It’s been a challenging time for the climate change story on just about every front. A year ago, the unauthorized release of a cache of controversial e-mails written by prominent climate scientists created a media firestorm just before the United Nations climate-change summit in Copenhagen. The international effort to strike a treaty that would limit greenhouse-gas emissions went down in flames. It’s been a slow burn ever since, for scientists and journalists alike.
After the intense media attention to Copenhagen in late 2009, the amount of climate-change coverage in 2010 declined significantly in some major American newspapers—to a four-year low—with the focus increasingly on domestic and foreign politics, according to a recent survey using Lexis-Nexis. The U.S. Senate tossed climate-change legislation onto the pyre, and recent mid-term elections brought a slew of Republicans to town that don’t believe the climate science and are likely to fight federal action. Meanwhile, the Gulf oil spill comprised the bulk of environmental coverage and consumed the time of many reporters who also cover climate science and policy.
With a new UN climate meeting starting Monday in Cancun, environment reporters and climate scientists alike are regrouping, lowering expectations for the Mexico meeting and figuring out how to cover climate change going forward.
“There’s a tremendous difference,” says Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post’s chief environment reporter. Copenhagen was a “cliff-hanger,” with a “sense of anticipation and excitement,” she recalled: “While there was uncertainty about what Copenhagen would produce, people thought something significant was going to happen.” But going into the two-week Cancun deliberations, “it feels like there is absolutely no momentum . What will there even be to cover in Cancun in terms of public policy or reader interest?”
Like many of her colleagues, Eilperin has scaled back her own coverage of not only the Cancun meeting—she’s only going for the second week and may be joined by a Mexico City correspondent—but of climate-change policy in general. With climate legislation dead for now in Washington, D.C. “there’s a little more room for covering other environmental issues,” she said, citing plans to expand her reportage in areas like oceans and wilderness.
At The New York Times, Erica Goode, editor of the paper’s seven-person environment cluster, says coverage of Cancun will certainly be scaled way back from that of Copenhagen, sending Washington correspondent John Broder to Mexico as the paper’s primary person covering the proceedings. “Obviously, the situation has changed dramatically from a year ago. A year ago the issue was still front and center on the administration agenda, and there was a lot of expectation for what might happen . There is not a lot expected at Cancun.”
But, says Goode, the larger climate-change story is still high on the Times’s agenda, as evidenced by a new series, “Temperature Rising,” which will “focus on the central arguments in the climate debate and examine the evidence for global warming and its consequences.” The series launched on November 13 with a massive front-page Sunday package (and multimedia online graphics) on the state of the science and impact of sea level rise from melting glaciers. It was a return to days of yore, with an enterprising Justin Gillis, who replaced Andrew Revkin as the paper’s chief environmental science reporter in May, reporting from a helicopter flying over Greenland.
Goode says that the “back-to-basics” series was intended “as a huge service to readers to step back and do richer explanatory pieces that take a hard look at the evidence . Some readers don’t understand what the whole debate is about.” At least two more pieces are expected this year in the Gillis series, with more to come in 2011. According to Goode, the series had been put on hold because of the Gulf oil spill, among other things, which gobbled up space in the paper and reporting time that might have otherwise gone to climate change.
The Times’s new series was cited by Harvard climate scientist Dr. James J. McCarthy as a good example of putting important climate science in perspective—an approach he said has been missing in recent climate coverage. “Over the past few years, coverage of climate science in the U.S. media has been disappointing,” he said in an interview. Stories tended to inflate “juicy quips from stolen private e-mail exchanges,” but barely mentioned the “subsequent, thorough investigations by universities and academies that found no evidence of wrong doing.”