Real-World Legacy of a Fictional Presidency

Climate Change in The West Wing?

Climate policy communicators may wish to review the once-popular TV series to better understand opportunities and obstacles that may arise in the second Obama administration.

With his second term, which began earlier this week, President Barack Obama has the opportunity to match and perhaps surpass the accomplishments of another two-term Democratic president of the twenty-first century: Josiah “Jed” Bartlett.

And just as climate scientists use computer models to better understand the implications of their direct observations, so climate change communicators may wish to review the environmental legacy of Bartlett’s fictional presidency to better understand the prospects for political action on climate change — action seemingly promised in the second inaugural address — in the final years of the Obama presidency.

An Alternative Reality during the Bush Years

Lessons for the Obama administration from Actor Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett in The West Wing?

Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, presided over his fictional West Wing from the fall of 1999 to the spring of 2006. (Plot summaries and detailed cast lists for all 155 episodes of the series can be found at The West Wing Episode Guide.) During its first four seasons, when Aaron Sorkin co-produced the program and wrote most of its episodes, The West Wing was a popular and critical success, winning 23 of the 26 Emmys it harvested over its seven-year run and reaching, at its peak, more than 17 million viewers. “During the Bush era,” a senior editor for the Huffington Post has claimed, “West Wing President Jed Bartlett offered left-wingers a refuge from reality.”

Sorkin left the program in the spring of 2003, by which time viewership had declined by nearly one-third from its peak. Over the next three seasons ratings slipped further still, ultimately leading to termination of the series in 2006, just after a successor to Bartlett had been selected in a contest that eerily presaged the 2008 presidential election.

The environment never played a central role in the series. International affairs, national security, and social issues were the most frequent topics of the politics played out in The West Wing. But while the implications of this quantitative assessment deserve consideration — If the liberal creators of The West Wing thought of the environment only rarely, what hope is there for broader public discussion of these issues? — the ways these issues periodically emerged and then disappeared are more instructive.

The ‘Sudden Arboreal Stop’

The environment first appears in the pilot for The West Wing — albeit only off-screen and in the form of the tree into which an agitated Bartlett crashes while riding a bicycle. Prodded by Press Secretary C. J. Cregg for a more consequential explanation of the president’s injuries, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry offers a signature Sorkin reply: “The president, while riding a bicycle on his vacation in Jackson Hole, came to a sudden arboreal stop.”

This quip provides an apt metaphor for what often happened with environmental issues raised on The West Wing. A new cause is ridden, passionately, until it runs into much larger and more deeply rooted interests. Efforts to question the environmental benefits of ethanol, for example, a topic raised at least three times in the series, are halted by opposition, actual or anticipated, from the farm lobby.

Sometimes the president’s staff came up with a clever way around an obstacle, as when, in season two, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman hits upon the Antiquities Act as a way to block the mining rights attached as a “rider” to a banking bill. But over the course of the series, work-arounds became ever harder to find. When, in season four, Communications Director Toby Ziegler tries to offer a consolation to a congressional ally who lost her seat because she “floated” an administration proposal for a new federal tax on gasoline, he is surprised to learn that a whole new layer of sub-cabinet positions has been made “senate-confirmable.” With each new season, the West Wingers encountered new obstacles — new trees — in their way.

The Ozone Layer, Thinning Ice, and Hospital Admissions

The seven-year run of The West Wing ended just An Inconvenient Truth was hitting movie screens nationwide. So it had to have been in response to other prompts that the series addressed climate change, at some length, in two separate episodes. Both were seen by two-to-three times as many viewers as saw the Al Gore/Davis Guggenheim documentary.

In the first of these episodes, “The Drop-In” from season two, Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn prepared for the announcement of a major environmental initiative in an address President Bartlett would make before the Global Defense Council, likely a fictional stand-in for the Natural Resources Defense Council and related environmental organizations. Created as a way to meet the challenge of climate change, the Clean Air Rehabilitation Effort (or CARE) included a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions. In one of the opening scenes of the episode, Seaborn reviews CARE with his staff:

As of today, it shall be the unequivocal position of the United States that global warming constitutes a clear and present danger to the health and well-being of this planet and its inhabitants …. Twenty-two trillion in benefits versus half-a-trillion in compliance costs. — We’re making sure that’s right? Yes? I want to cite three sources. — Twenty-two thousand fewer respiratory-related hospital admissions ….

In this January 2001 episode — most likely as a delayed response to confirmation that 1998 had been the warmest year on record — a top-rated, prime-time television drama made the case, in health-related terms, that tackling climate change was not only possible but economically feasible. However, Aaron Sorkin immediately undid much of this good work, with two scientific errors and one dramatic choice.

The first error could be seen swirling in dramatic colors on two of the three laptops on the table in the room where Seaborn and his staff met. The color-coded animated video showed the slowly expanding hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, frequently but wrongly thought to play a direct role in global warming.

The second occurred in Seaborn’s follow-up conversation with his boss, Communications Director Toby Ziegler. “Polar sea ice is thinning,” Seaborn explains as he reviews his talking points, “causing a rise in sea levels around the globe.” But melting sea-ice does not raise sea levels; only the ice melting in the sheets covering land masses can do that.

Thus even before politics were added to the equation, this attempt to address climate change had gone scientifically awry.

When politics were added — in the form of a “drop-in,” a late insertion into a “final” draft — viewers were told that environmental interests must be sacrificed for political “balance.” In order to be perceived as governing from the center, Ziegler explains to McGarry in a separate meeting, “there’s an extent to which we’ve got to screw the environmental lobby.” And so, unbeknownst to Seaborn, a harsh admonishment about “environmental terrorism” is dropped in near the end of the president’s address. Within the episode, the speech falls flat, and within the series, global warming then all but disappeared for the next two years.

‘We have to politicize it. It’s political.’

Climate change returned to The West Wing in the spring of 2003, in the seventeenth episode of season four. That episode, “Privateers,” begins with Josh Lyman updating White House Chief of Staff McGarry on an actionable item from the previous night’s wire service reports.

This is from David Elison of USGS, U.S. Geological Survey, and Coast Guard Commander Dennis Travis: “Last night, at 3:45 AM Battle Tree Lake burst through its natural dam in what is known as a glacial lake outburst.” OK. It’s a rushing river of ice, water, and rock. It’s about 300 feet wide, and it’s sweeping through Catchety [sp?], which is one of the towns on the side of the lake.

The natural dam broke, Lyman explains, because the glacier had melted. McGarry is stunned: “Glaciers melt, like, once every hundred million years. This one melted today? … You don’t want to stand here a moment and reflect on the fact that a glacier melted this morning?”

A scientific explanation for these events is provided by a “hydroclimatologist” at the briefing McGarry had requested after meeting with Lyman.

Mean temperatures in Alaska have risen seven degrees in the last thirty years. That’s insane. The temperature hike has caused glaciers to shrink and go backwards, leaving lakes of melted glacier water in their wake. A shift in these collapsing glaciers puts pressure on the lakes, forcing them to overflow their limits and killing, this morning, fourteen people — not spotted owls.

“Are you telling me that the deaths this morning are the first fatalities of global warming?” McGarry asks in response. “They’re definitely global warming fatalities,” the hydroclimatologist replies, “but I doubt that they’re the first.”

At a White House reception later that same day, McGarry decides he wants to use the story to drive the policy discussion in Washington. Press Secretary C. J. Cregg worries about how this will look:

We can’t politicize it, Leo.

We have to politicize it. It’s politics.

It’s disrespectful [of those who died in Alaska], Leo.

It is, and we’ll have to say so.

Ultimately they decide that Will Bailey, the new Deputy Communications Director, should provide the quote to the press, with Cregg then walking back from it. The episode ends with a shot of McGarry’s office, where a newscast plays on a television in the background.

The White House is doing some quick back-pedaling today, claiming Deputy Communications Director Will Bailey was not speaking for the president when he said the flooding and deaths in Catchety [sp?], Alaska were caused by, quote, “reckless disregard for the issue of global warming.”

Not quite as a dramatic as “a sudden arboreal stop,” but the same result: the issue moves no further.

Bartlett’s Successors

After Sorkin’s departure from the series at the end of season four, a new team produced and wrote The West Wing. Environmentally-concerned viewers might find hints of climate change in the episodes on a hurricane that strikes Oklahoma in season five, on peak oil in season six, or on “Drought Conditions,” also in season six. But the only explicit mentions of global warming in the final years occur in a confrontational exchange between C. J. and a conservative talk-show host (season five) and in the debate between the two presidential candidates who hope to succeed Bartlett (season seven). Both incidents suggest that skepticism about climate change has become the norm on the right.

“Global warming, that’s a liberal fantasy, isn’t it,” the talk-show host taunts, “voodoo environmentalism without any scientific basis.”

“No it’s not,” C. J. tries to reply — “there are about 60 Nobel laureates, 57 World Bank economists, and 17 scientific studies that …” — before she is interrupted.

In the fictional presidential debate two years later, the Republican candidate, a moderate senator from California, also dismisses concerns about global warming, albeit in less absolute terms:

The same people who told you that we were going to run out of oil by the end of the twentieth century are now trying to scare us with global warming theories. Yeah, global warming theory, that’s all it is. All they’re talking about is a one degree increase in the Earth’s temperature in the last hundred years. Have you read the science?

The dominant themes in the final seasons of the series — as in the one-hour debate from which this twenty-second comment on global warming is excerpted — are economic issues, international relations (especially the ongoing instability in the Middle East), and the increasingly partisan politics of Washington.

Lessons for Obama from The West Wing

The Bartlett presidency ended in May of 2006, months before the actual 2006 mid-term elections that would give Democrats control of the House and the Senate for the next four years, and well before the final candidates for the 2008 presidential election could be spotted in the field.

Nevertheless, The West Wing‘s writers proved remarkably prescient. In the campaign they imagined for the last two seasons, the final contenders were both from Congress, even though governors are the far more frequent choices of their parties. The Democratic candidate was a member of an ethnic minority, foreshadowing the important role played by minorities, especially Hispanics, in 2008 and 2012. And at the end of the race, the winning candidate chose his most formidable opponent to be his Secretary of State.

With that kind of record on the politics, can environmental communicators afford to ignore The West Wing on their issues?

Here are three real-world lessons that might be drawn from this fictional presidency:

Education — or informing the public — may not be sufficient, but it’s always necessary.

Much research has shown that the deficit model of communication — to change minds you simply have to provide the missing information — doesn’t work. But as The West Wing‘s early mistakes illustrate, climate change is a difficult issue to understand; even smart people will get it wrong.

To be truly effective, a communication strategy for climate change must be able to function even during terrorist attacks and economic downturns.

It’s hard to overstate how 9/11 and the actions that followed those terrorist attacks shaped American politics in the twenty-first century. In the first two seasons of The West Wing, the Middle East was the main focus of just one episode. In the five years after 9/11, the Middle East — and domestic terrorism tied to the Middle East — provided the major issues and plot-driving events for many episodes, and also for the multi-episode stories used to bridge the end of one season and the start of the next.

Economic issues came in a close second. Although it did not face the generation-defining recession that would cripple the global economy in 2008, The West Wing did address slowdowns, downsizings, outsourcings, and the declining fortunes of the middle class.

The West Wing survived as long as it did because it could incorporate these events into its own storylines. To keep the public’s attention, a program must absorb crises so that it is not displaced by them.

There’s no way not to politicize climate change.

In a country where different groups live by dramatically different visions of America’s past and its possible futures, a problem whose solution will require dramatic changes in the status quo is inherently political. As The West Wing repeatedly pointed out, the metaphorical ground shared by the two parties has shrunk over the last few decades. The increasingly radical leadership of the fictional Speaker of the House in seasons five through seven called attention to the brinkmanship practiced by Newt Gingrich and that now distorts current negotiations on the budget and on the debt ceiling. The moderate centrism represented by Senator Arnold Vinnick, The West Wing‘s Republican presidential candidate in seasons six and seven, is depicted as a welcome pause in this trend, but after he loses the election, the final episodes suggest, the party will resume its rightward course — as indeed happened in real life. These political facts cannot be framed away.

Second Inaugural Addresses

In the second inaugural address that was the subject of two episodes in season four of The West Wing, President Bartlett never mentioned climate change; he chose instead to lay out a bold new vision of American foreign policy, one focused on social justice and equitable development.

By devoting a full paragraph to climate change in his second inaugural address earlier this week, President Obama has taken an environmental step well beyond what his fictional predecessor did. Perhaps this is because, as Obama noted, “a decade of war is now ending, an economic recovery has begun.” Americans can now think about climate change again because these more immediate crises, as a pre-environmental understanding of politics would describe them, no longer claim our undivided attention.

In those 161 words in the middle of his speech, Obama offered ethical (“failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”), economic (“crippling drought”; “new jobs and new industries”), public health and safety (“raging fires … and more powerful storms”), religious (“commanded to our care by God”), and traditional (“the creed our fathers once declared”) reasons for renewing public concern on climate change. And his willingness to address this concern in such a prominent setting may reflect a new confidence that the political obstacles that have piled up over the past decades — and as portrayed on The West Wing — can now be overcome.

But whether this stirring impulse will end in new policy, clever executive work-arounds, or “a sudden arboreal stop” remains to be seen. The world, it’s true, will be watching.

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Editor’s Note: The excerpts from The West Wing were transcribed by the author.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimatemediaforum.org)
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