IPCC Chair: Severity Under-reported
The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the news media are not sufficiently addressing the severity of climate change at a meeting of U.S. environmental journalists earlier this week.
R.K. Pachauri, head of the 2,500-member IPCC, said that unless policies are enacted soon to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, the global perils from shifting weather patterns and sea level rise will become worse in the coming years.
To communicate the dangers of climate change, Pachauri urged the annual gathering of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) to report how the most recent IPCC assessment will affect local communities.
"In the last year and a half, there has been a massive explosion of awareness; however, the media has not reported enough about the emergency and depth of action," said Pachauri, who has led the United Nations panel since 2002.
The fact that only half of Americans polled consider human activity to be the main cause of climate change is often blamed on media coverage. But news reports of climate change have steadily increased in recent years, especially since government reports, a major Supreme Court hearing, and the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" brought attention to the climate crisis in 2006.
Pachauri suggested that major news agencies now rely too much on high-level science reports or large climate-related events for their stories, rather than examples of climate change's ongoing effects. "We need to go beyond the cyclical coverage of climate change and emphasize the day-to-day relevance," he said.
SEJ President Timothy Wheeler said news stories often reflect what public opinion polls suggest are priority topics. According to a January 2008 Pew Research Center study, U.S. voters listed global warming toward the bottom of their current policy concerns. "When the economy is the way it is, a war is going on, these are the things that grab the headlines and network news," Wheeler said.
Several journalists at the conference voiced concerns that the financial instability of many U.S. newspapers may further limit the quantity and quality of environmental reporting. Many news organizations cut their reporting staff and the size of their publications this year due to dwindling profits during the Internet Age.
In response, nearly a quarter of newspaper editors said they dedicate fewer reporting resources to science topics than three years ago, according to a July 2008 Pew Research Center survey of editors from the largest U.S. newspapers. Only 10 percent of editors surveyed consider science and technology reporting as "very essential" to the quality of their news product.
Yet the trend for environmental coverage, which would include local pollution stories in addition to global ecological problems, is less clear. The survey said 17 percent of editors decreased their environmental reporting resources, while 22 percent said these resources increased in the past three years.
"[Editors] are cutting international, even national news, and they're playing up more local and lifestyle stories," said Wheeler, a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. "But the environment is still an important local story."
Also speaking at the conference, journalist Jeff Goodell said the news media need to improve their coverage of the risk that coal-fired power plants pose for climate change, even if emissions are eventually captured.
"[Carbon-capture and sequestration], as a journalist this is something we've done a very bad job of covering," said Goodell, author of Big Coal. "There are a lot of questions about CCS and whether this is going to work. It's something everyone in this room should look at in detail."
Also related to media coverage of climate change, researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that only 0.5 percent of climate change articles mention the role that livestock and meat production play in warming the planet, according to a study set to be published in Public Health Nutrition. Food production in general was mentioned in 2.4 percent of the climate change stories published in U.S. newspapers studied between September 2005 and January 2008.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has stated that livestock production releases more greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation sector, mainly due to the clearing of land and the release of methane, a gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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