Catastrophe in Context

Coverage of Copenhagen climate summit offers a teaching moment

Climate scientists gathered for a major summit in Copenhagen a bit more than a week ago, but you might not have heard about it—or if you did, it might not have made much of an impression. It got little coverage in the U.S.—and the coverage it did get largely failed to put the severity of the situation in context. As Oliver Morton, chief news and features editor for the journal Nature, wrote in a blog post from the conference, “the coverage that I have seen… “seems a little thin.”

Much of the coverage the summit did get focused on one point: how much sea levels might rise by the end of the century. Depending on which article you read, it could be “as much as 39 inches (1 meter)” (Chicago Tribune), “likely to rise about one meter” (Christian Science Monitor), or “at least a meter” (AFP).

But are these projections for the worst-case scenario, or for the most likely scenario, if emissions continue rising as they have over the past few decades? Or is this amount of sea-level rise inevitable, even if we stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow? Most articles didn’t attempt to answer this relatively basic question.
Reuters did an admirable job, however, pointing out that no matter what, certain consequences of global warming are almost inevitable: “‘The sea-level rise may well exceed one metre (3.28 feet) by 2100 if we continue on our path of increasing emissions,’ said Stefan Rahmstorf, professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. ‘Even for a low-emission scenario, the best estimate is about one metre.’”
This kind of context is crucial, yet it’s often missing from articles on the global-warming debate. It’s ironic that much of the coverage from Copenhagen said little about how much of a difference cutting greenhouse-gas emissions could make—and how it is still possible to avoid worst-case scenarios. The main point of the conference, after all, was to inform policymakers, who will be meeting in December, also in Copenhagen, to attempt to forge a new agreement, the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, that will regulate greenhouse-gas emissions for years to come.

Reporting the latest projections for sea-level rise probably won’t make a dent in the nearly half of Americans who, according to a recent Gallup poll, think the media exaggerate the seriousness of climate change. “Much of the U.S. public—especially conservatives—remain in the dark about just how dire the situation is,” writes Joseph Romm, a scientist, on his blog, Climate Progress.

That could be in part because a lot of coverage misses the big picture. As Romm points out, U.S. coverage of the Copenhagen conference largely failed to highlight one of the key messages from the conference: “Recent observations confirm that, given high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized.” One story from the conference, by ClimateWire and carried by The New York Times, seemed to make light of the seriousness of the situation: “Scientists are gloomy; economists are more upbeat. Such was the bottom line of an epic, three-day international congress of climate change experts… it seemed that all the scientists had to share with their peers was bad news….”. (An AFP story covered this issue of experts’ feelings in what I thought was a more responsible way, in “Climate Change Blues: How Scientists Cope”.)

U.K. newspapers, on the other hand, did an excellent job of covering the big picture. The Times of London reported, “Professor Katharine Richardson… said it was now almost impossible for the world to achieve the UN target of preventing global temperature rise exceeding 2C”—widely agreed to be a threshold for dangerous climate change. “We can forget about the 2C,” said Richardson… “We are now facing the situation where we have to avoid a 5-6C rise in temperature.” And as an AFP article points out, “The economic impact of global warming has been grossly underestimated and scientists must warn that inaction will spell disaster, top economist and climate change expert Nicholas Stern said on Thursday.”

But still, it’s somewhat hard to imagine what this will mean for people. More on-the-ground reporting could help—especially in understanding how climate change will hit the poor, who will generally be hit sooner and harder by the effects of climate change, and who benefited least from the policies and behaviors that gave rise to the problem in the first place. I traveled along Bangladesh’s coast in November to report on this topic for Nature Reports Climate Change, so I was very interested to see a five-part series this month on the same topic, by Lisa Friedman, a reporter for ClimateWire, that’s been reprinted by The New York Times and Scientific American.

The series does an admirable job of highlighting the difficulties that people in Bangladesh are having. But I think it stumbled in some key areas, common to a lot of climate change reporting (including some of my own), so these points are worth highlighting:

First, the series has many floating facts that are missing crucial context, such as: “By 2050, rice production is expected to drop 10 percent and wheat production by 30 percent.” But under what scenario? These numbers appear to come from a Norwegian Church Aid report (pdf), giving its opinion on what the latest IPCC report said. The Bangladeshi researchers who did the work these reports are drawing on call this scenario a “severe” case. My point isn’t that the prediction is wrong; it’s that articles should be clear about what kind of projections they’re citing.

Another article in the series reports: “Climate change is expected to create a 39 percent increase in flood-prone areas.” Yet the article never says what level of emissions might lead to this effect, or when to expect it. By 2050? 2100? 2150? Normally, when scientists make a projection like this, it’s based on some kind of assumption for a high, medium, or low amount of greenhouse emissions, and it’s for a particular time in the future.

Some statements in the series were overly certain—and with any area of climate science, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Take this statement: “By the end of the century, more than a quarter of the country will be inundated.” That’s a bold claim—especially since it leaves out a crucial consideration. As I reported for Nature, most of the low-lying areas along the coast have dirt embankments three to four meters high, which protect them from high tides and storm surges—age-old problems in this area.

But rarely do news stories on Bangladesh mention that these embankments should keep rising seas at bay for a few decades at least, and that Bangladeshis are planning to raise and improve these embankments to fight sea-level rise. They might not be able to ward off several meters of sea-level rise, but one meter they could conceivably deal with. Yet the impression that many articles on Bangladesh give, I fear, is that the country is a lost cause. To correct this impression, journalists must pay more attention to detail. In November, I visited the southwest of Bangladesh, where many residents have resorted to shrimp farming as the water and soils have gotten saltier, and they can no longer grow rice or wheat. The ClimateWire series reports on this increasing salinity, too, but it didn’t mention what’s generally accepted to be the main cause of the problem. Ever since India built the vast Farakka Barrage in the 1970s, to divert water to Kolkata, the flows down the Ganges River in the dry winter season have dwindled to about one-fifth of what they were before. Without this freshwater flow to flush out salt from tides and storms, southwest Bangladesh has struggled with increasing saltiness in its rivers and soils. “Of the increase in salinity — maybe 15, 20, 30 percent is caused by climate change,” one expert told me. Yet this complexity, with multiple causes behind a problem, is often lost in news stories—even long ones, such as the ClimateWire series.

For coverage of climate change to really stick with readers, and to prevent them feeling bludgeoned by a bunch of depressing facts, I think reporters could make some simple but important changes in how they approach the issue: be clear about whether consequences are worst-case scenarios, likely scenarios, or inevitable; humanity is reshaping the planet in many other ways as well, so avoid blaming everything on climate change. Otherwise, maybe the next Gallup poll will show that more than half of Americans think reporters exaggerate the climate situation. Let’s hope that climate change impacts don’t get so bad that they change those people’s minds before our reporting does.

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Mason Inman is an American science journalist, focusing on climate change, who is based in Karachi, Pakistan. He has written for National Geographic News, New Scientist, Science, and Nature among other publications. His reporting in Bangladesh was supported by a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism. To read more, visit his blog.