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The Fire Next Time: Media Advice for Reporting this Year’s Climate Change Stories

It’s noon in Southern California… a place known for its friendly climate and pleasant temperatures.  But today, the thermometer already reads 97 degrees. 

Not very hospitable.

Last week, freak Santa Anna winds swept a freak spring forest fire across LA county, while  snowpack and rainfall had reached unprecedented lows in the face of record demands for water … get used to that word: unprecedented.

Of course, it’s not just a southern California problem.  These kinds of events are  global.  Australia is alternately shriveling up like a dried prune and coping with biblical floods.  The Arctic ice is literally evaporating.  Habitats across the globe are shrinking and we seem headed for an  “extinction event” of a magnitude seen only rarely in geologic time.

“Extinction Event.”  Ponder that phrase a moment.  What we’re talking about is mass death – a kind of holocaust perpetrated on the natural world and all that inhabits it.

Here’s a news lead you can expect to be needing this year, again and again:  The unprecedented ______ continues into its ____, toppling records, spreading misery, and costing us _____. The cause of all this is ____ Relief can be expected ___.

So, mainstream media, save yourselves some work.  Set the text now.  Film the B-roll, and prepare to just fill in the blanks.   You’ll be set for the year.

Here’s some plug and play terms you can use to fill in blank number 1: Heat wave; drought; torrential rains; floods; fires; pandemic; mass migrations; desertification; melting … there are others, of course.  But this’ll get you ready for most.

For blank number 2 choose from a variety of timeframes – days, weeks, months, even years – as in the drought over much of the US which has been effectively going on since 2010, with as much as 80% of the land area labeled as abnormally dry, and 62% in a  full state of drought.  Of course, if you’re taking the long view, you’ll have to be ready with some handy phrases like “in recorded history” (as in rate of temperature increases) or “since humans have inhabited the planet” (atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, extent of Arctic ice, ocean acidity) …


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Blank number 3 can be handled with “hundreds of billions of dollars (See Sandy, for example – and you might want to have a “trillions” in your hip pocket if the worst forecasts come a little early. 

Which they seem likely to do.  Turns out, geologic records strongly suggest that the atmosphere is far more sensitive to carbon dioxide  than our models suggest.  Last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was in the mid-Pliocene, a time when the Arctic was ice-free and sea-levels were 82 feet higher than today.   Compare this to IPCC forecasts, and you get an idea of how wide the gap between observed phenomena and modeling is in some cases. 

As Joe Romm notes, throw in feedbacks and the nightmare scenarios from the paleo-climate record are more likely to be the future we face, than anything the IPCC models report.

So another thing you MSM folks can do is to prepare to greet the new IPCC assessment coming out this year with a little healthy skepticism. Not the kind you’ve  historically demonstrated – that is, repeating denier talking points from the fossil fuel industry and their paid Republican spokesmen as if they were credible. 

OK, they’ve managed to buy off a lot of Democrats, too. But at least Democrats have the decency to skulk about in back rooms when they’re getting paid off.  Republicans are mounting an all out assault on science, reason, and reality, in plain view of the public.  In fact, a lot of them actually believe the shit they’re spewing. That’s scary. 

But back to the issue of skepticism.  See, the IPCC is intentionally designed to provide the most conservative  -- and therefore understated – characterization of the impacts of global warming.  Requiring a lengthy consensus process means the science will be only as bold and the meekest scientist will support, and it also means the data they rely upon will be out of date on date of issue.  Just as it has been historically for sea-level rise, droughts, temperatures and a host of other horror stories.

Of course, taking the long view is something you MSM folks don’t do often or well. Taking money from self-interested advertisers in exchange for spewing their propaganda?  That you do well.

Now those last two blanks.  They’re easy.   Blank number 4 is “climate change or global warming.” Blank number 5 is: “ when we stop burning fossil fuels and get the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide below 350 ppm.” There is one other answer to number 5 – you can continue to be “balanced,” equating the talking points of self-interested corporations and ignoramuses with those of scientists and realists.  Then the answer to number 5 is “never.”

It’s come to that. This is the time. You are the hope of civilization. You can rise to the ideals and canons that once shaped the field of journalism and help us save ourselves, or you can continue with irresponsible faux balance and infotainment and doom us all.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

screen_shot_2017-07-26_at_9.09.47_pm.pngJohn Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track, both available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson

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