7 Tips for Covering Climate Change

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In the weeks leading up to the climate talks in Copenhagen now under way, public attention was shifting from the science of global warming to the seemingly intractable politics of the issue.

In October, a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed a steep drop in the percentage of Americans who believe global temperatures are actually rising. A few weeks later, President Barack Obama had to admit, during a visit to Singapore, that a comprehensive international treaty limiting emissions of the greenhouse gases implicated in warming probably was beyond reach.

For proponents of significant action to curb global warming, prospects weren’t looking terribly bright in the run-up to Copenhagen. And then the bomb exploded.

It was a political bomb, of course, not a real one, but for journalists who write about climate change with any regularity, it seemed no less incendiary. Some one (it’s still not known who) somehow managed to get hold of and make public thousands of e-mail messages exchanged between scientists at the U.K.’s Climatic Research Unit and dozens of other scientists throughout the world. Thus was born “Climategate.”

The reverberations are still being felt. And the issues are unlikely to go away any time soon, as activists skeptical of humankind’s role in global warming — and even of the fact that the planet is warming — sharpen their rhetoric.

And now, even CNN seems to be questioning the case for climate change.

So in this super-heated political environment, how should journalists go about reporting on this topic? You can find many answers in a new online learning course offered by Poynter’s News University, Covering Climate Change. Here are a few tips, some taken directly from the course, and others in response to recent events.

Don’t refer to the “global warming debate.”

Too frequently, and to the detriment of public understanding, media outlets conflate the vast and varied terrain of climate science and policy as a unified issue. There are dozens of separate debates within science and within policy, and there are even debates about how scientific findings should guide policy. So rather than referring vaguely and unhelpfully to the “climate change debate,” reporters should specify what debate, specifically, they are covering in a story.

Find scientists who have credible authority to speak on your topic.

Once you’re ready to interview sources, who should you call? CNN recruited Bill Nye the Science Guy to debate the science with a global warming skeptic. The result was utter confusion.

If you need someone to help you understand what’s happening, say, to the world’s glaciers, don’t quote an activist (or a television celebrity). Find a glaciologist who has a track record of conducting research in this area, who publishes in the peer-reviewed literature, and who has had a recognized impact on contributing new knowledge to this field. A policy expert might be a good choice if you need to put the latest science into a broader context. For example, what might new research on melting ice sheets have to contribute to the policy process?

Remember that climate science is about defining risks, not certainties, and climate policy is about managing those risks.

Ever hear this expression?: “There are no facts about the future.”

When it comes to projecting what continued emissions of greenhouse gases will do to the climate, all scientists can do is weigh the best available evidence and say that if we continue on a particular path, we will risk certain outcomes. Some of those risks are understood better than others, because the science is more mature.

But nothing about the future can be known for sure. So in your reporting on climate change, be careful to frame things in terms of future risks, and ask your sources how well understood those risks are, and what evidence those judgments are based on.

Also remember that policy action is about managing the risks identified by science, and it can certainly proceed even though significant scientific uncertainties remain. Governments routinely make immensely consequential decisions about fiscal policy — to manage the risks, say, from renewed inflation. And they do it under great uncertainty. So why should climate change be any different?

Be clear about the role of science.

Science informs policymaking but it does not dictate what policies should be chosen. If a climate activist tells you that the latest research on the risk of dangerous impacts dictates that negotiators in Copenhagen must reach an agreement, know that scientific research can do no such thing.

What science may be able to show, however, is this: If steps are not taken to prevent global average temperature from rising more than a certain amount, the risk of dangerous impacts will increase substantially. That statement does not require that action be taken. Different people may reach different conclusions, depending on what they value.

Do your reporting, but do not assume that Climategate has substantially undermined the case for human-caused global warming.

Climate skeptics are spinning the troubling content of e-mails exchanged between climate scientists as proof that human-caused global warming is a hoax, and even a premeditated fraud.

These e-mails do raise legitimate questions about possible efforts to skirt Freedom of Information laws, possible suppression of data, and some hints that Phil Jones, head of the U.K.’s Climatic Research Unit, may have sought to interfere with the peer review process. (The University of East Anglia has announced an independent review of these issues.)

But the e-mail messages have not substantially undermined the scientific paradigm of human-caused climate change. It is built on more than 100 years of research involving hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists working in myriad disciplines. The work by the researchers at the center of the e-mail controversy was important (because it attempted to put current warming in a longer-term context). But while legitimate questions have been raised, this field of research has not been discredited.

In fact, independent researchers have reached similar conclusions. Moreover, even without this body of research, the scientific conclusion would almost certainly be the same: Adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is warming the globe, causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt and sea level to rise, and triggering other impacts as well.

Just how much warming can we expect in the future, how much melting, how much sea level rise and over what time frame? These questions are still the focus of intense scientific research.

Avoid being a stenographer or playing judge and jury; be a referee.

Don’t simply balance opposing claims (in either science or policy) with comments from dueling experts, an approach that is now so unfortunately common in American television news.

And if you are not a columnist or blogger, don’t simply pass judgment on who is right and wrong. Be a referee who subjects conflicting claims to independent scrutiny. Examine the evidence in the form of primary literature, such as scientific papers and reports. And enlist the help of impartial experts who can help you put claims from partisans wielding conflicting results and opinions into proper perspective.

Your goal is to help your audience weigh the merits of these varying positions, and to alert them when one side in a debate is cherry picking the data, or exaggerating, or committing other kinds of fouls.

Understand and distinguish between legitimate analyses and what Eric Pooley calls “weapons of mass persuasion.”

We certainly need to tell our audiences what the persuaders are trying to accomplish, whether they are trying to speed or derail action on climate change. They are part of the policymaking process, and so they must be part of our coverage.

But we should not conflate what they say in the public square with rigorous, peer-reviewed research. When partisans present information that they claim is scientific, scrutinize it. Did a recognized expert in the field conduct the research? Where did the funding come from? (A study funded by ExxonMobil may not be as credible as one funded by, say, the National Science Foundation.) Was it published in a peer-reviewed publication? If so, what has other research in this field turned up? And what do impartial experts have to say?

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