The Earth is warming thanks to the human industrial complex, we must price carbon emissions in some way and soon to avert catastrophe, and brace ourselves for inevitable fallout from the climatic havoc we’ve already wreaked. This warning’s been issued thousands of times before, and it’s forcefully repeated yet again in three reports released Wednesday by the National Research Council, the research arm of the preeminent scientific advisory body in the U.S., the National Academies of Science.
For the journalist’s standpoint, these reports present a quandary. Scientists say climate change is real, and we should respond… Really. Now. With fewer qualifications than ever. Questioning the likely impact of the new science tomes, Bradford Plumer at The New Republic writes, “we’ve been deluged with studies and assessments and summaries and reviews, and anyone who’s still deep in denial about the problem probably isn’t going to be convinced by yet another fat volume of graphs and citations.” In most editors’ minds, another such warning simply doesn’t make a good “front-page thought.”
That said, the time is ripe to revisit some basic climate science. The Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein filed a story soon after the reports’ release Wednesday, noting that they “come after a winter in which mainstream climate science took a beating” because of controversial e-mails hacked from the University of East Anglia that stirred up the “Climategate” furor, and minor errors found in the last report from the International Panel on Climate Change that poured fuel on the fire. We also recently saw the much anticipated climate summit in Copenhagen come to nothing, after world leaders failed to agree to new restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. Add to the mix recent poll numbers showing that Americans’ concern about global warming is on the slide and you have a pretty powerful case that now is about as good a time as ever to dive into the Academies’ reports. At first blush, some of the contents might sound familiar, but this latest scientific salvo is different from previous ones in key respects.
Some conspiracy minded climate change deniers have gotten a lot of mileage out of the fact that so much of the scientific basis for climate change has been organized and presented by a body that is affiliated with, of all the unholy un-American organizations on the planet, the United Nations. Yet “the three NRC panels also feature a set of players rather different from those who compromised IPCC,” Science reported. “Economist Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, an IPCC veteran, recalls how the inaugural meeting of the panel on adapting to the impacts of climate change was his first such gathering in a decade in which three-quarters of his fellow panel members were unfamiliar to him.”
The difference isn’t just the scientists; it’s the data, too. Science and several other outlets mentioned that although the three new reports generally echo the findings of the IPCC, they also bring considerable new information to bear, drawing on the past five years of research that wasn’t available to IPCC researchers. The new data support projections that in some cases are direr than in the earlier reports. For instance, the Academies say “that ocean levels could rise by as much as five feet by the end of the century, compared to the IPCC estimate of a foot and a half increase,” the Los Angeles Times’s Thomas H. Maugh II reported.
Although there’s a strong case that the new reports are significantly different and worthy of sustained media attention, if the day-one coverage is any indication, they will be given little more than a passing mention. That’s better than the yawn that met a letter published in Science earlier this month and signed by 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences in protest of the “recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers.” The letter was almost uniformly ignored by major media outlets.
By contrast, the country’s top news sources almost all had stories on the new climate reports—but they were largely pro forma treatments. The New York Times published a piece on page A19 that rehashed the basic findings and concluded with two quotes from “climate and energy legislation advocates” who “predictably” embraced the studies. Just what we need from the paper of record: the most predictable response to a significant new warning about one of the most pressing issues of our time.