[Editor's note: Please see the comments below, which note that the Washington Post and the New York Times played the story more prominently on Tuesday than what I saw today. -PR.]
What will it take to get the American people to understand the dangers of climate change? Is there anything that can awaken them?
Many Americans and others understand what's happening and what's at stake, but the disturbing and puzzling reality is that many do not. And even as scientists strengthen their consensus view of the risks, the U.S. government seems nowhere near a consensus view of its own.
“Later today, we expect the president to talk about the weather at the White House,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “Presumably, he’ll use the platform to renew his call for a national energy tax. And I’m sure he’ll get loud cheers from liberal elites — from the kind of people who leave a giant carbon footprint and then lecture everybody else about low-flow toilets.”
He further accused the Obama administration of waging a "war on coal."
After comments like that, it's hard to know where to start. I have to believe that McConnell's use of "weather" instead of "climate" was intended to be dismissive, not an indication that he doesn't know the difference. But who knows?
McConnell's views are shared by many Americans, whether out of conviction or political calculation. But even if we persuaded them, we'd still have trouble with the software behind Google news. When I checked news.google.com today in the early afternoon, the climate news was at the very end of the page. I would have expected it to be a contender for the top story of the day.
Admittedly, Google's news is organized by sections, and the climate report led the science section. But it didn't make Google's "top stories." Here are some that did:
Senate Race sets the stage for 2016 presidential competition.
Johnny Manziel: 'I've answered every question' for NFL teams.
Yellen says stimulus still needed to meet goals on jobs, prices.
And: Liam Hemsworth as The Red Ranger? We cast the new 'Power Rangers' movie.
Google led with the Ukraine news, as did the websites of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
We could argue about the relative importance of developments in the Ukraine versus the climate report. But which story will be bigger a month from now, a year from now, or 10 years from now?
Nothing terribly newsworthy happened to the global climate yesterday, so in one sense there is no news today. But the climate report had one particularly striking phrase that I think we will remember long after we remember what happened on the Ukraine border yesterday. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the report's authors wrote. We're no longer talking about 2050, or 2100 when we talk about climate. We're talking about May 7th. Today.
Justin Gillis wrote a particularly powerful piece in The New York Times, which derived its strength from the many specifics he included to back up the report's sweeping conclusions:
“Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced,” the report continued. “Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.”
The piece was on the front of the print edition, but it was buried way down low on the home page.
When I checked the home page of The Los Angeles Times in the early afternoon, the climate story wasn't there at all. (The page did have a link to a climate-change video.) And that's too bad, because Neela Banerjee and Kathleen Hennessey wrote a decent story–although it could have been helped by fewer generalities and more specifics in the opening paragraphs. Contrast Gillis's writing above about weather changes with this from the Los Angeles Times: "The report concludes that extreme weather events influenced by climate change have grown more frequent and intense, including heat waves, drought, and severe precipitation." It's fine, but it isn't gripping. It doesn't convey the seriousness and immediacy of the report.
When I checked the home page of The Washington Post, I could find no mention of the report. When I clicked on the Post's energy and environment page, it wasn't there either. I stopped looking. The Post did run a commentary Monday by Marshall Shepherd anticipating the report, and anticipating this post: It asked whether the new report would change anyone's mind.
I did eventually find the Post story on the report by searching the site, but I'm not sure whether visitors to the Post's home page would ever find it. It turns out it's in the weather pages ("The inside scoop on weather in the D.C. area and beyond"). Maybe the Post, like McConnell, is confused about the difference between weather and climate.
We can't judge the AP by the same metrics; it doesn't have a home page or a front page. But it pumped out plenty of copy, giving its members a lot to choose from. Seth Borenstein wrote that "Global warming is rapidly turning America the beautiful into America the stormy, sneezy and dangerous." He gets a little more serious in the next graf, where he writes that "climate disruption" is the report's preferred term for global warming, and that it is "changing daily lives."
In a sidebar on how the report was put together, he quotes House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas, who said the National Academy of Sciences was "critical" of the report. But he checks it out and finds that Smith is wrong; the academy said the report's authors "did a reasonable job of fulfilling its overall charge" and the report "should prove to be a valuable resource."
The AP also wrote sidebars on regional effects in various parts of the country.
I found the language in this report as strong and frightening as anything we've seen about "climate disruption," or global warming.
But if the report can't get past the editors at the major papers or Google's what's-news algorithms, the scientific consensus will still find itself drifting alone, without a public consensus behind it.
The press might find it easy to point its finger at the many other things that shape public opinion on global change, but if the public does not understand the science of climate change and its implications, the press must accept part of the blame.