As a journalist, I spend a good deal of time after every interview reviewing my notes, pulling out the important themes and the good quotes, and even writing down some ideas that may just make it into the final story. In a way, that’s what I’m doing here — in public. So if you have any thoughts about what’s important here, and what I ought to emphasize in my story, leave me a comment. In the end, I’ll follow my journalistic instincts in crafting the story, but I take seriously the possibilities for conversation that Web 2.0 opens up, which is why I’m doing this blog.
This past weekend, I spoke by phone with Andrew Revkin, who covers the global environment for the New York Times. Some of you may be familiar with his spectacularly successful blog, Dot Earth. I spoke with Andy about where coverage of global warming may be heading, especially considering these very troubling times in journalism.
Global warming, he says, was originally “pitched by Al Gore et al as being clear cut. We’re in a climate crisis and we need to fix it.” In other words, all we have to do is gain the political will, roll up our sleeves and get to work on a solution, just as we did with air pollution.
“This is a mantra that has been sold very widely,” Revkin says — not just by Gore, but he has typified it.“People have high expectations that it’s just another pollution problem,” Revkin says. But in reality, global warming is a complex and long-term issue “more akin to social security insolvency and the national debt than it is to pollution. The news media have not covered those long term risks well, “and society hasn’t dealt with them effectively either.”
For the news media, global warming would be easier to cover, and would receive more prominent play, if it were more like ordinary pollution, or a disaster like a tsunami or an earthquake. “I’ve been writing about different aspects of this subject long enough that I’m aware of its pitfalls,” Revkin says. “And everything I’ve just laid out — that it is an extremely complex problem that will be very difficult to solve — makes it a really hard story to get into the media and stick.”
With the crisis in journalism, things are not getting any easier. “This is the worst possible story to tell, and it is getting harder because our resources are decreasing at the same time the story complexity is increasing.” Revkin notes that marketing pressures are playing a role. Even at the New York Times, editors pay attention to the “most emailed list,” which leads to pressure to run “mac and cheese recipes, and stories on the latest anti-depressant drug. So we’ll write more about those things and less about things like climate change.”
In the last few years, society has reached something of a consensus that global warming is real, and that humans are largely to blame. While there are still some skeptics, for the most part the simple global warming ‘yes or no’ debate is over. But this raises problems too. “Presumably, the basis for action lies in an understanging of the risks. And understanding the risks comes from a clear view of the science, including what we don’t know about climate change.” In Revkin’s opinion, that clear view of the science is “terribly lost in the distillation that comes with saying that there is no more denying it.”
“There is complexity out there folks, and the things that are clear are only the basics: more CO2 means a warmer world.”
With the federal legislation that is likely coming on climate change, the story is likely to make it to the front page. But the legislation we are likely to see probably won’t “fix” global warming. The complexities and long-term nature of the problem aren’t amenable to a single legislative fix — especially one that could be watered down because of political realities. Through all of this, Revkin says we need to “keep the point of view of the atmosphere in mind. Victory is not passing a bill. Victory is what is changing that the atmosphere will notice in our children’s lifetime.”
Despite the challenges, if any news organization is likely to come close to getting the story right, Revkin believes it is still the New York Times. He points to its decision to form a new environmental unit, or pod, under the direction of a single editor and consisting of reporters (including Revkin) from the science, national, foreign and metro desks, along with the Washington bureau, as evidence of the Times’s commitment. In the words of Bill Keller, editor of the paper, the idea is to “push the story forward, to give it greater energy and focus.”
This is in stark contrast to the decision by CNN to cut its entire science, technology, and environment news staff, and rely heavily instead on what the network called its “Planet in Peril franchise” — a program that totaled just six hours in the past two years, according to Peter Dykstra, former head of the unit that was cut. “Six hours is what Lou Dobbs gets on CNN every week,” Dykstra points out. (My interview with Dykstra will be the next installment in this open notebook project. Stay tuned.)
“I’m lucky,” Revkin concludes.”We’re all lucky that there still is this thing called the New York Times.”
Even so, the Times is not immune from the storms roiling the news media. And in journalism generally, reporters are being laid off, news organizations are cutting back, and the space for stories generally is shrinking. This means that ”nuance often gets squeezed out,” Revkin says. And if the global warming story is anything, it is nuanced.
Sea level rise is a good case in point. Many scientists have been worried that melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica is lubricating the bottom of ice sheets. This, in turn, could cause their flow to the sea to accelerate. And as more ice from the land spilled into the sea, sea level would rise — perhaps much more than current projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Some outlet glaciers in Greenland did seem to be responding to warmer temperatures by speeding up. But new research in the journal Science this past summer cast doubt on that. Climate skeptics used that as a cue to assert, as Revkin put it in Dot Earth, that the “impacts of global warming have been hyped.”
But the new study by no means suggested that sea level rise from global warming was no longer a major risk. Much to the contrary. And the study pointed out that melting of ice in Greenland is clearly happening, and clearly is contributing to sea level rise.
This is why scientific nuance in stories is so important, Revkin argues. With it, readers would understand that climate change and the impacts it causes, such as changes in behavior of ice sheets and resulting effects on sea level, are complex and a matter of long-term risks, not necessarily of simple, absolute answers. And with an understanding of those complexities and risks, perhaps we might be able to make decisions based more on reality than supposition and over-simplification.
But don’t count on it, Revkin says. “This is not an uplifting story. It’s one we’re poised to get wrong, because of human nature. It’s not the kind of problem we deal well with.”