[Update 4/2: A couple of justifiably aggrieved friends at The Washington Post said the paper did more than run the AP. Staff reporter Steven Mufson wrote a piece off of the report and the press release, with reaction from several scientists.]
On March 25, the Tracker's Charlie Petit predicted that few members of the Western press would fly to Yokohama, Japan for the release of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
He was right. The problem, he explained, was that we've heard it all before and we'll be hearing it again and again.
It's the paradox of climate-change fatigue: The more the climate changes, the more the stories sound the same.
So the coverage of what is by far the most important and consequential environmental story of our time and perhaps of all time (if you don't count Noah's flood) turns mainly on quick rewrites.
USA Today's story is a case in point. Doyle Rice cobbled together quotes from the official press release and copy from The Associated Press. The thing that saves him is that he relied partly on the AP, which sent science writer Seth Borenstein to Yokahama to cover the report's release.
The Washington Post ran Borenstein's copy, which is a smart thing to do if the paper wasn't going to cover the report itself. But why would it not send its own reporter to write about, say, how the report was likely to be understood and interpreted in the context of Washington politics? That's an approach at which the Post excels, and it's a story I would like to have read. The Post might even have gone so far as to ask a few politicians what they thought of the report.
CNN ran a story by Matt Smith and Brandon Miller that quoted from the report and "a statement" from one of its co-chairs. (That is, the press release.) They also called two people from the World Resources Institute, whose comments filled up seven of the story's 19 paragraphs–almost half. On Monday afternoon, CNN's home page listed the following trending news stories: "Koreas, Ukraine, Flight 370, Whale hunt, Landslide, Craigslist slaying," and, in seventh place (without a bullet), "Climate change."
Borenstein writes that the entire Western press corps in Yokohama consisted of Matt McGrath of the BBC; Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian; Justin Gillis of The New York Times; and a reporter from The Economist.
This small but dedicated bunch produced some good copy:
- "If the world doesn't cut pollution of heat-trapping gases, the already noticeable harms of global warming could spiral 'out of control,' the head of a United Nations scientific panel warned Monday." Borenstein wrote.
- McGrath: "The impacts of global warming are likely to be 'severe, pervasive and irreversible,' a major report by the UN has warned."
- Goldenberg: "A United Nations report raised the threat of climate change to a whole new level on Monday, warning of sweeping consequences to life and livelihood."
- Some of the strongest words came from Gillis, who wrote, "The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that periodically summarizes climate science, concluded that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct."
I couldn't find any mention of the report on the home page of The Economist. What I found elsewhere was a confusing blog post by "J.P." in Yokohama that seemed to be knocking down the report. It began by quoting a university professor whose "disparaging appraisal" of the report was, "The four horsemen of the apocalypse." That's an appraisal?
Admittedly, there was a problem for reporters who wanted to cover the report's release: Yokohama is a bit far afield. In 15 years with the AP, I reported from North and South America, Europe, and Africa–but never Asia. It's not an easy place for an American reporter to get to.
Which raises an interesting question: Why does the IPCC, which presumably would love to put an end to climate-change fatigue, meet in so many remote locations?
I turned to a page on the IPCC's website which listed past meeting locations. In recent years, the panel has met in Stockholm, Geneva, and Budapest, but also, notably, in Batumi, Georgia; Kampala, Uganda; Busan, Republic of Korea; Bali; Antalya, Turkey; Valencia; and Port Louis, Mauritius, among others.
If the IPCC wants coverage, and wants its reports to shake us free of climate-change fatigue, perhaps it should reconsider the venues. What about Washington, London, Paris, New York, Beijing?
Otherwise, we're stuck with more fatigue, as perhaps Noah was, too. The stories about how "he's still building that damn boat" would have gradually given way to: "Is he trapping more animals?" Nobody would have written about the impending flood, because they'd heard it all before.