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.


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