While climate change has enjoyed a recent spike in news coverage, journalists face a constant challenge to bring sustained attention to other environmental stories, including resource scarcity, the changing oceans, and demographic change.
Growing demand for natural resources emerged as a major theme among a panel of national environmental journalists, convened by the Society of Environmental Journalists at the Wilson Center on January 24 to discuss the critical environmental stories that will shape 2014.
How long will an ever-dwindling supply of coal remain the dominant source of global energy, and at what cost? How do growing water scarcity, fluctuating ecosystems, and rising oceanic acidity affect food supplies, economies, and even state stability? And how can journalists make a beat dedicated to existential crises resonate with audiences?
Missing the Big Picture
Andrew Revkin of The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog said part of the challenge is that the long time delay between cause and effect is hard to convey in today’s fast-paced news cycle. “We operate on timescales that miss some of the big picture.”
“You can’t do a Page One story on something that oozes,” National Geographic’s Dennis Dimick joked.
Understanding these long-term, complex changes requires significant contextualization. For example, Revkin pointed out that “the 100-year development of the [U.S.] West happened in an unusually wet era,” which is important for understanding the recent spate of droughts in California. “The norm out there isn’t going to sustain the level of development we’ve had,” he said.
Population dynamics may play a role in whether or not development in certain regions is sustainable, but in a different way than predicted in the past. “In the Paul Ehrlich days,” Revkin said, “it was seen as a global ‘population bomb,’ it was going to cause mass famine and all kinds of problems. The reality that’s played out, it’s more like a cluster bomb, in the sense that there are little pockets of both high fertility and urbanization,” with more localized vulnerabilities to natural disasters and other crises.
For example, after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, “what was largely missed there, in conventional coverage and discourse, was that the population of that city that was hit tripled in the last 40 years. If that storm had hit that city – same storm, same city – 40 years ago it would not have been a story, essentially,” said Revkin.
Demographic change – and not just growth, but urbanization – has been rapid and is continuing, raising the question of how cities and countries maintain services and build infrastructure in fast-growing regions. “That’s a big chunk of the sustainability question, those kinds of clashes – and then you add the climate question on top of that,” he said.
“How you head towards nine billion people with the fewest regrets is not a news story – it’s a question, and anyone who says that there’s single answer is not being truthful.”
Covering the Search for Clean Energy
“The rise in the demand for the use of coal globally in the last 12 or 13 years is greater than the rise of solar, wind, oil – everything else,” said Dimick. Even in the United States, where coal power has “dropped fully by a third because of the rise of cheap natural gas from fracking,” he expects coal to remain a major industry, even if mainly for export. “The rub is – it’s a local energy source. We are said to be the ‘Saudi Arabia of coal.’ This is a problem that isn’t going to go away.”
China is a major reason why. “China imports about five percent of its coal – that five percent is three times larger than all the rest of the world’s coal trade combined,” Dimick said. And out of these emissions, “a fifth of them are for the creation of product that gets sent to the U.S.”
“This is the one thing about climate change: the effects are going to be global, and they are going to be felt first in the poorest countries,” said Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian. “And yet, the perpetrators are a relatively small number of countries.”
International efforts to regulate climate change have been hampered by this imbalance. “What I hope we see and begin to see is more of these sort of bilateral agreements,” Goldenberg said, “such as those we’ve seen between the U.S. and China on HFCs, which are used in air conditioning and refrigerators and in the short term have a very big impact on the climate.”
The U.S. military’s commitment to reduce consumption of oil may also make a difference, said Goldenberg, by helping to “bring up to commercial scale the development of new fuels or biofuels. There is great pressure on commanders and base commanders throughout the military to green their establishments. There are wind turbines on Guantanamo.”
Federal Climate Action Expected in the U.S., Chemicals Left to States & Industry
In the United States, the panelists said they expect any new, major environmental regulations to come from the executive and judiciary branches, not Congress.
“Much of environmental development in the U.S…will be driven by regulation and litigation, not legislation,” said Larry Pearl of Bloomberg BNA. Pearl said the gulf between the rate at which we learn about pollution and the speed with which Congress can pass new regulations has pushed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and courts to be more proactive. “Court rulings this year and the year ahead will help to further define EPA’s authority to regulate the environment under various statutes.”
The EPA has a powerful ally, however. “This president sees climate change as his legacy,” said Coral Davenport of The New York Times. “He wants to get as much done as he possibly can before he leaves because he doesn’t know what the next administration is going to do.” With only two years left in his term, “he is being so aggressive with his schedule – it’s a much tighter schedule than you usually see with these regulations,” she said.
Secretary of State John Kerry is also an ally, said Davenport:
Right now at the State Department, the message from the Secretary’s office is very clear: everything is focused on climate….All of these offices have first of all been told to make climate change part of every international discussion you are having, understand the role of climate change plays in global drought, in how that contributes to national security and global disruptive situations.
In contrast, Cheryl Hogue of Chemical and Engineering News said many of the major changes in environmental health regulation expected in the near future will be state- and consumer-driven.
“This is how chemical safety will be improved in the coming years. It’s not throughTSCA reform, it’s going be through companies deciding to pick out the most toxic parts of their products and coming up with alternatives,” said Hogue.
The Biggest Story: Global Change
Other big stories on the horizon include climate change’s effects on oceans, food, water, and biodiversity around the world. Changes in polar ice are opening up new shipping routes, said Pearl, resulting in “more and more economic activity and development of the Arctic region.” Davenport, meanwhile, said ocean acidification is ”one of these concrete problems, concrete changes that people are paying attention to and that are having economic effects right now. I think that’s a place where you start to move the needle on recognition of climate change, recognition of CO2, [and] the need to do something about it.”
Dimick cited water and food scarcity, pointing to the effects of countries that have lots of money but little water: “They are in the business of trying to buy up land or long-term leases on land in other continents so they can secure a future food supply.”
Revkin is concerned about the lack of coverage of invasive and displaced species entering new ecosystems as a result of climate change, such as the spread of lionfish on the mid-Atlantic coast and the emergence of Asian carp in the Mississippi River andGreat Lakes. “We’ve set in motion in the Anthropocene, in this age of man, untold changes in the biology of the planet that are really fascinating…that is a great story that hasn’t really been explored,” he said.
Given the breadth of potential environment and energy stories in the year ahead, it’s easy to see why the beat is so challenging, but harder to understand why it doesn’t garner more headlines. Dimick’s suggestion was simple: “We have to point cameras at something that shows change.”
- Director of Environmental News, Bloomberg BNA
- Director, The Daily Climate
- Energy and Environment Reporter, New York Times
- Executive Editor, National Geographic Magazine
- U.S. Environment Correspondent, The Guardian
- Senior Correspondent, Chemical & Engineering News
- Columnist, The New York Times; Senior Fellow, Pace University