Media representatives, a scientist, and a climate scholar tackle climate communication challenges as part of annual environmental journalism conference.

LUBBOCK, TX — How can U.S. journalists covering climate change accurately cover this gigantic topic when it’s lost in the morass of a weak economy and a fractious Washington political divide?

Reporters and other conference participants looking for answers showed up for a Friday 7 a.m. Society of Environmental Journalists’ breakfast plenary at SEJ’s annual conference. A panel of four — reporter, videographer, policy professor, and climate scientist — decoded tussles now raising blood pressures on social media, blogs and TV, in online magazines, and around people’s kitchen tables and living rooms.

The panelists pointed to several factors they said make the climate-change stew so bitter. They agreed that journalists should stick to writing about implications of unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and about efforts to slow the pace of the climate impacts. They agreed too that journalists need a dose of courage to deal with:

1) The “egghead factor” — The same qualities that make scientists effective at climate science can make them weak at responsibly publicizing their own findings and communicating effectively with non-scientists.

2) The “political brawl factor” — Increased politicization of climate change during debates over carbon emission mitigation policies has spilled over into debates over the underlying science on climate change.

3) The “quarrel factor” — Climate change arguments among friends and strangers are part of what many decry as an overall decline in everyday civility — not only on the internet but also in routine discourse on policy issues.

The panelists were: Max Boykoff, assistant professor at the CIRES Center for Science and Technology Policy, University of Colorado-Boulder; Michael Hawthorne, environmental reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who substituted for ABC’s Bill Blakemore; Katharine Hayhoe, associate professor of atmospheric science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University; and Peter Sinclair, independent producer of the “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” video series and blog, and of the “This Is Not Cool” series on The Yale Forum. David Poulson of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University moderated the panel.

Egghead Factor

The panelists said journalists should remember that many scientists by nature are reluctant to seek out a soapbox, even though most may want the subjects they study to be part of the public dialogue.

Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe comes from ‘a long line of teachers and educators.’

Hayhoe said it’s the nature of science and scientists. She pointed to studies showing that the public trusts scientists, she said. But she also noted a study early this year that concluded that scientists tend to have a personality type that makes many of them ill-suited for talking easily with the public.

“There are exceptions to that rule,” Hayhoe said, “We have to realize that many of us picked our careers specifically so we did not have to talk to people. But there are some of us who still are willing to do that.”

Hayhoe in an e-mail later told The Yale Forum that she, who along with her pastor husband is co-author of A Climate for Change, relies “more on interdisciplinary collaborations than on lonely hours in the lab to inspire and spur my own research.”

“I also come from a long line of teachers and educators,” Hayhoe said, “so have been taught from an early age the value of clear and simple communication.”

Sinclair, who in his blog and videos cleverly juxtaposes scientific findings against those denying climate change as a problem, said he started doing climate change videos to help scientists. “I realized that scientists were absolutely getting slaughtered on the internet. And the reason, I think, was because they did not know how to speak the language that the internet speaks. The internet is this sort of scorning, subconscious, paranoid thing that we’re still trying to get our arms around,” Sinclair said.

Notwithstanding the challenges, Boykoff said academics studying complicated matters like climate science should consider it their duty to reach the public on what they know. And, he implied, journalists should press experts on climate to regularly provide information.

“In this day and age, it’s the fabric of academic researchers’ responsibilities,” Boykoff said. If journalists can’t find reputable scientists for interviews, he warned, the public suffers. “When they [scientists] do recoil, it opens up spaces for the not-so-expert to step in and happily provide copy.”

Political Brawl Factor

Poulson asked if climate change now has become more of a political story than a science story. And, if so, shouldn’t politics beat reporters in Washington therefore drive the coverage?

“Well, they did for a while. I would argue they failed,” replied Chicago Tribune environmental reporter Michael Hawthorne, who acknowledges that he personally seldom reports on climate change. He said that during debates on climate policy in 2011 and early 2012, “it became a horse race at times.” The way the story unfolded “did not serve anybody very well,” he added.

“There were some legitimate issues” with climate legislation being considered on Capitol Hill, Hawthorne said, and some of the coverage included science. “But somehow it was hijacked along the way, not necessarily in my mind by any one person or one group,” he said, “but just the collective weirdness of mainstream traditional political journalism.”

Tit-for-tat climate coverage ill-serves the public, Boykoff said. “One can question beyond raising awareness: Are we becoming very misinformed, and is this actually counterproductive to some of the goals of decarbonization, perhaps?”

The Quarrel Factor

It doesn’t take a journalist to notice that Americans quarrel about climate change and whether to regulate emissions, the speakers agreed, but some in the media avoid these conflicts and write around them.

“Much of the polarization over climate change has come about because it has been successfully portrayed as running against or counter to the deeply-held values that many people hold,” Hayhoe said. She suggested communicators need to help their audiences understand that climate change involves not just economic issues, that the implications transcend just “more taxation or more definite control, or more infringement on people’s personal liberties.”

Sinclair emphasized the importance of providing citizens not only information on the challenges of climate change, but also information on potential solutions to help address those challenges.

Journalists therefore “need to do the hard work,” Boykoff said, reporting on climate change itself and not merely retreating to “politically palatable” related topics like energy security or land use as a back door into the climate issue.

“Without having the discussions on climate change,” Boykoff said, “without pushing it forward into general discussions maybe outside of our specialized communities, we lose out.”

Hayhoe agreed and emphasized the word “timeframe” in suggesting media not hide climate change issues behind related issues like alternative energy resources and energy efficiency.

Risks of dangerous consequences from continued greenhouse gas emissions increase in the absence of mitigation efforts, she said … and not just in a linear fashion. She cautioned that some risks increase exponentially over time and that they can pass a threshold in the absence of efforts to reduce emissions.

“With energy, we’re looking at solutions on long timeframes, 20, 30 years,” Hayhoe said. “If we go 30 years with no climate policy, with carbon emissions unchecked, we will be facing a world that is very radically different from the world that we live in today, with very serious consequences for the U.S. and abroad.”

Christine Woodside is a writer and editor based in Deep River, Connecticut. She started her career in 1981 in Philadelphia, first as a news clerk at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then as associate editor...