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.