riparian rap

2013 resolution: Face up to the climate cliff

Photo courtesy Sara Shipley Hiles

Note: This post is by Sara Shipley Hiles, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Missouri.  She is also a freelance journalist and longtime environmental reporter and member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.  While at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she wrote a series of stories about extensive development of floodplains that were underwater in the Great Flood of 1993.  Her academic research looks at media coverage of climate change.

While we’re all making New Year’s resolutions about eating
less and exercising more, let me suggest something more important we can add to
our collective to-do list for 2013. This one’s big. It will take courage. It
will take political will and compromise. It will take personal commitment.

I’m not talking about gun control, or even the fiscal cliff.
I’m talking about facing the climate cliff. Climate change is the
biggest long-term threat facing our economy and our society, yet we find plenty
of ways to avoid facing it, despite mounting evidence.
Graphic source: National Climate Data Center’s State of the Climate 2012 report.  Click graphic to expand.
2012 was the hottest year on record for Missouri and 18
other states, and the continental United States as a whole, according to a recent report from the National
Climatic Data Center
. The ninth straight year of record-breaking heat was
also an historic year for extreme weather, from severe drought to super-storm
Yet what dominates the news cycle? Not climate change. An
annual analysis of climate change coverage conducted by The Daily Climate, a
nonprofit journalism site, found the number of stories
on climate change dropped 2 percent last year
, the third year of decline.
Media Matters, a
progressive media research center, found that climate
change coverage on network TV remained low
last year, despite the weather
extremes. The report singled out Sunday shows for spending just 8 minutes on
climate change, down from more than an hour in 2009, and not quoting a single
scientist on climate change in four years.
I don’t blame my fellow environmental journalists, many of
whom have fallen victim to newsroom cuts. We are pushing hard to cover what we
see as the Story
of the Century
. And some publications have actually increased climate
coverage, but even they can fall prey to industry pressures.
News broke today that The
New York Times
, which far outpaced four
other national papers
with its climate reporting last year, will dismantle
its environment desk
This is particularly disappointing. The Times managing editor for news Dean Baquet told InsideClimate
the move wouldn’t
change the newspaper’s commitment to covering the environment
or climate
I hope so, but I’m worried. Climate change needs to be on
the national agenda, as much as the latest disaster. And yet climate
change wasn’t mentioned once
during last year’s presidential debates.
Environmental groups are protesting “climate

It’s not just about saving polar bears, as some
cynics would say. Just last year alone, The United States saw 11
weather-related disasters pass the $1-billion cost mark. While scientists are
loath to attribute individual events to climate change, a warming world tilts
the system toward chaos – very expensive chaos. (For a helpful analogy, see the
explaining how greenhouse gases are the “steroids” of weather, much
like steroids in baseball.)

The World
Bank released a report
warning that the world must take steps to avoid
warming 4 degrees, as is predicted by the end of the century without radical
policy change. The report threatened devastating consequences, including the
inundation of coastal cities, higher rates of starvation, increased water
scarcity and more high-intensity tropical storms.
Graphic source: National Climatic Data Center’s State of the Climate 2012 report
If these events come to pass, we will be very sorry we didn’t address climate change when we had the chance.

So let’s do something that’s good for us this year. Eat more
kale, and don’t be afraid to talk about climate change.