LONDON — Unsurprisingly, climate change was one of the most popular topics at the World Conference of Science Journalists, held here last week. As I’ve argued many times, ups and downs in the coverage thereof have been a big part of the story itself, not unlike the coverage of war in Iraq.
There was still plenty to say at the London gathering, however. World leaders (not to mention scientists, industries, and interest groups) are gearing up for the big climate show in Copenhagen this December, where they hope to produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Domestic and international political wrangling has been fierce since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth assessment report two years ago. At the London conference, IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri called that report a “watershed” for global media coverage of climate change.
Indeed it was. At the conference, Cristine Russell, a CJR contributing editor, and Max Boykoff, a researcher at Oxford University, individually presented data showing a spike in climate coverage in U.S. following the IPCC report in 2007; a decline in 2008, probably due to the presidential election; and an uptick in the first quarter of 2009, most likely due to the expectation of the Copenhagen meeting.
Nonetheless, “As we approach the Copenhagen summit, you could argue that there hasn’t been very much coverage,” said BBC science correspondent David Shukman, who moderated a panel about “gearing up” for the meeting. One of his interlocutors was David King, who heads the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University and served as the British government’s chief scientific advisor from 2000 to 2007.
“I’d like to see more coverage on the approach being taken by leading nations in the negotiations and why they are taking these positions,” King said. He would like the press to take a critical look at the governments of Canada and Japan in particular, which he accused of working to block a new, international climate pact. King’s remarks inspired a short article in the Times of London the following day, which addressed some of his concerns.
Following up on King, Damian Carrington, who heads the Guardian’s environment Web site, summed up his publication’s three-pronged approach to Copenhagen coverage. This involves presenting the science (“in some ways, the easiest task,” according to Carrington”); “holding people’s feet to the fire and keeping people honest” (in particular, making sure politicians’ backroom negotiations jibe with what they say in public); and “showing people why [the summit] matters.”
That last point is especially important, though other speakers suggested a subtle rephrasing: not why the summit matters, but whether it does. “It’s not enough to get headlines out of Copenhagen saying, ‘They signed something,’” said New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin during another panel discussion. He argued that journalists need to investigate the substance of any agreement and whether or not it would have a meaningful impact on the trajectory of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
As a point of reference, Revkin discussed recent coverage of the Waxman-Markey climate bill currently working its way through the United States Congress. “It’s fundamentally important to frame part of what you write toward the big picture,” he said. “[Coverage of Waxman-Markey] has been a lot like covering Wimbledon. It’s who’s winning and who’s losing; it’s not about substance… We can have a perfect, leak-proof bill in the U.S. and it will not matter [because most future greenhouse-gas emissions will be generated in the developing world.]”
Unfortunately, many conference goers noted, nuanced climate stories are still a hard sell in the newsroom. During his panel, Carrington said that one Guardian editor considers emissions to be a “boring” word. And Shukman pointed out that a major speech about the United Kingdom’s climate strategy didn’t get much airtime on the BBC, being overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson.
Even when climate does make the news, it is often of low caliber. Boykoff and Paddy Coulter, another researcher at the University of Oxford, individually presented data showing that, around the world, political speeches, weather events, and stories about “charismatic megafauna” tend to drive coverage. As a result, there is a dearth of more “discursive” articles about how the world could mount a coordinated effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change. (Reporters must also contend with challenges related to the journalism industry itself. In an interview between sessions, Revkin lamented the fact that his popular Dot Earth blog was recently dark due to ten days of unpaid leave that all Times employees must take this year.)