Climate change is a paradoxical subject. While the best scientific information points to a clear threat to the future of humanity, the political and public responses to this challenge have been relatively weak.
Many businesses accept that climate change is real but are waiting for signals from governments before making long-term investments in measures to address the threat. Meanwhile powerful forces, notably the polluting industries and fossil fuel sector, have deep vested interests in maintaining business-as-usual.
In industrialized countries, many people would rather believe that climate change was not real than accept that their lives must change to meet the threat. In nonindustrialized countries many people think that the climate is under divine control and that humans can not alter it.
Faced with these divergent views, journalists who report on climate change have complex work to do. They must understand the scientific, political, economic and societal dimensions of a fast moving story, and make it relevant to diverse audiences who may see climate change as unimportant or nonexistent.
The basic science is straightforward. Climate researchers have shown that gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and others can trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere – a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect.
Human activities such as industry, transport, energy generation and deforestation all produce these greenhouse gases. The total concentration of these gases has risen greatly since the start of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the average global temperature has also risen over that time period.
As the atmosphere heats, scientists predict that this will have dangerous disruptive effects on the Earth’s climate. While no single event can be proved to be the result of climate change, many climatic trends and events that have been observed already are consistent with scientific predictions.
The main source of scientific information on climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was set up in 1988 by the UN Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization.
The IPCC does not do research. Instead it gathers thousands of scientists to review the global body of knowledge about climate change and to summarize it in a way that policymakers can use.
This body of evidence led the IPCC to conclude in 2007 that climate change is happening, that humans are almost certainly to blame for the majority of observed warming, and that future impacts could be abrupt and irreversible.
As with all IPCC assessment reports, these findings were only published after they had been endorsed by the world’s governments.
The impacts of climate change are many and varied, as all life on earth and many of the planet’s physical processes are heavily influenced by temperature.
A warming planet means that sea levels will rise as water takes up more space as it heats up. Higher temperatures also melt ice locked away in glaciers and polar regions.
This contributes to rising seas but also (in the case of glaciers) increasing the risks of flooding in the short term, and decreased river flow in the longer term. Climate change may also affect water supplies in other ways, such as altering the South Asian monsoon.
Other impacts include changes in the distribution of crop pests and species that spread vector-borne diseases such as malaria, as well as other impacts of human health.
Hurricanes and tropical cyclones might also be affected by climate change but the science is not yet clear on this.
In late 2009 and early 2010 a number of revelations cast doubt on some aspects of the science of climate change (see Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). These are greatly outweighed by the vast majority of research.
ALTERNATIVES / SOLUTIONS
The two main ways to reduce the climate threat are mitigation and adaptation.
Mitigation refers to any activities that reduce the overall concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
It includes tree planting and protection of existing forests (see REDD), switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, improving energy efficiency and capturing carbon emissions and preventing them from reaching the atmosphere.
More extreme approaches to mitigation, known collectively as geo-engineering, are untested.
Adaptation refers to activities that directly reduce the vulnerability of people, ecosystems and infrastructure to the impacts of climate change.
This includes things like building defenses to protect coastal areas from rising seas, switching to drought or flood resistant crop varieties, improving early warning systems to warn of heat-waves, disease outbreaks and climate-related disasters such as hurricanes.
All of these mitigation and adaptation actions will cost money, but according to the largest study of its kind, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, this is good value.
The Stern Review, published in 2006, concluded that climate change could shrink the global economy by up to 20 per cent but that acting now to face the threat would cost just one per cent of global GDP.
Governments began to take climate change seriously around 1992 when they agreed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This treaty produced the Kyoto Protocol, the first legally binding agreement that forces countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.
Critics say however that this UN agreement is not the right forum for addressing climate change, as it operates by consensus so nearly 200 countries must agree for anything to be agreed.
In 2015, the Conference of Parties signed the Paris Agreement which announced the desire to limit global average temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius. This goal forces the acknowledgment of climate change.
In recent years the Major Economies Forum, a gathering of 20 industrialized and emerging economies that produce about 80 percent of all greenhouse gases, has also been focusing on climate change.
Critics of these say that the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change but have done least to cause the problem are excluded and that MEF decisions would not be legally binding.
Climate change is a story with many interesting angles. For a long time, editors considered it to be a purely environmental or science story but now it is clear that this is a story about health, money, politics and power.
The US Society of Environmental Journalists has a useful guide to climate change with background information and tips for story angles.
One productive approach is to follow the money, whether it be the climate finance intended for adaptation and mitigation activities or the vast sums spent by lobbyists would advocate against taking action.
For journalists reporting on the science of climate change, the RealClimate blog is an excellent source. Written by climate scientists, the blog focuses on correcting misrepresentation of scientific findings in the mainstream media.
As it is impossible to say with scientific certainty that climate change is responsible for any single event such as a flood or hurricane, journalists must take care when reporting on such events. What they can do is explain whether these events are consistent with scientists’ predictions of climate-change impacts.
Poynter’s News University has a free 4-hour online course for journalists covering climate change.
The Climate Change Media Partnership’s Roster of Experts is an online database with contact details for hundreds of climate specialists.
Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change [PDF]
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Talking about a Revolution: Climate change and the media [pdf]
The War on Climate Change – An article by The Atlantic
Read stories from the EJN Stories to see all the different facets of climate change!