Climate Change: Now What?

A big beat grows more challenging and complex

Media coverage of climate change is at a crossroads, as it moves beyond the science of global warming into the broader arena of what governments, entrepreneurs, and ordinary citizens are doing about it. Consider these recent examples: a decade from now, Abu Dhabi hopes to have the first city in the world with zero carbon emissions. In a windswept stretch of desert, developers plan to build Masdar City, a livable environment
for fifty thousand people that relies entirely on solar power and other renewable energy. Science correspondent Joe Palca reported from Masdar’s construction site as part of National Public Radio’s yearlong project “Climate Connections.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter N. Spotts went to the Biesbosch, a small inland delta near the Netherlands’ city of Dordrecht, to research “How to Fight a Rising Sea.” In an effort that could be instructive for others, the Dutch are developing ways to protect their small country’s vulnerable coast against rising sea levels that could result from climate change.

Wang Suya lives in Japan but sends a YouTube greeting to fellow visitors at Dot Earth, the innovative blog started by Andrew C. Revkin, the New York Times environment reporter. Having traveled the globe to cover global warming, Revkin now posts and exchanges ideas on Dot Earth about climate and sustainability issues, particularly the energy, food, and water demands on a planet that may house nine billion people by mid-century.

These reporters are in the advance guard of an army of journalists around the world who are covering what Time magazine has dubbed the “War on Global Warming.” Journalists will play a key role in shaping the information that opinion leaders and the public use to judge the urgency of climate change, what needs to be done about it, when and at what costs. It is a vast, multifaceted story whose complexity does not fit well with journalism’s tendency to shy away from issues with high levels of uncertainty and a time-frame of decades, rather than days or months.

In 2009, climate-change coverage will grow in significance on a number of domestic and international fronts:

In science, the impact of global warming will be followed closely at the two poles as well as Pacific island hot spots, like the low-lying islands of Papua New Guinea, that are in the greatest danger.

In politics, after eight years of relative inaction by the Bush administration, the new U.S. president and Congress will be under pressure to pass legislation to curb emissions of greenhouse gases.

Internationally, the United Nations has scheduled key conferences—in Poznan, Poland, in December 2008 and in Copenhagen in December 2009—to hammer out a new international treaty that is practically and politically feasible. Shortages and high prices are bringing the role of biofuels in the global food crisis under added scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the efforts of countries, businesses, communities, and even individuals to reduce their “carbon footprints” will increasingly be examined.

Climate change will require thoughtful leadership and coordination at news organizations. Editors will need to integrate the specialty environment, energy, and science reporters with other beats that have a piece of the story—everything from local and national politics to foreign affairs, business, technology, health, urban affairs, agriculture, transportation, law, architecture, religion, consumer news, gardening, travel, and sports. “News organizations are increasingly asking what other beats are going to be affected by climate,” says veteran environment reporter Bud Ward, who edits a respected online journalism site, The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media. He notes that even Sports Illustrated has tackled climate change and its potential impact on everything from cancelled games to baseball bats. But, Ward worries, “it will be extremely difficult to explain the policy side of the debate” in the months ahead. Unless editors push hard for it, “there’s generally not the time or space for that kind of explanatory coverage.”

To that end, Ward has organized media workshops on global warming for top editors as well as reporters. A daylong meeting last fall at Stanford University attracted heavy hitters like Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. and top editors from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and metropolitan papers from Detroit to Des Moines. Eighteen news executives spent the morning with leading scientists, who emphasized the strong agreement among international experts that the earth is warming and that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are largely to blame. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year issued a widely publicized report (in four parts) that provided the most comprehensive scientific agreement to date on the causes and potentially devastating impact of global warming. Yet, recalls Stephen H. Schneider, a Stanford climatologist, “several editors were surprised there was so much consensus.”

In the afternoon session, the consensus dissipated when it came to a discussion of the potential economic impact of climate actions. One expert saw climate change as a profitable business opportunity; another warned that solutions would be difficult and costly: “There are no silver bullets…only silver birdshot.” Ward says that one editor later commented: “It looks like economists are going to need their own IPCC.”

Daniel P. Schrag, a climate geologist who directs the Harvard University Center for the Environment, says, “We’re in a transition in which the climate science is no longer the primary issue. More and more it’s about how we stop it, not whether it is happening.”

And Matthew C. Nisbet, an American University communications professor, says, “We have had more science coverage on climate change than at any time in history. The next challenge is to find ways to cover the story across news beats and in ways that engage new readers.”

Here are some thoughts as to how coverage might be sharpened in the year ahead in the broad areas of science, politics, and business.

Science and Technology

The ongoing science story. After several years of stumbling, mainstream science and environmental coverage has generally adopted the scientific consensus that increases in heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and tropical deforestation are changing the planet’s climate, causing adverse effects even more rapidly than had once been predicted.

But the devil is in the details. New findings on why, where, how fast, and with what impact climate change might occur will take time to assess, and there is a danger that the subtleties of the science, and its uncertainty, might be missed by reporters unfamiliar with the territory. The process of science often involves studies that contradict one another along the way; scientists look for consistency among several reports before concluding that something is true. Journalists should avoid “yo-yo” coverage with each new study and try to put the latest findings in context.

Scientists are debating, for example, how global warming may affect hurricanes, with an “ongoing tempest among meteorologists and climatologists spouting off at one another on whether hurricane activity in the Atlantic is up due to a warming ocean,” noted Charles Petit in the MIT Knight Science Journalism Tracker. He cited a recent computer simulation of late twenty-first-century hurricane patterns by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists that predicted fewer tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic. Experienced journalists reported the findings cautiously, noting that some studies have suggested more and more powerful hurricanes due to global warming. Jim Loney, a Reuters reporter, concluded his story with a scientist’s caveat: “We don’t regard this as the last word on this topic.”

You can’t see climate change out the window. “Weather is what you get; climate is what you expect,” says Stanford’s Schneider. “Weather is the day-to-day fluctuations; climate is the long-term averages, the patterns and probability of extremes.” The basic difference is time: weather equals short-term, climate the long haul. Ward uses a clothes analogy—weather helps us decide what to wear each day; climate influences the wardrobe we buy.

“The earth is getting hotter,” says John P. Holdren, a Harvard scientist and international climate-policy leader who has addressed the UN—and been on the Late Show with David Letterman. He cites climate patterns showing that twenty-three out of twenty-four of the hottest years on record have occurred since 1980. The thirteen hottest all have occurred since 1990, with 2005 the hottest ever recorded. But “the heating is not uniform geographically,” cautioned Holdren, who uses the term “global climate disruption” because some regions may experience more extreme—and less predictable—environmental changes than others.

This message was echoed in a landmark Agriculture Department report, released in late May and signed by three Cabinet secretaries, that Juliet Eilperin, the national environment and politics reporter for The Washington Post, called the “most detailed look in nearly eight years at how climate change is reshaping the American landscape.” It concluded that the West is already vulnerable to forest fires, reduced snow pack, and drought.

It is a good rule of thumb to avoid attributing any specific weather event directly to climate change. A single summer heat wave may or may not be part of a long-term climate trend. A cold winter in New England does not mean that global warming is not happening.

Environmental forces may also interact in ways that can be hard to explain. German researchers, writing recently in Nature, used a new climate model to suggest that natural variation in ocean circulation might “temporarily offset” temperature increases from human-caused global warming in Europe and North America over the next decade. Some misleading media reports turned the preliminary forecast into a definitive statement that, as a British Telegraph reporter put it, “global warming will stop until at least 2015.”

Watch out for techno-optimism. Proponents of new energy technologies often hype the potential benefits—without knowing the effectiveness, cost, time frame (always longer than expected), risks, or potential impact on the larger energy picture. It’s a reporter’s duty to explain the potential downside as well as conflicts of interests.

Renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and geothermal, have garnered enthusiastic publicity. But it will take time for them to make a dent in the overall U.S. energy marketplace because of higher costs, lower scale, and public opposition to sitings of wind farms and solar grids. Nuclear power is popular in France but still largely radioactive in the American public’s mind. Another area for further media follow-up is the touted technology for carbon capture and storage at coal-burning power plants, which has stalled in the U.S. because of political squabbling and unexpected cost overruns.

In a related vein, beware the law of unintended consequences. The biofuel ethanol was ballyhooed as a big win for U.S. energy security, farmers, and the environment, but a funny thing happened on the way to the fuel tank. A February 2008 study in Science magazine concluded that producing ethanol from corn may exceed or match the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

More recently, of course, ethanol has been blamed for contributing to the world food crisis, since farm acreage previously used for food is now devoted to lucrative fuel-producing corn. Suddenly many elected officials want to cut back on congressional mandates to produce far more ethanol. Once again, the public is left wondering what happened. An excellent April 30 front-page piece from Charles City, Iowa, by Washington Post energy reporter Steven Mufson, explored the links between “food and fuel prices.” But where were the skeptical scientists, politicians, and journalists earlier, when ethanol was first being promoted in Congress?

Choose your experts carefully. Experts are always a minefield, so the Times’s Revkin has a simple rule: when writing about climate science, seek comments from respected scientific experts who have published in major journals in the field, not the experts offered by various policy think tanks and interest groups with axes to grind.

The era of “equal time” for skeptics who argue that global warming is just a result of natural variation and not human intervention seems to be largely over—except on talk radio, cable, and local television. Last year, a meteorologist at CBS’s Chicago station did a special report entitled “The Truth about Global Warming.” It featured local scientists discussing the hazards of global warming in one segment, well-known national skeptics in another, and ended with a cop-out: “What is the truth about global warming?…It depends on who you talk to.” Not helpful, and not good reporting.

As the climate issue moves further into public policy, journalists will face new challenges in sorting out the political and economic interests of experts with a dizzying array of opinions about the costs and benefits of combating global warming. The he-said, she-said reporting just won’t do. The public needs a guide to the policy, not just the politics.

Politics and Policy

After the horse race. A Gallup election poll in early February about what issues would influence Americans’ votes put the economy, Iraq, education, health care, and gas prices in the top five considered “extremely or very important.” Environment and global warming weighed in at number thirteen.

Politicians pay attention to public opinion, of course. In the 2008 presidential race, Obama and McCain both favor mandatory caps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—though McCain’s plan is not as strict on this—and both candidates push nuclear power, though McCain pushes it more aggressively and with fewer caveats.

In Congress, a groundbreaking cap-and-trade “climate security” bill to reduce key greenhouse gas emissions by about 70 percent by 2050 came to the Senate floor for the first time in June. GOP critics argued that it would raise energy costs further, and the bill was blocked. The debate foreshadowed the difficulties such measures may face in the next Congress.

Think China. Estimates suggest China has passed the U.S. for the dubious distinction as the world’s leader in total greenhouse gas emissions. Its rising emissions are fueled by coal-burning power plants—on average, about one new one fires up each week—to meet the energy demands of a growing middle class. But the Pew Center on Global Climate Change said that, on a per-capita basis, U.S. carbon emissions are still about five times greater than those of China, whose enormous 1.3 billion population dwarfs America’s three-hundred million.

Neither the U.S. nor China has agreed to international restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. While the conventional wisdom is that China will wait for the U.S. to act first, a recent opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle predicted that “China just might surprise the U.S. on climate change” because of growing domestic concerns about pollution, droughts, flooding, and other environmental hazards. The University of California authors predicted that China could also take the lead in the development of clean-energy technology—a good area for journalists to track, in addition to coal and cars.

Business and Commerce

Costs and benefits. Evaluating economic forecasts is even tougher than evaluating the science and precipitates fierce debate. A seven-hundred-page report for the British government in 2006 by economist Nicholas Stern said the costs of enacting global measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could amount to about 1 percent of world economic output annually. But not doing so, he said, might ultimately lead to a massive global “market failure,” ranging from five to more than twenty times that amount. It drew international coverage for its methods and both praise and criticism from fellow economists. Yale economist William D. Nordhaus’s new book concludes that the Stern approach is too “ambitious” in requiring “extreme immediate action” and is therefore not cost-effective. He favors global carbon taxes that ramp up more gradually.

Many players are weighing in on the how-to-fix-it political issue. A May Reuters story, that ran before the Senate floor debate on cap-and-trade legislation, cited environmental groups as saying “the cost of doing nothing would be far higher” than taking action, while Washington Post columnist George Will called the bill a “radical government grab for control of the American economy.” A New York Times editorial noted that despite Bush administration contentions that “mandatory cuts in carbon dioxide would bankrupt the country,” every “serious study” has found that a market-based program “could yield positive economic gains” and that the “costs of inaction will dwarf the costs of acting now.”

Times science writer Cornelia Dean wrote last year about the Interface Corporation, a Georgia carpet tile manufacturer that went on a full-court sustainability press by cutting waste, recycling, lowering energy use, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions—and saved money in doing so. “We have made the point in everybody’s mind that the cost of reducing carbon emissions will be painful,” Dean noted. But “it can also work to your advantage.”

Track “green” promises. In the absence of federal action, more than 850 mayors have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement to reduce local carbon emissions by using goals set by signatories to the international Kyoto Protocol. States like California and regional efforts in New England have also led in climate-change initiatives. Some corporations, too, have set ambitious goals for reducing their carbon footprints. Reporters need to hold private and public enterprises accountable by analyzing and comparing how well all of these bodies are doing in carrying out their bold promises.

In the meantime, there’s a great risk of green fatigue in the media. The number of articles in U.S. newspapers mentioning “going green” in the first quarter of 2008 was about twelve times greater than the comparable period in 2005, according to LexisNexis. Worse, it is also the darling of the advertising business, and the mixing of news and commercial messages is starting to give the phrase a sour green-apple taste.

Still, the trend does give reporters an opportunity to expose examples of “green-washing” that promise eco-friendliness but don’t deliver.

As climate change encompasses virtually all aspects of contemporary life, reporters need to tell the story on their watch. A number of Web sites provide helpful information (see the list posted with this article). In the meantime, here is a starter set of possible stories for reporters to consider and readers to request:

In the realm of science, what is the stability of ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, and how will this affect rising sea-level estimates? What plants and animals are at most risk of extinction, and what can be done about that?

What about adaptation to climate change, both here and abroad? Regardless of new control efforts, greenhouse gas emissions already in the pipeline will continue to have warming-related impacts for decades to come. How will Americans cope with changing conditions?

In land use and transportation, what efforts are under way to push auto makers to improve gas mileage? What can drivers do today? Hint: it’s not just what you drive, it’s how often and how far (eco-driving anyone?). How does air travel compare? How can city planners encourage compact living to reduce a community’s carbon footprint? What else can consumers do?

In technology, what are the R&D prospects for biofuel alternatives like cellulosic ethanol, made from grass, wood chips, and other inedible plants? What about futuristic ideas like genetically engineered carbon-eating trees?

In policy, what lessons does the European Union’s experience have for the U.S. about possible carbon cap-and-trade schemes? How are the world’s countries doing at meeting their Kyoto Protocol targets, which expire in 2012, and how do they compare to the U.S.?

In economics, what can be done to make tough emission caps in the U.S. more cost-efficient? How can developing countries balance economic growth and better living conditions against rising greenhouse gases?

Internationally, what is being done to slow deforestation in the tropics, from Indonesia to the Amazon, which is estimated to cause almost one-fifth of human-induced global carbon emissions? What about population growth and the increasing number of environmental refugees forced to flee because of flooding, drought, or other problems? How will global health be affected by climate change?

How will climate negotiations affect the geopolitics of energy, and what does “energy security” really mean?

There are countless such questions for reporters to tackle on a story that is only going to get bigger and more complicated in the decades (yes, decades) ahead.

And there is some urgency. Despite increased coverage of climate change, it is still not at the top of the media or public priority list. “If you don’t have climate change as a headline in the press,” says Nisbet, who writes the blog Framing Science, “it’s unlikely to be a top-tier issue in the public or among policy makers.” A 2007 ranking by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that among all media, environmental coverage ranked nineteenth, at 1.7 percent of the newshole—just behind sports and celebrity coverage.

A Gallup report last November found that only about four in ten Americans believes that immediate, drastic action is needed to deal with global warming, and just one in four says there will be “extreme” effects of global warming in fifty years if efforts are not increased. Is this a failure of the experts and politicians to communicate the situation or a failure of journalists to dig and report?

Yet journalists should not be cheerleaders. As climate change moves further into the policy and political arena, the traditional wall between analytical reporting and advocacy is in danger. The issue is coming to the fore at a time of major change in mainstream journalism and the growth of opinionated Web sites and blogs that have helped to blur the old lines.

Nisbet, for one, sees a dramatic shift in media rhetoric on climate change. In the spring of 2006, fear was at the heart of Al Gore’s documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, which jump-started media coverage of global warming after years on the back burner. Suddenly, climate change—that term is gaining ground over global warming, by the way—was on front pages and magazine covers, including Time’s iconic image of a lone polar bear and the warning, “Be Worried. Be Very Worried.”

Today, says Nisbet, “the underlying appeal is a moral message: ‘We’re all in this together.’ It’s a moral call to arms.” Gore’s new $300-million “We” media campaign seeks to cross the partisan divide with the optimistic motto: “We Can Solve It.” The cover of Time’s Spring 2008 environment issue, bordered in green instead of Time’s customary red, took the famous World War II photo of Marines raising a U.S. flag on Iwo Jima and substituted a tree to illustrate its bold headline: “How to Win the War on Global Warming.”

Did Time cross the line into environmental cheerleading? It would seem so, perhaps reflecting the magazine’s more general shift into opinion and away from pure news. Managing editor Richard Stengel called the cover story “our call to arms to make this challenge—perhaps the most important one facing the planet—a true national priority.”

Others are feeling their way more carefully. “Sure, I care about the environment,” says Steve Curwood, host of “Living on Earth,” a weekly environmental show on more than three hundred public radio stations. “But it’s not our job to decide what should be done. It’s our job to inform the citizenry. Right now we have an alarmed citizenry, but still not a very well-informed one,” he said at a recent journalism forum.

“We don’t set policy, we tell stories,” says David Ledford, executive editor of The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, and president of The Associated Press Managing Editors. “But it’s important to not just throw out that the earth is on fire without giving a sense of what they can do.”

“It’s very simple. The job of a professional journalist is to give the audience information that is a good thing for them to know,” says seasoned ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, who has led the network’s new multiplatform approach to global warming. Yet he finds that the momentous nature of the climate-change story carries even more of a responsibility and psychological burden than the dozen wars he has covered. “The unprecedented nature of this story,” says Blakemore, “is quite grave.”

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.