How the business magazine climate is changing
By Laura Legere

The flaming earth on the cover of BusinessWeek’s August 16, 2004, issue sprayed solar flares like the sun. The bold yellow headline, “Global Warming,” was as assertive as the earth on fire—a statement, not a question. Reporter John Carey’s article opened by referencing what was then thought to be an “esoteric” debate: whether humans could change the earth’s climate. It closed with a warning: “Get serious about global warming—or be prepared for the consequences.”

A recent Forbes cover aimed for a different kind of scare. A cartoon man on the front of the February 26, 2007, issue serenely embraced a tree trunk while a disembodied arm in a suit-jacket sleeve lifted the hugger’s wallet. Daniel Fisher’s story was about hucksters and scams; it listed a slew of alternative energy companies with improbable, if not fraudulent, intentions to sell clean fuel technologies. The cover headline, like the arm, was nestled in the tree’s green canopy. It read, “Eco Mania.”

In theory, BusinessWeek and Forbes both address the same business issues and, generally speaking, the same audience of investors. Because climate change and clean technologies are a popular topic, they both operate at the intersection of business priorities and environmental stewardship. But where the environment is concerned, the similarities stop. For BusinessWeek, environmental innovation is changing the way businesses define themselves, how they use resources, and, surprisingly, how much money they save. For Forbes, the story of global warming is most often about wacky science (capturing methane from “pig flatulence,” for example), dubious hucksters, and dreamers—when it covers the story at all.

The split between BusinessWeek’s and Forbes’s coverage of climate change shows that business magazines can either be at the forefront of green issues or, through ideological foot-dragging, become increasingly disconnected from the readers they are meant to inform. While BusinessWeek’s coverage has adapted to the certainty of a changed environment and businesses’ role in addressing it, Forbes is hesitant to consider the severity of that change or admit that anyone, including business leaders, should do anything about it.

With the 2004 cover story, BusinessWeek moved past the point of engaging with those who claim there is no human influence on climate change. The article’s premise—that businesses were more interested than policymakers in acting aggressively to reduce greenhouse gas-causing carbon emissions—was borne out in the business community’s positive response. “There aren’t two sides to this issue anymore,” BusinessWeek’sCarey said. “There’s one side and then there’s a few skeptics hanging on.”

But doubters still have a venue at Forbes. There is room there for Paul Johnson’s opinion that it is “increasingly improbable” that “Gloomy Greens” will ever prove that a changing climate will “doom humanity to extinction.” In a December 2006 column, Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, welcomed the “milder winters in northern regions, which would become reality in the unlikely event that global warming turns out to be as considerable as predicted.”

Steve Forbes, the editor-in-chief of Forbes and CEO of Forbes Inc., does not hide his conservative position on global warming. In his “Fact and Comment” column, Forbes refers to the environmental movement as a new form of socialism or “green-colored Communism.”

When the temperature dipped to nine degrees in Amarillo, TX, this January, Fox News host Neil Cavuto was prompted to ask Forbes, a frequent Fox commentator, if the cold air proved that “all of this hype over global warming” was only hype. (The on-screen caption below Cavuto’s yellow tie read, “Nation in a Deep Freeze: What Global Warming?”) “So, Steve, you think this puts the kibosh on that?” Indeed, Forbes thought so. “In terms of weather itself, human control of it is very, very finite,” he said. “You get one volcano—boy, that does more than ten thousand factories in gumming up the skies.”
Quentin Hardy, Forbes’s Silicon Valley bureau chief and also a frequent commentator on Fox, ventured a demurral: “What is the cost if the people who say there is no global warming are wrong?” he asked. “Well, we’re going to have global warming, and we’re going to have species extinction, the immersion of people in the poorest parts of the world, and an absolute destruction of this beautiful…”

Cavuto cut him off. “Steve, what do think of that? You’re destroying the world?”

“Hey, the world changes,” Forbes said. “The world is not going to be destroyed.”

Climate watchers maintain that politicians, businesses, and the mainstream press participated for years in a kind of halting horse race in which each was afraid to be the first to advance the discussion. “In general, the media does not far outpace, if at all, the political establishment,” said David Sassoon, the founder of an environmental and business communications company called Science First. In the beginning of the decade, he said, “the only business outlet that took the impact of climate change on business seriously was BusinessWeek.” Now, nearly every financial publication is onto the story. In the first three months of 2007, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0, the Economist, Forbes, and Fortune all ran covers about green topics, although their orientations differed.

For Peyton Fleming—communications director at Ceres, a nonprofit coalition of investors and environmental groups—reporting on climate change in terms of its economic peril and promise, instead of as an ethical imperative, has helped motivate legislators to consider changes like carbon regulation. “Two or three years ago,” he said, “there was just an across-the-board attitude that trying to respond to climate change is bad for companies and bad for the economy. I think we’re moving from the economic fearmongering that the Bush administration had tried to put out there to a much more reality-based perspective.”

As the debate over climate change has evolved from whether the earth is warming to whether humans are causing it to how businesses can make money while polluting less, the sophistication and volume of coverage in most financial journals has increased. The range of BusinessWeek’s climate coverage, Fleming said, demonstrates that its editors take the issue seriously. As for Forbes, “I have spoken to reporters at the magazine who have specifically stated that their magazine isn’t interested in this issue. That’s reflected in how few articles they’ve done.”

Those tendencies have been evident for years. The phrase “global warming” has appeared in 377 articles in BusinessWeek since 1985. It appeared in 122 Forbes stories during the same period. Yet BusinessWeek’s and Forbes’s coverage did not begin so differently. In the 80s and 90s, both magazines covered global warming as a speculative proposition. “Are tougher CO2 limits needed? The data are inconclusive,” read a BusinessWeek headline from February 1995. “All this is just part of a mighty blitzkrieg designed to scare the bejesus out of the American people,” a Forbes columnist wrote in 1997.

The magazines’ coverage dramatically parted ways for the first time in November 1997 when BusinessWeek announced that a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had produced the “smoking gun” proving that humans were causing global warming; that same month, Forbes called global warming a “hobgoblin.”

Adam Aston, an editor at BusinessWeek who writes about energy, has seen his magazine’s savvy on this issue increase during his seven years working there. But the sophistication of its coverage, and his editors’ openness to climate stories, developed gradually as businesses came to the realization that energy efficiency could be a boon. “Even two years ago, climate change and Kyoto [Protocol] issues were at the margin of [the editors’] interest and at the margin of their knowledge. It was a European story, a U.N. story, both of which make people kind of glaze over sometimes here.”

What allowed BusinessWeek to capitalize on one of the biggest financial stories in recent years—the cost-saving potential of energy-efficient companies—was the parallel progress of two stories: companies’ positive experiences complying with the Kyoto treaty internationally and scientists’ increasing certainty that humans were causing severe damage to the earth. “The two stories were happening in separate parts of the magazine but being written about in parallel over months at a time,” Aston said. “It just slowly shifted people’s sensibility that it wasn’t as controversial and as verboten as the opponents might have had you believe.”

Because business stories are not “wrapped up with a lot of polemic,” Aston said, business leaders could be invited to think about environmental issues as part of daily practices rather than positions in a divisive debate. “It just becomes another tale about why G.E. is doing what it’s doing,” Aston said.

Science First’s Sassoon agrees that the difference between good and bad coverage of climate change in business magazines depends on more than just substance. Good stories evaluate sources and their motivations before including them and find balance without relying on skeptics to provide “false balance,” he said. Bad stories are ruined by a prejudicial tone. “You can talk about solutions that still need some work to really provide the fix, or you can point to solutions that aren’t quite making it and make fun of them,” he said. He referenced coverage of corn ethanol, a promising but still problematic fuel source, as an example. “It’s one thing to treat it as a work in progress and another to make fun of it as a pipe dream.”

When it covers environmental technology, Forbes tends to emphasize failures: an April 2005 article looked at General Motors’ foolish gamble on hydrogen fuel cells; an October 2006 piece called the hybrid Toyota Prius a “piece of smoke-belching smelter”; and a February 2007 story on investors’ excessive enthusiasm for the possibility of ethanol as a gasoline replacement was titled “Whoops.”

“It’s ideologically-driven opposition that is detrimental,” Sassoon said. “It’s based on an assumption that any kind of environmental action will be economically disastrous. The hold that that myth still has at some of our so-called leading publications is a problem. A big problem.”

Daniel Fisher, a senior editor at Forbes who has written a series of stories about energy technologies associated with climate change, doesn’t consider himself a doubter. “I’m less interested in whether or not it’s happening. My operating premise is: accept as true the theory that human-produced CO2 is causing global warming and move on and say who’s making money, who’s losing money.”

But Fisher admits that he was interested in the money angle because it enabled him to document what he sees as a tremendous scam. The cooperation between businesses, environmental groups, and labor unions is, in his words, a “three-way love fest” that is “so mom and apple pie.” He explained: “Whenever you have that many good things all bundled into one package, I instantly look for corruption. Because nothing’s ever that good.”

The articles also fit into what he defined as Forbes’s preferred structure: stories organized by concrete events and told with a clearly defined point of view. “Forbes stories have to be built around a way that people make or lose money, or possibly manipulate the system in their benefit,” Fisher said. “You get too far beyond that, we lovingly call them thumbsuckers. Just sort of musing on ‘What if?’”

As for columnists’ unconventional arguments, like those of Myron Ebell, Fisher said the “On My Mind” guest column in particular is meant to be contrarian. “We want a kind of provocative, eye-catching argument. It’s not really our argument, it’s just somebody we found who we thought had something interesting to say.”

Andrew Winston, the director of Yale’s Corporate Environmental Strategy Project, and Daniel Esty, a Yale law and environment professor, wrote one of those “On My Mind” columns. The piece was based on a book the two coauthored, Green to Gold, about environmental strategies from which companies can benefit. But for the Forbes column, editors asked Esty and Winston to focus on strategies that hadn’t paid off: 3M’s costly efforts to find a nontoxic Post-it note adhesive and Ford’s failure to please environmentalists—and customers—even after it built the cleanest auto factory in the world. “It’s sort of the opposite point” of the book, Winston said, “but it was the angle they wanted to take and it wasn’t vital enough to fight about."

The piece ran with the headline, “It’s Easy Being Green,” followed by, “Making profits doing it is another matter.” “I would say that our book flips that argument,” Winston said. “The book is actually saying that it’s not that easy being green. It takes effort and strategy, but a company can create real value if it does it right.”

This type of Forbes-style hedging is important, Winston said, because the most skeptical business readers are going to believe the climate debate is over only when the conservative press says so. “As soon as Fox comes out with their global warming action plan, then we know it’s finally over,” he joked. But most businesses are not waiting for the last holdouts in the media to catch up. “The reality is, in the business community, they’re way ahead of the media,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who declares whether climate change is real or not anymore. The business community is already there.”


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