Lemmings like us

Businessweek’s climate-change broadside is powerful, but ignores the allure of waterfront property

Hurricane Sandy finally got the media talking about climate change last week, but Bloomberg Businessweek spoke the loudest with a bold, red cover that featured a picture of a flooded New York City street and the words, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” in big, black letters above it.

As the cyclone spun up the eastern seaboard, I warned against making overstatements about the connections between climate change and extreme weather, and argued for the importance of challenging such statements when they were, inevitably, made. Businessweek’s cover is a prime example of such overstatement: Global warming was a minor factor in Hurricane Sandy’s wrath, not, as the magazine’s cover suggested, the main, or only, factor. That said, in this case I would cut the outlet some slack.

Magazine covers should be provocative and journalists, especially those on the presidential campaign trail, haven’t been giving climate change its due (in part that’s because the candidates haven’t been giving it its due). As David Sassoon, the publisher of InsideClimate News, told me:

Having that on the cover of a Bloomberg publication begins to redeem a decade of collective US media failures covering this story, and the silence of the candidates on the issue, and the failure of the moderators, as representatives of the US media, to bring up the topic during four debates. The cover gives permission to other mainstream media outlets to speak about the issue in ways long overdue, and I think we’ll see the floodgates open.

But it’s the urgency in the cover, not the exaggeration, that journalists should emulate, and the urge to reduce Sandy to global warming masks other factors in vulnerability to extreme weather that are just as important.

Take the article behind the cover, and forget the “unscientific survey of the social networking literature” to which the writer, Paul M. Barrett, confesses in the third paragraph. Eventually, Barrett quotes a recent report by the reimbursement company Munich Re that presented “new evidence for the emerging impact of climate change” in the rising toll of severe weather in North America. That’s newsworty, but the report (and I mean the actual report, not the confusing press release that seems to give the opposite impression) makes it clear that “socio-economic factors, such as population growth, urban sprawl and increasing wealth,” continue to be the primary loss drivers behind the growing cost of extreme weather events.

Writers like Barrett are free to focus on the climate side of the disaster coin, of course, but it behooves journalists to remember that while the warming seas are inexorably rising, people continue to want to build homes and businesses on their shores. Like lemmings, we can’t help ourselves. And while splashy covers like Businessweek’s can give a shot in the arm to climate coverage (though probably an ephemeral one), they can also distract from articles that take a more holistic look at storm resiliency.

Take N.R. Kleinfield’s excellent front-page article for The New York Times on Sunday, headlined, “After Getting Back to Normal, Big Job is Facing New Reality,” which got fewer than 1,000 tweets compared to more than 6,000 for Businessweek’s piece. Kleinfield emphasizes global warming in the third paragraph, noting that “climate change and extreme weather are presenting government—and the public—with overwhelming choices.” Among them, the piece continues, “officials must ask whether it is sensible to replace building on the Manhattan waterfront, the Jersey Shore, or the Long Island Coast.”

Great question. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, in which he cited the threat of climate change specifically, may have been a “galvanizing moment” in terms of making global warming a campaign issue, but as Kleinfield pointed out:

In recent years, the Bloomberg administration has aggressively promoted waterfront development.

Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said: “We shouldn’t stop building on the waterfront. People want to live on the waterfront.”

Granted, Barrett’s piece for Businessweek was not about inconsistencies in the mayor’s plan for climate-change preparedness, or even the resiliency of coastal cities in general. It was about making climate change a part of the conversation about preparedness and resiliency nationwide, which is absolutely critical.

Media bigwigs that have ignored climate change throughout the presidential campaign, like NBC News’s Chuck Todd and Brian Williams, finally brought it up during their coverage of Sandy, even in simplistic, passing references. The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof broke his silence, too, but delivered a more detailed, compelling article—with hardly a word of exaggeration. That’s progress.

But in New York City, at least, climate change as been part of the conversation since 2007, when Bloomberg released his longterm “green” development plan, PlanNYC. It set a goal of reducing citywide greenhouse-gas emissions, which cause global warming, by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and there has been slow, but steady progress toward meeting that target. Obviously, that’s not enough to ensure the city’s safety, however, and critics have been saying for years that in addition to carbon pollution, Bloomberg needs to address other bad habits as well.

“There are many reasons why the city is adaptation-averse, and, of course, they start with real-estate interests,” Wayne Barrett wrote in The Village Voice in 2007, pointing out that some of the city’s biggest development projects were located within the danger zone on the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) 100-year floodplain map.

It’s great to see climate change making inroads in the national conversation about extreme weather, and one hopes that the media will continue to emphasize its role with the same urgency that Businessweek did. But splashy covers, and the articles they tout, usually don’t paint a full picture. And our love of beachfront property is the type of important consideration that gets lost when we blame disasters like Sandy on global warming alone, and don’t pause to consider how we increase our vulnerability in other ways, too.

Clarification: A sentence in the second paragraph of this article that read, “Sandy was a reason to be concerned about global warming, not, as the magazine’s cover suggested, a manifestation of global warming itself,” was deleted and replaced with another for clarity. In addition, a reference to Munich Re’s report being the “first time” the company had presented evidence of a climate change signal in disaster losses was deleted.

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