The problem, as Johnson pointed out (over the protestations of one of study’s authors), is that this is a very misleading description of the articles. Doing what reporters should have done, Romm obtained the text of the articles, which apparently wasn’t available online when the research was released. Doing so quickly revealed that the identical first four paragraphs did more that simply “provide information about climate change reported by the IPCC.” In fact, the fourth paragraph begins by stating, “The IPCC says many devastating consequences of global warming are possible, some of which we have already begun to feel,” and then goes on to make a series a worrisome statements about heat waves, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and the melting of ice sheets.
As Romm put it, the fourth paragraph is a “pretty damn dire” description of climate change, but not the “dire” message that the researchers were referring to. The one they were referring to was the scarier of the two alternate endings. Yet the “dire” ending did not, as the paper stated, “detail devastation and possibly apocalyptic consequences that could result from global warming.” Again, that was covered in the fourth paragraph. The big difference between the alternate endings was that, where the “positive” version said we can do something about global warming, the “dire” version said we can’t.
Unfortunately, most reporters seemed to think the “dire” message in the study referred to the standard scientific description of the observed and expected consequences of climate change, not the unusually pessimistic opinion that nothing can be done about it (and, as Romm wondered, is there anybody on the planet that actually uses that message?). Contrary to the feeling that one got from media reports, what the study really found, as Johnson nicely put it, is that “combining scientific urgency with solution-oriented hopefulness” should be a successful messaging strategy.
Not that there’s a ton of good news to report, anyway. RealClimate.org methodically debunked a post from Forbes columnist Larry Bell accusing the media of ignoring the “good news” about climate change last year. RealClimate’s response is a great primer on the current state of the science, rebutting Bell’s assertions about low cyclone activity, ocean cooling, ice-cap growth, and sea-level stability, among others.
In light of such posts, more of the “recent-scientific-findings” articles highlighted by Freudenburg would surely be a good thing. But it is also worth considering Revkin’s point that ramping up coverage along that front alone isn’t likely to make the public more engaged. As he observed at Dot Earth:
The core of the climate problem lies in the reality that the world doesn’t have the energy options it needs for a smooth ride toward roughly 9 billion people by mid-century, all seeking decent lives.
So good reporters, those always eager to get to the root causes of a problem (being “radical” in the most precise sense of that word), will still track climate science. But they will devote more time and effort to diving deeper on energy policy, habits and innovations — whether unraveling counterproductive subsidies, pointing out the lack of money for path-breaking research, or revealing examples of social and financial innovations percolating around the world — any one of which could make a big difference if the information gets out and around.
Those are, of course, the kind of socio-politico-economic stories that Freudenburg worried about, which seem to create much more confusion and consternation than “pure” science articles. But into the breach reporters must go, regardless of the fact that their work will always displease somebody.