the observatory

Polar Bears ‘R’ Us

The latest edition of a UN report makes a media-ready case for the imminent dangers of climate change
March 28, 2014

A highly anticipated UN report, to be officially released Monday in Yokohama, Japan, puts a diverse human face on the widespread threats to lives and livelihoods that climate change poses globally, shifting attention from the overused media image of a lone polar bear floating on shrinking ice floes.

“The polar bear is us,'” said an Associated Press curtain raiser by Washington DC-based science writer Seth Borenstein, quoting an American scientist who helped prepare the latest comprehensive review for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “The big risks and overall effects of global warming are far more immediate and local than scientists once thought. It’s not just about melting ice, threatened animals and plants. It’s about the human problems of hunger, disease, drought, flooding, refugees and war becoming more common,” he wrote.

Reuters environment correspondent Alister Doyle struck a similar note in his widely picked up preview story: “Global warming will disrupt food supplies, slow world economic growth and may already be causing irreversible damage to nature, according to a UN report due this week that will put pressure on governments to act.”

And a Guardian story from Friday added, “In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans.” According to the latest leaked documents obtained by reporter Suzanne Goldenberg, the final report will warn that “both warm water coral reef and Arctic ecosystems are already experiencing irreversible regime shifts.”

These and other advance stories, many based on earlier leaked drafts and interviews with scientists inside and out of the IPCC review, have drawn dire headlines in media outlets worldwide–from The Columbus (OH) Dispatch to The Australian. Closed door deliberations are underway between government delegates and scientists to finalize a summary document for policy makers and approve the comprehensive four-year assessment of impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability to climate change produced by more than 300 experts from 70 countries. It’s scheduled for public release at a press conference 9am Monday in Japan, or 8pm Eastern Time on Sunday.

This IPCC impacts report seems tailor-made for journalists by making the stakes of climate change much clearer to both the public and politicians. Increasing media coverage–and having a more targeted message–is key to the IPCC’s efforts to light a fire under lagging efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate-related impacts already here or likely over the next few decades.

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In separate interviews this week, veteran environment reporters Borenstein and Doyle noted a strong shift since the last major IPCC review in 2007, given stronger science and more concern about extreme weather events.

“The dangers of a warming Earth are immediate and very human in this report,” said Borenstein, as he headed for Yokohama. “It essentially tells us not just what is happening but why we should care.” Doyle, who is based in Oslo, Norway, for Reuters, agreed: “This time around it’s much more about the basics of food, water, health and security. Widespread human impacts are front and center.”

Borenstein and Doyle emphasized that the draft report makes clear that global warming is not causing most of these problems but is instead likely to make them much worse. It stresses that climate change is an added blow to those already most vulnerable by income or geography: the poor in developing countries; those living in coastal regions subject to rising sea levels and flooding; farmers whose crops may be endangered by drought; and fisherman harmed by increasing damage to marine environments.

Both reporters were struck by the widespread use of the word “risk” throughout a leaked draft report, posted late last year on a skeptic’s website. “The key message can be summed up in one word that the overall report uses more than 5,000 times: risk,” noted Borenstein. Doyle earlier counted 139 mentions in the 29-page draft summary for policy makers, a big jump from 41 times in the 2007 IPCC climate impact assessment.

While severe risks dominated the advance news stories, IPCC leaders will also underscore that far more can be done to help counter some of the harms already underway. In the IPCC’s press release, impact report co-chair Chris Field, a California climate researcher with the Carnegie Institution for Science, said, “the focus is as much on identifying effective responses as on understanding challenges.” Such options include “improved planning for disasters such as hurricanes or flooding, efforts to breed drought- or flood-resistant crops, measures to save water and energy, or wider use of insurance,” Doyle noted in his story.

In the past, skeptics have leaked IPCC drafts in hopes of undermining confidence in the science in advance of the reports’ release. However, this time around the IPCC’s leaders took a more media-friendly attitude than in the past. Rather than refusing to talk about the leaked report, “they took the offensive to regain control after it happened and tried to steer reporters toward covering it in a fair way,” said Doyle.

In recent months, Field has repeatedly spoken in general terms about this year’s report with reporters, individually or in groups, stressing the need to “manage risks” and adopt adaptation approaches that may help reduce potential impacts in hard-hit regions.

Many stories have already started to bring the story home, using continent-wide assessments in the leaked draft report as well as local reporting. A March 23 Sydney Morning Herald story warned, for example, that “Australia’s multibillion-dollar mining, farming and tourism industries all face significant threats as worsening global warming causes more dangerous and extreme weather.” It linked economic losses in tourism to deterioration of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef .

A March 27 feature story by BBC News environment correspondent Matt McGrath, in Japan for the IPCC report, localized the threat that rising temperatures pose to the world’s food supplies. The provocative BBC headline asked, “Is Japan playing hunger games with climate change?”

A far more measured analysis of the IPCC’s forthcoming report ran in Yale University’s Environment360. UK-based freelance journalist Fred Pearce wrote:

Careful readers will note a new tone to its discussion of these issues that is markedly different from past efforts. It is more humble about what scientists can predict in advance, and far more interested in how societies can make themselves resilient. It also places climate risks much more firmly than before among a host of other problems faced by society, especially by the poor. That tone will annoy some for taking the edge off past warnings, but gratify others for providing a healthy dose of realism.

Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.