Covering Climate Change: A Story That Doesn't Fit Journalism's Norms

May 15, 2006

 By PAUL D. THACKER

The last 10 months have been important for Andrew Revkin, who covers climate for The New York Times, and those who cover environmental science. During that time, Revkin exposed a White House official who was doctoring government reports on climate change and uncovered an extensive program to silence NASA scientists from speaking to the public and media about the possible harm we might be causing our planet.

Revkin is not new to this controversy. He wrote his first article on climate change in 1988, a cover story for Discover magazine, and since 2000 he has written more than 250 stories on the subject for The Times. His second book, "Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast," accompanied the first museum exhibition on the subject, created by the American Museum of Natural History in 1992. And in 2003, he received the National Academies Communications Award for print journalism. The judges cited Revkin for his "insightful, comprehensive coverage of the complex science and policy issues of global climate change."

He has also just finished his third book – and first for 'young readers' – on the once and future North Pole. It's coming out this spring, called "The North Pole Was Here: Puzzles & Perils at the Top of the World." Because it's written for kids 10 and up, he quips, "There might even be some politicians who'll finally have a book on climate change they can understand. I haven't quite given up on grownups yet, but I'm getting close."

And so Revkin finds himself as probably the nation's most influential journalist on a topic that most scientists rank as our greatest environmental threat. In this interview, he speaks with the SEJournal about how he thinks the media has covered climate change and offers some advice for future stories.

What first grabbed your interest about climate change?
 AR: 
It all really started with something that's nearly the opposite of global warming: nuclear winter. My first cover story on climate was a long piece for Science Digest on the notion that soot from all the urban fires after a nuclear apocalypse would cause a followup apocalyptic big chill of sorts. My awareness of the complexities of climate science came when Steve Schneider and others at the National Center for Atmospheric Research did some fresh calculations and proposed it would be more like "nuclear autumn." You didn't see much more of nuclear winter in the press after that. Important lessons there stuck with me, and the story fetched me my first award from AAAS.

How has the media's coverage changed over time? Is the media getting more savvy about the stories they write

AR: Coverage of climate change has pulsed and ebbed as new pegs arise, whether political or scientific, 

 

and then fade. There has been a very, very slow shift toward conclusiveness about a human link to rising temperatures. But in some ways that's led to a false sense that certain scenarios for the future are also confidently understood. The scientists closest to questions such as Greenland ice loss, ocean-hurricane links, and the like recognize the error bars are very large. But the mainstream press is still quick to jump on the latest bandwagon, be it abrupt cooling around the North Atlantic or the Arctic melt.

With so much controversy, what do you use as your reference point of scientific credibility? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?
 AR: The IPCC is a vital benchmark. Even though its summary for policymakers is the result of a huge amount of political tugging and warring and the process is laden with a range of scientists, from brilliant to incompetent, tracking its contents over time really does provide a marker for understanding key concepts (sea rise, temperature range, etc.).

How do you stay on top of the issue – which journals do you read? How do you keep track of them? 
AR: I read Science, Nature, PNAS, the AGU journal summaries and get input from a variety of scientists and climate mavens. In free moments, I try to think about what facets of the issue I haven't written on or reviewed of late and send queries to people in those areas.

So many scientists and government agencies are involved, how do you weed out which science or experts are good or bad?
AR: Time and experience do the weeding. I also watch for scientists who are not afraid to have their views evolve. Tim Barnett, at UCSD/ Scripps, is a prime example of someone who was a pretty staunch skeptic on significant human climate influence and now is a strong believer. That tells me he's not locked in or driven by things other than the data.

ExxonMobil has funded a campaign designed to highlight points of controversy in the science. How do you think this has affected media coverage?
AR: The documented efforts by various industry-funded groups to dust the discourse with just enough uncertainty and confusion to make the public go "never mind" and the press snooze have been extraordinarily effective.  They simultaneously exploit innate chacteristics of science, where uncertainly is actually normal, and the media, which crave clarity and loathe the incremental.  This is a recipe for stasis.

Scientists consistently complain that the journalistic practice of "balance" allows skeptics to gain an unfair toehold in media coverage, which ignores consensus in favor of controversy. Do you agree, and do journalists need to rethink their approach to covering complex scientific issues?
 AR: Balance is a necessary evil, a crutch, particularly in daily journalism, but only works with coverage of the science –policy interface if the journalist works hard to label the voices in a story to reflect what they represent (a consensus or knowledgeable minority) and certainly to reflect their motivation or potential conflict (paid by industry? on staff at an environmental group?). When I'm writing strictly on a scientific finding, I avoid voices from anyone other than scientists. When I'm writing on policy, I'll quote those with an agenda, but only if I label their agenda.

What's the biggest mistake you ever made, maybe writing about a study that ended up being wrong or following a line of research that never panned out?
 AR: I failed to fight hard enough when senior editors at The Times killed a series we were assembling on climate in 2003. It was largely unavoidable in the end, reflecting the change in leadership after the Jayson Blair fiasco more than anything else. But I still feel we missed a big opportunity to explore the climate story in fresh ways.

It was really focused on how we know that there is a human link to global warming. We don't know how big it is, but the uncertainties are about the outcomes to the planet. What in society and policy has created a stasis even though the science is clarified?

No matter what you do with emissions in the short term, you still have to have a profound shift away from emitting sources of energy by the mid century, or you're toast. Alot of that gets at the whole energy paradox and how we're so dependent on fossil fuels and how hard it is given current technologies to either substitute for them or capture the emissions. There are a lot of possibilities but it will take work.

The European and British press seem to never play up the controversies in climate change like we do here in the United States. Any ideas on why that is?
 AR: They play up the direst scenarios instead, it often seems. I really think we could use a dose of their editorial courage in giving climate a lot of space and play, and they could use a dose of skepticism.

Has there been anything in your coverage that you think you've missed? 
AR: Well…I think there are ways I could have pushed to get the coverage outside the science section. There were some pretty great pieces on things like the Greenland puzzle and the whole abruptness issue, but those were always Science Times pieces and I guess that is a ghetto, ultimately. A bunch of readers won't get to see it.

There was a point at The Times when I was merely happy that I had the space in the Science Times and thank God we have it. Nobody else has that sort of thing to fall back on, but it is ultimately something of a ghetto.

Do you think that climate change is covered adequately by the media? I mean, what kind of job do you think they're doing?
AR: It's certainly a decent amount of coverage these days, but I still…I don't think people are covering it wrong. It doesn't fit the norms of journalism. The heft of the story is not conveyed. Either the uncertainties make us all fuzz out and look at something more germane like a new explosion in Iraq or the latest scandal in Washington with lobbyists. So we turn away from it. Or we latch onto some new finding that feels like news (abrupt change) and our endless sift for the "front-page thought" makes us minimize the uncertainties.

But it's not just a journalism problem. After covering it for twenty years…you can write the perfect story capturing both the gravitas and the uncertainties of human-induced climate change, perfect on every level, and it won't change things.

We are not attuned to things on this time scale and with this level of uncertainty. Partly because of our political system being so short term, our business cycle being so short term, and because our concerns are focused mainly on what affects my family, then what affects my community, then what affects my state, then what affects my country, and then what affects my globe.

This is last on the list. It's just not registering. And maybe it can't yet.

Often it appears as if the arguments about climate change keep shifting. First it was, "Is it happening?" Then it became, "Okay, but is it caused by humans?" Now we're arguing over hurricanes. 
AR: Well it keeps getting ever grayer. Just think of the IPCC cycle. For thirty years, there has basically been a range of 1-5- degree Celsius for doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. And that has not budged. And one focus of the next IPCC is to get a probability built into that. There's a higher probability of there being 3 degrees or whatever. But that's really difficult science, and we'll never get away from this murk.

It's the same with hurricanes. No one disagrees that later this century hurricanes are going to be a little stronger than they are right now. But frequency is a total toss up.

What do you think will be the next big battle or new science? 
AR: Unfortunately, I don't suspect we'll see in the next IPCC (2007) or some new paper in Science anything that lays it out in a way to fundamentally change the discourse. We have to accept the idea that whatever decisions get made, they will be made in the face of persistent uncertainty.

When will we begin to apply the hedging behavior that we do routinely in our life like buying fire insurance? You don't buy fire insurance because you know your house is going to burn down. But we do it routinely and our banks require us to do it. When are we going to realize that we need to apply this to other parts of our life?

How do you make sure you separate the scientific squabbles from the political fights?

 AR: The interface between complicated science and the policy arena is a horrible place. It's just…everybody is in the room. Even if you have clarity on the point that humans have started ratcheting up the thermostat for the globe, every lobbyist, every politician will find something to grab onto when there is nuance in the science.

What about the economic forecasts? 

AR: I've written a bit about the economics. The Energy Department cherry-picked the information that allowed President Bush to abandon his campaign pledge to regulate CO2 from power plants. And EPA and others protested this and were ignored. There has been an inadequate focus on the quality of the economic analyses and forecasts. They are highly suspect and have far more wiggle room and error than any climate model.

But how many times did the President or one of his minions talk about – what was it 4.5 million jobs and something like $450 billion in lost economic annual output if we signed onto Kyoto? Well, there are aspects of that analysis that are highly criticized. But for some reason, we in the journalism field latch onto numbers fairly quickly.

What would be the key points you'd stress with other journalists about climate change? What subjects should they hit? 
ARNot just for climate change, but just in general. When you can step back, whether it's sprawl or nonpoint source pollution or climate change, there are things going on around you that are profound, that are transforming landscapes. And we ignore them because they are happening in this incremental fashion that journalism just does not recognize. 

And it's not the kind of thing that you can do daily or maybe even yearly. But once in a while, when there's a slow news cycle, step back and see how many houses are being built on steep slopes, or how much leakage there is from underground gas tanks. Or what ecologists and biologists are saying about the way a valley, watershed or coast will be transformed over the next century and how does that relate to the surrounding institutions?

A perfect example is coastal development and sea level rise. One of the firmest things coming out of any climate model is that rising seas are the new normal for centuries to come. So if you are a journalist on the coast, this immediately starts a series of stories to see what is being done to reflect that.

You have to look at the world and ask, "Do our institutions reflect, are we still granting flood insurance to low lying areas?" It can lead to these types of stories.

On the mitigation side, college activism is exploding now. When I went to Montreal to cover the last round of climate-treaty talks the only people there who seemed to be talking sense were the youngest ones.

Will you still be covering the topic, or are you thinking of changing your beat? 
AR: At times I feel like that character from "The Godfather" where he says, "I keep trying to get out and they keep pulling me back in." It's almost unavoidable. What I'm hoping to do soon is get out of the daily grind for a bit and look a little bit more at what will happen in the 21st century. Will we able to start integrating more long-term risks? Katrina is a classic example where the risk was sitting right out there. This is a sub sea level city and you know there are big storms, which means problems. But we didn't react right.

So can we grow up as a species? Right now we are in our teens, locked in this exuberant adolescence for the last 150 years. See that forest? Let's take it down and make paper.

With science we can look forward and see if our actions are reckless. Basically my orientation as a reporter and a human being is to focus on avoiding or mitigating irreversible losses where they can be anticipated. Extinction and long-term climate change are the two biggies in the environment arena. And that shows no sign of changing.

Paul D. Thacker is an associate editor at Environmental Science & Technology in Washington, D.C.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue

By PAUL D. THACKER