Saturday, December 29, 2012

Holding the Media accountable on Climate Change


OldMediaOf course ‘the media’ is not a single entity, but a bewildering mishmash of local print, digital editions, blogs, social media, and even email lists at the state, national and international levels. But despite the vast increase in the way news is being shaped today, many still believe that eventually the Truth will percolate up through this democratization of news. But for the public to navigate rapidity in a changing world the news must quickly tend towards an accurate model of reality or, like one of your senses, you’re in trouble. It’s why people get eye glasses.

How the media has handled the three-decade-old issue of human-caused Climate Change is like (using the eye-glasses analogy) wearing an old set of glasses even though your eyes are aging. You’re going to bump into things. We are bumping into extreme weather, longer growing seasons, and the migration of flora and fauna right under our feet, but are unable to see them as Climate Change through the lens of a media ill-adapted to seeing the long-term (in human time) and controversial (in political terms) physics of Climate Change.

A new report “Emerging Consensus Shows Climate Change Already Having Major Effects on Ecosystems and Species ” put out by the US Geological Society in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and Arizona State University highlights how the media (and I think I can throw most ‘media’ into this gross generalization here) is ill-adapted to handle Climate Change. This report was released on December 18, 2012, which is long enough back to note that it has received little media attention. And even those media that do mention the report tend not to explain its importance.

It’s instructive, before mentioning the details of what’s in the report, to understand why it was written. This report is part of the federal obligation to report to the President and Congress on what has been learned thus far about Climate Change under the Global Change Research Act of 1990.

Federal law requires that the U.S. Global Change Research Program submit an assessment of climate change and its impacts to the President and the Congress once every four years. Technical reports, articles and books – such as this report -- underpin the corresponding chapters of the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment, due out in 2013. This technical report is available at the USGCRP website, as are other completed technical reports. Additional lead authors of this report include Shawn Carter, USGS: F. Stuart Chapin III, University of Alaska, Fairbanks; Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy; and Mary Ruckelshaus, Natural Capital Project.

This report is an advanced release which will be part of this year’s Our Changing Planet (OCP), a series of official reports from 1991-2012 that include how these branches of government understand and will respond to Climate Change: Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Department of Human Services, NASA, National Science Foundation, The Smithsonian Institution, US Agency for International Development, United States Department of Agriculture, and The Environmental Protection Agency.

The report says, among other things, that our “Biodiversity and ecosystems are already more stressed than at any comparable period of human history. “ If you cannot read the whole report, you should at least read these two pages (S-1 & S-2) Key Findings. When read and thought about objectively they provide a great insight into the nature of Climate Change and the level of human response needed. Clearly and officially, anything short of a massive effort to adapt to and mitigate Climate Change is irresponsible.

This report and the series of reports by our government and to our government on what is actually happening to our environment and what our government plans to do (despite all the hue and cry in the media) about Climate Change is not the usual stuff. These reports are not opinion polls, blog posts, local investigative reports, environmental action group reports, nor the studies of an international body not responsible to our government. They are official reports demanded by our own government so it can see Climate Change clearly. Astonishingly, the gulf between these official reports and what the media is reporting on our environment is wide indeed.

The media tends to report on polls of what the US population thinks of Climate Change at any one time, forever putting their finger to the wind to assess their journalistic objectivity. If they mention these reports at all, they tend to not connect the dots between what is stated and predicted in these official reports.

Why on an issue of physics, where we are all equal and subject to the same rules, is there such a deep chasm between what our government is telling itself about Climate Change and what our media is telling our citizens? Climate Change is like no other issue humanity has ever faced. Our media must change their role in our lives to reflect a world that is warming, no matter how unpleasant and inconvenient that may be to their subscribers.

That media which continues to spew doubt and inaction on a matter our government already understands as a clear and present danger should be held accountable. Accountable in the sense that you discard those old eyeglasses that no longer serve you well.

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