Climate Change Thawing Freeze On E-News

November 15, 2007

 By BILL DAWSON

"All news, all the time" was the slogan of a once all-news radio station of my acquaintance. A quick Google search reveals that the phrase and several variations are still around.

Given the recent rise to prominence of the climate issue, even veteran reporters familiar with the often-surprising meanders of the environment beat's path may have wondered if "all climate news, all the time" could be the beat's future.

That's not going to happen, of course. But how about a "mostly climate, most of the time" scenario? That seems less farfetched.

Certainly, the combined impetus of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, "An Inconvenient Truth," a celebrity bandwagon, and a steady flow of dramatic scientific findings, to name just some of the key factors, have boosted media attention to, and public awareness of, global warming.

Pete Myers, a longtime SEJ supporter and founder of the Environmental Health News website, told me when I interviewed him for the Environment Writer newsletter last year that EHN's tracking of environmental news from around the world had recorded a marked increase in coverage of climate change, and that related stories on energy also "have increased hugely."

EHN's invaluable database provides some striking statistical evidence suggesting that climate and related coverage continues to occupy a larger place in news organizations' attention to the environment. In 2006, about 18.7 percent of all the news articles classified and linked by EHN (11,817 stories out of 63,343) were labeled "climate change" in its categorization by issue.

At this writing (through Sept. 21), about 30.5 percent of all 2007 articles archived by EHN – 16,186 stories out of 53,099 – were in the "climate change" category.

Last year, "water" was the top-ranked issue, with 32.1 percent of all articles. "Climate change" was second (18.7 percent), "environmental politics" was third (18.2 percent), and "air" was fourth (16.3 percent).

This year, through Sept. 21, "climate change" at 30.5 percent tops the list. "Environmental politics" is second (15.6 percent), "water" is third (15.0 percent) and "air" is fourth (14.8 percent).

Of course, news decisions are largely driven by events, and this year's release of the latest scientific reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change comprised a series of major news events.

The IPCC's Working Group I report (on the physical science basis for experts' understanding of human impacts on climate) was released Feb. 2 in Paris, generating a "steady stream of stories" in the run-up to that event, as the late Mike Dunne reported in "The Beat" in SEJournal's Spring 2007 issue. Working Group II released its report on "Impacts, Adapatation and Vulnerability" on April 6. And Working Group III's report ("Mitigation") came out on May 4.

The impact on coverage is obvious in EHN's statistics. The month with the largest number of articles in the "climate change" category in 2006 was September, with 1,159 stories. In January of this year, there were 1,668 articles.

In each of the following four months, more than 2,000 stories were included in the EHN database – 2,093 in February (when the Working Group I report was released), 2,046 in March, 2,349 in April (the month of the Working Group II release), and 2,118 in May (Working Group III).

"Climate change" stories declined in each of the next three months, however – to 1,871 in June, 1,536 in July, and 1,430 in August. The 1,078 articles recorded through Sept. 21 suggested there might be an increase during that month, compared to August.

Such variation doesn't say anything definitive about the long-term trajectory of the climate issue compared to other environmental coverage, but it suggests that journalistic attention to climate is (no surprise) influenced by major events and is not (again, no surprise) on a consistently upward track.

Still, even the smaller numbers of climate articles in the last few months were larger than any recorded in 2006, and I'd be hard pressed to find an environmental journalist who doesn't think the climate issue will loom larger and larger on journalistic agendas.

Bud Ward argued in his E-Reporting Biz column in the Summer 2007 SEJournal that reporters on the environ- ment beat should "loosen their death-hold grip on what has been their keystone issue, possibly the story of their lifetime," and that the issue "must morph from the environmental and science desks to the entire newsroom."

That's already happening – the "morphing" part, at least – as the climate issue figures more often and more prominently in reporting on business developments and economic news in general.

This should not be surprising. Even before the IPCC's head-turning reports in 2007, Myers said last year that the coverage aggregated by EHN's software was indicating a shift "from a 'he-said, shesaid' depiction of the science to one that, for the most part, accepts that climate change is happening and that is caused by human activity."

If the public debate over human causation is indeed winding down, the debate over responses to climate change is expected to heat up, inevitably and increasingly involving tough economic questions. The wide variety of ways that climate concerns can intersect with these questions – an individual company's reaction to global warming, say, or the economic ramifications of new scientific research – was on display in articles published in the last few months.

Climate was central to some of the stories, peripheral but still important in others. They extended from the hyperlocal (to borrow a current newspaper industry buzzword) to the decidedly international.

On June 10, for instance, the Boston Globe's  Beth Daley  examined research on the possible warming-spurred advance of the wooly adelgid, a tree-sap-eating insect, and other invasive pests.

Dealing largely with science, the article also noted the implications for the forest industry, including contemplated actions such as "tighten(ing) quarantines for hemlock logs, conduct(ing) more inspections of nurseries for the bug, and enact(ing) stricter rules governing transport of hemlocks." (www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/ 2007/06/10/as_ne_warms_tiny_pests_ take_root/)

Other stories also focused largely on the potential economic impacts of climate change on specific industries or regions.

On June 22, the Wilmington Star- News' Gareth McGrath reported a study by university researchers that projected "rising seas could wash away most of Southeastern North Carolina's public beaches by 2080, limiting recreational and fishing opportunities, and costing the regional economy $3.9 billion." (www. w i l m i n g t o n s t a r. c o m / a r t i - cle/20070621/NEWS/706210435/0/business)

Aweek later, the International Herald Tribune, in an article by James Kanter, reported on June 29 that major banks were proposing "tough new standards for the trading of carbon offsets, in a bid to prevent a public backlash against one of the fastest-growing sectors in finance." (http://iht.com/articles/2007/06/28/business/ carbon.php)

The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., published an article on July 8 that reported that lawyers see a potentially "lucrative new field" in global warming: "These days, it seems everyone wants to get in on the act, from big law firms starting specialty practice groups, to solo lawyers working on projects, to law schools adding classes devoted to the subject."

Other articles looked at responses to the climate issue by individual businesses, small and large.

The Miami Herald's Begone Cazalis, in a Sept. 17 article, profiled the owner of a Hialeah, Fla., printing company. Though a Republican, the businessman had been so impressed by Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" film that he instituted practices that have made his company "the first triple certified green printer of Florida." (www.miamiherald.com/news/ miami_dade/northwest/story/241062.htm)

Dominic Gates, aerospace reporter for the Seattle Times, reported on June 5 about an airline trade group's goal of a "zeroemissions" airplane within a half-century, and Boeing's desire to make the industry "carbon-neutral" before then through a combination of technologies and practices including emissions trading. (http://seattletimes. nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/ 2003734587_iata05.html)

A Sept. 14 article in the Wall Street Journal by Kathryn Kranhold provided a detailed examination of General Electric's 2-year-old "ecomagination" campaign to address climate change. It included attention to the skepticism that campaign has produced in-house as well as critical scrutiny from outsiders. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118973485406827339.html)

Meanwhile, coverage of the energy industry itself dealt with climate-related subjects in various ways.

Jim Landers of the Dallas Morning News reported from Washington on July 19 that the National Petroleum Council, a federal advisory panel with members from the oil and gas industry and others, was calling for "a crash program to double automobile fuel efficiency, limit carbon emissions and push as hard as it can for bio-fuels and other energy sources over the next 25 years or risk serious shortages." (www.wfaa.com/sharedc o n t e n t / d w s / b u s / s t o r i e s / D N - energy_19bus.ART0.State.Edition1.3634e44.html)

The nuclear industry – long in a no growth mode, but which could receive a boost from concerns about greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels – received an unsurprising share of journalistic attention.

The Economist magazine, in a major Sept. 6 article headlined "Atomic renaissance," reported that "America's nuclear industry is about to embark on its biggest expansion in more than a generation. This will influence energy policy in the rest of the world." (www.economist.com/science/ display story.cfm?story_id—62843)

Eric Fleischauer of The Decatur (Ala.) Daily reported in a detailed Aug. 26 article that a shutdown of the Browns Ferry nuclear reactor because of high temperatures in the Tennessee River had drawn international attention from both "mainstream press" and "anti-nuclear blogs.

He examined a key question about the prospects of a nuclear industry resurgence fueled by climate concerns: "What use is nuclear power if plants become inoperable as global temperatures rise?" (www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/busi ness/070826/plant.shtml)

Bill Dawson, the SEJournal's new assistant editor, is a Houston-based freelancer who also teaches at Rice
University.

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

 

BILL DAWSON