Pitfalls And Challenges Await Those Who Cover Climate Future

February 15, 2008




The term comes to mind in the context of the global climate change challenges and opportunities we all face.

But I digress. Or rather, that is, allow me please now to further digress. As a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in 1976 and again in 1980, then-California Governor Jerry Brown showed that he was not above raising perplexing and often mind-bending issues and questions. So much so that the "Governor Moonbeam" moniker applied to him in 1978 by Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko hit home, for many, and stuck hard.

Garry Trudeau, in his Doonesbury column, was perhaps slightly more tactful and eloquent – but no less memorable – in saying that the quixotic Brown was "raising some of the foremost rhetorical questions of our day."


Why do these anecdotes come to mind now, in anticipating the job facing environmental reporters as we enter the new year?

Go figure.

The new year brings with it extraordinary opportunities for journalists to do exceptional work in upholding the values and traditions of the independent media, in serving the long-term best interests of American democracy, and in turning to an advantage the clear risks posed by the [alsogenerational] transformation of the media from "dead trees" to the world of Ethernet, gigabytes and mouse clicks. (Note that the estimable "gray lady," The New York Times, in its digital incarnation, edits its own signature logo to read "All the news that's fit to click.")

In covering emerging climate change science issues over the past decade and more, savvy reporters will have learned some valuable lessons applicable to the increasingly policy-, politics- and economics-focused issues they'll be covering in the new year. A few thoughts:

• The scientific debate on climate change is not over, but rather rages, and healthily, in some critically important ways. Those pointing to claims that others say it is "over" are deliberately overstating, with intent and for effect. Don't fall into the trap they're setting. What's indeed "over" for many serious climate scientists – better to say it's at least for now in the "settled" science category – is that 1) the earth is warming; and 2) human activities have played and are playing a significant role in that warming. Don't be misled by those grousing about the broader debate's being "over." They're the precise ones with partisan axes to grind. 

• The "skeptics," "contrarians," "doubters," or whatever you choose to call them, will not simply slink away and concede they've lost the battle. Indeed, just the opposite, notwithstanding their depleted and demoralized ranks. Think down, perhaps, but by no means out. They'll protest process, claim exclusion from decision making, and certainly bemoan media neglect when it comes to reporting on real climate science. But they won't avoid the shrinking science battlefield as they too move increasingly toward matters of impacts, adaptation and mitigation, economics, and priority setting. If you think those opposing the socalled, but colossally misnamed, "consensus science" will now move to opposing the potential "solutions," you're likely to be right. The same, of course, applies for those who have championed the prevailing scientific view – they're likely to line up in favor of this or that remedy, often notwithstanding the iron curtain scientists like to maintain between science and policy.

• There's no IPCC counterpart in the climate change community when it comes to just what to do about the grand mess presented by excessive CO2 concentrations. Reporters and editors will be more on their own in trying to authoritatively vet claims and counter-claims. They'll need to identify and cultivate their own trusted mentors and "reliable sources" with nothing like the unprecedented IPCC model to help them. Do I hear the words "good old-fashioned gumshoe reporting" in my ears? Yes. Do you in yours?

• Just as there's no single silver-bullet scientific "breakthrough" that makes or un-makes the scientific community's established understanding of climate change, there's no onesize- fits-all, short-term or "easy" way out of the greenhouse gas conundrum. It'll take time, money and unprecedented cooperative global community effort. There inevitably will be lots of setbacks and even false starts along the way. That's part of why the "generational" terminology and the "Apollo Mission" analogies apply.

With a presidential election campaign well under way and inevitable changes in the U.S. approach to climate change certain regardless of which party prevails, environmental reporters face career-making opportunities and challenges to … do it right. The foundational changes under way with many of their employers in the journalism business won't make things any easier.

But in the end, it's up to them and their newsroom colleagues to hold the line on the independent and aggressive journalism practices and traditions that will be called on to report this seminal climate change economic and social issue effectively and fairly. They need to rise to the challenges at their door. And need to do so now.

Bud Ward is an independent journalism educator and writer and a co-founder of SEJ. The founder and former editor of Environment Writer, he now is editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, climatemediaforum.yale.edu.

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2008 issue