Ambivalent coverage of climate change’s ‘new normal’

Considering the importance of the information, the mainstream press provided surprisingly limited analysis

On Tuesday, the American Meteorological Society released its annual “State of the Climate” report, a hefty, 258-page document chronicling changes in global warming data. Compiled by members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with 384 scientists from 52 countries, the report is used to set and influence domestic climate policy and distributes statistics that form the baseline for discussions of climate change.

This year’s report holds a wide roster of data—ranging from interesting to doomsday—and most major newspapers and wire serves at least ran something based on the report press release. But considering the importance, and acute detail, of the information contained in the release, the mainstream press provided a surprisingly limited amount of analysis.

Reuters filed a short summary, “Signs of new climate ‘normal’ apparent in hot 2012 report,” culling information entirely from NOAA’s press release, with one skeptical insertion framing the slowing surface temperature rise: “The decrease in temperatures has been noted by climate-change skeptics who question the impact of human activities.”

Likewise, MSNBC, the Los Angeles Times , and the Wall Street Journal pulled a quote from the press release, classifying 2012’s record-breaking temperatures as the “new normal.”

The Associated Press explained the slowed surface temperature phenomenon—why snow melt, sea level rise, and ocean temperature break records yearly, while surface temperature only sneaks into the top 10—more fully. While surface temperature “haven’t risen in the last 10 years,” the AP wrote, such statistics are “only a blip in time due to natural variability. When looking at more scientifically meaningful time frames of 30 years, 50 years and more than 100 years, temperatures are rising quite a bit.”

A number of outlets, such as Grist, used the report as a moment to underline “an unmistakable picture of a warming planet,” with a number of scary milestones:

Interestingly, in the last couple years, melting ice (the black line in the graph above) accounts for twice as much sea-level rise as does thermal expansion of warming water (red line). And the sea wasn’t just high, it was hot, too: Heat trapped in the top half-mile of the ocean remained near record highs. At the ocean surface, temperatures were among the 11 warmest on record, despite mostly flatlining since 2000 partly as a result of La NiƱa conditions that cool the sea.

Over at Discover, Tom Yulsman took a rare value-added dive into the actual report to highlight the meaning behind this year’s heavily increased sea level rise:

It turns out that in 2012, sea level rose to its highest value seen in the satellite record (which began in 1993). I think it’s newsworthy because sea level actually declined sharply in 2011 — a point that climate change skeptics didn’t hesitate to emphasize. In fact, at least one accused scientists of trying to hide the decline.

But the splattering of coverage didn’t make it through all news outlets. On Wednesday the factchecking site Media Matters America chastized The New York Times for failing to cover this year’s State of the Climate, attributing the omission to reduced environmental coverage in recent months. The Times has traditionally covered the state of the climate in its Green Blog, which was eliminated back in March. Last year, Andy Revkin wrote about the paper in his Dot Earth blog. (It’s worth noting that Revkin as well as Justin Gillis, the Times’s main reporter on climate change, are out of town this week.)

According to Media Matters, the omission calls to question the Times’s authority on the environment: “A failure to report on major developments like these calls into doubt the extent to which the paper can be trusted to maintain strong attention to environmental issues in the face of recent organizational changes.” A representative from the Times communication team dissagreed with the statement, writing, “I think it would be a stretch to assume that if we didn’t cover this one report from one organization that would be some indication of our cutting environmental coverage.”

But the Times wasn’t alone in backing off of State of the Climate coverage. Though National Geographic proclaimed in 2010 that the 2009 report proved that “Global warming is undeniable, the publication didn’t cover this year’s report.

Mother Jones , which has often covered NOAA thoroughly, especially since the start of its Climate Desk partnership, missed the report, [Update: Mother Jones did write about the report; read their analysis of sea level rise and baseline temperature here] as did Slate. Perhaps the ever intensifying statistics on climate change are becoming so regular that the “new normal” seems normal.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , ,