Climate change and the limits of journalism

Hurricane Sandy flooding New York’s East Village.

The most trenchant piece of media criticism you’re likely to see this week — this month? this year? — is an essay by journalist-turned-climate activist Wen Stephenson that appears on the cover of this week’s Phoenix.

Stephenson, an alumnus of the Boston Globe, the Atlantic and WBUR Radio, argues that though the media have in recent years finally moved beyond the false equivalence of balancing the scientific consensus with the views of a few fringe denialists, news coverage of climate change remains polite to the point of timidity. Stephenson writes:

Our most respected climate scientists … are increasingly clear and vocal about one thing: we’re rapidly running out of time to address climate change in any meaningful way and avoid the risk of global climate catastrophe, with the incalculable human suffering that it will bring, quite possibly in this century.

In the face of this situation — as much as it pains me to say this — you are failing. Your so-called “objectivity,” your bloodless impartiality, are nothing but a convenient excuse for what amounts to an inexcusable failure to tell the most urgent truth we’ve ever faced.

What’s needed, Stephenson says, is for the media to move beyond the political near-silence that has descended over the climate-change issue and instead focus relentlessly on the subject.

It’s a good, important piece, and you should read it. Nevertheless, I have some quibbles.

First, I think Stephenson, for all his experience, misapprehends the limits of journalism. It’s not like our best news organizations have ignored climate change. They’ve reported on it frequently, prominently and with great skill. But they’ve done it in an oxygen-deprived environment. That is, a story in the New York Times or on network television, no matter how it’s played, is not going to get the sort of traction Stephenson would like to see without the oxygen of an engaged political system.

That’s not to say Jim Lehrer, Candy Crowley or Bob Schieffer couldn’t have put President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney on the spot during the presidential debates. But that wouldn’t come close to the intensity generated by genuine political engagement, congressional hearings and the like. Climate change has slid off the public agenda. Journalism’s ability to force it back onto the agenda is not nonexistent, but it is limited.

Second, Stephenson’s argument does nothing to answer the sinking feeling I get whenever I read about climate change — that it’s already too late in many respects, that nothing we can do would offset the massive damage that is already occurring and that, essentially, we’re screwed. I’m not suggesting we be spared the truth. But that’s not the sort of message likely to lead to much more than sullen desperation.

Ironically, as I finish writing this, we are learning that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Obama precisely because the president takes climate change more seriously than his opponent. Citing Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg wrote:

Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.

So maybe facts on the ground — and in the sky, and the oceans — will accomplish what journalism has not: force all of us to take climate change seriously. Of course, we can’t pretend to know the relationship between Sandy and global warming. But it’s worth asking whether the storm was more severe than it would have been absent climate change; whether more storms like it are occurring; and whether Sandy caused more devastation than it otherwise would have because the seas are higher than they used to be.

Don’t misunderstand me. I completely agree with Stephenson and his observation that the mainstream media tend to seek consensus over difficult truth-telling. Maybe events like Sandy, and leaders like Michael Bloomberg, will start to change that consensus.

Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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14 thoughts on “Climate change and the limits of journalism

      1. Al Quint

        d’oh… I just realized it said “silence,” not science. This is what happens when the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. As Emily Litella said, “never mind!” But the reaction from the audience is still mind-boggling. Especially after their area getting hit as hard as it did.

  1. Jurgen Kedesdy

    Mainly in agreement with your quibbles, but here are some of my quibbles with yours. Agree with the limits of journalism argument, but remember when every politician HAD to have a position on “the environment”? And that was before there was any real climate change urgency. The most trivial aspects of the political process manage to get meme-ified, I really don’t see why we can’t go back to environmental/climate issues becoming an automatic question. Secondly, I hope you are not seriously suggesting that it is “too late” in the sense of doesn’t matter at all what course we take. There is a difference between bad and worse. Even after we lose all the polar bears, grow bougainvillea in Maine, and remember Manhattan as a fond memory, there will still be things worth saving. Finally, what this issue needs is a few serious, preferably articulate and attractive, go-to guys or gals that are automatically consulted on any climate-related issue, the way a Nate Silver, for example, is consulted on polling.

  2. L.K. Collins

    There is a significant degree of conceit needed to suggest that man is immune from the process of natural selection.

    There is also a great deal of faith required to blame Sandy and the effects of the storm on”climate change” or “global warming” or whatever politically expedient term you select to use this week.

    I am reminded that cattle introduce a staggering amount of methane into the atmosphere and yet we don’t hear of a “bovinemorphic” catastrophe on the horizon!

      1. L.K. Collins

        Not a chance. High on a hill, well above the flood plain, hatches battened, trysail and jigger set.

        It’s called being aware of what a storm can do.

  3. Deb Nam-Krane

    My issue with journalism re: global warming- excuse me, climate change- is that you are highly unlikely to read a story about it in a general news publication without getting somewhere in there, usually toward the end, “but not all scientists agree.” Somehow, because a handful of people with barely related PhDs disagree- and coincidentally are likely to be on the payroll of conservative think tanks- that means that every mainstream publication is obligated to act like there isn’t consensus among the vast majority of them. Because then they’d look like they were biased… towards the scientific method.

    Journalists can do only so much, but they should do that much.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Deb: I don’t know whether I agree with you — I’d have to look more closely. But my experience tracks that of Stephenson, who argues that at least we’ve gotten beyond that, and that it’s rare these days when we encounter a pro forma nod to the denialists.

      1. Deb Nam-Krane

        http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/17/science/earth/warming-arctic-permafrost-fuels-climate-change-worries.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0 Page 2. I’m not sure why this insight added to the story other than to prove that they knew it was there:

        “At the peak of the ice age, 20,000 years ago, the frozen ground was more extensive than today, stretching deep into parts of the lower 48 states that were not covered by ice sheets. Climate-change contrarians like to point to that history, contending that any melting of permafrost and ice sheets today is simply the tail end of the ice age.

        “Citing permafrost temperatures for northern Alaska — which, though rising rapidly, remain well below freezing — an organization called the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change claimed that permafrost is in ‘no more danger of being wiped out any time soon than it was in the days of our great-grandparents.'”

  4. Christian Avard

    Mark Hertsgaard, Enviro. Editor for The Nation, said 14 years ago we were headed to a point of no return if we didn’t deal with global warming immediately. He wrote about it in his timeless book “Earth Odyssey,” one of my all-time favs. Check it out.

  5. Marshall Spriggs

    I think that Stephenson’s point is that the media limit themselves (pull the wool over their own eyes) by not bringing up uncomfortable environmental truths to the powers that be (who would love to deny that anything bad can happen on their watch). Waiting for these people means a long, long wait and we’re about to run out of time. Journalists should not be the stenographers for the powerful. As for your second point, when did the media get into the business of just reporting the “happy news”?

  6. briancartwright

    Disappointed in you, Dan, to let your sinking feeling lead you to suggest there are no solutions. I think the kind of crisis-level journalism Wen Stephenson is prescribing would help to foster solutions of which I’ve seen many.
    What I’m dreading most is that Big Oil is in the best position to say, “we were wrong about AGW. To save the world we’re in the best position to solve the problem with new products, big engineering projects, etc, probably with lots of taxpayer help. Then we can lapse back into passivity, if we ever left it.

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