My feature article in the March/April edition of World Watch argues that the news media is no longer a bystander in the climate change drama that has prevented profound low-carbon progress across the industrialized world. Some journalism organizations, hampered by all-time-low revenues and large-scale layoffs, still do not understand, and are often unwilling to explain, the complexities of climate science and related policy responses. Climate change has become such a politically charged topic that many news organizations have not treated it as a scientific theory with widespread, authoritative support. Climate change deniers continue to gain media attention, even though the world is becoming hotter, faster.
In the weeks since I wrote my article, several mainstream media organizations have blown out-of-proportion inaccuracies published in past Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. The IPCC exaggerated Himalayan glacial retreat in its 2007 report, suggesting that the inaccuracies are indeed newsworthy and that the panel must do a better job of ensuring that all reports remain accurate, transparent, and credible. But the heated attack from mostly Western media also suggests that news organizations will continue to do what it does best: create drama. In my article, I said that many media providers lack the staff expertise needed to provide context and detail in complicated climate change stories. This continues to be true, but the recent IPCC criticism also suggests that editors need to understand that larger problems—catastrophic climate change—should not be discredited in favor of academic debates about the speed of glacial retreat.
After the article went to print, I’ve since come across some encouraging efforts to explain complex climate stories. The Guardian catalogued all of their stories about “Climategate”—the escapade related to climate science e-mails stolen from a University of East Anglia server—placing the stories on an easy-to-navigate Web page that demonstrates their reporting approach and allows visitors to read about the controversy from beginning to end. The conclusion: “Climate science emails cannot destroy argument that world is warming, and humans are responsible.” It will be a pity if media audiences worldwide, as a result of recent news coverage, are less convinced that the argument is spot on. Without serious, investigative, in-depth news reports, media audiences will continue to become more ill-informed, and efforts to avoid widespread environmental damage will falter.