News Futures 2014: How Many Ways Will Climate Make News?

April 15, 2014



Veteran journalists at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. offer their thoughts on what will be the biggest environment and energy stories of the year. Bloomberg BNA's Larry Pearl (left) delivered the keynote address, followed by a roundtable discussion with (l to r): Douglas Fischer, The Daily Climate; Andrew Revkin, Pace University; Cheryl Hogue, Chemical & Engineering News; Dennis Dimick, National Geographic; Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian; and Coral Davenport, The New York Times.
                                                           Photo by Schuyler Null, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Climate change and the myriad conflicts that arise from it will be a dominant story in 2014, a panel of top environmental news media experts predicted at a standing-room-only event co-sponsored by SEJ in Washington, DC.

Many of those conflicts are about energy: coal, oil, gas, wind, solar, and the numerous ways those are regulated at the federal and state level. Within weeks of the event, the panelists’ predictions were coming true, and weird weather was wreaking havoc across the country and the globe.

Before the panel of seasoned environmental journalists took turns prognosticating, Larry Pearl, director of environmental news at Bloomberg BNA, offered an overview of the regulatory, legislative and litigative calendar.

A lot of the “set” and predictable decisions Pearl outlined will relate to climate in some way. An example: EPA’s finalization of the renewable fuel standard. But even modest legislative efforts to address energy efficiency have a very uncertain outlook – with Congress in partisan deadlock and facing elections – as do almost all other possible actions by Congress.

There are conspicuous exceptions to the gridlock prediction. Pearl noted that a Water Resources Development Act (a pork-barrel vehicle with something for almost everyone) seemed almost certain to pass.

Pearl and the panelists were pessimistic about Congress getting much else done in 2014; he noted that the legislative work session was especially short before election pressures begin. Even something like bills to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – which have been inching forward toward a bipartisan, industry-environmentalist consensus in recent years – have little chance of being finished in 2014, and is likely to be held over for a future Congress.

The Jan.9 chemical spill that contaminated drinking water in Charleston, WV, served as an example of how breaking events have a way of challenging prognostications. Panelist Cheryl Hogue, a senior correspondent for Chemical & Engineering News, said the spill had reshuffled the odds for a TSCA bill passing, without necessarily making it more likely. But, Hogue said, the Charleston spill could help chances for some more limited measure, like a Senate bill for chemical tank safety and inspection. (See“Inside Story” for more on coverage of the spill, p 6 or online here.)

‘Everything always boils down to coal’

Panelist Suzanne Goldenberg, who is the U.S. environment correspondent for The Guardian, summed up much of the coming year by saying: “When it comes to climate, everything always boils down to coal.” EPA is expected this year to hand down decisions on carbon limits for coal-burning power plants, both existing and new ones, which will be hotly debated and make news. A keypoint will be whether carbon capture and storage technology actually works. But, she noted, the fact that 2014 is an election year means “a large chunk of this debate is not going to be on the merits of carbon capture ... it’s going to be about politics. It’s going to [be] down and dirty.” Panelist Coral Davenport, a reporter who recently moved from National Journal to The New York Times, said the coming EPA powerplant regulations would offer Republicans a new opportunity to accuse the Obama administration, and by implication Democrats, of waging a “war on coal.” GOP political operatives, she said, viewed such attacks as the party’s “right hook” going into elections.

But Davenport also noted that in the 2012 elections, despite large efforts and big spending, “the ‘war on coal’ campaign didn’t work.” She said she thought the Obama administration, seeing this, would be encouraged to push its efforts to regulate carbon emissions from coal.

Dennis Dimick, an executive editor at National Geographic, which had scheduled a major piece on coal for March, reminded the audience that on a global level, coal use was growing faster than use of any other energy source, including renewables. “This is a problem that is not going to go away.”

Several other panelists agreed with Dimick’s assessment. Andrew C. Revkin, a New York Times blogger (Dot Earth) and a Pace University fellow, had recently talked with China’s top climate strategist. Revkin said the hunger for cheap energy was changing coal from a once-local commodity to a global one.

Keystone pipeline, fracking, water on the news agenda

Most panelists agreed that the Keystone XL pipeline (really a proxy for the issue of Canadian oil sands development ... and ultimately a proxy for the climate issue) would make more news in 2014. (And since the January crystal ball session, it has – with a major State Department environmental statement intensifying but not ending debate.)

But panelists did not agree that settling KXL would settle the tar sands debate. Pearl thought the Canadian oil would reach market no matter whether the pipeline was built or not. Goldenberg, however, said pipeline approval did matter: “Every day that the oil stays in the ground ... is another day the oil stays in the ground. And for the environmental movement that’s a small victory.”

Panelists also generally agreed that fracking would keep making news in 2014. The combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of shale formations has spurred a boom in U.S. production of both oil and gas in recent years – with attendant environmental controversies. That is a story likelier to unfold at the state-by-state, rather than the federal, level.

Dimick made the point that water was likely to be a key focus of the climate story in the coming year. California’s drought, he said, was merely an example of a broader West-wide drought. While news outlets are likely to focus on drought’s impacts on cities and agriculture, Dimick said it was a mistake to ignore drought’s environmental impacts.

What ‘should’ make news

Panelists tried to distinguish between stories that should be news and stories that would actually make the headlines. Revkin, for example, said a key part of the sustainability story was demographic change – people building or moving into harm’s way. That was the case in November’s super typhoon Haiyan, he noted. The unusual violence of the storm had eclipsed the fact that in recent decades large populations had moved to the area where it did the most harm.

In the U.S., he said, the media seemed to be missing the tax incentives for second homes in wildfire zones or Congressional reluctance to use flood insurance costs to urge people out of areas at risk for f looding. Nobody thought this would inspire major media coverage.

Pundits and savants know that some things are always sure to make news. The panel discussion was moderated by Douglas Fischer, editor of The Daily Climate. He asked whether 2014 would be the year of celebrity invasion of environmental news. Examples were plentiful. Revkin noted that Chinese celebrities had gotten the government to stop serving shark-fin soup. Efforts by Neil Young, Mark Ruffalo, and Yoko Ono to stop fracking were another example. Because so many celebs lived in the Catskills, Davenport observed: “There still isn’t fracking in New York State.”

The Jan. 24 event was organized under the leadership of SEJ board member Meaghan Parker and hosted by the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan academic nexus established by Congress but funded by both public and private funds. The center’s Environmental Change and Security Program has been a leader in connecting the dots between environmental issues and geopolitics.

Joseph A. Davis has written about environment, energy and natural resources in various capacities since 1976. He currently edits SEJ's WatchDog newsletter and curates SEJ’s daily EJToday Headlines.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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