After Hurricane Katrina, An Inconvenient Truth, the 2007 reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other events pushed the climate change issue higher on the public agenda, it may have seemed that it wouldn’t soon slide back down.

That assumption was weakened earlier this year when soaring gasoline prices prompted election-year sloganeering keyed to public concerns – “drill here, drill now, pay less,” and “drill, baby, drill.”

The congressional defeat in June of the Lieberman-Warner climate bill was attributed in large part to worries about extra costs that its cap-and-trade program would impose for cutting greenhouse emissions, as high prices at the pump provided an uneasy backdrop.

Then came the early fall financial meltdown, stock market collapses, and bailouts, with predictions of a deep recession. Intensifying economic worries, combined with cascading 401(k) accounts, sharpened the financial focus of a presidential race in which both major candidates had endorsed the cap-and-trade concept.

With the election now past, economy-related questions loom large for the climate issue and for reporters covering it. Will the economic and financial crisis and its continuing after-effects eclipse concerns about climate change, at least for the foreseeable future, relegating climate change, at best, to the inside pages?

Less coverage? Different coverage? More attention to the intersection of climate, energy, economy, and politics? Fewer stories on the science of climate change, and more on policy-focused debates about strategies for dealing with it?

Time magazine’s Bryan Walsh wrote an article in October that was headlined, “Will the Environment Lose Out to the Economy?”

In it, he juxtaposed scientists’ and environmentalists’ warnings about severe consequences of global warming and mounting worries about the dire consequences of a global economic collapse: “What happens when another more alarming, more immediate catastrophe co-opts people’s fear?”

Capturing the uncertainty of the moment, Walsh continued: “With the tanking economy dominating the news, and the government willing to virtually bankrupt itself to bail out the financial sector, it could be hard to push the climate change agenda – and possibly hard to find any money left to support it.”

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The archive search function of Google News provides a general idea of how much more journalistic attention was commanded by the economy, compared to climate change, in recent weeks.

This list represents the numbers of articles that Google recorded, including duplicates, that included selected phrases during the period from September 30 through October 30:

  • “Financial crisis” – 290,754
  • “Stock market” – 124,913
  • “Economic crisis” – 96,364
  • “Gas prices” or “gasoline prices” – 45,674
  • “Climate change” – 44,243
  • “Global warming” – 24,752
  • “Climate crisis” – 1,076

Beyond the admittedly limited snapshot that such statistics provide, how have worsening economic conditions affected coverage of climate change, and how might they continue to affect that coverage?

“This is a fascinating question,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s respected Project for Excellence in Journalism, which performs data-rich content analyses of trends in media coverage.

“Since the economic crisis hit full throttle in mid-September, there hasn’t been enough coverage of climate change (or much of anything save for the economic crisis and the campaign), to draw reliable conclusions,” Rosenstiel told The Yale Forum by e-mail.

“It’s just a few weeks. The sample of stories is still too small. But it is an important and interesting question worth our following.”

‘Skewing’ Coverage: From Political ‘Shenanigans’ to Economy

Douglas Fischer has a good vantage point to watch trends in climate coverage as editor of The Daily Climate, published online by Environmental Health Sciences of Charlottesville, Va. The website compiles article summaries and links to “news about climate change from mainstream media sources around the world.”

Besides featuring its editors’ daily selections of the top stories from automated and manual searches of thousands of news outlets, all articles highlighted by The Daily Climate are listed, according to their focus, in four categories – climate-change solutions, consequences, causes, and politics.

Fischer said he has witnessed the economy becoming a bigger factor in different kinds of stories, regardless of the category.

The economic crisis hasn’t so much decreased the amount of coverage in any particular area, but rather “skewed it,” he told The Yale Forum.

“For instance,” he said, “political stories now proclaim that economic conditions will doom any chances of an accord on climate, whereas a month ago those stories blamed the predicted stalemate on political differences or other shenanigans.”

One recurring theme Fischer notices in recent coverage is discussion of the prospect that policies adding costs for carbon emissions may become harder to enact.

This angle has been showing up in reporting at all levels, from local to international, he said – stories about California businesses questioning that state’s climate initiatives, articles about the chances of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress and coverage of discord in Europe over its carbon-reduction policies.

There have also been some stories examining carbon-reducing strategies’ potential boost to the economy, but not as many as those focusing on added costs, he said.

In terms of The Daily Climate‘s four story categories, Fischer said he has recently seen “a preponderance of solutions and political stories, particularly the latter,” while stories on the consequences and causes of a changing climate “are often thin.”

Another trend he has noticed: “International media are generating the bulk of the climate solutions and consequences stories, while the U.S. media tends to focus on energy issues.”

In general, when compared to news organizations elsewhere, “the U.S. press has fallen off the climate story to a certain extent,” he said.

Getting Bumped Down the ‘News Budget’

Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, does not see a zero-sum situation in which an increase in economic news yields a decrease in climate coverage.

“I don’t think there’s any direct relationship, in terms of the news hole, between climate and the economy,” said Fagin, a former environmental reporter for Newsday.

“Any time there’s a big story, the environment in general and climate in particular move down the news budget,” he told The Yale Forum. “It doesn’t matter if it’s war or an act of terrorism or an economic crash, when that kind of immediate news occurs, other forms of news without as visceral an impact go to the bottom of the list.”

Fagin offered a mixed appraisal of the role and impact of specialized journalistic vehicles dedicated to examining the intersection of environmental and economic themes, such as the Wall Street Journal‘s Environmental Capital blog and New York TimesGreen Inc. blog.

Such efforts, he said, do provide “an opportunity for day-in, day-out coverage that doesn’t require a big news peg.”

But he added, “Those kinds of stories are not the kind that will be present on page one or on magazine covers or the evening news, because they’re more incremental than screaming news developments.”

While specialized enterprises such as the Journal and Times blogs increase the volume of climate news available to the public, “green economics” will never be “as big a part of the news agenda as politics or political coverage or the economic situation,” Fagin said.

Eric Pooley, a contributor to Time and currently the Kalb Fellow at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, believes that while “the science story hasn’t gone away,” much journalistic attention to climate change is merging with related coverage of energy and the economy.

Pooley formerly had been Time‘s chief political correspondent and national editor, editor of Time Europe and managing editor of Fortune. He is researching and writing about press coverage of climate change at the Shorenstein Center, particularly how journalists have handled the issue of cap-and-trade policies and their impact on the economy.

“The economic policy debate [regarding climate] is in its infancy,” he said in an interview, and should ideally be a journalistic beat of its own, blending science, economics and politics – perhaps with teams of reporters who have different specialties.

Nonetheless, Pooley sees few signs, amid the news industry’s cost-cutting measures, that such reporting resources will be extensively deployed.

“There are some good reporters on this beat and they’re working it hard, but I wish there were a lot more,” he said. “There’s a huge lack of understanding among the American public about the implications.”

Journalists who will be covering the debate over climate policy “ought to wait and see what the new President wants to do,” Pooley said. “What’s missing from this is presidential leadership. It’s such a powerful thing that could make a big difference on where this debate goes.”

Speaking before the election of Democratic Senator Barack Obama to be President, Pooley noted the leading candidates in the presidential race understood “the reality of climate change and the potential of clean energy,” ensuring that the issue would stay alive regardless of the outcome.

The Task Ahead: Making Complicated Stuff Interesting, Locally Relevant

A couple of key questions will be whether “the new President will spend the whole first year just putting out fires, dealing with the economic crisis,” and “to what extent can the climate issue becomes part of the economic conversation” in Washington, Pooley said.

One possible legislative response that addresses both climate and the economy, he said, is a “green recovery package with stimulus, investment in research and development, infrastructure and maybe some incentives for folks to retrofit their homes.”

Another, more ambitious approach would involve treating a cap-and-trade program “as the mother of all stimulus packages,” and involve an attempt “to pass a transformative climate bill, using revenues from cap and trade to finance a much larger investment portfolio, with incentives for working Americans to blunt the cost increases of cap and trade.”

(Pooley examined the use of a cap-and-trade system to stimulate the economy, along with President-Elect Obama’s campaign employment of a “Trojan horse – a climate policy hidden inside an energy-and-economic policy,” in an article for Slate.)

If climate, energy and economic initiatives are intertwined in the Obama administration, Pooley foresees plenty of challenging opportunities for journalists, both in covering the action in Washington and scrutinizing its implications at the local level.

“The task for journalism is to make this complicated policy stuff interesting and understandable to people,” he said. “It’s a big battle with a whole bunch of sides. I think it’s a story that’s full of conflict, and journalists could do a better job of tapping into that inherent conflict to tell these stories.”

He believes reporters should try to contrast the short-term costs of any climate-related policy initiatives with the long-term costs that experts have projected would result from failing to address climate change.

“Since the media now accept the conclusions of the IPCC,” he said, “then they should accept the implications of those conclusions – that we need to act and want to do so in the most cost-effective way. That’s why we need a skeptical press looking at these proposals.”

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