Covering Climate Change

Ben Block

This article appears in the March/April 2010 issue of World Watch magazine.

In late November, a few weeks before world leaders gathered in Copenhagen to negotiate a climate treaty, thousands of personal e-mail messages and documents were stolen from a University of East Anglia private server. The unknown hackers revealed how some distinguished climate scientists doubted select data, avoided the occasional information request, and disdained climate change deniers.

The stolen files were posted on various conservative websites, and skeptics quickly circulated the conversations as evidence that climate change is all a fraud. Within two weeks, print, broadcast, and radio news worldwide reported on the scandal, known as Climategate. CNN aired Global Warming: Trick or Truth? on the same day as the United Nations climate summit opened. The attempt at objectively reviewing both scientists' and skeptics' arguments resulted in no conclusion. "Again, not taking any stances," reporter Tom Foreman told the host.

Midway through the Copenhagen summit, five Associated Press reporters reviewed the hacked files themselves. They read 1,073 e-mails one by one - about 1 million words in total - and concluded that scientists "stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data, but the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked." The impressive amount of time and resources that the AP invested for the story served the public good, but given the dire straits affecting most newsrooms, it was quite possibly the only news organization that could afford to do so.

The financial decline of traditional journalism organizations has stifled investigative and foreign news. While online news and social media are spreading more information more widely and rapidly, the growing lack of explanatory journalism may nonetheless result in a less informed public. The trend should be a concern for anyone dedicated to environmental sustainability. Journalism's economic adversity not only diminishes the ability of newsrooms to generate insightful, balanced reports on science-related topics such as climate change, it also limits our understanding of how governments and industry are responding to our global environmental crisis.

Ups and Downs

Before Climategate, most reporters and editors stopped covering climate change as a scientific controversy, but the episode tested whether journalists truly understood climate science. The widespread willingness to regard it as a matter of political debate, with two sides deserving equal attention, reflected a lack of journalistic progress.

In the science community, many criticized news coverage for succumbing to the back-and-forth debates adored by climate change deniers. "It was a total manipulation. The press reacted like lemmings - they jumped on it and it's a non-issue," said Columbia University paleoclimatologist Peter deMenocal.

Such poor scientific awareness, common throughout newsrooms, is not likely to improve anytime soon. Economically faltering news organizations across the industrialized world have downsized staff, shrunk content, and reduced coverage. PriceWaterhouseCoopers expects the global newspaper market to undergo a 2-percent annual decline through 2013 as advertisers spend their money elsewhere and readers turn to free online content. Although media markets are prospering in some places, such as India and Latin America, most European and U.S. print, broadcast, and radio newsrooms are grappling with smaller budgets.

Recent layoff trends in the media market suggest that science and environment reporters are often the first to lose their jobs. CNN, for instance, laid off its entire science and technology staff in 2008. In the United States, two decades ago nearly 150 newspapers included a science section; today fewer than 20 do. The remaining reporters are expected to cover stories such as climate change along with their regular reporting duties.

Many U.S. news organizations have also closed their foreign bureaus. Christian Science Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll counted 141 U.S. newspaper foreign reporters in 2006, 47 fewer than in 2002 and likely many more than today. They instead practice "parachute journalism," temporarily traveling abroad to cover breaking news in places where they often lack the background, sources, or cultural sensitivities necessary to provide a fully contextualized story.

While CNN still managed 33 foreign bureaus as of 2008, most broadcast news organizations have shuttered international operations. "All broadcasters had bureaus in all the major cities. That just doesn't happen anymore," said Judy Muller, a former correspondent for National Public Radio and ABC News. "Africa is usually covered by stringers - that's a whole continent!"

Worldwide, however, climate change coverage is on the rise. A 50-newspaper survey across 20 countries by University of Colorado and Oxford University researchers found "climate change" or "global warming" mentioned in about 400 stories in January 2004, mostly in the European, North American, Australian, and New Zealand press. Following the 2006 releases of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and British economist Nicholas Stern's report on the cost of climate change inaction, coverage increased considerably. The survey found some 2,000 stories, on average, each January from 2007 through 2009, with an increase in reports from Asia and the Middle East.

Despite the increase in science and environment stories, in-depth coverage of scientific developments, technology solutions, and political responses is decreasing by the day. The Baltimore Sun, for example, has reduced its news staff and the size of its print edition significantly in recent years. As a result, the Pew Research Center observed that the newspaper produced 32 percent fewer stories on any subject last year compared to 1999 and 73 percent fewer than in 1991. Tim Wheeler, a longtime environment reporter at The Sun, must find a local angle to justify writing a national or international story. One proposed story (Maryland-based scientists who were conducting climate-related research in the Bering Sea) was quashed last year due to the expense.

"Unless current conditions change," Wheeler told me, "I do worry that the public won't get enough credible, independent information about the climate legislation pending in the Senate or other climate-related issues to make really informed judgments."


In December, more than 3,800 media personnel traveled to Copenhagen and contributed to the broadest simultaneous coverage of climate change in world history. According to Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, climate change captured 10 percent of U.S. print, online, television, and radio news during the first week of the UN climate summit - the most media attention since the project began in 2007. The University of Colorado/Oxford University survey of 50 newspapers counted 5,700 climate change-related stories.

I reported from Copenhagen, covering the negotiations, side conferences, and protests for the Worldwatch Institute's online news service. Although I did not have an official press pass (I snuck into the press room through a door in the men's bathroom), I joined the press corps when negotiators delivered their media briefings. As a nongovernmental organization observer, I also attended several newsworthy off-the-record briefings and side events where no press were in sight.

Many reporters did a masterful job of providing insightful news throughout the two weeks of negotiations. But I hoped the huge media presence would also lead to greater public awareness about the severity of climate change. Instead, I watched reporters travel in packs, follow the back-and-forth negotiations, and overlook more difficult stories on issues such as adaptation, indigenous peoples' rights, and technology.

I asked Darryl D'Monte, a former Times of India editor who attended the summit as a freelancer, if he considered the scientific imperative worth including in his Copenhagen reports. "I think the time for alarms was in the past," he said. "We came to the meeting for a decision."

In many ways, the stories filed from Copenhagen reflected the struggle that reporters face when they cover climate change back home. I met several journalists under pressure to provide constant negotiation updates and remain competitive with the multitude of news sources reporting on the very same story. Although many sources were available for them to interview, short deadlines and a tumultuous reporting environment created several logistical challenges.

Some problems were unique to the conference with its horde of attendees (perhaps 18,000) and scattered venues. Reporter Rina Saeed Khan covered the negotiations for DAWN, Pakistan's largest-circulation English-language newspaper. She found that the thousands of attendees in the convention hall became obstacles to navigating the events. "Running from one place to another took time and effort, and some of the side events that were held in the city were difficult to get to - too much was going on!" Khan said in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, newsworthy developments mostly occurred behind closed doors, and many government sources were using the press to spin their negotiating positions. The result, for many, was mass confusion. BBC environment reporter Richard Black, who covers various international negotiations, normally feels reasonably aware of all important developments. "Not here; it's impossible," he wrote in a blog post. "Some journalist somewhere knows something you don't, you can guarantee that; and you just hope it's not more important than the thing you know that they don't."

In the end, media observers read dozens of stories and found little news analysis that explained how the climate talks would affect the global environment. The stories mostly reflected "classic journalism norms of drama" between negotiating countries, said Max Boykoff, an environmental sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It's harder to report on core issues of mitigation, adaptation, and equality - massive issues that have gone largely silent," he said.

Opinions, Differing

Without strong reporting on climate change impacts and solutions, some sociologists predict the public will become increasingly apathetic to climate concerns. So far, multi-country polls consistently reflect a growing concern worldwide about climate change. A 2009 Pew Global Attitudes poll found that majorities in all 25 surveyed countries agreed that the problem is serious. On average, 86 percent of participants in a 2009 World Public Opinion (WPO) study told pollsters in the 15 surveyed countries that climate change is a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem. U.S. respondents expressed the least concern in any country represented in the WPO survey, and Pew pollsters found a 14-percent drop in the number who agreed that "solid evidence" supports claims that the Earth is warming, compared to the prior year.

What causes the dramatic differences in public opinion? WPO research director Clay Ramsay blames the media. Although news media across the developing world report far fewer stories about climate change, the stories that do appear are much less skeptical of climate science. "They have educated people, newspapers, TV stations, but not the 24-hour media assault, as in highly developed countries, that goes together with climate skepticism," Ramsay said.

Conservative U.S. media personalities who are broadcast on stations such as Fox News and published in syndicated editorials regularly undermine climate science. In the extraordinarily cold weeks following the Copenhagen summit, for instance, when Beijing experienced the most snowfall in nearly 60 years, the United Kingdom endured its lowest temperatures in 30 years, and snow even fell on sunny Florida, climate change deniers responded with arguments that the cold winter disproved global warming.

The faulty logic is a familiar, yet effective, tool for confusing a public largely unaware of how climate differs from weather. John Coleman, the first weatherman on ABC's Good Morning America and a founder of The Weather Channel, contributed to the confusion during regular appearances on Fox News in 2008, describing climate change as a "scam." After all, "the last year has been so cold," he said. The American Meteorological Society, concerned whether Coleman represented a larger trend within the weathercaster community, surveyed 121 TV weather forecasters last year. Nearly one-third agreed that "global warming is a scam" and 26 percent described themselves as "neutral." These same meteorologists, after broadcasting a cold weather forecast, often make snide comments about "so-called global warming," according to Robbie Cox, a rhetorical studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The combination from conservative media, Fox News, syndicated columns, weather reports on local channels, and, of course, self-selection of online news for those that tend to be somewhat skeptical, turning to conservative blog sources, I think this is beginning to have an effect," said Cox, a former national Sierra Club president.

Perhaps, however, the news media receive undue criticism. The idea that journalism affects public opinion is among the most contentious debates among communication researchers. "All you need to know is, without specific reference to climate change issues, this is a topic [about] which there is quite a lusty debate," said Columbia University Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann. "One camp says there is not an appreciable effect. Another says, yes, there is. A third camp says press coverage affects policy debate thinking more than the public."

While researchers cannot say with certainty how climate-related messages influence the public, education analysts know that the basic premise of climate change is difficult for many people to understand. Cumulative impacts from slowly changing precipitation patterns or sea-level rise are often not intuitive. "We don't understand very well how people think and learn about the Earth," said Kim Kastens, a Columbia University geologist. "Brains are good at thinking about a day or a season or a lifetime. Once you get beyond a lifetime, thinking about it becomes really hard."

Researchers agree, however, that people respond very differently to climate-related news. A 2009 George Mason University survey divided the U.S. public into "six Americas": 18 percent are fully convinced and already taking action (the Alarmed), 33 percent are convinced but have made few changes yet to their lives (the Concerned), 19 percent consider it a likely problem (the Cautious), 12 percent are apathetic (the Disengaged), 11 percent are unsure (the Doubtful), and 7 percent are certain climate change is a hoax (the Dismissive).

The Dismissive surely do make their opinions heard, a possible reason why people worldwide consistently tell pollsters that they agree with climate science but they consider others to be less supportive. Meanwhile, those who dismiss the science seem unlikely to change their minds, regardless of media coverage. "There is a latent desire, a wish, among a certain group of people for the whole thing to be a mistake, to be one guy's work based on one band of trees in Siberia," said Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate scientist who helped found RealClimate, a blog run by scientists who correct misinterpretations and misuses of climate change science.

The decline in the U.S. public's acceptance of climate science may also be due to its "finite pool of worry." The theory contends that most people have a limited capacity for worrying about any given issue. If true, public concern for climate change may subside further over time, said Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle. "We get used to the environment...we're in," he said. "Sea level constantly rising becomes normal. It's quite a disturbing hypothesis."

The National Geographic Society changed its mission statement a few years back to include "Inspiring people to care about the planet." Its magazine editors have since attempted to reflect the global impact of society's decisions. The March 2009 issue of National Geographic, for example, coupled a story about U.S. household electricity use with a feature on tar sands, the most carbon-intensive U.S. energy source.

I asked Executive Editor Dennis Dimick if even National Geographic, one of the world's most respected magazines, has the power to affect public opinion. "We've been covering climate for a very long time and very deeply. Whether it matters, I don't know," he said. "How can you make the case for action on something you cannot see? Maybe words can't, but pictures and graphics and words might."

Journalism Redux?

Regardless how news coverage affects individual opinions, the need for a more informed public, especially on issues related to climate change, is greater than ever. Communities across low-lying islands and sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, face the greatest climate-related risks, yet they typically receive the least information through mass media. Communities in wealthy nations also need to be more aware - not only those directly employed in agriculture or forestry, but anyone concerned about the global supply (and cost) of oil, grains, and water.

Addressing climate change will depend on greater transparency in nations prone to corruption, especially if efforts such as international carbon offsets are to succeed. Yet many reporters, especially in developing countries, lack sufficient freedom or safety to report on important environmental stories. Reporters Without Borders, an organization that defends threatened journalists, is monitoring increasing numbers of cases related to environmental issues such as illegal logging, pollution, and climate change impacts. "More and more journalists are being harassed, attacked, or killed for reporting environmental issues," said Jesper HĂžjberg, executive director of International Media Support, which trains local media organizations on how to report in countries marred with armed conflict, human insecurity, and political transition.

In all likelihood, traditional news sources will continue to report the news. The largest print, broadcast, and radio news organizations will survive their current crisis by learning to profit from an online medium. The question is whether their reincarnation will provide sufficiently detailed reports, especially on international issues, in an increasingly complicated, interconnected world.

The emergence of many robust, online environmental news groups (Environment & Energy Publishing, Grist, Yale Environment 360) and several nonprofit investigative journalism organizations (ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity, Center for Investigative Reporting) is a welcome development. However, there are far more stories than these groups, alone, can uncover.

Journalism will need society-wide support. We all must become journalists, reporting on climate impacts in our communities and raising awareness about possible solutions. "This story will be told. The question is by whom," said Curtis Brainard, editor of Columbia Journalism Review's science and environment blog "The Observatory." "Scientists have to be more engaged. Schools need to be more engaged. There needs to be more of a panoply involved."

Technology must advance to meet the needs of our digital dependencies. Social media help us better select what information we want to receive. But we should be wary of becoming closed off from unfamiliar ideas and knowledge sources. Trusted, objective websites, such as online newspapers, should help by becoming "curators" of other reliable websites, even though it would direct readers elsewhere.

Finally, we must become better educated. Journalism schools should require graduates to undergo interdisciplinary training that better prepares them to explain scientific and environmental issues. Primary schools and universities should also incorporate environmental education into all courses. "We don't only need better, more educated journalists. We need better, more educated audiences," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Unless climate change reporting improves through more in-depth, international coverage, the necessary shift to low-carbon, resilient economies will not likely occur until the worst damages become as apparent as flood water rising to our windows. By then, it may be too late.


Ben Block is Worldwatch's Eye on Earth staff writer.