The Oregonian's misleading take on climate change

We are going to be in a world of hurt if everyone everywhere else takes the paper’s position about their share of the climate change problem.

By Ronald A. Buel of Portland, Oregon. Ronald is a longtime progressive activist in Portland. This is the second column in a four-part series on climate change and Oregon transportation policy. Read the first one here.

The headline on climate change denier Gordon J. Fulks’ commentary in the January 4 Oregonian is “Poor leadership, scientific illiteracy drive Oregon’s climate hysteria.” The Oregonian played Fulks’ piece across the top of the page, complete with a two column picture of Gov. John Kitzhaber and his fiancee’ Cylvia Hayes. The Oregonian allowed Fulks to spend the first three paragraphs of the commentary charging Kitzhaber and Hayes with “corruption” because Hayes had a paid consulting job with an organization that favors public bodies actually dealing with climate change.

Although Fulks asserts, “my expertise lies in science,” he uses only one anecdote in his article to prove that climate change and global warming are not present: “Never mind that our portion of the Pacific Ocean cooled after 1999,” he writes. He attacks low carbon fuels or carbon taxes as unnecessary, without giving the source of this anecdote, or verifying why it is so conclusive. We should simply take his word for not needing to worry about global warming, and that many other scientists are wrong about fundamental physics. We should take his word when he denies the scientific truth that abundant man-caused carbon dioxide emissions are trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the planet and changing the climate.

Giving a climate change denier the credibility of this kind of play in The Oregonian is not a one-time accident, of course, as Fulks has been a frequent contributor on this subject in the newspaper. Five days later, the Oregonian Editorial Board, under the heading Agenda 2015, writes an editorial saying we don’t need to worry about acting on global warming in Oregon. “If you don’t want to be saddled with a global warming gas tax in addition to whatever – possibly justified – transportation funding package lawmakers will consider this year, let your representative and senator know about it.”

The “possibly justified” endorsement of a gas tax for massive highway construction to deal with congestion is going quite a way down the taxation road for Editorial Page Editor Eric Lukens, who never saw a tax he supported or wanted to increase. But it is not surprising, given the 49-editorial campaign on behalf of the largely wasteful $3 billion Columbia River Crossing (CRC), which The Oregonian trumpeted over six years of CRC consideration. Publisher Christian Anderson sits on the board of the Portland Business Alliance (PBA). The business organization’s number one priority for the six years of its public consideration was the CRC. The Oregonian’s largest advertisers also belong to the PBA, and include retail firms like Fred Meyer, the paper’s largest advertiser, who has to transport many of their items for sale through the Port of Portland and on our highways.

I find the logic, or lack of it, in Lukens’ recent editorial particularly fascinating:

“We have no reason to believe Oregonians are indifferent to global warming, which the low-carbon fuel standard is designed to address. The problem for the program’s supporters, though, is that most people tend to weigh the costs of such environmental regulations against their benefits, which in certain circles seems to be frowned upon. Oregon, which accounts for about 1.2 percent of the nation’s population, was responsible for less than seven-tenths of 1 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide in 2011...In the global-warming universe, Oregon is a rounding error, and most people reasonably conclude that 19 cents a gallon is a high price to pay merely to burnish the state’s brand.”

The Oregonian ducked on endorsing a presidential candidate in 2012 and it couldn’t find a qualified candidate to endorse in the 2014 U.S. Senatorial race in Oregon. The paper clearly wants to avoid issues that might label the paper’s libertarian philosophy for what it is. Most of its Portland readers don’t have a philosophy anywhere near that of the paper’s editorial page. Nor does the paper have a cost-benefit study in hand for climate change. It doesn’t want to directly deny the science – it prefers to publish others doing that, while avoiding taking a position by saying Oregon’s millions of tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions aren’t big enough to matter. We are going to be in a world of hurt if everyone everywhere else takes the paper’s position about their share of the climate change problem.

The Oregonian’s view of the Business Summit consensus for huge government spending to “end congestion” does not square with typical Republican or Libertarian outlook, which today considers transportation infrastructure unnecessary government spending. For The Oregonian, the need to please advertisers with highway projects seems to outweigh the need for philosophical consistency.

The false claims of economic benefits from building highway capacity in the Portland Metro area have run rampant in Jim Redden’s story in the Portland Tribune headlined, “Think traffic’s bad now, just wait.” That’s not surprising, because the Tribune is owned by Robert Pamplin, who also owns Ross Island Sand & Gravel, and profits from highway work. And The Oregonian ran Jeff Mapes top-of-the-front-page story, “Getting the economy moving again,” with a subhead, “Business leaders urge Salem to wage war on congestion, calling Oregon’s infrastructure a job killer.” I would not call out Mapes for biased reporting or writing – he bends over backwards to avoid that.

There are many other fine journalists still working at The Oregonian, from Kristi Turnquist & Jeff Baker to Steve Duin & David Sarasohn, and as news reporters, Les Zaitz, Nick Budnick and Jeff Manning come to mind.

But we in Portland and Oregon count on the state’s largest daily newspaper and its website to keep us informed about what happens in our public institutions of importance, and to do that job in a way that is not only comprehensive, but also is informed by an appropriate sense of what is and is not in the public interest, which is required for the paper to keep the public informed about what is important to the community as a whole. The Oregonian, both with its 49 laudatory editorials and its news coverage of the Columbia River Crossing, as well as with its recent news coverage and editorial on this recent business summit and bogus study on transportation, has clearly lost its way for the wrong reasons. These are not isolated examples. Publisher N. Christian Anderson III and the Newhouse organization needs to set aside its profit motive and serve, instead, Portland and Oregon. It’s not too much to ask, given the great history of the community institution which Anderson and Lukens inherited and have set about slowly and systematically destroying.

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