Eight years ago, to limited press coverage, Cynthia Rosenzweig, Ph.D., led a team in a significant report on climate change and New York City.

The findings, published in July 2001 as “Climate Change and a Global City: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change,” were sobering: They asserted that the New York City region was warming faster than the global average – by nearly 2 degrees F over the previous century.

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Cynthia Rosenzweig, Ph.D.

Rosenzweig and her colleagues warned in clear terms that the impacts of warming were obvious in New York then and that they would be “primarily negative over the long term.” The team urged policy makers to rethink their ability to control a local environment. Instead, it recommended, they should understand that sea level rise, warmer winters and hotter summers were likely coming from global influences beyond their control, and they should begin to adapt the city infrastructure, health systems, and more, for these changes.

Pretty meaty stuff, but that report and other regional studies for the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, hardly spurred the intense national dialogue on climate some scientists thought justified.

Why not?

The report was released in 2001, making it pretty much a product of the Clinton administration that was aired during a Bush administration not long inclined to heed the National Assessment analyses.

A handful of regional stories reported the news at the time. The New York Times quoted Rosenzweig: “We need to start getting ready. We need to begin to take these projections of climate change on board now so we can prepare to adapt at minimum cost.”

2008 Nature Study Draws Widespread Coverage

Eight years later, in May 2008, drawing on work she had led for the Fourth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rosenzweig was the lead author in an article in the journal Nature of perhaps even more significance than the earlier regional study.

The 2008 article, “Attributing physical and biological impacts to anthropogenic climate change,” analyzed 80 studies and 29,500 data series. Rosenzweig and her research team asserted that concrete evidence of human-induced warming can be found around the world, on land, in the sea, along the coasts, in temperature, and in how plants and animals are responding on every continent except Antarctica.

This article was among a number of strong statements from the scientific community that human-caused climate change is changing the world and has been doing so for many years. The article’s publication and its widespread notice in popular media marked a milestone for Rosenzweig, who has been studying the climate since the early 1980s. Here was a sign that the popular media and the public at last were taking seriously what she and other colleagues in the science community had been finding and describing for years.

Her work has made a major impact: She was the coordinating lead author for an important study of observed changes that was part of the IPCC Working Group II’s report (see Chapter 1).

She has studied both the actual observed evidence of climate change and models predicting effects across the globe. Her early research focused on farms and soils. She has led many large-scale interdisciplinary studies of climate change and authored 80 articles and eight books.

Today, Rosenzweig is a major force in the movement to adapt the New York City infrastructure to the realities of a warmer climate. She serves on the New York City Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which she describes as “like the IPCC, only for New York.” (See news release from Columbia on her appointment.) The task force is part of the city’s program “PlaNYC,” a long-range planning effort. PlaNYC’s climate goals include working with neighborhoods vulnerable to frequent flooding, updating flood maps, adapting water and sewer systems to a rising sea, and more.

To Rosenzweig, it seems that New York, for sure, is finally listening. The media too are doing better than they used to, she says. “In the issue identification phase, they were good,” she said. “They were environmental reporters.” This was a decade or more ago. Still, many reporters for too long did what Rosenzweig calls “the McNeil-Lehrerization” of climate change, referring to the earlier name of the public television program “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.”

By that remark, she means that in many reports “there would have to be a naysayer,” even if the naysayers represented a very small minority, or were expressing policy-loaded views on matters of physical science.

Things have improved, Rosenzweig says, but she volunteers that media coverage of climate change still has a way to go.

She is statesmanlike, avoiding specific criticisms of individual reporters by name. But as she talks about her experiences in 2008 with publication of the Nature article, one feels the pull to take notes on how to report climate stories. First on the list might be to learn to do so more broadly.

Here is why: After the Nature article came out, Rosenzweig talked to dozens of reporters individually over a period of days. She compiled articles they wrote in a fat three-ring binder she keeps on a shelf in her cramped office at 2800 Broadway, where Columbia University’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies is located, and where she is a senior research scientist.

Media Appetite for ‘Iconic’ Figures

Rosenzweig says the media seemed to understand the core set of issues, although “some of the reporters who are just coming to the issue don’t have as much a background as the reporters who have been covering it for many years.” Overall, she said, “the media in general does a pretty good job of representing the science.”

She sees a problem, however, in the way reporters want to grab the public. “Here’s what the media do like,” she said. “They want iconic examples. So we gave them those – but the point of our paper was how widespread it was.” Reporters wanted a picture of a place where glaciers are melting, so Rosenzweig and her team provided photos of Mount Chacaltaya in Bolivia, which once, but no longer, supported a ski area. “We have a beautiful version of that photo,” she couldn’t help saying. She admitted, “People can relate much better to iconic stories.” (See the Columbia University release and photos of the mountain.)

Reporters also captured what she called the “gee-whiz” aspect of her work. They understood that the article was about many studies showing many species and many areas of the world where climate change is altering life. And yet – there are many places still to study. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. The Earth’s system is so complex.”

But some reports still quoted the rare naysayer, suggesting that climate change is stuck in the old “issue identification” phase. One report after the Nature article last May in USA Today, for instance, contrasted Rosenzweig’s scientific assessments with the policy-laden rebuttals of a representative of a free-market, libertarian think tank insisting that climate change is not occurring.

Maybe surprisingly, Rosenzweig seems energized by working with policy makers to plan how to respond to climate change in New York. Policy makers might need the “gee whiz” explanations in order to know what to do. But she praised New York and other cities’ leaders as extremely practical. She said that since the 2001 New York regional study, the New York leaders have been making concrete plans for how to respond to the climate. Already, new catch basins in the city sit higher than the old. Much of what they’re doing, she hints, isn’t iconic.

In other words, some in the media may not have noticed, but city leaders did. And for that, Rosenzweig says she is grateful.

For more information, see the PowerPoint demonstration Rosenzweig gave at an October 2008 seminar for the American Meteorological Society. She lays out many statistics engagingly.

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