A comment from a Los Angeles Times editor that the paper doesn’t print letters that deny human-induced climate change because they have “an untrue basis” (Washington Times, 10/11/13) didn’t cause quite the stir conservatives might have hoped for—probably because it reflects a growing sense that it’s long past the time for journalism to be debating whether such change is happening, and that even where denialist claims are rebutted, they distort and derail the discussion.
Sadly, corporate reporters’ fealty to notions of partisan balance means that many stories on climate policy still include the predictable protests of deniers like Sen. James “God’s still up there” Inhofe (R.-Ok.). Weather reporting notoriously whistles past the issue. And business section stories on the energy industry implicitly accept the centrality of fossil fuels—essentially leaving specialty science or environmental reporting as the only arena in which the reality of climate change is taken as a given.
Making climate change an A-section story means ceasing to think of it as something that “might happen.” While it’s irresponsible for journalists to claim certainty where it doesn’t exist, climate change reporting that’s entirely framed around what “could happen” is irresponsible in a different way, suggesting that any effects lie in an avoidable future. What may lie in the future is the devastation of the natural world; climate change is here now.
Rather than having scientists and ideologues talk past each other, journalists could be reporting countless compelling stories on the actually happening effects of climate shifts. In the Pacific nation of Tuvalu, rising seas and ocean acidification are eroding the coral and hurting fishing stock; a 2011 drought sapped the islands’ drinking water, forcing the closure of hospitals and schools. Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga likened climate change to a “slow and insidious form of terrorism against us,” and there’s strong resistance to the idea of relocation, which Maina Talia of Tuvalu Climate Action told Radio Australia (9/27/12) “is not a choice for the poor people. It’s just a choice for the rich people.”
Some indigenous Alaskan coastal communities are set to disappear. The Guardian (5/13/13) reported from Newtok, where “Yup’ik Eskimo have been fishing and hunting by the shores of the Bering Sea for centuries and the villagers reject the notion they will now be forced to run in chaos from ancestral lands.” Moving will also be expensive; for villagers, “finding the cash, and finding their way through the government bureaucracy, is proving the challenge of their lives.”
Bloomberg News (10/2/13) also reported on Alaska’s Arctic coast, where “30-foot-high cliffs that haven’t budged since the last ice age are tumbling into the ocean overnight,” and “lightning-sparked forest fires have charred more than 1 million acres in five of the past 10 years.” (Bloomberg’s insistence on considering the “up-side”—“how do individuals, companies and investors measure the costs—and, yes, the economic benefits—of a changing climate?” is cynical, but you can’t say it doesn’t acknowledge climate change as a reality.)
Impacts on vulnerable populations were highlighted in an Oregon Public Broadcasting report (10/1/13) on urban “heat islands”—parts of the city that absorb more heat due to pavement, buildings and traffic, and pose special threats for “the elderly, the homeless, poor people and people with heart disease and diabetes.” Because the hottest places in a city are also more polluted, explained a local official, it’s “a double-whammy for people’s health.”
Climate change is contributing to a resurgence of malaria, once nearly eradicated, in Peru; primarily affected are Amazonian loggers and their families who have little access to healthcare (Guardian, 10/29/07). Iowa scientists declare climate change a prime driver of soil erosion that’s hindering agricultural production (Newton Daily News, 10/22/13). The UN says Nigeria loses 1,355 square miles of cropland and rangeland a year due to climate change–induced desertification, causing mass displacement of local communities and increasing hunger (Nigerian Voice, 5/6/12).
Told from real places with real people, the stories of climate change engage questions of human rights, democratic participation and social justice. Some outlets are taking on the issue’s complexity and singularity with sustained coverage. USA Today’s “Weathering the Change” series promises to explore how climate change is affecting Americans, from increased asthma and allergies, to rising food and utility prices, to jobs lost in drought-related factory closings. “This isn’t a science fiction, end of the world scenario,” the paper (3/1/13) underscored; “these scenes are already playing out somewhere in America.”
It’s too bad the paper undercuts the work with an editorial page that can’t run a column (10/15/13) noting that “a mounting body of evidence demonstrates that climate change is neither distant nor theoretical” without pairing it with one headlined “Don’t Believe the Climate Alarmists.”