The climate challenge

By Judith Lavoie, November 2013

Musings on the difficulty of turning a looming catastrophe into a compelling story, and where hope for change lies.

"The warming of the Earth is unequivocal and it’s most likely due to humans releasing greenhouse gases,” Dennis Hartmann of the University of Washington’s department of atmospheric science told journalists at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting seminars I attended in Seattle in September.

Hurricane YawnThe Institute, based at the University of Rhode Island, tries to ease the often-difficult conversation between reporters, who want clear, cause-and-effect answers, and scientists, who prefer to talk about climate models and probabilities.

I grabbed the chance to take part in the seminars because, despite years as an environment reporter, I still dreaded climate change stories. I often found the science complicated and had difficulty differentiating between a relatively insignificant scientific report and information that was literally earth-changing. Sometimes I failed to convince editors that the stories deserved good play. Most importantly, I felt I was failing to capture the interest of readers.

At the seminar, scientists told Canadian and US journalists that the question is no longer whether the climate is changing, but how fast, how much, how that will alter the world, and how humans can accommodate the new reality.

Scientific evidence has never been clearer that massive global changes are looming. The mounting consensus among scientists is seen in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which concludes that humans are influencing the climate and that those changes will profoundly alter how communities are built, where people live, and what they eat.

Francis Zwiers, vice-chairman of the IPCC’s Working Group 1, speaking at a news conference after release of the IPCC report, noted that BC is already seeing 24 less frost days in 2012 than in 1900; winter temperatures have risen by 2.1 degrees centigrade and summers by 1.1 degrees. “Currently we are seeing three weeks less frost than we did at the start of the last century. Fast forward another 100 years and the difference could be more than seven weeks,” Zwiers said, adding: “This trend is already impacting on BC’s winter transport and forestry operations and has been linked to the ongoing mountain pine beetle infestation.”

It’s scary stuff and the message is the same from academics, sociologists, planners, foresters and oceanographers around the world. Wet areas will become wetter, dry areas will be drier, oceans will become more acidic, and the number of extreme weather events will increase.

Yet climate change is an awkward fit for media. While stories of homes and communities destroyed by floods, or stories of death from heat waves, or those about displaced animals inevitably grab public attention, connect the dots to climate change, and interest drops to a polite yawn. The often complicated science and climate model projections, along with slow-mo changes do not lend themselves to “disaster imminent” headlines.

Climate change “oozes, but does not break” and is therefore the antithesis of breaking news, explained Andrew C. Revkin at a previous Metcalf Seminar. I asked Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times and teaches at Pace University, to elaborate on why he thinks people tune out. In an emailed response, he replied, “The building human influence on the climate system and ocean chemistry is the ultimate slow drip—a slow drip that could lead to very hard knocks in the long run, but that is imperceptible day to day, year to year, even decade to decade.” That, he continued, “makes it a terrible fit for human norms, from individual behaviour to politics and media.”

There is also the white noise of industry-linked groups and their followers who—despite the overwhelming agreement of international scientists that humans are the main cause of climate change—insist that any changes are part of a natural cycle. The existence of this small-but-noisy faction can embroil newsrooms in debate on whether deniers should be given a voice.

In my experience, most Canadian editors no longer ask for “balancing” statements for climate change stories. However, that often leads to a flurry of on-line comments and letters to the editor demanding to know why the opposite viewpoint was not represented.

Climate scientist Andrew Weaver, Green Party of BC MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head, is relieved that most Canadian news outlets no longer require two points of view. He compares it to doing a story on gravity and looking for comment from the local anti-gravity organization. Yet flat-Earth groups continue to speak out and that background debate can cloud the issue.

Weaver also feels provincial and federal politics inevitably affect public perceptions. He noted how former BC premier Gordon Campbell’s policies reflected an emphasis on climate change, including introduction of the innovative carbon tax. “Now unfortunately, there is a new government that wants to brand itself as something different and is heading in the completely opposite way to the previous government,” he said, pointing to Premier Christy Clark’s plans for massive expansion of the liquefied natural gas industry, with plants possibly powered by natural gas.

On the federal front, the Harper government supports the planned Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and Kinder Morgan’s Trans-Mountain pipeline twinning despite their significant addition to annual greenhouse gas emissions. 

As a reporter, a major frustration is the difficulty in getting answers from federal government scientists, who are forbidden to speak without ministerial approval, on topics such as greenhouse gas emissions, the Alberta oil sands or environmental effects of pipelines. That means that scientists and experts who would talk freely a decade ago, now apologize and send me to the public affairs department.

The result is that on complicated topics—and climate change is certainly that—the debate leaves many casual observers feeling uncertain.

“I think people feel disempowered. They don’t know how to deal with it,” Weaver said. “People are worried about putting bread on their tables and about their jobs and about their health and schooling. Climate change is something to worry about, but it’s years ahead. It’s not an immediate worry, so people go on with their daily lives and hope someone else will deal with it.”


TOM PEDERSEN, executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS), a network of leading climate researchers led by the University of Victoria, is working with psychologists to assess the puzzling human response to what science tells us is an impending crisis.

“One of the hardest questions PICS deals with is how to change human behaviour in a way that reflects the gravity of the climate change challenge,” Pedersen said. “Human beings don’t like to change.”

Pedersen believes the best way to persuade people to take ownership of climate change is to relate consequences directly to them. “If I tell people there are going to be more extreme weather events they tend to shrug because the automatic response is ‘it’s not going to happen to me,’” Pedersen said. However, the story of how a 2010 extreme drought in Russia hit them directly in their wallets gets attention: After 62 days of unprecedented heat, the Russian government closed its border to wheat exports and, within weeks, the price of wheat increased 60 percent, driving up food prices around the world.

“That gets people to think more deeply about what extreme weather events might mean to them,” Pedersen said.

One sector of the population that already seems convinced that climate change will affect them directly is youth. In Victoria, at the recent Powershift BC conference, more than 600 people—most under 30—turned out for the opening session with environmentalist and scientist David Suzuki. Describing himself as an elder, Suzuki assured the audience they can make changes. “My generation and the boomers that followed, forgot about you and partied as if there was no tomorrow. Now the party is over and it’s time to clean up the mess,” Suzuki said. “[Prime Minister Harper] is saying the economy comes above the atmosphere that sustains it. Let’s put the eco back in economy where it belongs.”

Energy and enthusiasm radiated from the audience at Powershift, and combined with a conviction that policies and attitudes contributing to climate change must be confronted. A generation brought up on recycling, melting polar ice, and species extinction inherently understands that their lives will be directly affected by climate change. “This is about shifting power back where it belongs, in the hands of the generation who will pay for climate change,” said Cameron Fenton, national director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, at the conference.

Climate change is a defining issue for the younger generation because they are seeing the impacts first hand, Fenton said in a later interview. “And we are also the most connected generation, so it’s easier to connect with stories from climate disasters around the globe and to see ourselves as part of the global youth movement,” he explained.

As studies continue to show that climate change is a within-our-lifetime reality, with consequences for all of us, perhaps—with youth leading the way—media will start running stories on the front page and apathy will be replaced by action.

Anyone who has yet to be convinced can look at the study, published this month in the journal Nature, which predicts that, if greenhouse gases continue to be emitted at current rates, many areas on Earth will be coping with radically different climates within a decade. The study, led by Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii, includes an interactive global map, using data from 39 different climate models, to show when areas will see their “climate tipping point.” It predicts that by 2047, in New York City and Washington DC, the coldest dips in temperature will be warmer than those experienced any time in the last 150 years.

It’s alarming information that is easily understandable and should give all of us pause to think about our future.

Award-winning journalist Judith Lavoie was an environment and First Nations reporter for the Times Colonist for many years and now writes freelance stories on environmental and marine issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith