Here? Now?

Media squander rare opportunity to localize climate coverage

Making climate change a local story isn’t easy, but regional newspapers are, by and large, missing what is probably going to be their easiest and best chance this year.

On Friday, the federal government released a draft of its third National Climate Assessment (NCA), a status report on observed and anticipated trends, vulnerabilities, and impacts in the United States that also reviews mitigation and adaptation strategies. It’s basically the domestic version the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s gold-standard global assessment, but US newspapers haven’t been treating it that way, which is unfortunate.

The NCA is supposed to come out every four years, by law, but after the Clinton administration published the first one in 2000, Dubya punted, and the second had to wait until 2009. So, last week’s release should’ve drawn more attention, especially since it’s chock full of goodies for regional newspapers, many of which have trouble finding regular pegs for a story that is too often viewed as remote or unchanging.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” and it is “already affecting the American people,” states the draft, which will be open to public comment for the next three months.

The report, which is more than 400 pages long and contains detailed descriptions of the way climate change is affecting every corner of the country: Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Great Plains, Southwest, Northwest, Alaska, Hawaii, coasts, and oceans. There’s something for everyone, but only a few outlets have availed themselves.

As usual, The News Journal in Wilmington, DE, did it right. Reporters Jeff Montgomery and Molly Murray quickly homed in on details in the NCA about the health of the Chesapeake Bay, sought comments from local environmental official and activists, and brought in extra information about the threat of sea-level rise to the local port.

Granted, it’s easier to write an article like that in a state that would, as Montgomery and Murray reported the same day, hire a recognized climatologist “to help it develop detailed projections for changing conditions along the state’s coasts, farms, cities and suburban neighborhoods,” but it’s a good example nonetheless. Others can be found at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Don Hopey, at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Jeffrey Tomich, at the Whittier Daily News by Steve Scauzillo, and the Fort Collins Coloradoan, by Bobby Magill, but that’s about all.

Pam Kasey, a reporter for the The State Journal in Charleston, WV, covered the NCA, which is great, but there’s not a single word about the points in the assessment where her state is mentioned in regard to heat waves, floods, and an encroaching tick population. Perhaps Kasey was miffed at the 60 members of the NCA’s Development and Advisory Committee, which includes distinguished scientists, engineers, economists, and other assorted experts. “None of those members are located in West Virginia,” she wrote bluntly in the third paragraph.

Meanwhile, The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. focused on West Virginia—and got his story top billing on the front page no less—but he and/or his editors made the odd decision to lead with a report about extreme weather events that the Natural Resources Defense Council released on Tuesday, undoubtedly because the paper had run a wire report about the NCA a few days earlier on page 7.

Most outlets ignored the NCA altogether, and that’s a shame. Reporters in parts of the country that are still suffering from severe drought will want to read up. Likewise, there’s plenty of stuff for those around the Great Lakes, from the risk of more sewer overflows from increased storm activity to the pros and cons of climate change for maritime navigation: less ice, but also less water, respectively.

Nothing in the assessment should be taken at face value, of course. Big meta-analyses like this, which review hundreds of prior studies, always warrant scrutiny and journalists should be diligent when it comes to checking the footnotes. But regional newspapers need to wake up.

The Dallas Morning News has published nothing about the NCA, for instance, but a few hours before the draft was released, reporter Todd J. Gillman wrote a strange post for his blog about a different “climate change assessment”—one desired by Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who just took over the House Science Committee and wants to hold “a hearing in coming weeks on the current state of the environment.” Highlighting that partisan gambit while ignoring the NCA is awful, especially at an outlet where the editorial board pledged in a set of New Year’s resolutions to “advocate for meaningful climate change legislation and a national energy policy that balances the nation’s short-term need for oil and gas with the longer-term need to develop clean, safe and reliable alternative energy sources.”

Solid articles from The Associated Press and Reuters have taken up some of the slack, and a lot of regional papers have run syndicated stories from national papers or their parent companies’ DC bureaus, but these pieces don’t bring the issue home for readers of, say, The Eagle-Tribune in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts.

Regional outlets aren’t the only ones that should give this story more weight, though. The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal, all had good pieces that described the NCA in broad terms, but none made it into the paper, let alone onto the front page. (For more on why they should have, read Chris Mooney’s explanation of “why the National Climate Assessment is a BFD.”) Again, that’s a failure.

The NCA is one of the most important consensus statements in climate science, and for news outlets big and small it provides an excellent opportunity to cover the ways that a warming world is changing our own back yards.

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