A Reporter's Notebook

The Art of Providing Context of Time and Space in Climate Coverage


Providing suitable spatial and temporal context remains a critical need if journalists are to meet their responsibilities for informing global publics about risks posed by a warming climate. Are the media ready to do so?

Reporting accurately on an issue so profoundly vast and intricate — and important — as the Earth’s changing climate poses journalistic challenges of constantly grappling with elusive notions of context.

To capture the magnitude of the climate problem on one hand, and make it accessible and “relevant” on the other, reporters and editors find themselves torqued between competing choices focusing on the global and the local. In addition, along with reporting on science’s projections on possible trajectories of climate change for the future, editors and reporters at times try to relate current and recent experiences of weather extremes to the long-term process of the changing climate.

These developments might reflect scientists’ evolving and increasing understandings of the actual unfolding of climate change, or of the news media’s own increasing understanding of the issue, even in a rapidly changing 24/7 digital news environment.

But, in fact, the local and the global, just like the present and the future, are not mutually exclusive — and the most effective coverage of climate change will reflect both of these important characteristics and provide audiences the needed context to improve their understanding.

Climate Change as a Subject for ‘Foreign’ Coverage

Some writers and analysts have stressed that within their newsrooms, climate change stories often fall within the realm of so-called foreign news. That was the case, for instance, when a report on the June 2013 round of United Nations climate talks appeared in The Philippine Star, or when The Times of India reported on impacts of climate change on food security in Ghana.

Growing dependence on wire services and news agencies like Reuters, Associated Press, and Agence France Presse also plays into the tendency by some to treat the subject as a “foreign” issue, though without those services’ attention to climate change, coverage in local and regional media outlets likely would be even more limited.

Several bloggers — for example Curtis Brainard, Keith Kloor, and Mike Shanahan — have called for better localizing of climate change stories. They point out that taking a concrete local perspective on such a complex issue helps making it more understandable and more “relevant” to those wondering “How does it affect me, my family and loved ones, and my neighborhood?”

Needed: A Global Team Coverage Approach

However, an excessive focus on local impacts can risk parochialism and can give undue emphasis to the scientific reality that forecasting impacts at local or regional levels inevitably lags behind science-based findings on a global scale. It’s highly problematic to simply assume that the “global” in “global warming” makes clear that the issue goes beyond a local, regional, or domestic context.

A better approach might therefore be a collaborative one. In short, engaging a pool of individual journalists or media outlets from multiple localities to jointly report on a particular subject could facilitate a broader and more contextual understanding of our changing climate. Here’s an example of such an effort involving the author of this piece and other freelance journalists.

Let’s say a reporter with a newspaper in Miami, another in Mumbai, and a third one in Lagos get together remotely to report on potential impacts of rising seas on major coastal cities. Elsewhere, a comprehensive story on hydrocarbon exploration in the Arctic could benefit from cooperation among journalists in the U.S., Russia, and Norway. Each would still contribute their local perspective and each run the joint larger-context story in their respective media outlets.

The temporal dimension of climate reporting is perhaps more tricky. Using future tense to discuss the impacts of climate change is rather standard practice in most traditional news outlets. But it is the use of present tense — and in particular perhaps the relationship of today’s freak weather events to increasing global temperatures — that is contentious.

Experienced science writers and other journalists regularly covering climate change recognize the scientific complexities involved in trying to extrapolate from a single weather event to long-term trends, and indeed in many cases avoid over-reaching.

And yet, climate science on the climate/weather connection is evolving rapidly over the past few years — now it’s possible for scientists to go beyond just identifying paleo-climatic trends; a number of studies published over the past two years have shown how climate change can help explain and put into context recent weather extremes with a considerable degree of confidence.

From this some conclude, with justification, that climate change in fact is happening — that the regional and local impacts are now being reliably detected in many of our own “back yards” and as we speak. At least in some places. One of many clear examples is that in the poles, observed temperature rise is known to be particularly accelerated.

And again, there are obvious benefits to conceptualizing climate change manifestations as here and now: It does makes complex issues like climate change relevant, tangible. But it also can run risks of making those long-term but likely more-damaging impacts seem less a big a deal. And that in turn might lead some — and in particular those already inclined to think the projected impacts over-stated — to believe that it might be possible to simply “get used” to climate change. Or, worse yet, “get over it” and consider adaptation and “resilience” the only sensible approach.

Basing Actions Primarily on Future or on Past Experiences

But as so often is the case with climate change, things in reality are more complicated.

“It will not be good enough to base your decisions for the future on the past,” Michel Jarraud, Secretary General of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization, told a meeting with journalists four years ago.

Changes now occurring locally and regionally in some cases can be so gradual that the public will fail to link them to changes occurring globally. In addition, there’s also the delayed feedback — that implications of our current and near-term actions (read: greenhouse gas emissions) — will be manifested for all to see only years or decades into the future.

In his last contribution from The Guardian’s environment desk, Leo Hickman accurately captured humanity’s temporal challenge in addressing climate change:

Nothing exposes our species’ “future flaw” more than climate change — rarely, if ever, have the history books demonstrated a generation acting selflessly, or in sacrifice, for the sole benefit of generations to come. We are an extraordinary animal in so many ways, but one of our weaknesses is that we operate firmly in the present tense. We jump only when we are in imminent danger ourselves. If not, we prevaricate, delay or turn our heads away. Climate change requires us to fast overcome this flaw…

So are many in the media actually lagging behind the science? As long ago as 2009, Bill Becker, then a blogger with Inside Climate News, explored what he then saw as an emerging trend in climate researchers’ studies: “Not long ago, most climate scientists stuck to the future tense when they talked about the impacts of global warming,” he wrote at the time. “Now, they are using the present tense — and using it more and more often.”

And it seems that American climate advocacy groups have also gradually switched from future to present tense in their press releases.

There remains at best only scant evidence that the pace of collective international governmental and political action is anywhere near catching up with that view of climate change and its global impacts. It will be interesting to see how the language in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report will influence the sense of urgency at the upcoming United Nations climate conference…and perhaps also influence approaches taken by media.

Contextualizing Time and Space Issues

Media outlets that can find both future and present perspectives in their reporting on climate change — and, under specific conditions, also find a global and local perspective — may do the most to improve public understanding on these issues.

It’s certainly true that what happens in one place, or at a certain point in time, does not necessarily mirror what happens in another time or place. Yet, the links between them are crucial, and understanding of those links is essential to a more informed citizenry.

Properly contextualizing climate change means both sides of the two dimensions — the spatial and the temporal — are presented in tandem. And with sufficient context. Whether the popular media are up to that challenge remains one of the big unknowns in forecasting how the global community will or will not come to address our collective climate challenges. And that in turn will be essential in influencing how the public and policy makers worldwide come to see, or perhaps ignore, their own roles and responsibilities.

Ido Liven is an independent journalist based in Israel, where he has covered mainly environmental and international affairs for more than seven years. His stories have been published in a range of international publications. Liven currently is working on The Climate News Mosaic, a collaborative journalism project.

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7 Responses to The Art of Providing Context of Time and Space in Climate Coverage

  1. Lewis Gannett says:

    Ido Liven discusses a received idea about climate reportage, that most of the public don’t have a tangible context within which to recognize climate threats. Is that assumption true? I’d suggest that it’s almost ludicrously false. Somebody should do an inventory: how many news stories about vanishing Arctic ice have appeared in recent years? About polar bears (a cause celebre in elementary school), glaciers, the Greenland & West Antarctic Ice Sheets, even relatively esoteric news about methane bombs, etc.? Not to mention Katrina and Sandy and most recently, 75,000 head of cattle dead from a “freak” blizzard in the American High Plains? The problem isn’t the news, its specificity, its inadequate graphing of climate flux on axes of time and space (an abstraction that perfectly illustrates the toothlessness of most climate journalism). The problem is that most people don’t want to deal with climate news even when it slaps them hard across the face. We must recognize that fact! Everything else is secondary, and from the point of view of excellence in journalism, second rate. What does this mean? To start, let’s embrace the kind of science journalism exemplified by an article published today (Oct. 9) in Nature. The public deserve to know that within two or three decades–before their infant children turn thirty–today’s temperate zone will be edging into the tropical, and today’s tropics will be veering into the near-uninhabitable. The public also deserve to know that the people who run the world economy are perfectly aware of those climate prospects, and therefore are guilty of the most serious imaginable crimes against humanity. They must be brought to justice; the fossil-fuel dictatorship must be overthrown; to the barricades, blah blah blah, what a big load of bother, except that the climate crisis happens to be the most significant existential challenge that humanity has ever faced. So, one might wonder, what if justice doesn’t prevail? Here’s a reassuring thought. If justice does not prevail, really fast, we will within a decade or three get our Robespierres, our guillotines. Is all this just another way of saying that the situation is hopeless? Probably. But let’s at least have the fortitude to go out kicking and screaming. Incidentally, I appreciate Yale Climate Forum’s efforts and I don’t wish gratuitously to malign Ido Liven. But really. You people are far too polite.

    • Nullius in Verba says:

      Why do people ignore all the news stories? Because they understand that weather is not climate. And they see that those loudest in demanding action are amongst the most profligate in emitting CO2.

      Be careful about wishing for Robespierres – Madame Guillotine can cut both ways.

  2. Lewis Gannett says:

    Who’s wishing for Robespierres? My point is that something of the sort probably is coming whether we wish for it or not. I’d suggest that the general public knows pretty well that significant climate change is underway, that it’s not just a turn in the weather, and that humans have a lot to do with it. This is, after all, the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists, as the most recent IPCC report reaffirmed. Do people worry that climate change might harm their lives in the near future? Some no doubt do, given the spectacular attention that the theme has received in popular entertainment. Are people who live in temperate latitudes prepared for an onslaught of furious climate refugees a few decades from now? Certainly not, although senior officials in the American military have stated for the record that climate change is their biggest national-security worry. But set aside all that. This is the important thing that people don’t yet know: whom to blame. It’s a serious problem, the blame issue, for the obvious reason that most people are addicted to fossil fuels. So let’s start with all of us blaming ourselves. But that really is just a start. In time it will become apparent to many that the guiltiest among us are senior business and government policy makers who have known quite well what’s up with the climate, but in the face of cosmic money simply didn’t address it. We are confronting a monumental leadership failure. “Monumental” doesn’t quite do it. Maybe “epochal,” in the sense of geological time, is better. We’re talking about a criminal class unparalleled in history. Is that too unpleasant a thing to say? Does it violate decorum? Shouldn’t we take into account mitigating factors, such as the just-taking-orders defense? Of course not! How do you mitigate responsibility for the collapse of organized industrial civilization? I have three additional points. The journalistic profession bears a significant responsibility for the muddle in public opinion, and must do better. Second, it probably goes without saying that climate-change “skeptics” have been almost unbelievably unhelpful. Finally, it’s not yet too late. Elites worldwide still have time to break the carbon ensorcellment. They know the numbers, they know what to do, there’s no excuse, they can and must act. If they don’t? It’s plausible that Mme. Defarge will, in due course, tend to her knitting.

    • Nullius in Verba says:

      *Some* of the public are convinced that significant climate change is underway. A lot of it is not, although they know what they are *expected* to say when people ask.

      However, the evidence for it, such as it is, says that it is only detectable yet at a continental scale measured over many decades. At any smaller scales the noise of ‘weather’ obscures it. The local and regional issues that you listed are ‘weather’ events, selected for their dramatic scare value, but for which the scientific connection to climate change is tenuous or non-existent. What I’m saying is that many more people have become aware of this, and repeating the list has therefore become counterproductive.

      The scientific consensus is that it won’t harm lives in the near future – adverse consequences are out beyond 2080 at the earliest, and the bulk of the costs are two or three centuries away. Warming is expected to be a net benefit until the rise exceeds 2 C, according to the economic models.

      There is no possibility of an onslaught of climate refugees a few decades from now. The main claims about refugees have been based on projections of sea level rises accelerating, and the assumption that alluvial plains and coral islands cannot rise fast enough to match it. However, again, such acceleration is not projected until much later, and the latest IPCC projections for the next few decades certainly don’t include it.

      However, the reasons for not taking immediate action are not about money, but survival. Poor people need cheap energy to escape from poverty – to extend life with better healthcare, to understand technology with better education, to care for the environment when their survival needs have been met. Richer people need it to avoid becoming poor again. In fifty years time, we may all be rich enough that we can afford to transition to more expensive forms of energy, but most of the world today cannot. These decisions have *massive* implications for the poor. If we get rid of cheap energy, it is not the rich executives who will suffer first, but the poorest of the poor.

      The government policy makers have explained the reason for their policy – it’s called the Byrd-Hagel resolution. I recommend that every advocate for action should go and read it. It explains that the policy makers accept the scientific consensus, recognize that action cannot be effective unless it applies to *all* nations, and resolve not to take any economy-destroying measures unless part of an *effective* international emission reduction plan. The reason no progress has occurred is that opposing negotiators insist that material emissions reductions only apply to the developed world, and not the developing world. Doing so would not have any significant effect on the climate, all it would do is to destroy prosperity in the developed world and move the problem elsewhere. It is not the doubters but the believers in the consensus who stand in the way.

      But if the public wishes to bypass governments and take action, they can. All that is required is for every person who believes that carbon emissions threaten the world to take an immediate pledge to use no more fossil fuel. You don’t buy gasoline, you don’t travel by plane or car, you don’t buy any goods manufactured or transported using fossil energy.

      This will do three things. It will reduce the use of fossil fuels by a very significant portion. (According to your figures, half the population believes.) It will create a vast demand for non-fossil energy and goods produced with it, the prices will skyrocket, and that will fund the development of the technology and infrastructure to meet the demand. Simultaneously, profits from fossil fuels will drop through the floor, stopping any further development. The energy executives will *leap* to comply, because it is in their financial interests to do so. And it will demonstrate to the doubters that you truly believe what you say, it will demonstrate that such a transition is possible, and it will reduce the costs of the eventual transition for everyone else.

      The best thing about this plan is that it requires no legislation. It requires no coercion, no negotiation, no compromise. The believers in free markets and individual liberty have no way to object to it. The energy companies benefit and will be on your side. and you don’t have to persuade any of the doubters – you can proceed without them. You already have the power to put it into effect, today if you like.

      The reason you don’t is the same reason the world doesn’t. The skeptics can truthfully claim that they believed they were doing the right thing – and so far as they knew, they were – but what about you? You who *knew* the numbers, who *knew* what to do, and yet who sinned anyway?

      If the world warms, your guilt for the catastrophe will be the greater. If the world does not warm, the guilt for the scare will be yours alone. How will history judge you?

  3. Lewis Gannett says:

    The giveaway in your argument, Mr. Publius, are the references to a need for “cheap” energy to help the poor and to keep the rich well off. In your view, the fossil-fuel economy is the viable economy, and an economy that moves away from fossil fuels is, by implication, an expensive, impractical, damaging economy. But in fact it’s arguable that fossil fuels are by any measure ruinously expensive, in terms of both climate change and environmental damage from extreme extraction technologies such as fracking and oil-sands development. Let’s get over the idea that fossil fuels are cheap. Also, let’s not belabor the notion that renewable energy sources are by definition expensive. Germany alone has proved that solar and wind are practical on a mass scale. Now, as to climate-change time frames. You must have read the recent article in *Nature*. Its authors draw a number of disturbing conclusions about the pace and effects of global warming. They note that populations in the tropics will suffer soonest and greatest, and have the least resources to cope. Fossil fuels are most decidedly not the friends of these generally impoverished peoples. And sea-level rise is not the only threat they face. For example, agriculture will suffer much more quickly in the tropics than in temperate latitudes. This isn’t a distant prospect. But sure, let’s try to be practical. I agree that we can’t renounce fossil fuels overnight. I’d suggest however that Bill McKibben, James Hansen and others are quite right to argue that we must cut carbon emissions as fast as possible. Basically, we have to mothball carbon-extraction industries, simply shutter them. How? I favor a rapid interim deployment of nuclear energy, as a bridge to renewables. Yes, that poses its own set of nightmares. But I suspect that we can better devise means to store nuclear waste than to trap greenhouse emissions. We don’t at this point have good options. A last comment on “the economy,” its vulnerability to tampering with the energy status quo. While I wouldn’t bet on the long-term prospects of owning stock in ExxonMobil, BP, and the other fossil giants, it’s more than possible that vast fortunes await investors in a new energy future. Let’s not fret about today’s rich. They are replaceable.

    • Nullius in Verba says:

      OK, so on the basis that you reckon the conversion will be inexpensive, practical, and non-damaging, does that mean you have made the pledge?

  4. Lewis Gannett says:

    First, an apology for getting wrong the nom de plume. But to the matter. Of course I take the pledge. If Germany can do it, the city of Boston, Massachusetts also can do it. Does this mean that as of tomorrow my electricity will come from rooftop panels? No. Will the transition be painless? I doubt it, but so what? Nullius, do you really believe that “scientific consensus” holds that climate change “won’t harm lives in the near future,” that the “bulk of the costs are two or three centuries away”? Where is that consensus?