Monday, January 9, 2012

Climate Reporting in the Media

Recently climate blogs like Climate Progress and The Daily Climate have lamented the drop in reporting on climate related issues including what they perceive either as an unwillingness or inability to ‘connect the dots’ linking global warming to extreme weather events. The glaring problem with this lamentation is its lack of focus. What exactly do the administrators and commenters on these websites want and how do they propose to accomplish their desires? Initially one could conclude that they want more general stories about global warming, but how would those stories be presented? One option, as they suggest, could be to make a connection between extreme weather events and global warming. However, would this be appropriate?

While only an ignorant individual would conclude that the occurrence probability of extreme weather is unrelated to global warming, the problem with ‘tying’ global warming to extreme weather is that it is scientifically irresponsible to associate the actual occurrence of a given extreme weather event to global warming. Basically one cannot say that the only reason flood x or drought y occurred was solely due to global warming as providing definitive scientific proof for such a claim is nearly impossible. Unfortunately depending on changes in probabilistic magnitudes to associate global warming influence with extreme weather is confusing not just at a lay level, but also at a purely scientific level due to uncertainty.

Based on these elements it seems unlikely that any increase in climate reporting can develop correlations between global warming and a single specific extreme weather event. Therefore, within the confines of extreme weather events expansion of reporting on global warming appears limited to general analysis pieces explaining that the probability of occurrence and magnitude of extreme weather events increases by some unknown variable which increases as the planet warms. Unfortunately these information analysis pieces will more than likely not significantly increase the number of climate related issues discussed in the mainstream media because such a topic changes little with time. Thus multiple presentations of this information over a consistent short timeframe could result in most readers tuning out the information as ‘exactly the same as 5 days ago’ or ‘exactly the same as a report in publication y a week ago’. A number of individuals believe that a similar psychological attitude has handicapped the ability to properly respect the magnitude of detrimental consequences to global warming as a form of ‘doom saying’.

It is difficult to conclude that these individuals are lamenting about a lack of coverage regarding individual climate-related events because such reporting is reactive not proactive. Basically it is difficult to report on a hurricane that has not happened yet. For the most part most media organizations do a respectable job covering single climate based events and as discussed above it is impossible to associate the 100% occurrence of a given event with current climate conditions, thus media organizations cannot do so despite what their detractors may want.

Some could argue that the lack of coverage involves too many lulls for ongoing events. One example could be the 2010-2011 drought in Texas and other parts of the Southwest United States. In some context the drought become so commonplace and part of the general environment that it was no longer interesting to report on in the national media. Therefore, almost by default individuals could start to consider the drought conditions as the new normal despite that fact that they shouldn’t accept that as inevitable. Such a mindset is similar to the frog accepting a slowly and continuously warming frying pan not reacting and escaping until it is too late. While most climate stories are not ‘sexy’, heck it could not be surprising if ‘Jerry Sandusky’ has been mentioned more in the last four months than ‘global warming’ has been mentioned in the last 3 years, it does appear important for media organizations to continue to address the non-normal climate conditions to avoid a general malaise of acceptance.

Unfortunately amid all of the lamentation little productive information is being given with regards to how the media should correct itself. The only refrain is ‘more coverage, more coverage’, but suggestions on how to effectively accomplish this goal are few. While some may argue that blanket coverage (more regardless of quality as long as it acknowledges the reality of global warming and its dangers) is suitable because eventually enough of it should convince people, this strategy is probably not effective. First off as previously mentioned simply increasing the amount of climate stores could result in individuals ‘tuning out’ the stories limiting their effectiveness on combating malaise.

Some would argue that this ‘blanket’ strategy is the same general strategy used by global warming deniers to try to tip public sentiment in their favor and while true there are other factors at work. The strength of the denier argument is in the controversy they create. People inherently are distrustful of ‘guarantees’, especially when they are negative. The guarantee that global warming is real and it will be seriously detrimental allow a better acceptance environment for deniers to make inaccurate to crazy claims about how it is not true. Another advantage for the deniers in this ‘blanket’ strategy is the ability to better maintain variety in the attack. Deniers can challenge various aspects of global warming consequences using different ‘theories’ so other individuals do not become bored. For those trying to demonstrate the validity of global warming this variety is not so widely available as the same 5-6 topics dominate in global warming consequence prediction.

Instead of attempting ‘blanket’ coverage an organized information campaign on specific topics could be a better strategy. In this situation the media outlet would devote a specific amount of time to a given component of global warming over the course of a specific timeframe. For example a newspaper may decide to discuss ocean acidification where they devote a page two space once a day for a week. One of the important elements to such a strategy is to maximize the probability that individuals understand what they are reading. Thus the Monday and Tuesday stories would need to focus on more background information pertaining to the particular topic.

An immediate problem to executing the above strategy would be a lack of interest. As previously mentioned climate science and environmental issues are not sexy or typically short-term dynamic thus providing an incentive would be useful to encourage readership. One strategy to develop incentive would involve having a mini-quiz at the end of the week where individuals who answered 80% of the questions correctly would be entered into a contest to win some form of prize. The medium for the contest would be via the Internet or mail order through the U.S. post office. Environmental organizations could help sponsor these prizes if necessary.

On a related side note while the media can be criticized for not effectively addressing their role in fight the acceptance of a new normal most in the environmental community seem not to go far enough either. The environmental community should not only be pushing the media to lay the groundwork for climate understanding to combat malaise and legitimatize genuine importance, but also to provide a debating forum for solutions. Unfortunately a number of individuals in the environmental community do not want this debate. Most simply want the application of their ‘pet’ solutions and are unwilling to address whether or not those solutions are viable.

For example proponents of solar and wind deployment continuously shy away from addressing possible cost overruns due to lack of storage and intermittence in an energy infrastructure that no longer utilizes fossil fuels. Instead they foolishly or dishonestly report ‘grid parody’ prices for wind and solar relative to fossil fuels in the modern fossil fuel based energy infrastructure, numbers that do not make sense because if wind and solar are going to be a solution they must be incorporated into an infrastructure that does not utilize fossil fuels. In addition these same proponents avoid the question of a possible rare earth shortage which will disallow the economic development of a principally wind/solar energy infrastructure. Thus not only must the attitude of the media change with regards to covering climate issues, but so too must the attitudes of those who claim to be its champions.

Digressing back to the media aspect, the issue that environmentalists should be discussing is not necessarily quantity, but quality and how to deliver that quality. The goal of the media pertaining to climate issues is two-fold: provide enough information over a suitable number of intervals to combat malaise/mitigation of importance and provide that information in a way that actually allow individuals to intelligently participate in discussions regarding solving climate related problems. One possible strategy to aid in accomplishing these goals, which the media has thoroughly been lacking, would be to devote constant time to a given aspect of global warming with quizzes and prizes to increase interest and aid learning and retention. However, some could argue that the ‘blanket’ strategy is still an option. If so those making this argument need to address how to evade the concerns discussed above. Overall regardless of what strategies are utilized the environmental community needs to better outline in specific detail how the mainstream media should present climate information over just complaining about the lack of it.

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