Another report inthe works from the IPCC, another leak of its draft, and so what else is new? It's news is what it is, even if the underlying message has been reported so many times everybody from world leaders to the folks in line at the supermarket knows the gist of what scientists are saying: It's getting warm, it's our fault, things are changing fast, and we'd better do something soon or we'll fry the future. Some of them don't not believe it. But most know the story.
The topic has unavoidably come up during the CASW New Horizons in Science Writing half of the ScienceWriters13 meeting, hosted by the U. of Florida in Gainesville, that followed the Nat'l Assoc. of Science Writers workshops Saturday. New Horizons speakers are mostly academics providing insight and tips on hot fields in science. Some of the remarks here contrast sharply with the real world of science reporting that continues far outside this exceedingly pleasant gathering of at the Hilton Conference Center planted right at the edge of the campus.Which brings us back to the science and politics, and media coverage, of climate change.
Because the writer called this to our attention, we'll start with real-world reporting from one of the trade's stalwarts:
- AP – Seth Borenstein: Warming Report Sees Violent, Sicker, Poorer Future ; The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which earlier this year had its scientific assessment of climate change's causes and forecast scope, now has had the final draft of its report on human impacts leak. Officially, it is due out in March.
The report draft was leaked to a Canadian climate-skeptical blogger, Donna LaFramboise, who posted it. That was a few days ago. A small roundup of other ensuing coverage follows well below. The thing to keep in mind is that Borenstein covers such stuff diligently. He gets a lot of hate mail and related nonsense because he consistently reports sanely on global climate change science. He has not collapsed in exhaustion over the paralysis in the US Congress of other world legislative bodies when it comes to putting their money where there mouths have been for years, offering pledges to do something but seldom doing a whole lot. He just keeps covering the science as reported by scientists and not so much as it is reported by contrarian crackpots or by the myriad activists on the green side. I must add that the greenies generally have things straight, but they are not proper prime sources for journalists seeking to report what the bulk of scientists, technical literature, or national academies say.
This seems from Borenstein to me a pretty straight-shooting and emphatic bit of reporting on breaking news.
Here in Gainesville I listened however to a Canadian economist, a good guy and well-informed inhis field, on the size and difficulty of climate change. He is Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. It was a good talk with plenty of useful information and insight into the sheer intractability of a problem so vast that a modern-day vesion of Garrett Hardin's old (largely discredited) Tragedy of the Commons is unfolding. Nobody wants to stop their sheep from grazing the pasture down to dirt, not unless everybody else stops first. And nobody is in charge. Ditto for climate change and stopping carbon emissions. That was a good part of his message, well composed.
But a lot of us in the audience took a bit of offense when he told us how science writers must pitch in. We should cover the story, explain the facts, tell truth to power, not give up. Well, sure. He also pinned most of the blame for flabby policies on the leaders of the most powerful nations for not driving the whole world to do the right thing. That's about right, but a lot of reporters wondered where he got the idea that few reporters are covering this stuff straight. Jaccard even named as a source, in one of his slides, the intransigent Bill McKibben and his landmark story, a journalism story, in Rolling Stone last year called Global Warming's Terrifying New Math; That was a huge story. Can't do it much bigger than that.
I wasn't the only one to go to the mike and object to the idea that journalists have dropped the ball. We threw the ball, but not enough people caught it. And we'll keep throwing it. At least, those of us not semi-retired will keep throwing it. Science journalism may have, true enough, cut back on the story volume in the last year or two, but that is as much a function of internal media difficulties as anything else. Science writers are hardly perfect on their effort to find new ways to cover this line of stories but they have not fled en masse from it either.
I do give Jaccard high marks for making an economist's view of things crystal clear. He also provided his advice to science writers in a helpful and friendly manner, not overtly patronizing. But we have been saying the same things to one another for years. How can we report the issues more clearly, more in a manner that will attract readers, and more accurately? The result so far has been a lesson in the limited power of the press. They may slow it down, but looks like it will take much more than a steady diet of hard-hitting media stories to stop the climate change locomotive – a phrase lifted from Jaccard's talk. Also welcome was his plain talk about the cost of abandoning the carbon-based economy in a hurry, starting soon. By one estimate, he said, it would delay the global economy by a full year – meaning we wouldn't reach whatever output we'd otherwise have in 2050 until 2051. Put another way, to get all-renewable energy the average US homeowner would see energy costs rise from 6% of spendable income all the way to 8%. So he said. So much fuss … over that??
You can see the slides that Jaccard presented with his talk, one of them reproduced up top. But if you go straight to that link, you'll be frustrated. First one must register at the main CASW site. It's not hard. Then click on New Horizons Home up near the top, scrounge around till you see the program, and scroll down to this or any of the other sessions that catch your eye. Click on the presenter's name and you'll see an abstract and, if you're registered, a link to slides and perhaps other material. Nearly all the speakers have provided their slides by now. If you'd like to look back at the NASW workshops program: here.
The leaked IPCC report got fairly wide coverage. Samples:
- NYTimes – Justin Gillis: Climate Change Seen Posing risk to Food Supplies ;
- Salon – Lindsay Abrams: Leaked report: More hunger, sickness and violence expected as world warms ;
- Grist – John Upton: Leaked IPCC report:Humans are adapting – but hunger, homelessness,and violence lie ahead;
- DotEarth – Andrew C. Revkin: A Closer Look at Climate Panel's Findings on Global Warming Impacts ;
- Bloomberg – Alex Morales: Global warming seen taking toll on economy, health, and crops.