Log in | Jump |


News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism
You can follow comments through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and trackbacks are closed.


An image of the whole Earth with the seafloor laid bare. The land surface imagery is based on data from NASA’s MODIS instrument aboard the Terra spacecraft. (Image: NASA Earth Observatory)


Below are the postings in what I’m calling the “open notebook project” — an effort to share my reporting process for a story I’m writing for Nieman Reports. For more than 60 years, this publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard “has explored what it means to be a journalist, examined major shifts in the industry, and shared with its worldwide audience articles about the rights and responsibilities of news organizations.”

My article examines the future of the global warming story — arguably the most important and complex story that journalists have ever had to tell. To complete it, I’ve interviewed both journalists and scientists to get a sense of where the science is heading, and how the story might be covered in this distressing era of disappearing newspapers, massive layoffs of journalists, and the dumbing down and trivializing of content that’s a particular problem in broadcast news.

I write this at a time when the world is finally beginning to confront major global environmental problems such as climate change, depletion of water resources, and collapsing fisheries. We are the first species ever to gain the ability to dominate every planetary life support system. But we still have difficulty believing this, and so we wield this power blindly. It is the job of science and environmental journalists to tell this story, so we can begin to act more wisely. Unfortunately, the crisis in journalism is making that job harder and harder. And even news outlets that are in reasonably good shape are not living up to their responsibility to inform. As I prepared to write my story, CNN axed its science and environment unit along with all of its reporters and producers, and I’m afraid the mindset that led to this dreadful decision is common throughout the broadcast news industry. 

The posts that follow are based on the interviews I’ve conducted to write the story for Nieman Reports. In a sense, they are rough stories in and of themselves. In a sense, I’ve made public my journalistic process — the review of my notes, the culling of good quotes, the summarizing of information, and the analysis of the information I’ve gathered. My hope is that pulling it together in these posts will make writing the story easier, and also that it will engender some conversation. After all, that is what Web 2.0 — and what I think we should call Journalism 2.0 — is all about: not just reporting and hoping that our readers will decide, but engaging them in discourse. 

So if you are so inclined, please leave a comment. Let’s get a conversation going. 

Coming to a political beat near you: policy wars over global warming

Last modified on 2009-04-05 20:36:39 GMT. 1 comment. Top.

As intense partisan politics begin to infuse the climate change story, what do journalists and journalism students need to know?

nieman-reports-coming-to-a-political-beat-near-you_-policy-wars-over-global-warming1Note: This piece appears in the Spring 2009 of Nieman Reports, a publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. It is the culmination of my “Open Notebook Project.”


By Tom Yulsman

As humans, we are finally recognizing that the promise made in Genesis has come to pass: We’ve achieved dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth—and even more important, each of the planetary life support systems that sustain us, including the climate.

“We’re big. We’re really big,” says James White, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “So far, humans have changed carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by an amount equal to what nature was capable of doing over at least the last million years.” Those natural fluctuations were accompanied by climate changes as momentous as the coming and going of ice ages. So we should not be surprised by what our emissions of greenhouse gases will likely bring.

“Big climate change is a done deal,” White says.

Blind dominion of nature is risky business, and the extent to which the public now gets this can be attributed in large measure to the work of journalists. So the recent publication of “Communicating Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators,” by longtime environmental journalist Bud Ward, comes at an especially appropriate time. Ward has done a masterful job of synthesizing the outcome of a series of workshops involving scientists and journalists between 2003 and 2007, offering valuable advice both to working journalists and student journalists, who are preparing to cover the topic in very uncertain times.

Continue reading the story at the Nieman Reports Web site . . . 

And go here to read the complete Open Notebook Project” . . .


The open notebook project: the future of the global warming story

Last modified on 2009-02-08 20:19:18 GMT. 3 comments. Top.



James White in his lab at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (photo by Tom Yulsman)


Editor’s note:

This posting is the first in what I plan to be a series that will be looking at climate change. With the election of Barack Obama as president, and the strengthening of the Democrats’ hand in Congress, long-forestalled climate legislation is a likelihood. So after two or three decades when the evidence of humankind’s meddling with the climate system has been accumulating steadily, significant, concerted action on global warming may finally be possible. So it is a good time to take a look at where the global warming story is heading. That will be the focus of this series. 

I’ve been commission to write a story about this (for a publication that prefers not to be mentioned here until the story appears there first in total). So what I have in mind for CEJournal is an ”open notebook” project in which I will share some of my reporting as I go along. I hope to include both text summaries of my interviews and background reporting, along with podcasts, pictures and, if possible, video. 

This first installment is based on my first interview for the story. Yesterday (1/3/08) I spoke with James White, the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. White is a paleoclimatologist, which means he studies ancient climates using data from ice cores and other sources to glean clues about how the climate system works — and how it may continue to respond to the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases that we are pouring into the atmosphere. Toward the end of this posting, I also include some comments from Andrew Revkin, who covers climate change for the New York Times. More details from that interview will come in subsequent posts.


Click here for an audio podcast of a portion of my interview with James White.

Since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 to help get a grip on global warming, the world has gone on a fossil-fuel-burning binge. This raises serious questions about whether we’ll be able to deal with the problem before it is too late for coastal cities such as Miami, which risk being flooded by rising seas on a warming planet.

“Twenty percent of all fossil fuels ever burned have been burned since Kyoto first passed,” says James White, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado.

The protocol was supposed to commit 37 major industrialized nations and the European community to reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases by an average of five percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012. And some countries have done better than others. For example, Germany reduced its emissions by more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2005 (the last year for which I was able to find data). The United Kingdom didn’t do nearly as well, but it still managed to reduce emissions by almost 4 percent. 

The United States never ratified Kyoto. (See the ratification list here.) So perhaps it is not surprising that our emissions grew by almost 16 percent between 1990 to 2005. But our growth has been swamped by that in some fast-developing countries. During the same period, for example, India’s emissions grew by 106 percent, and China’s by a whopping 131 percent

So, despite progress by European countries, carbon dioxide emissions globally haven’t come even close to leveling off. Instead, they have shot up by nearly 30 percent since 1990.

Kyoto was never intended as the solution to global warming. It was supposed to be a first step in the right direction. Says White, “many of us, myself included, thought that Kyoto was one of those necessary baby steps that you take on the way to actually dealing with the problem.”

It obviously hasn’t turned out that way. That’s because the pace of change driven by our need for energy has been “so fast and so enormous,” White says.  So it is long past time for scientists to begin to engage in the policy debate over climate change, he argues. “We have to be scientists as well as thinking about policy at the same time.”

White believes the election of Barack Obama offers some opportunities, but the new president and Congress must act very quickly. “If I had five minutes with Barack Obama, I would say, look, you know, the real key problem here is that you can’t wait four years and expect to have results . . . Time is not a luxury we have.”

We have known about the risks we face from pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for decades. So we’ve lost a lot of time. And transforming our fossil-fuel-based economy to one based on renewable energy will be an enormous undertaking, one that will require 50 or more years. 

“We’ve been giving policy makers the sense that there is time to deal with this, and that if we reach 450 ppm, dangerous climate changes would not necessarily occur,” White says, speaking of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in parts per million. “We’re revising that right now.”

James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and other scientists have been arguing that dangerous climate changes could occur at levels well below 450 ppm, and that we have to drop back down below current levels to be safe.

“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm,” Hansen and his colleagues have written in a scientific paper.

The fate of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are among the things that keep scientists like Hansen and White up at night. IPCC predictions of sea level rise from melting ice do not take into account somewhat disturbing new research about ice sheet dynamics. (For more, go here, and here.)

The stakes are huge. “It’s Greenland and West Antartica that really are going to dictate whether or not Miami is around in 2100 or 2150,”White says. “And it’s Greeland and Antarctica that are going to dictate whether we can turn this ship around. This is a very large oil tanker out in the ocean, and it takes a lot for these things to stop — and to reverse direction takes even longer.”

Scientists now know that melting in Greenland and Antarctica is lubricating the base of ice sheets, in many areas hastening the flow of ice into the sea. This contributes to sea level rise. How much can we expect? White says we just don’t know for sure.

This argues for adopting the precautionary principle and reducing our emissions so we will do no more harm. But White isn’t even sure whether that would work: “Once you’ve lubricated the base of these ice sheets, as we know is happening now, can you unlubricate them? Can you refreeze them? Are these things just going to naturally do what they do under a warming scenario, and there’s not much we can do about it?” White even wonders whether a colder climate will be able to stop them.

He says finding answers to these and similar questions is going to be a big focus of global warming research in the coming years.

All of this points to just how complex the climate story is. How well will that complexity be covered in the news media as the United States finally begins to move on climate change legislation? Perhaps not so well, according to Andrew Revkin, who covers climate change at the New York Times and blogs about the subject at DotEarth.

“It will be interesting to see how coverage evolves,” he says. “It will be a lot harder from here on in. For the most part, the media ‘got’ the basic story. But to my mind they have oversimplified it, and that can come back to bite both the media and the public in the butt.”

For more on that subject, come back in the next few days when I post the next installment in this open notebook project.


Open notebook: My interview with Andrew Revkin

Last modified on 2009-01-06 16:17:06 GMT. 2 comments. Top.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in my open notebook project. As I mentioned in my first post, I’ve been commissioned to write about the future of the climate change story. As I do my reporting, I will post updates about my interviews, and whenever possible, some multimedia content.             

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.”


Open notebook: interview with Peter Dykstra, formerly of CNN

Last modified on 2009-01-06 16:20:54 GMT. 4 comments. Top.

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in my open notebook project. As I mentioned in my first post, I’ve been commissioned to write about the future of the climate change story. As I do my reporting, I will post updates about my interviews, and whenever possible, some multimedia content.  The idea is to share my reporting process as I go along. 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 final story, but I take seriously the possibilities for conversation that Web 2.0 opens up, which is why I’m doing this blog.                                 

 Yesterday, I posted a summary of my interview with Andrew Revkin of the New York Times. Today, I add to the open notebook project with this posting about my interview on Monday with Peter Dykstra, former head of CNN’s science and environment unit, which was canned last month. Dykstra had a bit of a soft landing: He is currently serving a brief fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. After that, he does not know.  


For awhile, CNN distinguished itself by dedicating an on-air correspondent, Miles O’Brien, to the technology and environment beat, and six producers, all of whom formed the network’s science, technology and environment unit. But in December, CNN axed the entire operation, laying everyone off, including O’Brien, and the chief of the unit, Peter Dykstra.

 CNN claims that it is going to integrate these subjects into the network’s coverage, rather than having a standalone unit. But we probably shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for that to happen.

 Particularly when it comes to the environment, “rightly or wrongly, they don’t feel that it is a way to draw more audience to CNN,” Dykstra says of the network’s management. “Let’s just say that that was not foremost in their decision-making.”


 But aren’t climate change, energy technology, and the other issues the unit covered more newsworthy than ever? And isn’t covering the news the core mission of a network with the word “news” in its title?

 Well, not entirely. “It has to sell well commercially, and environmental stories have had a mixed history in that regard,” Dykstra says. “It also has to bring in the metrics. And increasingly, broadcasters are relying on the metrics they see on their Web sites.”

 Broadcasters once relied on Nielsen ratings to tell them what viewers were watching. Although they knew that these ratings were quite limited in value, there was no other way to judge what was popular and what was not. “Nielsen ratings have never been fully trusted, even though they are the basis for the business model,” Dykstra says.

 The ratings, he points out, are expensive and usually 24 to 48 hours old. Even the best defined Nielsen numbers “tell you next to nothing about whether an individual story is popular.”

 Web clicks, by contrast, provide instantaneous feedback on how many people did or did not come to a story. And this information is free. So Web clicks are “increasingly influencing what’s on television,” Dykstra says. Even though stories on the Web are by definition different from what’s broadcast on television, Web clicks are simply “a more reliable measure of any audience interest than television has had at its disposal.”

 The result of relying on this new measure of audience interests? Peter directed me to look at the line-up of story links on CNN’s home page, just to the right of the main story. Among links to stories on politics, the war in Gaza, and other serious topics, there were these headlines: “Old ladies bowl better than Obama?” and “Twin boys born in different years.” (That latter one in particular sounded like it would feel right at home at the National Enquirer.)

 And then there was this gem  ”Simmons kisses anchor’s foot.” When I clicked it, up came a two minute and 14 second video — an eternity in broadcast — of Richard Simmons kissing (actually “devouring” is more like it) CNN’s Kiran Chetry’s foot. Not content to show the “kiss” once, the video shows it over and over and over. (We also learn that Kiran was wearing white shorts underneath her skirt. One wonders why…)

 Meanwhile, there was significant environmental news that could have been aired in the past week or so. For example, the Washington Post reported this a few days ago: “The Bush administration appears poised to push through a change in U.S. Forest Service agreements that would make it far easier for mountain forests to be converted to housing subdivisions.”

 In global warming news, the National Snow and Ice Data Center has reported that very rapid growth in Arctic Ocean sea ice experienced in the fall — which was hyped by global warming skeptics — has slowed, and that unusually warm temperatures now prevail. (See this graph  for more detail. It shows that sea ice extent is significantly below the 1979-2000 average.)

 To be fair, CNN’s Web site offers a long list of environmental pieces, but almost all are exclusively Web stories and were not broadcast on the cable channel itself.

 So by telling editors what sells the best, Web clicks are helping to drive the coverage at CNN, both on the air and on the Web site.  “What you routinely see is a mix of serious and absurd stories,” Dykstra says. What we are unlikely to see is sustained, serious coverage of the complexities of climate change.

Dykstra does offer this one bit of praise for CNN: “The people who do Planet in Peril are very capable, and it is very well done. But it is an occasional marquee feature that is driven by sponsorships, rather than sustained, day-to-day coverage.” The program totaled just six hours in two years. “Six hours is what Lou Dobbs gets in a week on CNN.”

 As was the case with Iraq and the economic crash, the news media have failed to anticipate and cover the full import of global warming. So Dykstra predicts the country is in for a rude awakening when the impacts become more evident.   “We’ve had 20 years of reporting on climate change,” Dykstra says, “but it is very clear, at least in this country, that it has not been enough to have been taken seriously.”

Toward the end of the interview, Dykstra turned a bit philosophical, directing me to the following quote from Thomas Jefferson on how the third President of the United States envisioned the role of the news media — then limited to newspapers — in our society:

 ”. . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

I wonder what Jefferson would say now.


Open notebook: Tips for reporters on the coming climate wars

Last modified on 2009-01-16 17:06:57 GMT. 1 comment. Top.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment in my open notebook project. (The previous posting was a Q&A with Roger Pielke, Jr.) As I mentioned in my first post, I’ve been commissioned to write about the future of the climate change story. As I do my reporting, I will post updates about my interviews, and whenever possible, some multimedia content.  The idea is to share my reporting process as I go along. If you have any thoughts about what’s important here, and what I ought to emphasize in my story, please leave me a comment. 


5s-teri1bWith a new president and Congress, the climate change story increasingly will be about policy and politics. Is cap and trade the best way to go? Would a carbon tax be better? What other options should be considered, and what are the costs and benefits? 

The fiery debates over these questions that may begin in just weeks will be driven by an objective first spelled out in the United Nations Framework on Climate Change: preventing “dangerous interference” with the climate system. But as Stanford climate scientist Stephen Schneider points out, it’s difficult to say for sure where the thresholds of danger lie. And what’s dangerous to some may be entirely benign to others. 

So rather than seek absolute answers to questions that often will have no such answers, journalists covering climate change should seek scientific assessments of the risks associated with various options (such as allowing concentrations of greenhouse gases to accumulate in the atmosphere to greater or lesser degrees). Moreover, the coming battles that will be waged over scientific assessments of those risks will be informed just as much by values as by scientific data. Some participants in the policy debate will value short-term economic growth and profits very highly and may therefore perceive the risks of climate change far differently than those who place greater value on what they see as long-term sustainability of the economy. 

And here’s my own editorial comment: Sorting all of this out as a journalist could prove to be much more difficult that covering the technical details of the science.

These were among the issues I discussed with Schneider in a recent interview for an article on climate change I am working on. Schneider holds several positions at Stanford, including the title of Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies. The interdisciplinary part of that title is appropriate, because he is just as comfortable talking about policy as climate science. And the approach he urges them to take in grappling with climate change is risk management

The risk to be avoided — dangerous interference with the climate, — was spelled out in the framework convention, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate on October 7, 1992, and by 192 countries overall:

. . . stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.


But what constitutes “dangerous” interference? The convention didn’t specify. So that question went to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Schneider was a co-lead-author on the chapter in the most recent IPCC assessment devoted to addressing that question. “Right off the bat we had to distinguish between risks, which involves scientific judgment, and how to manage those risks, which involves values,” Schneider said.

Here’s another way to think about this: “Given the risks we’ve identified, how many chances do you want to take with planetary life support systems, versus how many chances do you want to take with the economy?” Science informs that decision, but how the answer comes out depends on our values.

“What to do about the risks?,” Schneider asks. “That’s a value judgment, and that’s the government’s job, the corporations job, an individual’s job.”

A coal company will bring different values to answering how many chances we should take with our life support systems versus the economy. “But if you’re an Inuit, you’ve already crossed the threshold of dangerous change because your hunting culture is going extinct.” Other people have already crossed the threshold as well, he said — including Californians, who have been experiencing a significant increase in the frequency of wildfires, which bring myriad serious impacts, not the least of which are impacts to health.

“So you could argue that we’re already approaching the threshold of dangerous climate change,” Scheider said. “But only for certain groups. When do you harm enough people to justify spending trillions of dollars on fixing the problem?”

Schneider and his colleagues tackled the issue of risk management in their chapter in the IPCC report. Among its conclusions were that a temperature rise above 2 degrees C over 1990-2000 levels (we’re currently at 0.74 degrees C), “would exacerbate current key impacts,” such as more human deaths, melting of glaciers, and increases in the frequency or intensity of extreme events. A high confidence level was assigned to these predictions.

If temperatures rise to between 2 and 4 degrees C, the result would be “an increasing number of key impacts at all scales (high confidence), such as widespread loss of biodiversity, decreasing global agricultural productivity and commitment to widespread deglaciation of Greenland (high confidence) and West Antarctic (medium confidence) ice sheets.

If global mean temperature should rise more than 4 degrees C, major changes would happen in areas of key vulnerability — changes that would, in fact, “exceed the adaptive capacity of many systems (very high confidence).” In other words, we’d really be in trouble. But again, which of these degrees of interference would qualify as “dangerous”?

Answering that question will not be easy, because different people will have very different answers. “Now we’re entering into the political wars,” Schneider noted.

The European Union has concluded that a rise of 2 degrees C is dangerous. “We’re already at an increase of .75 degrees C, so we have only 1.25 to go,” Schneider said. “And it’s very likely that we will exceed what EU is calling dangerous.”

In fact, it is possible that we are already committed irreversibly to significant sea level rise. “But maybe not.” The uncertainties in the science are large. “We know that thresholds like this exist, but we don’t know exactly know where they are,” Schneider said. That is a major focus of ongoing scientific work.

“So we got a real conundrum here.” The countries that have so far been responsible for most of the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are colder and richer and have substantial abilities to cope with climate change. Meanwhile, the countries that have been least responsible, at least so far, are generally warmer and poorer and “actually have the most to lose,” Schneider said. This has been a major sticking point in climate change negotiations, of course, with countries like China and India saying they should be allowed to develop unfettered while the developed world does most of the heavy lifting. But China has passed the United States as the biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Without any curbs on emissions from these rapidly developing nations, we could be in for some very serious trouble. 

“We’ve gotta have a compromise here,” Schneider said. “That’s what is going to play out in Copenhagen,” where the next major international climate change conference — the Conference of the Parties — will take place next fall. 

For scientists, the focus in coming years will be on identifying the thresholds of danger as quickly as possible, so politicians can decide what risks are acceptable. Schneider said that won’t be solved any time soon, “but we will be working our butts off on it.”


Q&A with Roger Pielke, Jr. on the climate change story

Last modified on 2009-01-09 00:31:58 GMT. 60 comments. Top.

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.]

This item was posted by .

You can follow comments through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and trackbacks are closed.

One Trackback

  1. Posted April 5, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    [...] A journalistic experiment: The Open Notebook Project [...]

Comments are currently closed