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Earth Day 2014: Engaging the public on Climate Change, Part 1, the media

Though a majority of Americans support climate and energy policies, this is not reflected in media coverage.
Though a majority of Americans support climate and energy policies, this is not reflected in media coverage.
Photo by Frank J. Regan

On April 17, 2014 at 7PM, the Rochester Sierra Club will host a community discussion on Climate Change in our region with Mark Lowery, Climate Analyst, and manager of the state’s Climate Smart Communities program. This “Earth Day” event (I know, April 22 is actually Earth Day) will be held at the First Unitarian Church, 220 Winton Road South, Rochester, NY. We hope to reach the entire public—community, faith, and business leaders, students, the unemployed, the employed, young and old, healthy and not so healthy, rich and poor, and folks busy with other stuff —and have an old-fashioned community talk about the world crisis called Climate Change. Join your neighbor in a town hall meeting free from activism, ideology, politics, and denial.

Through a series of essays before this Earth Day event, I will spell out why it is so important for the public, not just a few activists, to be engaged in this discussion. This first essay concerns the failure of our media to adequately inform the public of this worldwide crisis, which feeds the illusion that Climate Change is only one among many special interest issues. Though a majority of Americans support climate and energy policies, this is not reflected in media coverage. See Study: 83 Percent Want Action on Global Warming, Even With 'Economic Costs' from US World and News Report (February 12, 2014): “A large majority of Americans say 'the U.S. should make an effort to reduce global warming,' even if it impinges the economy”.

A good example of poor media coverage on Climate Change is the failure by local media to put this present cold snap in the proper context of a world that is warming. Just last year, USA Today (a Gannett company, like the D&C) remarked that “Lake Ontario saw the most dramatic decrease with an 88% drop in ice coverage” … “since the 1970’s”. (Shrinking ice worries Great Lakes scientists) But this article only talks about the present massive ice cover, which is an anomaly as Climate Change continues to influence the Great Lakes: Freeze pushes Great Lakes ice cover toward '79 record (February 14, 2014) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle). It is as if the previous five decades of shrinking ice cover never existed. Or, if the local media were to distinguish meteorology from climatology, they should see that the trajectory for Great Lakes ice cover is for less ice:

Seasonal ice cover has decreased on the Great Lakes at a rate of 8 percent per decade over the past 35 years; models suggest this will lead to increased lake effect snow in the next couple of decades through greater moisture availability (Burnett et al., 2003). By mid-century, lake-effect snow will generally decrease as temperatures below freezing become less frequent (Kunkel et al., 2002). (Page 3, Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID)

The loss of ice cover (or snowpack and snow cover for that matter) will have profound effects on our local environment. Cincinnati’s local media (though, not our local media) doesn’t misrepresent Great Lakes ice cover and Climate Change: “Great Lakes become nearly covered with ice” (February 14, 2014) WKRC Cincinnati) There will be more water evaporation which will cause lower lake levels, no matter how many local battles there are to get the government to put lake levels at the most popular levels. This is information that the public needs to know to prepare properly for infrastructural changes that will cost of lot of money and need to be sustained through election year after election year.

My experience working to advance alternative transportation (walking and bicycling) and more recycling as local adaptation strategies for adapting to and mitigating Climate Change has been met with an indifferent public. Actions, such as waking and recycling, are understood in our region to be environmentally friendly, but not as part of a coordinated effort to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). Climate Change is an issue that cannot be adequately addressed by a few activists with good intentions. The problem is too big; the vast majority of the public around the world needs to be engaged. Without a media that understands its critical responsibility to provide this public service, a service required in a warming world, the public will continue to think we can simply ‘green’ our way out of this issue with new technologies, fighting the big polluters, and donating to special causes. Only ‘all of the above’ and more will work.

I have observed that many climate studies, community plans on Climate Change, and even the efforts of environmental groups do include Climate Change communications. But rather than given top priority, communicating the pervasive threat of Climate Change and the need for public education is given almost no financial allotment, little staffing, and usually only targeted to special audiences. The need to raise public awareness about Climate Change exists as the weakest link in any climate plan because the media has not done their job. Local media seems far more interested in merging with larger and larger media corporations, which provides less news about unpopular issues like Climate Change.

So, this Earth Day, as our Arctic melts and so disrupts its climate system that it dips down and disrupts our climate patterns, come and talk about Climate Change. There will be a short presentation on Climate Change and how the state understands this to impact our region. Then, you and hundreds of your neighbors, the media, and community leaders can share concerns and ideas on this most important issue ever faced by humanity. Just like back in the day when we came together to face common threats.