Muddling On

Lukewarm media reception to comprehensive new reports on climate change

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.

The Washington Post ran Borenstein’s AP piece, which was one of the better ones. He wrote that the Academies had ditched “its past cautious tone,” calling on lawmakers to raise the price on carbon through a direct tax or cap-and-trade system and “to cut the pollution that causes global warning by 57 percent to 83 percent by 2050.” He mentioned that the recommendation is in line with the Obama administration’s goal, which brings up the political context, another reason why the story shouldn’t be sloughed off.

Last week, senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman introduced legislation with a comparable target that would impose a system similar to cap-and-trade, without calling it that. But its prospects are uncertain. Karin Zeitvogel at Agence France-Presse noted that “cap-and-trade was declared dead by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham two months ago,” which does not bode well for the bill, as Graham had been the sole Republican supporting major energy legislation. Many pundits doubt whether Obama can get another difficult vote this year from Democrats, given the tortuous health care reform process.

Several stories touched on the pending legislation, but left it at that. None of the coverage of the Academies’ new reports included what could have been a useful sidebar with an update on the troubles facing the energy bill, called the American Power Act, or whether the new reports might prod legislators to action. Borenstein’s piece, however, mentioned that White House science advisor John Holdren said he “hoped every member of Congress would read the reports or at least their summaries.”

Perhaps we will see more in coming days, but the initial response is not promising.

In a sense, it’s understandable that the Academies’ reports would meet with indifference in editorial meetings around the country. For decades, scientists have called for action on climate change, and these latest warnings are more of the same. But they are different in important ways, too. They call for more research to clarify inevitable (if still uncertain) impacts from changes to the climate that are foregone. They also call for a strategy to adapt to those changes, and mitigate further damage, that spans all levels of civic and government organization, “down to the town manager,” Andrew Revkin noted at his Dot Earth blog. From the time they started work on the new reports, he added, the Academies set out to “ensure that this report is not only effective at conveying what is known, but also in putting policymakers in a position where they cannot just say thanks and muddle on.”

In addition to the reports released Wednesday (which Revkin called “invaluable”), the academies will release two more later this year, including one about informing effective decisions and actions. This analysis may be the most important of all, Revkin surmised—“the report that tries to figure out how to overcome the persistent disconnect between knowledge and response.”

The press seems to be afflicted with a similar disconnect. It knows well the cardinal importance of covering how we understand and address climate change, and that the Academies’ reports are a significant development in those very regards. Unfortunately, instead of responding accordingly, the media appears to be saying thanks, and muddling on.

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Brett Norman is a reporter for Politico.