Roger Pielke, Jr is a Professor in the University of Colorado’s Environmental Studies Program and a Fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. He focuses on the nexus of science and technology in decision making. I was looking for Pielke to provide some advice to journalists who might be called on to cover climate change in the coming years:
Q: What should we, as journalists who cover the climate change story, be looking for in the next few years? How should we frame this issue so we can avoid getting stuck too long in boxes that keep us from looking at the story from a variety of productive angles?
A: The climate change story is now 100% political. Science plays a role in it, but there is no separating the science from the politics. Thus the most important questions will be about politics — US action, EU performance, Copenhagen, etc. Understanding the different perspectives on the politics will require some effort. It is not alarmists and deniers, but something far more complicated and nuanced.
Q: What pitfalls should we avoid in focusing more on policy?
A: Taking sides. Climate policy needs more options, not less. Don’t exclude voices because you disagree with their politics or justifications. Like it or not people wanting to go slow or not go at all are part of the political scene. Some even use justifications grounded in non-consensus views on the science. You are free to report that, but don’t ignore these voices. Similarly, there are a lot of diverse views on climate policy that are independent of views on the science. Seek them out, listen to them. For instance: Why are there critics of cap and trade?; Why do some people think the EU has failed?; Why might Obama’s team fail to meet expectations?
There is a view, held by many environmental journalists, that their “beat” is scientists and so often restrict their sources to scientists. To adequately cover the global warming issue will mean a lot more interaction with social scientists including economists and advocates of various stripes, and understanding these worlds as well.
Q: What have we not been covering with regard to climate change that we really should be paying more attention to?
A: Revkin [Andrew Revkin of the N.Y. Times] has done a nice job covering the complexities of science, which don’t always point in one political direction. For instance, it is true that global temperature increases have stalled in recent years (the IPCC says this stall is only temporary). The rate of sea level rise has slowed 2003-2008 as compared ro 1993-2003. 2006 and 2007 were the quietest years for Northern Hemisphere hurricane activity in 30 years. Do these facts change my views on the importance of decarbonization? No. Is it fair for people to ask “why?” has this happened? Sure. Policy can go forward even if the climate evolves in surprising ways. Journalists can help people better understand science, but sometimes this means taking a more critical stance. See, e.g.,
Reporters need to do a better job explaining (not defending) why science is complex and that not everything is known. Revkin’s views on the complexities of sea level rise are an example of this nuance, and yet, he has had to defend himself against attacks for not always pointing in one direction.
Nuance is OK. It is a reflection of the real world.
Reporters could help clarify understandings by asking climate scientists: “What behavior of the climate system over the next 5-10 years would cause you to question the IPCC consensus?” This would give people some metrics against which to evaluate future behavior as it evolves.
Similarly, you could ask partisans in the political debate “What science would cause you to change your political position on the issue?” This would allow people to judge how much dependence partisans put on science and what science would change their views. I would be surprised if many people would give a concrete answer to this!!
Q: How could we improve our coverage of the science?
A: Recognize that science is in a very political context. Forget the “balance as bias” (http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/publications/downloads/boykoff04-gec.pdf ) argument. Political coverage requires balance, even if the justifications on offer aren’t popular or are even wrong.
Q: What is going to be the single most important story to tell in connection with climate change in the next few years?
A: The utter failure of the global climate regime starting with the new efforts of the U.S. under Obama, (and why people who saw it coming were ignored).
Q: Have we put too much faith in the peer review system? And should we seek sources outside the usual scientific circles?
A: Peer review is simply a cursory check on the plausibility of a study. It is not a rigorous replication and it is certainly not a stamp of correctness of results. Many studies get far more rigorous peer review on blogs after publication than in journals. I use our own
blog for the purpose of getting good review before publication for some of my work now, because the review on blogs is often far better and more rigorous than from journals. This is not an indictment of peer review or journals, just an open-eyed recognition of the realities.
It is hard to say who is outside and who is inside scientific circles anymore. McIntyre now publishes regularly in the peer reviewed literature. [Pielke is speaking of Steve McIntyre, whom I would describe as a climate change gadfly; he publishes a blog called "Climate Audit"] Gavin Schmidt blogs and participates in political debates. [Schmidt is a NASA earth scientist who conducts climate research.] Lucia Liljegren works at Argonne National Lab as an expert in fluid dynamics and blogs quite well on climate predictions for fun. She is preparing a paper for publication based on her work, but she has never done climate work before. I am a political scientist who publishes in the Journal of Climate and Nature Geoscience and blogs. Who is to say who is ‘outside’ and who is ‘inside’? Is participation in IPCC the union card? How about having a PhD? Publishing in the literature? Testifying before Congress?
I don’t envy journalists because there are no fast and ready indications of who is expert on what subjects. Following rules of thumb too rigorously will likely lead to blind spots and missing out on important aspects of stories. Journalists have figured this out in
many areas (which is why they read blogs and social networking sites etc.), and I presume the best of them will figure this out for science-related stories as well.
This debate featuring Wigley and Holdren about who is inside and who is outside is enlightening along these lines:
[Editor's note: Tom Wigley is a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and John Holdren, who is an environmental policy expert at Harvard , was tapped to be President-elect Barack Obama's science advisor.]