CHATTANOOGA, TN. – Attendees at a recent national journalism conference repeatedly heard from presenters that the public is becoming reconciled to a changing climate and how it might affect them in their daily lives.

From major automakers to fellow journalists emphasizing that “global warming” is more and more a local story, journalism and non-journalism participants at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) were encouraged to look high and low for important climate stories just waiting to be told.

Representatives of four major car companies, for instance, told of upbeat prospects for electric cars, which just a decade ago appeared to be on the verge of becoming a flop. The automaker reps see electric cars and those that combine electric batteries with hydrogen or gasoline engines increasingly appealing to middle-class people worried about oil and gas prices and supplies.

Later the same day, the theme of citizens connecting the dots between climate change and daily life continued, when representatives of the Earth Journalism Network and other outlets on a panel called, “All Impacts Are Local,” gave pep talks about ways media can better cover noticeable effects of changing weather patterns.

Alternative Cars: Taking Off?

Representatives of Volkswagen and Nissan — both operating manufacturing and assembly plants in Tennessee — and of Toyota and General Motors told conference attendees at a breakfast presentation that middle-class Americans find all-electric and hybrid cars increasingly attractive as the vehicles’ price tags drop. The GM representative pointed to being able to fully charge an electric vehicle for as little as $1.50 for a 35-mile trip, making it less expensive than gas-powered trip of that same distance. The automakers also said electric vehicles can cut gas consumption by huge amounts while increasing the load on the electricity grid load by less than 1 percent.

The automakers also said electric vehicles are, plain and simple, also fun to drive.

“I’m not going back,” one “mom” in a Nissan promotional video showed during the SEJ meeting said. Nissan’s Erik Gottfried said the typical buyer of the Leaf is now between age 35 and about 45 and in the $75,000-$100,000 income bracket. That compares with an average U.S. national household annual income of $51,371 in 2012, down from $56,189 in pre-recession 2007.

So even though the electric and electric/hybrid cars make up less than 1 percent of the American car market, the increase in sales, generally reflecting higher costs of gasoline in recent years, could be significant, particularly if it persists and if the national economy strengthens despite continuing concerns over foreign oil and gas supplies. “We are trying to move this market,” said Britta Gross of General Motors, which now sells three electric vehicles — the hybrid/electric Volt; the electric-only Spark, currently available just in California and Oregon; and the Cadillac ELR.

“They feel it in the pocketbook,” said Sharon Basel, a spokeswoman for GM.

The Chevrolet Volt (left), a hybrid/electric car, and the Nissan Leaf (right), with Nissan product planning staffer Mike Higginbotham, seen at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in the Chattanooga Conference Center.

The carmaker representatives insisted, in response to a question, that the additional electricity required to power electric cars, even if the vehicles themselves go mainstream, need not strain the power grid nor degrade the environment. They also did not seem overly concerned with what some critics say is a dearth of adequate vehicle charging facilities in many parts of the country. Jackie Birdsall, a Toyota engineer, said that California, the test market for hydrogen cars, would need 70 fueling stations to be cost-effective. It has 43 now, most of them in the Los Angeles area, but only nine of those are open to the public. The rest are private demonstration stations, bus fueling stations, or still in development (see station map).

The Florida Public Service Commission concluded last year that between 2012 and 2021, if Florida’s electric car numbers match the conservative estimates, charging them “is expected to have a negligible effect on electricity consumption.” But Florida doesn’t know how many electric cars are on the road nor how many will be. Estimates from utilities and the Electric Power Research Institute guessed something between 1,000 and 16,000 for this year, and in 2021, between about 137,000 and 516,000. Those numbers are a tiny fraction of total cars which are expected to number almost 23 million by 2021 (see report).

The carmakers’ message to the journalists, that they care about cutting emissions, was unmistakable. “VW signed up for this,” said Oliver Schmidt, general manager of VW’s engineering and environmental office in Auburn Hills, Michigan. “Our CEO agreed to [a goal of] 95 grams per kilometer of carbon dioxide by 2020.”

Volkswagen is committed to emissions targets set by the European Union and other major countries, said Schmidt, who after the session complained that Obama administration fuel-economy targets, in effect, treat manufacturers like VW unfairly. That’s because, he said, they favor SUV and light-truck manufacturers and not manufacturers whose fleets consist primarily of smaller passenger cars.
Basel of GM said the company’s interests in cutting carbon dioxide emissions extend also to its factory operations, with a commitment to reduce 2020 CO2 emissions from factory operations by 20 percent from 2010 emissions.

From Dengue Fever to Flooded Houses—Local Impacts Stressed

In an “All Impacts Are Local” panel four journalists offered advice on covering climate change effects through the eyes of people experiencing extreme weather, disease, or discomfort.

Moderator James Fahn, executive director of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, said, “Working with journalists around the world, one of our main challenges is to work with them to help turn this huge global issue into a local story.” (See related posting.)

The Earth Journalism Network’s Climate Commons presents maps (see sample map below) illustrating recent climate-change effects around the world, and provides links to data and local reporting posted by its members. “Essentially the premise here is to help provide context,” said Willie Shubert, EJN’s senior program coordinator, who designs the maps using stories EJN gathers from journalists around the world.

The project helps provide “the local context for climate change,” Shubert said, and the maps help people answer questions and figure out what questions to ask next, he said. “It provides that background information,” he said. “Data is often collected by a lot of different organizations… but that information can be difficult to gather. What we try to do is make it easier.”

Climate change impacts as a public health story was also the focus of a book author’s remarks. Journalists should follow trends in diseases connected to warming climates and the global economy, said Linda Marsa, author of the book, Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health — And How We Can Save Ourselves (see Yale Forum interview). Marsa advised the audience that more frequent or more severe natural disasters will strain the healthcare system, and she pointed to Hurricane Katrina instances of doctors practicing medicine in storefronts, higher suicide rates, and a local and regional healthcare system still reeling from the experience.

“It’s getting warmer, period. Disease vectors, mosquitoes, ticks, and deer mice and deer are migrating to different ecosystems,” Marsa said. Vaccines are nonexistent or inadequate in addressing some of the increased diseases anticipated in a warming climate, she said, such as Dengue Fever and West Nile Virus. “We’re going to see a lot more of these zoonotic diseases, jumping from animals to people.”

Marsa said authoritative sources for climate change/health effects stories can be found among public health officials, university faculties, and by using social networks. She said, for instance, that during a heat wave in Russia, she had used Facebook to interview English-speaking people living in Moscow about how they were dealing with the heat.

Imelda Abano, president of the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists, told the SEJ panel that mobile telephones, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and Short Messaging Service (SMS) reports have proven useful in informing large numbers of Filipino and other audiences about climate and extreme weather events, what she called “the new normal.”

Fahn suggested reporters use anecdotes from older people about everything from their personal weather experiences over the years to their memories of ice-skating on ponds or lakes that no longer freeze-over and to changes in their farming and gardening practices. He also encouraged reporters to use “crowd sourcing” techniques to collect first-hand information and pointed to the value of old photographs to help provide perspective on changing conditions.

“Climate change is going to affect our entire society. Our entire economy,” Fahn said. “Look for stories wherever you can.”

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...