The problem with reporting climate change.

This week’s New Yorker spurns a packed news cycle to give us a Comment about how temperature is affecting the corn crop. Elizabeth Kolbert imbues this with significance in this way:

Up until fairly recently, it was possible—which, of course, is not the same as advisable—to see climate change as a phenomenon that was happening somewhere else. In the Arctic, Americans were told (again and again and again), the effects were particularly dramatic. The sea ice was melting. This was bad for native Alaskans, and even worse for polar bears, who rely on the ice for survival. But in the Lower Forty-eight there always seemed to be more pressing concerns, like Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Similarly, the Antarctic Peninsula was reported to be warming fast, with unfortunate consequences for penguins and sea levels. But penguins live far away and sea-level rise is prospective, so again the issue seemed to lack “the fierce urgency of now.”

Disclaimer: I believe climate change is a real phenomenon.

But I see paragraphs like this all the time in the press and I consistently cringe. First, “global warming” in a literal sense can’t happen only in the arctic. So if it was really possible that one could think of it as “happening somewhere else” then we weren’t having global warming. I have seen many stories about disappearing wetlands here in America. In fact, it seems every time we have aberrant weather the media trots out an article in the same fashion as Kolbert. So I don’t know what she’s talking about.

The more PC term for global warming  is of course “climate change.” This is what Kolbert uses. But singling out events as evidence of climate change is like finding a mutated animal and writing an article about the species’ trajectory of evolution. We are talking about the slow secular shift of a complex system on its path to some new equilibrium. Just like economists can only mark the beginning and end of recessions after they have begun and ended, we can really only evaluate climate change on a backward looking basis. Complex systems almost never change uniformly and can almost never be accurately characterized using anything other than aggregate or longitudinal measures.

This is a problem for the media because climate change is an ongoing concern and it’s also a political concern in this country, which makes it a sexy and important topic for the press. But news writing relies on pegging discrete events to larger phenomena. It’s about narrative. Newswires report basic facts but the gold standard for reporting is taking facts and painting broad strokes. Even coming from a soft science background I am generally skeptical about storytelling as a prudential path to truth, but it sometimes works and is usually thought provoking regardless. But you literally can’t report on climate change this way. It’s stretching what you can do with a discrete set of facts (it was a hot summer in the midwest) without being completely and utterly disingenuous.

It also invites the right to counter back with examples of COLD weather and have credibility for rebutting climate change when it shouldn’t. The media should only blame itself for this because it set the bar so shamefully low and consciously intervened in one side of the political battle over climate change.

So what is the media to do?

The best thing would be for it to stop reporting on individual weather events and stick to human interest stories that consist of deep reporting on a longitudinal narrative about a specific place.

At the end of the day, there’s a difference between yarns you spin that have plausible veracity and those that violate their own terms. Stories about climate change evidenced by discrete shifts in weather fall into the latter category.


1 thought on “The problem with reporting climate change.

  1. Wasn’t one of the recent very cold winters, or portions of a winter, in Europe the result of climate change? Changing weather patterns.

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