National Reporters Share Perspectives on Climate Beat

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Three nationally recognized reporters talk about covering climate change amid some signs of ‘issue fatigue’ in a politically charged period.


WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 14 — Washington is the sort of town where small local events regularly feature national talents.

That was demonstrated again recently when three nationally recognized science/environmental journalists met in a small, wood-paneled conference room on the Georgetown University campus to discuss ongoing challenges of covering climate change. In conjunction with the university’s wider Environment Initiative, the event was convened by the Georgetown Climate Center and moderated by its director, Vicki Arroyo. The three journalists were Wendy Koch (USA Today), Richard Harris (NPR), and John Carey (freelance writer, Scientific American and Yale Environment 360).

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Wendy Koch — media must report climate solutions, not just problems.

Georgetown alum Koch spoke first — about the special series on climate change USA Today started running in March 2013, with the encouragement of the then-new editor-in-chief Dave Calloway. Topics covered so far include ocean acidification, extreme precipitation, heat waves, drought, and agriculture. Still to come are articles on changing patterns of disease, and sea-level rise. While traveling around the country to research these stories, Koch said she frequently noted peoples’ reluctance to talk about climate change — even in areas that are arguably already experiencing its effects. “I don’t know what you call it,” Koch recalled one Texan saying, “but we’ve got a water problem.”

To get through this reticence, Koch said, reporters must tell personal stories and not just about problems; reporters must also report on climate change solutions.

Some ‘Issue Fatigue’ Among Editors?

Richard Harris, science reporter for NPR since 1986, began his remarks by reflecting on something that didn’t happen. When the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report was released in 2007, Harris said, he had thought the public conversation about climate change would turn from “Is it happening?” to “What should we do?” It didn’t. Instead the science came under attack.

“There’s really two media systems in this country,” Harris said, one for the center-left and the other for the right. His reporting will never change minds on the right, “but there’s a big group in a middle that sloshes back and forth [on the issue].”

Although he senses what some might call “issue-fatigue” among editors (“Keep it short”), Harris insisted that “we have to keep talking about climate change.”

Often Ignored: Uncertainty Cuts Both Ways

John Carey, who, it was noted, is the husband of the moderator, Vicki Arroyo, recounted take-away points from a feature article he wrote about climate change for the November 2012 issue of Scientific American. There have indeed been natural cycles in the climate, Carey said, cycles caused by small changes in Earth’s orbit and tilt that changed the amount of energy reaching and warming the surface. But “we’re [now] pushing the climate 12 times harder than those cycles.”

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John Carey warns of ‘climate wolves,’ stresses uncertainty can both overstate and understate risks.

Carey said he understands scientists’ needs to be open about uncertainties in their data and models, but, he added, “uncertainty cuts both ways.” That’s a point the public often seems to ignore.

“Scientists are really concerned about type-one errors [overstating the risks], but they’re incredibly blasé about type-two errors [understating the risks],” Carey advised. “There are climate wolves out there.”

After their opening remarks, the audience of Georgetown University faculty and students and governmental and non-governmental attendees pressed for details on the research, writing, and editorial processes behind climate news stories.

Harris noted that climate change remains at the bottom of the public’s lists of national priorities, as measured each year by Pew Research Center. But news stories about climate change do generate attention, including “a lot of negative noise.”

Koch agreed: “They get a lot of attention, but not necessarily attention you want.”

Stories about adaptation to climate change appear somewhat less controversial. “Adaptation stories are easier to tell,” Harris said, “because you have characters, you have action.”

Media Mission: Maintain Audience, Not ‘Change the World’

But asked if reporters have a particular role to play in communicating climate change, Carey, Harris, and Koch all cautioned against blurring the line between journalism and advocacy. “News organizations are businesses,” said Harris, “our fundamental goal is not to change the world but to maintain our audience.”

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NPR’s Richard Harris: Media ‘fundamental goal’…maintain audience.

The session closed with a series of questions about politics. Harris said he doubts people do cost-benefit analyses on whether they should accept scientific explanations about climate change. Rather, he argued, citing work by Dan Kahan and the Culture Cognition Project at Yale Law School, people make choices based on what their social cohort thinks.

Which, Carey said, means that attitudes toward climate change are wrapped up in peoples’ core political identities. To change minds, “you have to pry apart that connection.”

“People get upset whenever I talk to a ‘skeptic,’” Harris responded, but they’re clearly part of the political equation in the U.S.

Asked if the political climate in the U.S. is now operating outside the bounds of normal variability, Koch quickly agreed: “Politics in this country is so broken.”

Carey, however, pointed out that fundamental political change occurs only in one of two ways: the public rises up and forces their representatives to act, or individual states move first and then businesses insist that the federal government enact uniform regulations to level the playing field. Speaking to a concerned audience in a small room in Georgetown, Carey thought national action on climate change is possible even in America’s polarized political atmosphere.

A Web video link for “Covering Climate Change” is to be posted on the Georgetown Climate Center website.

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@yaleclimateconnections.org)
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11 Responses to National Reporters Share Perspectives on Climate Beat

  1. Lewis Gannett says:

    Just in the last couple of days, a polling organization released findings that a surprising chunk of respondents in “red” states believe in the reality of climate change, and support efforts to counter it. That seems a bit at variance with findings mentioned above. I’m curious about something I’ve found to be true in elite media, and also among highly educated people I personally know. A paradox seems to be at work. On one hand, a not inconsiderable number of Americans know enough about the science of climate change that they endorse curtailment of greenhouse emissions. On the other hand, they’re not particularly worried about it. They don’t seem to feel a “gut” sense of urgency. I often read and hear variations of this sentiment: “Oh, climate change is a bad thing. Unless we do something about it.” The “unless” part–I’ll be frank about where I’m coming from–worries me. I don’t sense a whole lot of oomph behind it. In other words, knowledge about the probability of a serious climate crisis doesn’t seem to be provoking an emotional response among opinion leaders. Now, this isn’t the same thing as people knowing that climate change is real but choosing not to worry because it won’t hit until the distant future, the “end of the century” for example. That’s what’s truly interesting. What I see in media, hear from friends, indicates detailed awareness that hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, Arctic ice & glacial retreat, and so on, are clear and present dangers, not a fuzzy future threat. But somehow, the prospect of ongoing climate disaster doesn’t seem to be viscerally disturbing. Why is that? I think something odd is going on that public opinion experts haven’t to my knowledge addressed. How is it possible to have a widely acknowledged emergency that’s wholly lacking any sense of emergency? Most news narratives appear to be predicated on the idea that climate change isn’t a paramount issue for many average Americans because they don’t know much about it. How then do we explain the fact that catastrophic climate change has for some time been an extraordinarily lurid theme in popular entertainment? The question becomes more peculiar when you consider elite opinion. How much climate dismay do we find in publications such as *The New Yorker*, which unlike “straight” journalism outlets aren’t obliged to appear dispassionate? We all know the answer: There is no sense of dismay in elite journalism. Not even, I must point out, in *The New Yorker*’s cartoons, usually a barometer of Zeitgeist anxiety. Isn’t this situation a little odd?

    • Rich Wright says:

      What emergency? All of the major global temperature data sets show no global warming over the last 15 years or so. This pause has occurred during a period of unprecedented increases in human CO2 releases into the atmosphere.

      And the sea level along the west coast of the USA has actually declined over that same 15 year period, suggesting that the Pacific Ocean has cooled since the 1990s.

      The logical conclusion is that the “sensitivity” of the climate to increases in CO2 is very small, which undercuts the “global warming” hypothesis, which states that CO2 is the primary influence on global temperature, and that the sensitivity of the climate to CO2 increases is dangerously high.

  2. Lewis Gannett says:

    I’ll try to ask the question more clearly. Many of us know that human contributions to climate change, unless mitigated very soon on a broad scale, will degrade civilization within the lifetimes of people now living. The possibility does not receive much attention in mainstream journalism. Why?

  3. Joe Witte says:

    Adult learning theory points to the fact that adults will learn when there is a problem relevant to their lives, AND has some solutions they can directly address.

    • Lewis Gannett says:

      I don’t understand the role that “adult learning” might play in addressing climate change. Are we talking about teaching people how to recycle, how to make ecologically sound decisions when shopping for a car? I consulted the George Mason site to which Joe Witte’s name links. The site reflects a philosophy of education based on “behavioral change research” that will assist “conservation practitioners” in their “programmatic design.” The idea seems to be that we can address the climate crisis via behavior-modification techniques. Thanks to advances in social-psychological research, which sounds like it might have originated in Mad. Ave. advertising labs, we will teach people to curb their consumerism. Really? With respect, I must reiterate a couple of points I made above. First, many if not most people already know that climate change “is a problem relevant to their lives.” Second, they also already know about “some solutions they can directly address,” namely recycling, etc. But it hasn’t done any good. If this isn’t obvious, I don’t know what is. The paradox remains: many of us know that civilization is rapidly approaching a kind of expiration date, many of us know perfectly well the reasons for it, and most of us nonetheless pretend that it isn’t really happening. Why? Here’s a holiday reading suggestion: *On the Beach* by Nevil Shute. A novel, it was published in the 1950s. I cannot think of a work of literature more pertinent to our times.

      • Lewis Gannett says:

        P.S. I should note a crucial difference between Shutes’ fictional world and our real one. In *On the Beach*, people couldn’t do anything about an approaching doom. In our world, we can.

        • Rich Wright says:

          In the last 50 years, the life spans of men and women in developed nations has increased significantly. And the quality of life has improved,as modern drugs have suppressed blood pressure levels in the elderly. Numerous deadly diseases of our ancestors are no longer a threat to us. Thanks to improvements in modern communications, deaths from severe weather events have declined significantly. Also, food production has increased faster than populations have increased. And the cost of communicating by phone, or of purchasing computer power, has steadily declined. So what is this “doom” that you see approaching? When has life for the average man been better than today?

          • Lewis Gannett says:

            The doom that I and many others see approaching probably is most clearly characterized as a global temperature rise beyond 2 degrees C higher than the preindustrial average of ca. 1800. Much beyond that, we are toast. We’re already almost one degree warmer than the 1800 average. At current rates of carbon emission we’ll hit the two-degree mark within a few decades. Nothing on the international policy horizon suggests that emission rates will slow. It is of course true that for the average person, life is better now than before. The question is: how long will that happy reality endure without swift and comprehensive efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels?

  4. Lewis Gannett says:

    Until today (Dec. 9) I somehow didn’t see Rich Wright’s comment of Nov. 26. How that happened is puzzling; the date of the post is out of chronological sequence; maybe it was inserted after subsequent posts. If so, that’s pretty odd. The content of Wright’s post is odder. He asks, “What emergency?,” questions the reality of climate change with a reference to a “pause” in warming over the last 15 years, and questions the role of CO2 in warming. This isn’t serious commentary. It’s anti-science that undermines the mission of this forum. Why is Yale risking its institutional prestige? If the editors of *The Los Angeles Times* have the integrity not to publish letters to its opinion page from goofball climate-change denialists, then sages of New Haven surely can do the same.

    • Bud Ward says:

      Thanks for your comment, Lewis. We indeed do reject many postings from what you might consider to be “goofball” commenters, as, no doubt, many blog managers must do given the frequency of such submissions. But just as responsible editors must weigh their own responsibilities to support open dialog, so must we as a university-related entity do so…and with perhaps the additional responsibility of academic freedom. Would we preemptively ban such comments from being voiced on campus? The Yale Forum Editor in the case of the L.A. Times letters policy supports NOT publishing actual falsehoods without, at a minimum, calling them such. That sounds like a responsible policy for letters to the editor no less than for other parts of a newspaper, and it logically should apply not only to climate change but to a whole rash of other issues too. It’s probably best to make such “no-go” decisions on a case by case basis rather than in-advance of submission and review. Thanks again for commenting.

      • Lewis Gannett says:

        Thank you, Bud. The point about academic freedom is well taken. What a fascinating forum this is. Top scientists and journalists, the eeriest subject matter out there, and some rather extreme points of view. I have an observation about the two commenters with whom I’ve disagreed here. They are impeccable prose stylists. The term “goofball,” whatever its other demerits, certainly does not apply to their language, which truly is flawless. Why mention this? I’m a professional writer, I admire good work. And so, I’m curious. Nullius in Verba, Rich Wright: what are your backgrounds? How did you come to take an interest in climate studies? Allow me to go first in making that disclosure. I went to Harvard, did graduate work in political science at MIT, dropped out to pursue writing fiction, published a black-comedy novel about doomsday via climate change, and, the better to understand my subject matter, spent a lot of time reading science and talking with scientists. That’s my background, in brief. What’s yours?

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