Climate, Ethics, and the News

The role of morality in global warming coverage

Last week, I attended a dinner with twenty-eight other reporters where the evening’s speaker argued that the media have inadequately covered the ethical issues surrounding climate change, its impacts, and humanity’s response.

“Are you saying that I should tell my readers that they should feel bad because their SUVs are destroying the coffee crops in Uganda?” asked one environmental reporter after the presentation was done.

It was a valid question. Hard-news reporters, as most of the people in the room were, generally bristle at the idea of introducing moral imperative into their articles. It implies that they are breaking with journalistic norms of fact-based objectively and wandering into the realm of opinion writers and editorialists by telling people what should happen or even what is right and wrong.

Of course, that’s not entirely what the speaker, Donald Brown, who is director of the climate change program at the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State, meant to suggest. He said that journalists should merely present readers with the ethical dilemma—does the average American suburbanite owe the Ugandan farmer a debt for warming-related damages—and let readers decide for themselves what the morally sound answer is.

Unfortunately, such questions are not actually that simple.

Take the cover story of the June issue of Scientific American magazine and its headline, “Ethics and Economics of Climate Change.” It is one of only a few publications that have explicitly covered the moral issues entwined in the strategies to counter warming. The article focuses on two of the leading economic analyses of limiting the worst impacts (droughts, floods, violent storms, etc.) of climate change. One posits that the costs of action are far smaller, in the long run, than the costs of inaction. The other says the opposite. Why the different conclusions? It has to do with the discount rate of cost-benefit analyses where costs borne today will produce benefits a hundred or more years down the road (as is largely the case with climate change). Economists discount the present-dollar value of future benefits such that the higher the rate, the less economically “practical” it is to act now. The cover story’s main point is that analysts set the rate based on a set of ethical decisions, not least of which being: should we discount the benefits to future generations at all?

The dimensions of discounting are very confusing indeed (and Scientific American’s article is not terribly accessible on these points), but policymakers take cost-benefit analyses very seriously and they factor into noteworthy legislation like the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which the Senate is debating this week. Still, Scientific American included this ironic sidebar next to its cover story attesting that:

Climate change raises much harder and more important ethical issues than the appropriate value of the discount rate. One is the chance of utter catastrophe.

Indeed, reporters have had a number of more intuitive ways into the subject of climate ethics. One of the most significant was the release of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report in early 2007, which found that the world’s poor are likely to suffer the worst impacts of global warming even though they have contributed least to the problem. Developed nations that have contributed most, on the other hand, are better prepared deal with the worst climate outcomes.

The IPCC report’s release provoked widespread media coverage. Yet most articles tended to present the socioeconomic divide in a this-is-the-situation sort of way, without much reference to the ethical framework for thinking about how we respond to that divide. There were, of course, the platitudinous quotes about the report being a “wake-up call” to First World governments that need to accept responsibility for their industrial actions. Pulling ahead of the pack, The New York Times’s coverage at the time was slightly more creative.

The paper published two back-to-back articles, the first of which reminded readers that, “The lack of climate aid persists even though nearly all the world’s industrialized nations, including the United States under the first President Bush, pledged to help when they signed the first global warming treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, in 1992.” The second article, headlined, “Reports From Four Fronts in the War on Warming,” compared two developed countries, Australia and the Netherlands, which have the resources to adapt to climate change, to two others, Malawi and India, that don’t; the article also carried a fantastic graphic depicting the “Winner and Losers” in a warmer world.

Yet even the Times’s lengthy and thoughtful approach to the IPCC report left relevant ethical considerations mostly implied. Compare that to one of the paper’s more recent articles from March in the International Herald Tribune, which took a deeper look at the developed world’s failure to help the less fortunate adapt. It included many of the same broad strokes that appeared in the earlier IPCC coverage, but reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal also included a passage that brought the global inequity closer to home:

Here in New York this week I faced my own little climate-related disruption: because of global grain shortages, created in part by the rush into biofuels, the price of a bagel has gone to $1.20 from 60 cents in the past year. New Yorkers are all aghast at the rise, but it pales next to these larger problems…

Currently, the international response to climate change favors large projects to cut global emissions. There are generous incentives for converting dirty-coal power stations in China to cleaner technology, for example, but there is no encouragement for another cause: helping a farming village in Africa adjust to hotter temperatures and the degradation of its land into desert.

This brings us back to the reporter’s question at dinner last week about SUVs and Ugandan coffee crops. Should his readers feel responsible? Perhaps. A recent Gallup poll found that while the number of Americans who believe that human greenhouse-gas emissions are warming the planet has increased in the last year, the number that worries about it hasn’t. Maybe that’s a result of apathy, but it’s likely more a matter of lacking proper ethical context. It is one thing for The New York Timeses and The Washington Posts of the world to cover the broad international and national disparities that are aggravated by climate change, but the reporters at last week’s dinner wanted to know how they could “localize” those issues.

In fact, a good opportunity to do just that cropped up only twelve hours later when The Brookings Institution released a per capita greenhouse gas inventory for the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. Judging by my Internet searches, it seems that almost every local and regional paper in America covered the inventory. As with the IPCC report, however, most articles presented the information in a very dry, this-is-where-we-rank fashion. Not a single reporter seems to have wrestled, at least in print, with questions such as: What is a fair share of emissions and how is that determined? If our current emissions exceed our fair share, how might we reduce them in an equitable manner relevant to other American cities? Or how might we reduce them in an equitable manner that is relevant to foreign cities? What kinds of sacrifices might we be willing to make to achieve different levels of equity?

If reporters had posed such questions, they may have come up with very interesting stories indeed. This week, British legislators “scrapped radical plans to test a carbon rationing scheme that would have forced citizens to carry a carbon card to swipe every time they bought petrol or paid an electricity bill,” according to an article in the Guardian. The paper quoted the government as saying that the plan could have led “to failure and subsequent public distrust and ridicule.” Unfortunately, the article didn’t go into details, but it hinted at an important ethical conundrum: it is morally correct to protect the environment, but it is morally suspect for government to intrusively monitor its citizens. Those competing values must be weighed against each other.

Ethical dilemmas such as that are implicit in many climate-related articles. It is rare that they are stated explicitly, however, and that is unfortunate. Whether the question is broad (such as whether or not the U.S. should limit greenhouse gases even if China and India do not) or narrow (such as whether or not people should carry carbon cards) news readers often answer them intuitively. But it is reasonable to assume that they might answer them differently (or at least from a more informed perspective) if reporters actually laid out all the ethical considerations involved. Do China and India deserve a reprieve from emissions limits because they are still developing economies? Does the right to privacy supersede the responsibility to protect the environment? How does what we know about science, economics, and politics inform such decisions?

As physicist Freeman Dyson suggested in a review of climate-related cost-benefit analyses for The New York Review of Books, people might accept that the ethical imperative to protect the environment is “fundamentally sound,” but find that “the obsession with global warming [is] distracting public attention from … more serious and more immediate danger to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice.”

On the other hand, if reporters helped people break down and understand the decisions they are already making, perhaps those Gallup poll results would show that more people had begun to see global warming not just as fact, but also as a serious concern. It could go either way, and the point for journalists is not to say which way is right, but give the public the context it needs to decide for itself.

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

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.