FOURTH in the series "Strong warnings about climate change."
Americans heard a lot about extreme weather last year. By a wide margin, 2012 was the hottest year on record throughout the United States.
Multimillions of us lived through a succession of natural disasters. The weather made big news all over the world's media. But although much of the extreme weather of 2012 implicated climate change in some way, the underlying climate story rarely accompanied the bad weather story in the United States. Finally, near the end of the year, Americans began to shake off the lethargy of previous decades. The majority began to demand serious answers.
"Let's talk about the weather..."
The havoc of 2012 began with the pleasant diversion of an early warm spring. It thrilled joggers in Chicago and the Twin Cities but greatly disrupted flowering and fruiting schedules throughout the nation. "Derecho" became a household word in July as one huge swath of violent thunderstorms ravaged seven hundred miles from the midwest to the mid-Atlantic states.
Record summertime heat led to widespread drought and crop failure throughout the plains and to punishing wildfires, especially in the tinder-dry west. Damaging hurricanes paved the way for Superstorm Sandy--seemingly the last straw--in the fall. To date, the drought and Sandy are vying for the title of America's most costly weather damage in 2012, each well over $50 billion, conceivably more.
2012's weather dismayed everyone else on the planet as well. The World Meteorological Organization noted unprecedented high temperatures, melting at both poles, and a record loss of Arctic sea ice. Typhoons, tsunamis, floods, and large earthquakes dominated world weather news all year.
Paradoxically, during the two-week international summit in Qatar about climate change, the forceful typhoon Bopha hit the Philippines, causing widespread flooding, and Japan had a powerful earthquake near Fukushima that led to another tsunami alert.
This January, Australia is continuing to suffer its hottest-ever meteorological summer, with temperatures in the worst-hit areas too high for gasoline pumps to work. Parts of China, meanwhile, are breaking records for cold.
Media inattention and limits on national awareness
Until recently, we have heard very little detail about the ongoing crises of climate change from the print or broadcast media. Only within the past few months have many journalists begun to link underlying climate change with early symptoms that may be observed in bad weather.
In 2000, Max Boykoff and Maria Mansfield, his colleague at Oxford University, began tracking coverage of climate change in world newspapers month by month. Dr. Boykoff continues his work with Ami Nacu-Schmidt at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, where he is now a Fellow and affiliated with the University of Colorado, Boulder. (See adaptation of Boykoff's seminal graph in earlier article.)
Boykoff's conclusion about the past 12 years: coverage of climate change has been low, considering its importance, spiking only in 2001, 2006-7, 2009, and 2012. The first peak marked environmentalist and popular vote winner Vice President Al Gore's concession to George W. Bush for the U.S. presidency. Gore's defeat, the Bush camp's preference of industrial over environmental goals, and growing anti-science sentiment and climate change denialism sparked by politicians like Senator Jim Inhofe began a five-year-long drop in Boykoff's media index.
By 2006, when popular opinion and media attention had flagged, 68% of world scientists believed in the threat of global warming. The more evidence accumulated over the years, the more researchers agreed. At that time, the discoveries that convinced two-thirds of the scientific community about human-caused climate change came from long-term ground-level temperature measurements, reanalysis of tropospheric temperatures, measurements of ocean temperatures over time at different depths, and global atmospheric and ocean circulation models, all tough subjects for media and popular comprehension.
Al Gore's New York Times #1 bestseller and film, An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, briefly reignited interest in the topic in 2006-7. However, Gore's earnest, dogged pursuit of the issue and its intense popularity with the untried younger generation allowed the climate change deniers, by this time solidly established in American politics, to add derision of the "failed" politician to their negative portrayals of climate science.
Americans worried about the severity of Hurricane Katrina, but few made the leap to changes in climate as a contributor to the worst hurricane ever. Neither did politicians, into their sixth year of the Bush administration and perceiving the fierceness of climate change denial. Their mouths shut tight on a vital issue of the day.
Media interest in climate change appeared to peak highest in 2009, the year when the Environmental Protection Agency released its monumental finding that greenhouse gases from power generation, among other major industrial sources, are a major air pollutant that can endanger health and the environment. EPA's mission did not include popularizing the discovery, however. Rather, the agency immediately had to address the failures of industry to comply with the requirements of the Clean Air Act.
Though the consequences of the announcement had enormous potential impact on EPA and industry, the subject of climate change still did not resonate with the American public. Washington had just fingered anthropogenesis as a major cause of global warming. The EPA investigation and finding should have given new vigor to U.S. efforts to understand and limit climate change.
Instead, EPA itself became a target for denialist politicians and copycat journalists. "Climategate" made the headlines, with anti-scientists ridiculing rising scholars like Michael E. Mann and even frustrating their productivity in time-consuming and ultimately fruitless investigations.
Interest in the subject waned again, even further, after the disappointing stalemate at the 2009 UN climate talks in Copenhagen. Boykoff's media index sank back to levels experienced three years earlier, in 2006. There it stayed, despite increasing protestations from the scientific community, until 2012's wildfires, monsoons, floods, hurricanes, and Superstorm Sandy became difficult to ignore and started pushing it back up toward the end of the year.
Problems inherent within American media coverage
Journalists have not been deterred only by twists of history, sporadic public attention, and political obfuscation from covering climate change. Other causes peculiar to modern reporting--in newspapers, television, and social media--have greatly influenced the American perception of climate change. These range from pressure on correspondents, complacency, incomplete understanding, shoddy research and presentation, incomprehensible ivory tower sources, and distorted notions of "fair balance," to the very nature of science and journalism.
NEXT: Climate change coverage in the print media
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- Energy in America: Whither 2013?
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Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert recently covered environmental and energy issues raised during and since the 2012 presidential election. She also reported events at the recently concluded 18th UN climate change summit meeting in Doha, Qatar. Other work has included investigations into solar, wind, biomass, large and small hydroelectric, geothermal, and conventional energy forms and a focus on extreme weather disasters over the past few years.
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