Communicating on Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators
Bud Ward
Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. 74 Pages.
As humans, we are finally recognizing that the promise made in Genesis has come to pass: We’ve achieved dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth—and even more important, each of the planetary life support systems that sustain us, including the climate.

“We’re big. We’re really big,” says James White, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “So far, humans have changed carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by an amount equal to what nature was capable of doing over at least the last million years.” Those natural fluctuations were accompanied by climate changes as momentous as the coming and going of ice ages. So we should not be surprised by what our emissions of greenhouse gases will likely bring.

“Big climate change is a done deal,” White says.

Blind dominion of nature is risky business, and the extent to which the public now gets this can be attributed in large measure to the work of journalists. So the recent publication of “Communicating Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators,” by longtime environmental journalist Bud Ward, comes at an especially appropriate time. Ward has done a masterful job of synthesizing the outcome of a series of workshops involving scientists and journalists between 2003 and 2007, offering valuable advice both to working journalists and student journalists, who are preparing to cover the topic in very uncertain times.

At the outset of those workshops, journalists expressed frustration at how little traction climate change was getting. By 2007, however, “the media and the general public had begun to understand and more widely report on the ever-greater consensus of scientists that anthropogenic climate change is real and that global atmospheric temperatures are increasing,” Ward writes.

Read Andrew Revkin’s blog, where he writes about climate change and other topics related to natural resources and the environment »
But I wouldn’t count on this trend continuing. With bankruptcies of major news outlets, closure of newspapers, and layoffs of more than 14,000 journalists in 2008 alone, journalism is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. “This is the worst possible story to tell, and it is getting harder, because our resources are decreasing at the same time the story complexity is increasing,” notes Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, who participated in the workshops.

Meanwhile, climate science isn’t getting any less complex. A host of scientific questions with uncertain answers may prove more difficult to report on than the simple attribution question: Are humans causing global warming? For example, do dangerous thresholds exist in the climate system and, if they do, could we be close to crossing one of them?

Climate and Politics: Covering the Clash

To the list of these challenging issues we must now add what might become the most nettlesome one of all: the looming political battle over climate policy. That’s where the climate change story is heading as we enter 2009, and any journalist who wants to follow it responsibly should have at least a basic understanding of how to approach the scientific underpinnings.

This is where “Communicating on Climate Change” can really help.

Journalists describe how and why they have moved away from presenting a “false balance” in reporting on global warming. Ward’s book clearly lays out the pitfalls to be avoided in covering humankind’s grand experiment with the climate system. Chief among these is the question of journalistic “balance.” As the book points out, science often consists of a spectrum of differing points of view. Over time, accumulating evidence may tend to converge in support of one over the others. So journalists should avoid what has come to be called “false balance,” in which we line up equal numbers of experts on either side of an issue. Since the vast majority of climate experts say we humans are warming the planet, our stories should not give equal weight to the handful of experts who argue otherwise.

But “Communicating on Climate Change” also warns against overcompensation. Some journalists, particularly those who haven’t covered the issue before, are approaching the topic without sufficient skepticism of new claims. This concerns Revkin. “Presumably, the basis for action lies in an understanding of the risks,” he says. “And understanding the risks comes from a clear view of the science, including what we don’t know about climate change.” In his opinion, that clear view of the science is getting “terribly lost in the distillation that comes with saying that there is no more denying it.” His warning: “There is complexity out there, folks, and the things that are clear are only the basics: more CO2 means a warmer world.”

As the policy wars heat up, it will also be important to recognize that the Kyoto Protocol was intended as a beginning, not global policy’s endpoint. And despite some progress by European countries, Kyoto hasn’t reined in global carbon dioxide emissions, which have actually shot up by nearly 30 percent since 1990. Reporting on future policy action should acknowledge that important context.

See “An ‘Open Notebook’ Project About Climate Change” to find more about the interviews Yulsman did with White, other scientists, and journalists »
“Many of us, myself included, thought Kyoto was one of those necessary baby steps that you take on the way to actually dealing with the problem,” Colorado’s James White says. It hasn’t turned out that way because the pace of change driven by our need for energy has been, in his words, “so fast and so enormous.”

The quickening pace of change is dramatically manifest in Greenland, White says. There, melting has lubricated the base of ice sheets, hastening the flow of ice into the sea and thereby contributing to sea level rise. But how much can we expect in the future? We just don’t know for sure. And the stakes are huge: “It’s Greenland and West Antarctica that really are going to dictate whether or not Miami is around in 2100 or 2150,” White says. So this will be an important part of this story on which American journalists should focus their reporting. (In each region of the world, there will be connective threads, such as this one, and that’s another task for journalists, to seek help from scientists in identifying and finding ways to accurately track.)

The Framework Convention on Climate Change (to which the United States is a party) calls on the countries of the world to avoid “dangerous interference with the climate system.” But what constitutes “dangerous” interference? For example, at what concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere do we run a significant risk of widespread melting of ice sheets and potentially catastrophic sea level rise? The convention didn’t specify. So that question went to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider was a co-lead author on the chapter in the most recent IPCC assessment devoted to addressing that question, as well as a participant in the “Communicating on Climate Change” workshops. “Right off the bat we had to distinguish between risks, which involves scientific judgment, and how to manage those risks, which involves values,” Schneider says. “Given the risks we’ve identified, how many chances do you want to take with planetary life-support systems, versus how many chances do you want to take with the economy?” Schneider asks. “That’s a value judgment, and that’s the government’s job, the corporation’s job, an individual’s job.”

Such value judgments will be made in an intensely political environment, predicts Roger Pielke, Jr., a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, where he focuses on the nexus of science and technology in decision-making. As the politics heat up, he urges journalists not to take sides in what is certain to be a vigorous debate with all kinds of information vying for people’s attention and belief. “Climate policy needs more options, not less,” he argues. “Like it or not, people wanting to go slow or not go at all are part of the political scene.”

As journalists, it’s our responsibility to cover the full spectrum of political views, not just the ones we think are in tune with the scientific evidence, because decision-makers will be taking into account other factors, such as economic consequences related to decisions about climate change policies.

Solving some of the conundrums of climate coverage might ultimately be aided by Web-based journalism. But right now, the transition to digital news media could be having the opposite effect. According to Peter Dykstra, former head of CNN’s science, technology and environment unit, the gatekeepers at broadcast and cable television news outlets are increasingly relying on Web clicks to tell them what TV viewers, not just Web readers, want to see. As a result, “What you routinely see is a mix of serious and absurd stories,” Dykstra observes. What we are unlikely to see moving forward is sustained, serious coverage of the complexities of climate change and the policy ramifications.

In an essay Dykstra contributed to “Communicating on Climate Change,” he says he urged his bosses not to use the standard of criminal trials to judge the issues. Demanding that the case for climate change be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” is unreasonable and has contributed to the false balance problem. “‘Preponderance of evidence’ is the order of the day in a civil court.… [And] this may be the fairest analogy to apply to policy and science issues such as climate change,” Dykstra recommends.

This is great advice. It’s just too bad that his bosses at CNN are no longer receiving it. They dropped Dykstra and his entire unit at the end of 2008. He believes their ouster leaves broadcast and cable news with no reporters or producers working full time on environmental issues, not to mention science and technology.

This gaping chasm in environmental expertise in television news, along with downsizing at nearly every newspaper and the slackening of online ad revenues that might pay for serious-minded digital journalism, does not bode well for the future of news reporting about climate change.

Tom Yulsman is codirector of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism and editor of the CEJ’s blog, CEJournal ( He has covered climate change since the early 1980’s and has written for a variety of publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Audubon and Earth magazine, where he was editor from 1992 to 1996.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment