SEJ Journalists Meeting Confronts Bitter Pills on Climate Future

‘What hope?’ is there, a veteran environmental reporter asks a panel after hearing their bleak prognoses for addressing the planet’s climate challenges?  And Einstein’s advice … simple but not too simple.

MIAMI, FL. – OCTOBER 22 — The luncheon panel discussion during the last full day of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference proved a bummer for many in the audience of some 800 or so.

News Analysis

Even wizened reporters generally familiar with the dark prospects for the planet’s climate in a “business as usual” world appeared taken aback by the prognoses given them by MIT’s Atmospheric Sciences Professor Kerry Emanuel, University of Miami Geological Sciences Chair Harold Wanless, and Sharlene Leurig of Ceres, a coalition of investors, environmental organizations, and other public interest groups:

–  Emanuel reported a doubling of Atlantic hurricane power over the past 30 years, with more to come;

–  Leurig referred to insurers’ increasing concerns over climate change and emphasized its role as a “key driver of the global economy,” spring trillions of collars in private investments. She cautioned of states’ growing vulnerabilities, as they take on insurance liabilities private carriers now are fleeing from.

–  ”We’ve reached the tipping point,” Wanless said, pointing to continuing losses of Arctic and Antarctic glaciers and ice.

Veteran environmental reporter James Bruggers of the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., asked in a Q&A session what rationale the public might have for “any hope” given the bleak analyses and asked what adaptation efforts might actually look like. A federal NOAA representative on the panel begged-off the “what hope?” question but said some of the activities under way and planned along coast lines inevitably would have to continue and accelerate.  Fellow panelists offered no panaceas to the “What hope?” dilemma.


A sobering message from SEJ luncheon panelists left some reporters wondering how to report on ‘no hope’ … and looking for clues on reporting simply, but accurately, on complex issues.

Another veteran environmental reporter — Tom Henry, now on the editorial page of the Toledo Blade where he has worked for years covering Great Lakes and other environmental issues — pressed the panelists for answers to a riddle serious journalists often ponder:

What are the mass media’s responsibilities to adequately inform their lay audiences on some of the complex climate/weather interconnections while not getting so detailed and complex that they end up losing those whose attention they need?, asked Henry, whose reporting assignments not long ago took him to Greenland.

Paraphrasing Einstein, Emanuel suggested media try to make things as simple as possible, but not too simple.  “There’s a point at which simplification becomes disinformation,” Emanuel cautioned.

Panel moderator Seth Borenstein of AP related a story of a highly regarded scientist who sat in a hospital room while her husband was undergoing treatment for a serious and rare cancer. Asked by a nurse what she did for a living, the scientist replied that she studied impacts of a warming climate on plants and animals.

The oncology nurse’s response might help keep things in perspective:

“What a depressing job!” she replied.

Depressing indeed.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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3 Responses to SEJ Journalists Meeting Confronts Bitter Pills on Climate Future

  1. Steve Bloom says:

    Scientists are finally having to resort to yelling because nothing else has worked. It’s been clear for 6-8 years that the climate prognosis is much worse than was thought previously, and it was peculiar to see so many journalists very actively not getting the point. Even now, people like Andy “Energy Menu” Revkin and your own Keith Kloor have thoroughly armored themselves to the point that it’s doubtful that the most direct language will penetrate.

    • I often hear the comment that things are much worse than previously thought. Unfortunately I rarely hear any factual support for that claim. We know that global warming ended in 1998 and that the upper oceans have not warmed since 2003. That would seem to indicate that things are better than previously it was thought they would be. Recently sea level has actually been falling. The lows in arctic summer sea ice reached in 2007 have not been matched. There is no trend in global sea ice coverage considering arctic and antarctic. There have been no serious hurricane hits on the U.S. mainland for over 1000 days. So, how are things worse?

      • Bud Ward says:

        Oh my. Where to begin? Global warming ended in 1998? Show the peer-reviewed science on that one! Or evidence confirming no further warming of upper ocean levels?
        Better than previously thought? If only that were the case, but that’s not what the media are hearing from the most responsible, most respected, and most expert scientists.