Media minds need new ways to inform people about climate change

The headline on Margaret Sullivan’s column captures the urgency of the moment: “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.”

Margaret writes about media issues for the Washington Post. In her column, she worries that the public is missing the story of the century, even as both print and television news outlets dutifully mention the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

How much coverage the average person is able to see and understand is another issue. When the IPCC report came out, the network TV stations dedicated a few minutes to the report but not as much time as they spent covering Kanye West’s visit to the White House, according to Brian Stelter of CNN.

The IPCC’s 33-page “summary for policymakers” (PDF 1.3 mb) is dry reading. It lays out the facts but does not use alarming language to stir people to action. While reading it, I could envision how it might put many people to sleep. Still, I urge everyone to struggle through the document and understand the dire consequences that will come from the failure to act.

The significant difference between a 1.5-degree and a 2.0-degree rise in temperature is spelled out in some detail in the report and summary, helping us realize that we should try to delay the consequences for as long as long as we can — even if we can never return to historical conditions.

If a 33-page summary of a large report seems too much, try skimming through the 23-page “frequently asked questions” (PDF 2.1 mb), or just read the three-page press release (PDF 193 kb).

This week, Kitsap County’s Sustainable Cinema series will present the film “Before the Flood,” a National Geographic production in which actor Leonard DiCaprio travels around the world to witness various effects of climate change. The film includes interviews with world leaders and other experts about the science, political challenges and technological solutions to the problem. The film will be shown Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Dragonfly Cinema, 822 Bay St. in Port Orchard. Admission is free. I’ve posted the trailer in the video player on this page.

Oh, and if you haven’t heard, Washington voters will have a chance to address climate change by enacting a fee on carbon emissions during the upcoming election Nov. 6. The nonprofit organization Ballotpedia lays out the arguments both for and against the ballot measure along with other information on a special website for Initiative 1631.

When talking about climate change in the news, this topic rarely generates pithy soundbites for television or radio, although some people have tried to up the game with alarming rhetoric to draw attention to the latest IPCC report.

“It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, who was quoted by reporters Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis of the Washington Post.

Solheim said finding ways to stop emissions of CO2 entirely by 2050 or developing technology to remove an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases is so important that “net zero must be the new global mantra.”

Climate change is not a subject that generates happy news. It is not a subject that most politicians wish to address in any form, but it is one subject that separates those who care about the future of the planet from those who care only about short-term economic benefits or political gains.

President Donald Trump clearly doesn’t want to think about climate change. Asked by Lesley Stahl on the program “60 Minutes” why he doesn’t consider climate change an important issue, Trump said he expects that the climate will change back by itself. As for warnings from a vast majority of scientists, Trump says simply “they have a very big political agenda, Lesley.”

I have heard others say similar things, suggesting that scientists have an ax to grind when it comes to climate and thus they should not be believed. Such critics apparently have little understanding of the scientific method, the competition for new discoveries or the struggle to reach the truth through facts. Such critics probably don’t have a personal relationship with any scientists — or maybe they just have their own political reasons for denouncing the serious findings and nuanced debate among climate scientists.

In her column, Margaret Sullivan makes the case that scientists have tried to get the information to policymakers and the public. Perhaps now it is the media’s turn to try and connect the science with average Americans.

“There is a lot happening in the nation and the world, a constant rush of news,” she writes. “Much of it deserves our attention as journalists and news consumers. But we need to figure out how to make the main thing matter.

“In short, when it comes to climate change, we — the media, the public, the world — need radical transformation, and we need it now. Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will create change.

“We may be doomed even if that happens,” she concludes. “But we’re surely doomed if it doesn’t.”

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