When I was a young journalist working as the environment editor for a Thai newspaper back in the 1990s, one of the first things I learned was this: In order to cover the environment, you have to understand the energy sector—not just what it emits, but the politics, economics, and technical issues surrounding it. And vice versa: Those reporting on energy development have to understand its environmental impacts to provide good coverage.
The interlocking nature of these issues has again become tragically evident in recent weeks following the disaster in northeast Japan. The media coverage—including a proverbial renaissance of reporting on nuclear power—has generally reflected the comprehensive nature of these events in a compelling way, but much of it has failed to explain the full implications of climate change in the debate about what comes next.
When the earthquake and tsunami first hit on March 11, it seemed to be a humanitarian story, rather than an environmental one. This was the planet impacting people, not people affecting the planet. Some tried to make it the latter. The Bolivian communications minister attributed the earthquake, erroneously, to global warming and blamed the world for failing to listen to his prime minister, Evo Morales, who has sought far tougher action against climate change by developed countries. A columnist for Grist also made claims linking tsunamis to climate change, before retracting them.
They didn’t need to stretch so hard. The story quickly turned into an environmental parable with plenty of profound lessons. First and foremost, it demonstrated the raw awesome power of nature. The pictures and video of the tsunami sweeping over everything in its path—even generating a nightmarish whirlpool, rarely seen outside of Homeric legend—reminded us of who really runs this show. Most frightening of all, we learned that even a wealthy, technologically advanced, and earthquake-aware country like Japan can be overwhelmed, suggesting we have to respect the “the limits of safeguards and human foresight,” as The New York Times put it.
Then the scale and implications of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors became evident, grabbing the public’s attention and holding it, even if, in countries like the United States, the media quickly turned its attention to the violence in Libya. The silver lining to this still-unfolding crisis has been the tremendous amount of renewed focus on the risks and benefits of nuclear power, a debate which spread in the press around the world, with numerous repercussions in the policy realm.
From Thailand to Argentina, governments have set up safety reviews and protestors have revived demonstrations against nuclear plants. In South Asia, the Times of India and Dawn reported respectively that India and Pakistan would each take steps to increase safety at their nuclear plants. But Bhubaneswar-based journalist Manipadma Jena maintains that India’s response has been largely “academic,” and Indian civil society’s reaction lackluster compared to, for instance, the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal signed in 2008, which spawned protests in the streets. Nepalese journalist Navin Khadka of the BBC reports that essentially there have been no major policy shifts in the region. In general, global coverage seemed to reflect the revived safety concerns over nuclear power, but without providing enough context about the risks of other energy options, especially those that contribute to climate change.
That lack of context is evident in Der Spiegel’s coverage, for instance, which predicts “the end of the nuclear era”. Although the future of nuclear power has certainly become cloudier - particularly in Germany, which shut down seven nuclear plants - on a global level this could be only a temporary setback, and possibly even a prod toward needed reform. Charles Ebinger of the Brookings Institution told Greenwire that China, India, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and most likely Indonesia and Malaysia will eventually continue with their nuclear building plans. Indeed, the main obstacle to more nuclear power plants may remain economic, albeit partly because increased safety concerns can increase the up-front costs required to build them.
For journalists and science communicators, a major challenge has been to accurately convey the risks inherent in nuclear technology, and comparing them to other sources of power. Both the Columbia Journalism Review and the Earth Journalism Network offered briefing materials on how to communicate risks responsibly. Bloggers for ProPublica, Discover, and DeSmog Blog all emphasized the limited reach of Fukushima’s impacts so far. David Ropeik in Scientific American and Gregg Easterbrook in Reuters warned that fears of nuclear disaster are generally overblown. Taking the opposite position were Amory Lovins in The Huffington Post and Jonathan Schell in Yes, who argued that the risks of meltdowns are simply too great.