As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Your Media Failed You

The news today on the climate is bleak. Even if we dropped everything and curbed greenhouse gas emissions in an aggressive fashion, we would still be faced with many of the consequences of a warming planet, according to climate researchers at NOAA.

Greenhouse gas levels currently expected by mid-century will produce devastating long-term droughts and a sea-level rise that will persist for 1,000 years regardless of how well the world curbs future emissions of carbon dioxide, an international team of scientists reported yesterday.

Top climate researchers from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Switzerland and France said their analysis shows that carbon dioxide will remain near peak levels in the atmosphere far longer than other greenhouse gases, which dissipate relatively quickly.

"I think you have to think about this stuff as more like nuclear waste than acid rain: The more we add, the worse off we'll be," NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon told reporters in a conference call. "The more time that we take to make decisions about carbon dioxide, the more irreversible climate change we'll be locked into."

At the moment, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere stand at 385 parts per million. Many climate scientists and the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have set a goal of stabilizing atmospheric carbon at 450 ppm, but current projections put the world on track to hit 550 ppm by 2035, rising after that point by 4.5 percent a year [...]

Even if the world managed to halt the carbon dioxide buildup at 450 ppm, the researchers concluded, the subtropics would experience a 10 percent decrease in precipitation, compared with the 15 percent decrease they would see at 600 ppm. That level is still akin to mega-droughts such as the Dust Bowl. The already parched U.S. Southwest would probably see a 5 percent drop in precipitation during its dry season.

This doesn't mean we despair and give up on stopping increased emissions, but it does mean that much of the damage has already been done. And how did this happen? Eric Pooley from Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy thinks he knows - the media has done a terrible job explaining the consequences of a warming planet.

Journalists and senior editors need to pay heed to Pooley’s three tough conclusions abut how “damaging” the recent media of the climate debate has been:

• The press misrepresented the economic debate over cap and trade. It failed to recognize the emerging consensus … that cap and trade would have a marginal effect on economic growth and gave doomsday forecasts coequal status with nonpartisan ones…. The press allowed opponents of climate action to replicate the false debate over climate science in the realm of climate economics.

• The press failed to perform the basic service of making climate policy and its economic impact understandable to the reader and allowed opponents of climate action to set the terms of the cost debate. The argument centered on the short-term costs of taking action–i.e., higher electricity and gasoline prices–and sometimes assumed that doing nothing about climate change carried no cost.

• Editors failed to devote sufficient resources to the climate story. In general, global warming is still being shoved into the “environment” pigeonhole, along with the spotted owls and delta smelt, when it is clearly to society’s detriment to think about the subject that way. It is time for editors to treat climate policy as a permanent, important beat: tracking a mobilization for the moral equivalent of war.

We get thousands of hours of "who is mad at who" and "which politician looked at the other politician funny" in the press, but scant coverage of the most potentially disruptive event in human history, which to this day has not been fully contextualized and left open to demagoguery from denialists on the right. The press has always found areas like science difficult, but in this case, science is keenly attached to public policy, and by failing to report honorably on one, it was impossible to summon the political will to affect the other. And this is true across public policy, for example in the recent stimulus debate, where cherry-picked bits from right-wing blast faxes are made to be "the story" despite them being only a tiny fraction of the overall spending package.

We're going to have lots of climate-related battles in the coming years. The Administration is taking it on as an energy issue, a national security issue, and a major foreign policy issue. But without a proper understanding of the incontrovertible facts of the debate, and a better rendering by those who shape the news, these efforts too will fall short, and Pooley's conclusion will be even more true.

The media’s collective decision to play the stenographer role actually helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.

Cross out the words "climate action" and add virtually any other major issue, and you have the story of the past 16 years.

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