In November, a study from the National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University found that green business stories “mushroomed” in America’s ten largest newspapers last year; more than half of all those published since 2000 were printed in 2007 alone.
That’s good news, but a common question among environmental journalists and other media pundits is: will all this reporting about sustainability (for which the term “green” is shorthand) be sustainable in the long run? Will reporters have the material for good stories, and will the public maintain its current interest in them?
What constitutes a “green business story” remains somewhat vague. The Arizona study’s authors, who used a variety of data from the Lexis/Nexis database and other sources, admit that their findings are “approximate at best” because “search terms like ‘green’ and ‘sustainability’ also tend to show up in business stories that have nothing to do with environmental sustainability.”
In addition to such content analysis, the authors sent out “hundreds” of surveys to business editors at midsize and large newspapers. Only seventeen responded, but the information gleaned from their replies is perhaps more interesting than the actual story tallies. In particular, “None of [the editors] felt that the interest had peaked yet,” and, “Nearly half said that business stories with a ‘green’ angle of some sort appeared as often as once a week.” The authors note that this trend follows other, more general, environmental currents, such as mounting corporate attention to green issues.
That hypothesis (and the idea that sustainability coverage is sustainable) gained support this week from a Tuesday article in The New York Times’ Business section by Clifford Krauss, which cited yet another report suggesting that “unlike the ’70s, energy lessons will last:”
The oil shocks of the 1970s produced a flurry of attention to alternative sources of energy, but it faded once prices dropped in the mid-1980s. Now, with oil prices again high and climate change moving up the list of public concerns, interest in alternative energy is once again at fever pitch.
Krauss asks, “Is history about to repeat itself?” The answer, from the Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), which authored the report on which Krauss bases his article, is “not likely.” The difference? These days, it’s not just about costs at the pump. Oil prices might fluctuate up or down (though predictions say up for now), but most of the public seems to have accepted that global warming will only go one way - warmer. That’s a threat to political security and the environment, according to Krauss’s summation of the report, and it is “pushing governments to demand, and subsidize, greater use of alternative energy.”
The Times article quotes the study’s claim that $125 billion was invested in renewable energy resources in 2007, a 20 percent increase from the year before. CERA projects that public investments in wind, solar, geothermal, wave, and nuclear power generation could surpass $7 trillion by 2030.
According to Krauss, the report notes that market share of renewable fuels is likely to remain small compared to traditional fossil fuels, and growth will be determined “by the intersection of government policies, economic growth rates and technological breakthroughs.” He should have included private sector initiatives as well. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that three of the largest investment banks, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, and Morgan Stanley will make it harder for companies to get loans to build coal-fired power plants in the U.S. They will require clients “to prove the plants will be economically viable even under potentially stringent federal caps on carbon dioxide, the main man-made greenhouse gas.”
Other events that might reveal something about the longevity of strong green business coverage are more ambiguous, however, and the press has seemed less willing to suggest what they portend.