Media coverage of Seattle’s citywide effort to reduce the use of plastic bags became a story on the impact to low-income people.

A newspaper report of New York City’s climate adaptation plan to respond to a potential 12- to 23-inch sea level rise featured a photo of a submerged Statue of Liberty from the fictional disaster flick “The Day After Tomorrow.”

And, a story in Boulder about a proposed increase in the city’s carbon tax focused on federal opposition to the Kyoto protocol.

What all three had in common was an absence of comprehensive reporting on the main pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social components. In addition to the 5 W’s, what are the 2 E’s and the S comprising sustainability?

As more U.S. cities and counties create climate change action plans around elements of sustainability, the media can best provide context by reporting accurately on these initiatives and progress in achieving the environmental, economic, and social elements.

Report, Report, and Report … and Then Write

So, just what information on the sustainability of cities is currently available and where is it? And, how can reporters localize trends happening in other cities? The best resources may be a medley of reports from nonprofit and governmental agencies, charting-out a roadmap to information, sources, and story ideas.

Steve Nicholas, head of the environment and climate change arm of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, and former director of environment and sustainability for the city of Seattle, says journalists covering sustainability need first of all to do their homework.

Good comparison data of sustainability efforts simply do not exist yet, Nicholas said in a phone interview. “You often see comparisons of an index of 20 metrics, but one city may have different data sources, different sustainability needs, and different metrics than another one.” So, how can a reporter responsibly compare one locality or assess how their city is progressing?

A new, comprehensive evaluation system is being devised called the STAR Community Index. It’s a joint effort of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability*, the U.S. Green Building Council, and the Center for America Progress. The voluntary rating system is similar to the LEED green building program. Based on frameworks (pdf) developed by 120 experts across the country from diverse organizations and disciplines, the Index is being developed to help local governments prioritize sustainability policies and practices.

“When this is finished in 2010, we will have something that is closer to a credible, definitive national index,” Nicholas said.

Lynne Barker, program director of the STAR Community Index, sees the index becoming a continuous improvement tool for cities to demonstrate they are moving toward sustainability. For cities just beginning a plan, she said, media should be aware that just making the pledge can be meaningful on its own.

“It’s huge. It’s a big commitment for any local government to begin that process,” she said in a telephone interview. “Progress should also be recognized, as local governments will need to be held accountable for their commitments. Find out when they plan to report on progress.”

Whether a community has developed a sustainability plan or climate action plan, reporters will do well to look at the specific metrics the community measures. Do they have the same indicators the STAR Index uses? How is the plan organized? How will progress be measured?

Three Pillars of Sustainability

Regarding the reusable bag decision by Seattle’s mayor, Barker said some media zeroed-in on the economic piece but did not adequately report on the issue in context of environmental and social components of the city’s sustainability plan.

“Plastic bags are a huge part of the city’s waste stream, and their environmental effects are enormous,” Barker said. As more cities adopt sustainability and climate action plans, she said media coverage should include that trinity – economics, environment, and social – to portray a complete picture of where something fits into sustainability plans.

One source of background information is located on the research tab of the Chicago Climate Action website. Those serious about understanding the issue can easily spend a half hour or more reading reports on topics such as temperature impacts or an analysis of Chicago’s greenhouse gas emissions and baseline options. The latter includes detailed plans for how Chicago could reduce emissions and on costs and benefits, retrofits, cost of inaction, and more. The site also examines legal, financial, and technical barriers, and it lists examples in other cities. The full report is more than 200 pages, but it has a readable format that can be skimmed easily.

Julia Parzen is an independent consultant whose work created Chicago’s Climate Action plan. She said in a telephone interview that even if a city’s priorities differ from those of Chicago, the report helps put a local government initiative into context – economically, environmentally, and socially.

“For example, planting a million trees was a proposed climate change mitigation strategy for Chicago. Trees are great, but trees have a small emissions reduction. The report looks at all the different components of reducing emissions and details exactly the impact of each.”

Parzen advises that journalists carefully consider the varying needs of each community. One city might have sprawl and no public transportation. “Any kind of transit-oriented initiative will have a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions in that region.” she said. “But each area grapples with different concerns.”

Parzen is also the coordinator of a newly formed Urban Sustainability Director’s Network. So far, 32 city directors have signed-on to compare notes and collaborate on finding solutions to sustainability challenges. “If someone has a problem, chances are good someone else has also dealt with it,” said Parzen. The group’s website is to be launched this summer.

Examine Progress

New York City’s Panel on Climate Change in February released its report of predicted climate change impacts. According to Adam Freed, senior policy advisor on Climate Change Adaptation for New York, the report will inform the work of his agency. As local governments create their own adaptation plans, journalists could review the New York plan as a reference point.

New York’s sustainability plan, PLaNYC, is to release its annual progress report in April. “One mandate of Mayor Bloomberg is, measure it, measure it, measure it,” Freed said in a phone interview. “The progress report shows our city’s performance on 127 metrics. Our job is to hold ourselves accountable.” The progress report is detail-oriented, and can provide a framework to track other local government agencies across the country.

While city resources are good building blocks for a story, the wealth of information now freely available on the website of the Environmental Protection Agency will help track progress. Few sustainability topics escape the agency’s grasp, which is all the more reason to consult it. Who are the polluters in your area? What improvements have been made? What threats exist to a city’s drinking water supply? Which groups are watching over water supply dangers? What are the new regulations that have been issued? Why? Also, EPA’s 10 regional offices each maintain a newsroom providing background and updates on critical topics affecting that particular region.

Who is Taking New Action?

Two cities that have gone from almost no sustainability policy to swift action are Miami and Atlanta.

“These are sprawling cities with no history in this arena. Generally, that means it’s tougher to get started on a serious climate action plan,” said Nicholas. Climate sustainability plans are harder to adopt in more conservative regions, he added. “That is why it is interesting to also look at Austin (TX), Fayetteville (NC), and Des Moines (IA). Those tend to be coal-dependent cities, and global climate disruption tends not to be on the forefront of city discussion unlike liberal places such as the northeast.”

Another place to compare new action is the Cool Cities program. It started in 2005 when Nicholas was heading Seattle’s sustainability department. Back then, Mayor Greg Nickels pledged to advance the goals of Kyoto Protocol and reduce carbon emissions in the city. More than 700 mayors now have signed the agreement. However, Nicholas says the policy has its limits.

“Cool Cities is a pet peeve of mine,” said Nicholas. “It had a great beginning. They did a lot of great work. It really took off at a grass roots level, and local governments got a lot of pressure from the Sierra Club to adopt the measures. They [Sierra Club] have a high-level guidance document that says do these seven things. But, it isn’t good advice, in my opinion, because they are mostly about advocacy. There is no accountability. That’s why it’s so important to look at the STAR Community Index, to look at sustainability through an index of metrics.”

Finally, as communities push for carbon policies at the local level, the media should expect to carefully examine the kinds of sustainable community initiatives that are significant and measurable – and also distinguish which ones are merely political and show no real action.

As with so much else in responsibly covering sustainability and other climate- and energy-related issues, it comes down in the end to good reporting, careful sourcing, and verifying of story details. And it doesn’t hurt to throw in some old-fashioned shoe leather too.

*ICLEI is the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

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