Climate Central is also building up a print operation under Michael Lemonick, who covered science for Time magazine for twenty-two years. Lemonick recently published a superbly nuanced article about the climate’s sensitivity to carbon emissions in a special issue of Scientific American, and is now working on a number of other magazine assignments. But like TV, he said, the idea is to eventually “reach readers that aren’t as knowledgeable” about climate by contributing to local newspapers, which are rapidly losing the expertise and resources to cover such technical stories.

Though Climate Central hopes to find partners that are willing to share production costs, the organization is partially funded for several years to come and does not charge for its stories or services. Seed money came from the Flora Family Foundation, but the majority of Climate Central’s operational budget comes The 11th Hour Project, a group focused on “raising public awareness about global warming and promoting sustainable solutions to climate change.” Wendy Schmidt, the project’s president, sits on Climate Central’s board members with Princeton’s Pacala and Oregon State University’s Jane Lubchenco.

Although the organization is new, the idea has been gestating since 2005, when participants at a climate conference in Aspen resolved to try and do something to improve the quantity and quality of climate coverage. In 2007, Berrien Moore III, who left his job running the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire, signed on as the group’s first operational director. Climate Central’s first official meeting took place in a Starbucks Coffee shop in Princeton between Moore, Cullen, Lyons, and staff scientist Ben Strauss. The group rapidly expanded to its current size after that, moving into its offices last June.

“I actually think this is the future of science journalism – non-profit partnerships providing independent and syndicated science coverage,” said Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor of communications at American University who studies communications between journalists, scientists, and the public. “We need to build up the infrastructure to adapt to climate change and the media should be thought of as an important part piece of that infrastructure.”

When it comes to providing better explanations of science, the biggest mistake that journalists usually make is overstating the significance of single studies, technologies, and solutions, according to Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “The issue is to what extent Climate Central can be a neutral arbiter,” he said. “And can the fact that they have people who know what they’re talking about on staff improve the context in which climate stories are reported?”

Though they expressed full confidence in the credibility and competence of Climate Central’s team, a number of the scientists and journalists I spoke with expressed a certain leeriness about the non-profit model of journalism in general (which CJR, to large extent, also replies upon). The two main areas of concern are that foundational support will cause conflicts of interest in covering certain stories, and that such operations would simply never make up for the overwhelming number of journalism jobs being lost around the country.

So, as unique and impressive as Climate Central’s qualifications may be, it will still have to fight the uphill battles that are inherent to an industry undergoing such great flux. Fortunately, everybody there seems abundantly aware of that fact and poised to meet the challenge.

[Correction: The paragraph about Climate Central’s funding was changed to reflect that the group is partially funded, not endowed, for several years to come.]


Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.