Climate Change Moves To The Front Burner At Most News Outlets

May 15, 2007

 

 By MIKE DUNNE

Global warming or climate change has been a topic simmering on the environmental journalism burners for quite some time. As 2007 began, it boiled over, becoming front-page news across the nation.

There was a steady stream of stories written about an upcoming report by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, then stories about what the report really said followed up by stories about possible regional implications.

Two of those able to ride the wave of interest in the topic were reporters Mike Taugher and Betsy Mason of the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif.

The week before the IPCC report was released in Paris, the Times' readers were being treated to an in-depth look at the potential impacts of climate change on the Golden State and the West.

"Betsy and I first pitched this project in January 2005," Taugher said. "We thought at the time that the science around the regional effects of climate change was mature enough to write about. The editors liked it, but a couple of big and more immediate stories broke (on my beat, to Betsy's frustration because she wanted to do the climate change series right away) and pushed the project back."

"We made a short-lived attempt to get the series going last summer, but elections and the state's big bonds package put it on hold again. Then, after the last post-election story was done, Betsy and I were asked if we could trim it to a four-part series and have it done for the holidays. That seemed impossible. We pushed for more time and argued that the State of the Union – there were rumblings that the president would say something substantial about climate change – and the IPCC report would make a great news hook and we could produce a much better series with the additional time. So, if it looked like smart planning, it was really just opportunism and desperate negotiation."

The two got about 10 weeks to produce the series, although each had a week of vacation crammed into that period.

"Tackling a subject as big as the regional effects of climate change on a tight deadline and trying to make it read well was a challenge in many ways. But the concept was simple: We decided the science was mature enough to say, in effect, climate change is here and here is what the best studies we can find say about the range of possibilities that our state faces."

Reader response was mixed, Taugher said. "It ran the gamut from nutty to intelligent skepticism to gratitude and requests for more information. We got a lot of predictable heat from readers who don't "believe" in global warming. Most of those were anonymous.

"We also heard from more thoughtful skeptics. Others wondered why we should worry given the sacrifices that would have to be made and the uncertainty surrounding the severity of impacts. Some readers simply do not believe scientists because, in their view, scientists say whatever they have to to get more funding."

Mason said she was "all prepared for a fight with editors over the content. I thought they'd try to get us to write a more "balanced" series with more voice from the tiny remaining contingent of skeptics willing to go on record, but that fight never materialized to my happy surprise. Most of the negotiating with editors was over the time we needed."

'the timing turned out well with IPCC. Though that was largely luck, as Mike said, we were able to use the February release as a way to get a little more time for the project by arguing, successfully, that putting the series directly in front of the IPCC would put us ahead of a wave of press on climate change," Mason said.

Leading up to the report's release, many other reporters provided a steady stream of stories, like one by Amelia Nelson-Stowell of Salt Lake City's Deseret Morning News. "Global warming could force the snow sports industry out of business by dramatically reducing the amount of snow and shortening the ski season to a mere two months, according to a new study," she reported Jan. 11.

"By 2100, the ski season could extend only from Christmas to Presidents Day, under the best-case scenario. Even a small 4- to 5-degree warming could be disastrous for the resorts – and winter," she

Also on Jan. 11, Dan Richman of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote about a study looking at the impacts of global warming on Washington state. "Climbing temperatures over the next 40 years will boost the cost of timber, water and crops, cause twice the wildfire damage that occurs now, exacerbate health issues and require expensive shoring-up to avoid damage to Tacoma, Willapa Bay and other low-lying areas," he wrote.

Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press reported from Paris, where the report was released. His Feb. 2 story, using an advance copy of the "summary for policy makers," ran on the front page of the Baton Rouge Advocate.

The report's release produced a flurry of stories. On Feb. 3, Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote about the implications for the low-lying metro area that was flooded by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. "The international pattern of global warming confirmed by a United Nations panel of world scientists Friday could have dramatic effects on the New Orleans area during the next century. The forecast includes rising seas, more intense hurricanes and a combination of more frequent rainstorms and drought conditions," he said, quoting a federal scientist based in Louisiana who helped write part of the report.

Some reporters followed up with stories on adaptation efforts. Kate Alexander wrote in the Austin American- Statesman how the Texas capital will try to take the lead among the nation's cities in cutting global warming. Her story on Feb. 8 told how "Mayor Will Wynn and several other city officials said Austin will cut its emissions of polluting carbon dioxide to almost nothing by 2020, increase the use of renewable energy sources, boost energy conservation, and require better efficiency for homes and commercial buildings. Elements of the proposal could be controversial."

The Raleigh News and Observer's Wade Rawlins wrote about ideas to reduce greenhouse gases. His Feb. 23 story covered about 20 recommendations devised by a state-created panel in North Carolina. One idea is consumers paying a fee on their power bills to fund programs that encourage energy conservation. Another goal might be for state government cutting its own energy consumption by 20 percent within two decades and revising building codes to promote energy efficiency. Of course, there were a lot more stories than just climate change.

Mike Salinero of the Tampa Tribune took a three-day look at the Hillsborough River and its health – or lack of it.

Part one, on Jan. 14, started succinctly: "The Hillsborough River is sick."

Part two explained that while the river is the area's main source of drinking water there are questions about how to restore it and in what way. "Most scientists agree that restoring a more natural flow of fresh water to the Bay could again make the river a prolific nursery for all types of fish. The question is: How much fresh water is enough?"

Part three looked at cleanup plans. To see the project, go to: www.tbo.com/news/reports/river.

Water was also the topic of a story by Jeff Alexander in the Muskegon (Mich.) Chronicle on Jan. 7. He wrote about the conflict of mining spring water on the flow of important area streams.

On Jan. 8, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reported on the United Church of Canada's decision to boycott bottled water. The reasons range from making sure clean drinking water is available to all to conserving groundwater. 

Dinah Voyles Pulver of the Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal also tackled a water issue – the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of her town. Her Sunday package of stories was the first of an occasional series that will run on environmental challenges during the coming year, "Our Natural Treasures: Are We Losing Our Way?" she said.

The first part, "Troubled waters," ran Jan. 7. See it at: www.news-journalonline. com/special/natural.

Both lead and chromated copper arsenate (CCA) continued to generate environmental stories. On Feb. 4, Tony Davis of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson wrote that after nearly three decades of being banned for use in paint and two decades of unleaded gasoline, "lead poisoning in kids remains a significant, although diminished, threat in inner-city Tucson and some other city areas, health officials say.

"Although lead levels in kids' blood have dropped greatly across the country since the 1970s, virtually all of Tucson's urban core remains at high risk for lead poisoning of children, according to Arizona Department of Health Services records," Davis wrote.

The day before, in the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer, reporter Howard Weiss- Tisman wrote that "Vermont's existing lead paint law does not do enough to protect children from lead poisoning and a more aggressive, statewide program will have to be adopted to eliminate lead exposure, according to a report released by the Attorney General's office." Weiss-Tisman said Vermont health officials react to lead poisoning sources only after children are sickened. The story called for stronger enforcement of a state anti-lead law and better education programs.

Aimee Cunningham of Science News reported Feb. 3 on a new study of Hurricane Katrina debris in New Orleans showed high levels of arsenic contamination. "Before 2004, chromated copper arsenate (CCA) was the preservative most commonly used to prevent pest infestation of construction wood. Because of arsenic's toxicity, the Environmental Protection Agency has since banned use of the chemical for residential projects," she wrote. Researchers used a handheld X-ray-fluorescence spectroscope to determine the concentration of arsenic within 225 pieces of lumber from seven sites. Fifty-two pieces contained arsenic, with a mean concentration of 1.24 grams per kilogram of wood.

Carl Prine of the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review continued to look at chemical safety – again showing the ease of access to hazardous substances that could be used as a weapon by extremists. He wrote of his visits to one Las Vegas rail yard: "If he (Prine) was a terrorist, and his goal was to release a potentially catastrophic cloud of deadly gases, explosives and caustic acids – in unguarded cars, left abandoned – then a U.S. Department of Homeland Security's planning scenario might apply: 17,500 people dead, another 10,000 suffering injuries and 100,000 more flooding trauma wards, convinced they've been poisoned. The environmental damage would take weeks to clean up, forcing the evacuation of as many as 70,000 residents from a city built on sin, military might and heavy industry."

In the Jan. 14 article, Prine said he left his business card on unsecured tank cars. It didn't take long to drive home Prine's point.

On Jan. 17, Greg Kocher and Linda Blackford of the Louisville Courier- Journal wrote about a derailment south of that city that sent a fireball into the sky, shut down a busy interstate highway, and caused evacuations of homes, businesses and schools. Fifteen of the train's 80 cars were carrying hazardous materials. Twelve of those derailed, and all of them were involved in the fire. Nineteen people were treated at a local hospital. It was the second train crash in Kentucky in two days – the other also spilling c hemicals that required an evacuation. 

The newspaper's Jim Bruggers followed up with a Jan. 21 story outlining why local efforts to control hazardous cargo on the rails are being stopped by the federal government. "Several cities have begun to move toward adopting their own railroad safety rules, which would challenge federal control and seek to limit or ban shipments of the most hazardous materials through their urban centers," Bruggers wrote.

And on Jan. 28, Anna M. Tinsley of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote about toxic-toting trains in her community. "Any one of them could be a target. Every day, more than 100 trains pass through Metroplex neighborhoods, and thousands of others crisscross their way through America, some carrying toxic chemicals that could produce a catastrophe if a terrorist attack released them in a heavily populated area."

She quoted Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff as saying: "The biggest danger ... is the possibility of a terrorist blowing up a car which causes ... dangerous chemicals to be emitted into the air."

Air pollution in Texas and plans to permit several coal-burning power plants have kept reporters in the Lone Star State busy. On Sunday, Jan. 28, David Doerr of the Waco Tribune-Herald wrote about the debate surrounding those plans. "With 10 of the state's 16 coal-fired plant projects located in Central Texas, including three in McLennan County, Waco finds itself quite literally in the center of the controversy."

Alex Nussbaum of The Record in Hackensack, N.J., continues to follow up on toxic dumping by Ford Motor Co. The newspaper's series last year garnered a number of top reporting awards. On Jan. 7, Nussbaum wrote about how waste pulled from Ringwood, N.J., was being shipped to a "treatment plant southwest of Detroit a few miles from where Henry Ford rolled out his first Model T's a century ago." He wrote about the communities that ended up with New Jersey exported wastes.

Alex Pulaski of the Portland Oregonian began a three-part series looking at the regulation of perchlorate. "The federal government has been inconsistent and at times intentionally silent on how much perchlorate is safe in drinking water. As a result, environmental groups contend, defense contractors and the government have been indefinitely shielded from cleanup costs while infants and pregnant women are exposed to a chemical that impairs thyroid function and can slow infant brain development."

Autumn Spanne of the New Bedford, Mass., Standard-Times wrote Jan. 14 about research by a Dartmouth professor, Yuegang Zuo, who identified several types of natural and synthetic estrogen hormones, most coming from human waste and released by area sewage treatment plants, that could be hindering larval lobster development, as well as shell growth and reproduction in adult lobsters. "Estrogen, which mimics lobsters' own molting hormone, may interfere with their molting process and make them more susceptible to the bacteria that causes shell disease," Spanne wrote.

Scott Streater of the Fort Worth Star- Telegram wrote on Jan. 20 about a new study suggesting that people are routinely exposed to potentially harmful chemical flame retardants by ingesting household dust laced with the toxic chemicals, a fact that concerns health researchers who fear that children are at greatest risk.

The study, conducted by researchers at Boston University's School of Public Health, is the first to link the presence in people of the chemical flame retardants to exposure to common dust, which can be inhaled in the air or ingested in food.

Janet Raloff of Science News reported in the Jan. 20 issue a German team of researchers recently found that in newborn male rats the lowest doses tested of plastic- softening agent di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) suppressed the brain activity of an enzyme critical for male development. "For decades, researchers largely assumed that a poison's effects increase as the dose rises and diminish as it falls," Raloff wrote. But now such tests show "unexpected effects–sometimes disproportionately adverse, sometimes beneficial– at extremely low doses of radiation and toxic chemicals."

Abram Katz of the New Haven (Conn.) Register wrote on Feb. 5 the use of antibacterial products may be "breeding resistant germs and appear to threaten the environment, experts said." Traces of the chemicals triclosan and tricloban have been detected in mother's milk and 60 percent of the rivers and streams of the United States. "The persistent chemicals also end up in sludge that is used in fertilizer to grow the grains and produce we eat," he wrote.

Dina Cappiello of the Houston Chronicle continues to follow air pollution issues in that area. In a Jan. 28 story she wrote how air quality monitors in the Houston area were not expected to meet federal ozone standards by 2009. She quoted state environmental official Kathleen Hartnett White saying that "Houston is like the perfect recipe for efficient ozone formation" with the city's large industrial complex, traffic, population growth and weather.

Bob Downing of the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal wrote a number of stories, beginning Jan. 24, about possible fires in one of Ohio's largest landfills, the Republic Waste Service facility south of Canton, Ohio. He interviewed a pilot who flew over the landfill with infrared equipment. One possible cause: 1 million tons of aluminum dross reacting with leachate and producing high temperatures and excessive foul-smelling odors but no health threat. The newspaper also reported that the Ohio EPA has been very divided on the issue. Some of the stories will be available at www.ohio.com.

Adrienne Tanner of the Vancouver Sun in British Columbia wrote on Feb. 10 that milk at two area dairy farms show elevated dioxin levels. That prompted a province-wide order to change how feed is stored in farms with bins made of pressure- treated wood.

Minnesota Public Radio's Stephanie Hemphill profiled an ecofriendly house being built in Aitkin, a small town in central Minnesota. The house features wood that grew in nearby forests, and was made into flooring, trim, cabinets and siding by local people. It's an effort to get more value from the traditionally extractive forest industry. It ran Jan. 8. See and hear it at http://minnesota. publicradio.org/display/web/2007 /01/05/aitkinhouse.

Matt Mendenhall of Birder's World wrote an eight-page behind-the-scenes look at whooping cranes that migrate from Wisconsin to Florida. His report included detail on the first adult pair in the population to hatch eggs and raise a chick. It's in the April issue. See: www.birdersworld.com/brd/default.aspx ?c=a&id†7.

Elizabeth McGowan of Crain Communication's Waste News wrote about how movie directors are adapting to shooting, editing and delivering their prized productions with high-definition video and digital technology and reducing their reliance on traditional film. That means less waste and close to zero chemicals. "Now Showing: The End of Film and Waste?" can be found on www.wastenews.com.

Mireya Navarro of The New York Times reported on how to make weddings greener. "Kate Harrison's idea of a fairy tale wedding goes something like this: Gather more than 150 friends and relatives at an organic farm for a pre-wedding day of hikes and environmental tours. Calculate the mileage guests will travel and offset their carbon dioxide emissions by donating to programs that plant trees or preserve rain forests. Use hydrangeas, berries and other local and seasonal flowers for her bouquet and the decorations, instead of burning up fuel transporting flowers from faraway farms," Navarro wrote Feb. 11.

Tom Henry of the Toledo (Ohio) Blade reported that BP's Toledo oil refinery in Oregon (Ohio) has had deeply rooted problems with safety oversight for years, according to a special review of the oil company's five U.S. refineries. "One member of the assessment team went so far as to say the local refinery has the weakest oversight of the group – even worse than the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, where a 2005 explosion killed 15 people and injured 170 others in what has been described as the nation's worst industrial accident in more than 20 years," Henry wrote on Jan. 17.

Mike Dunne, assistant SEJournal editor, writes for The Advocate in Baton Rouge LA.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue.