From Copenhagen to Cancun

A challenging year for the climate story

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.”

The challenge ahead, of course, is finding new angles to freshen up the climate story after a tough year in which the amount of climate coverage showed a steep slide after Copenhagen in major newspapers like the Times and the Post. The number of stories mentioning climate change or global warming dropped to a four-year low in both papers in the third quarter of 2010. While this certainly reflected a diversion of resources to the oil spill, the amount of climate-change coverage has been declining all year long, according to a Lexis-Nexis search by Carolyn McGourty, a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs working with this correspondent.

The amount of climate-change coverage first shot up in the spring of 2006, following the release of Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Peak coverage occurred in early 2007, accompanying the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment report documenting scientific knowledge about the widespread hazards that rising greenhouse gas emissions pose to the planet. Coverage remained steadily high throughout 2008, fluctuated in mid-2009, and jumped up again at the end of last year when “Climategate” and the Copenhagen conference collided.

The one-year anniversary of those two pivotal events has, not surprisingly, produced a bumper crop of articles reflecting on the lessons learned by journalists and scientists involved in climate change communication and coverage.

A thoughtful recap by Andrew Freedman on The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog criticized media coverage, noting that Climategate has “drastically altered discussions of climate science during the past year.”

Climategate almost immediately caused climate scientists to lose control of the media narrative and put them on the defensive for much of the year. Prior to Climategate, the narrative had evolved into one that focused more on what society should do to slow and halt climate change, rather than on questions about the fundamentals of climate science. Almost instantaneously, many in the press switched into ‘cover the conflict’ mode, with stories portraying climate scientists as scheming to rig scientific data and prevent the publication of dissenting opinions from the scientific literature.

Now, however, Freedman sees promising signs that the scientific community may be learning from their trial by fire, becoming more open with their data and methods and “more willing to publicly address challenges to their research and to engage both proactively and defensively with the media and the public.” Scientific groups and climate scientists are launching new efforts to connect scientists to journalists and respond more quickly to news stories.

That theme was reflected in an interesting exchange with nine scientists interviewed by the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. The feisty views of Peter H. Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, were shared, to some degree, by many of his colleagues:

…there is an improved realization of how impossible it is to keep the climate science questions and debates separate from the political and ideological debates. And I hope we’ve learned the importance of communicating accurately and constantly. Being passive in the face of political repression, ideological misuse of science, and policy ignorance moves us in the wrong direction. I would like to think the community has learned that depending on the ‘honesty’ and ‘impartiality’ of journalism is not enough…that without strong input from climate scientists, the wrong stories get reported, with bad information, and ideological bias.

While the scientists questioned by Yale Forum editor Bud Ward and contributor John Wihbey were highly critical of press climate coverage in general, their wrath focused on the “organized campaigns of disinformation” and “forces of unreason” from those with ideological, political and economic axes to bear. “This is the new reality of climate science in the 21st century,” said Benjamin D. Santer of the government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The scientists voiced concern that young scientists would be discouraged from coming into a field that operated in such a public fish bowl.

On Tuesday, the Yale Forum released the second part of the series, a turnabout with seven journalists—including CJR’s Curtis Brainard—who were asked the same “lessons learned” questions. Their answers revealed a realistic—indeed downright pessimistic—view of where we go from here: many noted that in fact there is no “journalistic community” or common approach; that media coverage is not necessarily journalism; that science journalists approached the story differently than political journalists; and that, as NPR’s Richard Harris put it, “the ‘climategate’ story was not a product of journalism, but activism.” Scientific American’s David Biello doubted that the journalistic community actually learned any lessons from the experience:

I’m not sure the climate journalism community has learned any lessons. In my view, we all continually repeat the mistakes of the past, either because of turnover that is bringing many ‘new’ to the beat into the coverage scheme who are trained in the classic he said/she said style. Or because us old-timers are set in our ways and continue to make the same mistakes over and over.

Veteran climate reporter Seth Borenstein of the AP had a bifurcated view: those who did a good job in the first place will learn from the experience and do better next time, but the opposite is true for those who did a bad job in the first place: “The trouble is—much like in disasters—the people who really need to learn are usually the ones who don’t. And those who work hard to be even better prepared the next time were not the problem cases to begin with.”

A more academic dissection of media coverage of the Copenhagen conference also came in a recent UK report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. The 148-page analysis found that about 10 percent of the media coverage in Copenhagen was on climate change science.

A number of journalists criticized the Oxford report as unrealistic in assuming that science coverage should be higher at an international meeting that was inherently focused on policy—and of course politics. “I believe this is a naive view that ignores the reality of why COP15 failed, and why future negotiations stand a high chance of failing as well. Science journalism (or the lack thereof) had very little to do with the collapse of the Copenhagen talks, and more of it in the future is exceedingly unlikely to lead to a different outcome,” wrote journalism professor and editor Tom Yulsman in a post on the University of Colorado Center for Environmental Journalism blog.

MIT Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charles Petit agreed, noting that “the action and thus the dramatic news was political. Ten percent on background science seems about right for news media interested in news.” But in a closer look at the report in his post Tuesday, Petit called the Reuters report “essential reading for people interested in science and environmental journalism.” One of the “eye-openers,” he said, was “stats on the stunning turnout by reporters from some nations rapidly moving from the developing world to the ranks of major powers, India and Brazil. Plus China.”

Indeed, one of the exciting developments at recent UN global climate change meetings has been the sponsorship of journalists from around the world through a non-profit network called the Climate Change Media Partnership. Such will be the case in Cancun as well. The Partnership has awarded fellowships to 35 journalists from 29 countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, to cover the Mexico negotiations.

In many ways, the 2010 Cancun meeting, the sixteenth such conference, is likely to be a turning point. Many climate experts, as well as journalists, question whether the cumbersome UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will even survive after this in its current form.

In the future, the policy story will increasingly focus on bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and other countries, such as China, as well as efforts to get the powerful nations of the G-20, which covers about 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, to come to the table. Coverage of the accumulating scientific evidence documenting current impact and predicting what’s to come goes hand in hand with the policy. So, at the end of a decade of mounting international concern about climate change but little action, journalists covering climate need to settle in for the long haul. The problem certainly isn’t going away, and neither is the debate about what to do about it.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter. Tags: , , , ,