on democracy as he refuses to accept his election loss, Trump’s “longest legacy” will revolve around the climate.
“And how much damage was done at the worst possible time,” he further warned of Trump’s backtracking on green energy and carbon reduction.
While Weir was complimentary of the incoming administration’s pledge to re-enter the Paris accord, he expressed concern that Biden’s wishy-washy stance on fracking—the process of using hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from below the surface—could portend to a Biden White House turning a blind eye to a major driver of the raging climate crisis.
“With that much methane pumping out of the ground on all these fracking sites, you know, Jonathan Safran Foer in his recent book We Are the Weather had the greatest analogy,” the CNN correspondent explained: “If carbon dioxide is like a blanket, an average blanket of thickness, then methane is as thick as LeBron James is tall.”
Besides the serious threat methane presents in the near term, Weir also pointed out that despite the fact that the price of renewable energy has plunged over the past 20 years, the world is burning far more coal now than it did in 2000 due to the added capacity of our energy demands. One big consumer of dirty fuel, for example, is the recent advent of cryptocurrencies, which eats up more energy than solar and wind currently produce.
Lamenting the lack of progress we have made in comparison to what experts and scientists say needs to be done to avoid a global-wide disaster, Weir stripped away all pretense to grimly lay out what the near future holds.
“And when the camera's not rolling, nobody's talking about this with the urgency and the intensity that the problem deserves,” he sighed. “It's just a natural human instinct that we're going to get back to a Goldilocks climate—that we're going back to normal.”
But “Goldilocks is dead,” Weir emphasized. “And the sins of humanity, which created the greatest societies in the world and lifted millions out of poverty, the bill on that is coming due right now and how bad it gets depends on what happens literally in the next 10 years.”
Asked whether he is worried that the Biden administration may be too sympathetic and hands-off with the oil and gas industry, considering his flip-flops on fracking and the appointment of Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA)—a major fossil fuel ally—as climate movement liaison, Weir declared: “I’m less interested in the particulars of his fracking policy. And more precisely than whether or not [Biden] believes in a robust carbon tax because that's the big kahuna.”
He noted that in order to alter our reliance on fossil fuels, “we have to put a price tag on the damage that’s being done,” adding that there are currently big debates on how this would work in terms of getting conservatives to buy in on what should be framed as a market-based solution. (Though the big oil companies may back a carbon tax if they can reach agreements to provide them immunity from future lawsuits.)
And following our initial interview, Biden named former Secretary of State John Kerry as his international climate envoy. In a follow-up, Weir reacted: “I think the choice reflects Biden’s belief that ultimately, this is a global challenge. Someone like Jay Inslee or Mustafa Santiago Ali has plenty of domestic credibility but Kerry's experience as the Secretary of State who was there for the Paris Accords and has since formed World War Zero signals that the U.S. is ready to pick up where it left off. And it's been years since the Pentagon started using the term ‘threat multiplier,’ so having a climate seat on the National Security Council is long overdue.”
The possible chumminess with big energy conglomerates and the fossil fuel industry, as Weir pointed out, has led climate justice advocates to express weariness and ask the question that will need to be answered at some point: Can capitalism, in its current state, exist as an ally in this fight—or an enemy?
A team of former Obama administration officials and experts, meanwhile, have put together a 300-page blueprint known as the Climate 21 Project that recommends a series of changes to address greenhouse gas reductions that supposedly go beyond simply reversing Trump-era policies. The approach, it appears, is to take a more centrist approach in order to get more Republicans on board while focusing on the creations of official boards, counsels, and panels.
“But how much hope do you put in that approach,” we asked Weir. “Does it feel like we've been down that road before with the Obama administration?”
While bemoaning that bureaucracy never acts fast enough, Weir expressed hope that “maybe they learned some lessons the first time around” while acknowledging that it would be “good to work together on this issue” since the biggest enemy right now is the clock.
“And I think coronavirus has taught us that the strength of a local community is the difference between life and death,” he observed. “The communities that wait for people to start dying, suffer the most. And the conversation may go to a place now where we become kind of balkanized.”
“You know, they’re the way they are now sort of pro-mask and anti-mask states,” he continued, making an apt comparison to our current pandemic state. “You'll see that happening when it comes to New Jersey has now joined California with different car standards, fossil fuel standards for vehicles in the rest of the country. And you can see just almost a piecemeal approach, which, unfortunately, won't work because air is fungible. We’re all breathing it. We’re breathing the same air. We're all living under the same sky.”
But even if the conversation shifts enough to force concrete action, Weir said, the onset of extreme temperatures, massive wildfires, floods, and record-setting storms, may be too much to entirely overcome.
“We’ve passed the point of getting out of this unscathed. Definitely,” Weir said matter-of-factly.
“My dad used to use this analogy that, you know, the Earth is four billion years old, which is way too big of a number to wrap our heads around,” he recalled. “But if you scale that down to the age of a 45-year-old human being, humans showed up three months ago, the industrial revolution started one minute ago.”
“And in that blink of Earth time, we’ve changed the chemistry of the sea and the sky. We've dammed every river, just about wiped out thousands of species, Weir concluded. “And those crimes against Mother Nature are going to be paid for. The harshness of her sentence depends on what we do now, and how quickly we can back off.”