Wednesday, April 30, 2014

It's time for the news media to get obsessive about climate change

On April 22, Editor-in-Chief Ezra Klein tweeted out a post by Brad Plumer headlined, “Two degrees: How the world failed on climate change.” Among other observations in the story were:
  • Chances are dwindling that the world will meet the 2-degree Celsius warming ceiling that scientists have warned is the maximum a sustainable environment is likely to stand. In fact, we’re on track for an increase of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) or more by the end of the century.
  •  “The World Bank determined that ‘there’s no certainty’ humans could adapt” to 4 degrees Celsius of warming.
  • Policymakers and citizens are not taking this situation seriously enough to do anything about it.
The essence of the story was: Modern humanity is willfully dooming itself to extinction in this century.

On April 23, according to his Twitter profile, Klein issued about a dozen tweets on a number of topics – from income inequality to food policy to affirmative action to science denial. He even took time to let everyone know they probably had herpes.

In other words, the day after reporting that humanity is willfully dooming itself to extinction was just another newsday for Klein, one of the nation’s most high-profile and public-interest-oriented journalists.

Which strikes me as a key reason why we’re doomed.

The New York Times, while offering some of the nation’s most laudable and aggressive climate change coverage, nonetheless is guilty of the same phenomenon. On April 14, the lead headline in the Times' morning email newsletter was “Climate Efforts Falling Short, U.N. Panel Says,” supplemented by the readout, “The countries of the world have dragged their feet so long on global warming that only an intensive push in the next 15 years can stave off potential disaster.”

The next day, the Times’ newsletter lead was, “Ukraine Falters in Drive to Curb Unrest in East.” The following day, “New York Drops Unit That Spied on Muslims.”

I’m not suggesting that either of these subjects, or really any story the Times tends to lead with, is a trivial matter. I am trying to figure out, given the dire nature of the climate situation and its ability to render Ukraine and New York obsolete in the coming decades, why everyone isn’t running around with their hair on fire about this story all the time.

Witnessing the current news judgment around climate change, even as the science gets clearer and the consequences of inaction more grave, is tantamount to watching a television news anchor announce, “The planet is about to be struck by a life-ending asteroid. Now, here’s Jane with the weather.”

It’s no secret that we as a species have limited attention spans, that we’re not good at making concrete decisions about abstract concepts, and that any message repeated often enough gets a little tiresome. As a journalist and journalism educator, I concede that leading every edition with “Humanity is dooming itself to extinction in this century” might have short-term consequences for circulation and page views.

And it’s true that, on a day-to-day basis, we still have to get our kids off to school and earn a living and save for retirement, even as we march toward our existential cliff. If we dropped everything and directed all our attention toward arresting the carbon emissions that will lead to widespread extinctions, droughts, floods, wars, and possibly the collapse of every ecosystem that can sustain human life, it would be tremendously inconvenient, costly and disruptive.

On the other hand, it’s hard to conceive of anything more inconvenient, costly and disruptive than warming ourselves right off the planet. That’s going to drive a lot of companies out of business and put a major dent in news organizations’ engagement metrics.

So, yeah, until collective global will is assembled to meaningfully address climate change, I would endorse leading every paper, every website and every newscast every day with the reminder that humanity is willfully dooming itself to extinction in this century. Given the magnitude of the impending calamity, such treatment conforms to what “Elements of Journalism” authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call making the news “comprehensive and proportional.”

The alternative, really, is just to stop reporting on climate change altogether and do a better job pretending there will still be a Ukraine to fight over or a 401(k) plan to withdraw from 50-plus years from now. There’s hardly a point in talking about how we’re dooming ourselves to extinction if we’re not going to do anything about it.