A Fantasy Scenario

If I were the editor-in-chief of a newspaper, the paper would run at least one climate change story every day on the front page above the fold. If I ran a magazine, each issue would feature a climate change story on the cover.

It could be a story about a weather disaster aggravated by climate change. Or one about the latest research findings. Maybe one on new developments in alternative energy. Possibly one on actions by the EPA or a similar agency in another country.

That is, I’d cover climate change the way The New York Times and other newspapers and magazines now cover terrorism and the Republicans running for president. Because while terrorism is an ongoing problem and debates over penis size make for entertaining news, climate change is more important to people and the planet than either of those things (especially the second one).

None of the stories in my fictional publications would feature the idiots who don’t “believe” in climate change. There are enough differing opinions about the scope of the problem and the best ways to address it among those who do understand that human beings have had a major effect on Earth and all the species who live here to create the “balance” so prized in traditional journalism.

Of course, print newspapers and magazines are not as powerful as they used to be, but they do still have impact. National Public Radio, and PBS should also be doing much, much more climate change coverage. NPR should have a major climate change story on Morning Edition and All Things Considered every day, and PBS should feature one on its nightly newscast.

And there is plenty of room for a key climate change story every day on the various news websites in place of a few of the outrage election stories. It would obviously be good if network and cable TV news did this, too, though I confess I have trouble imagining them ever hiring an editor who would take any kind of real news coverage seriously.

To do this properly, these publications and programs would need a staff of journalists who understand the scientific and legal issues involved, as well as the political context. And they’d need to be doing investigative reporting, not just responding to press releases on the latest studies. In my fantasy, the reporters would be finding the facts and making them known.

I know this is a fantasy scenario, because some of the publications have been cutting back their environmental coverage, a decision I find incomprehensible. But it’s also something that could be done, and something that would provide much more public service than a lot of what passes for news these days.

I grew up in journalism and worked as a legal reporter for many years, so I have some idea of the kind of effect good, sustained coverage of climate change could have. For starters, it would make a of people take the issue as seriously as they currently take terrorism or elections.

There are many things that need addressing in both our country and the world at large. Most of the ones I care about can be lumped under justice and fairness: racism, sexism, income inequality, a social safety net that provides real care for those who need it with a minimum of hassle and bureaucracy. I am also interested in the problems and possibilities of our expanding tech world and artificial intelligence, which have the potential to change our lives in another direction.

But climate change is the 900-pound gorilla. If we continue on our current course of allowing fossil fuel companies and right wing politicians to stifle any efforts to address it in a meaningful way, it could make all other questions moot.

I have lots of reasons for wanting the world to take serious measures to rein in climate change. I’m sure most people reading this do, too.

But one of my reasons is purely selfish. I’m a science fiction writer, and I’d like to be able to write stories that assume the survival of the Earth and the human race without feeling like I’m writing fantasy.

Lately, I’ve been finding that difficult to do.

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A Fantasy Scenario — 12 Comments

  1. NPR and its various public radio affiliates have the talent and expertise. The board and decision makers are cowards and don’t want to offend the repub majority house (they cower in corners hoping they’ll forget NPR exists and not yank the few remaining bennies it receives from government funding) or offend its very wealthy corporate ‘donors’ and other funders.

    The contortions those folks go through in order to not offend those people — and often to play to their particular prejudices — would be laughable if not so tragic for the country. Last week ATC’s talking head Robert Siegel interviewed Himself about Cuba and the Rolling Stones and did everything he could to force Him to say that the Rolling Stones shouldn’t have played Cuba until there was democracy there. Himself refused. It got quite heated. None of that went on the air though, of course.

    • I’m willing to bet they don’t get a lot of money to begin with from the fossil fuel companies, so why not take on climate change full throttle.

      Didn’t they cut back on their environmental reporting a year or so ago? That strikes me as completely nuts.

  2. That said, some public radio shows do take on climate change specifically, as well as the associated issues. But these tend to be locally funded programs. We have quite a few of those here, since WNYC is independently owned, and has a huge, deep pocket funding audience base. WNYC’s goal, which is just about there is not to carry any NPR shows at all but only its own produced shows. But it still pays the millions to NPR for ATC, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. And those shows are the most pusillanimous of all.

  3. Have you noticed how many oil companies are “proud sponsors” of PBS programming? They get quite a bit actually. They go back-and-forth with them. Right now as Big Oil is cratering, they’ve pulled far back in sponsoring anything.

  4. Nancy, in some ways I disagree with what you suggest. It seems that your suggestion is based on the assumption that a major problem in dealing with climate change is that people just don’t know enough or hear enough information about it, and so increased media coverage is a big part of the solution.

    Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale University School of Law have done some very interesting work on “cultural cognition”; their project is focused on “studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.” Kahan and his collaborators have done some work that suggests that how much concern individuals express about climate change is not a function of how scienfically literate they are but “from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

    (You can find the abstract for the climate change study at http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v2/n10/full/nclimate1547.html and more information about the project at http://www.culturalcognition.net/)

    I do think that your point about how the information is presented is key and certainly in line with the work I (very briefly) described above. I also think that another challenge would be to present stories that are consistent with the reality that policy (what we choose to do as a country/society) is ALWAYS about more than just the science. Always. I’ve been involved in public policy work for my own professional society long enough to learn that lesson deeply. The science has to be good, it has to be sound…but the science alone often doesn’t provide the single “best” policy decision.

    • I don’t think we disagree, Matt. I’ve seen studies about the belief system and climate change, and am going to read your links.

      My interest in seeing more coverage is not so much the need for increased information as for the need to show that the issue is being taken seriously in and of itself, rather than simply as a political issue. It strikes me as much more important to cover all the little details of climate change than to cover the bits and pieces of the presidential campaign, but it gets much less attention.

      • I would add that it would be important to show that the issue is being taken seriously by people from a wide range of political/economic/religious perspectives. That is one suggestion that Kahan has made, the importance of showing the diversity of perspectives that take climate change seriously…even if there isn’t agreement about all the details in regards to what should be done.

        And even with disagreement about what policies should be implemented, it is often possible to identify some common ground that people of very different political/religious/economic perspectives could agree on.

        • Yep. The truth is, I don’t think even the people who accept the science for climate change are taking it seriously enough, much less anyone else. But a lot of people who disagree on much about politics are starting to believe it in their guts, because they’re seeing the little things.

  5. I wish politicians — in fact I wish everybody — would read James Gleick’s book CHAOS. They would stop saying “It’s cold outside and I have a snowball, therefore climate change doesn’t exist.” Weather is a chaotic system. Warning signs are the oscillation from one extreme to another — the oscillations growing more extreme. What this means is that more energy is being pumped into the system. Eventually it’s going to fly off in one direction or the other.

    I’m in Seattle. It’s early April. The temperature tomorrow is forecast at 80F. 80F is high for Seattle *summer.*

    Or has been in the past.

    V.

    • And this is why I want the media to cover the real news of climate change and to framing the stories as a debate between environmentalists and climate change deniers. Every time someone quotes an idiot saying snow proves it’s not getting warmer, some people believe it, because it sounds like common sense (which is often way off the mark). Serious coverage of climate change as if it were a war or an election — since it’s more important than either — might change the debate. Matt’s right about the research, but I think part of the reason people don’t take the coverage seriously is because the media has framed it as a fringe group on one side versus a fringe group on the other. It’s a bad way to cover things.

      And sorry it’s hot too early in Seattle.