WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 14 — Washington is the sort of town where small local events regularly feature national talents.

That was demonstrated again recently when three nationally recognized science/environmental journalists met in a small, wood-paneled conference room on the Georgetown University campus to discuss ongoing challenges of covering climate change. In conjunction with the university’s wider Environment Initiative, the event was convened by the Georgetown Climate Center and moderated by its director, Vicki Arroyo. The three journalists were Wendy Koch (USA Today), Richard Harris (NPR), and John Carey (freelance writer, Scientific American and Yale Environment 360).

Georgetown alum Koch spoke first — about the special series on climate change USA Today started running in March 2013, with the encouragement of the then-new editor-in-chief Dave Calloway. Topics covered so far include ocean acidification, extreme precipitation, heat waves, drought, and agriculture. Still to come are articles on changing patterns of disease, and sea-level rise. While traveling around the country to research these stories, Koch said she frequently noted peoples’ reluctance to talk about climate change — even in areas that are arguably already experiencing its effects. “I don’t know what you call it,” Koch recalled one Texan saying, “but we’ve got a water problem.”

To get through this reticence, Koch said, reporters must tell personal stories and not just about problems; reporters must also report on climate change solutions.

Some ‘Issue Fatigue’ Among Editors?

Richard Harris, science reporter for NPR since 1986, began his remarks by reflecting on something that didn’t happen. When the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report was released in 2007, Harris said, he had thought the public conversation about climate change would turn from “Is it happening?” to “What should we do?” It didn’t. Instead the science came under attack.

“There’s really two media systems in this country,” Harris said, one for the center-left and the other for the right. His reporting will never change minds on the right, “but there’s a big group in a middle that sloshes back and forth [on the issue].”

Although he senses what some might call “issue-fatigue” among editors (“Keep it short”), Harris insisted that “we have to keep talking about climate change.”

Often Ignored: Uncertainty Cuts Both Ways

John Carey, who, it was noted, is the husband of the moderator, Vicki Arroyo, recounted take-away points from a feature article he wrote about climate change for the November 2012 issue of Scientific American. There have indeed been natural cycles in the climate, Carey said, cycles caused by small changes in Earth’s orbit and tilt that changed the amount of energy reaching and warming the surface. But “we’re [now] pushing the climate 12 times harder than those cycles.”

Carey said he understands scientists’ needs to be open about uncertainties in their data and models, but, he added, “uncertainty cuts both ways.” That’s a point the public often seems to ignore.

“Scientists are really concerned about type-one errors [overstating the risks], but they’re incredibly blasé about type-two errors [understating the risks],” Carey advised. “There are climate wolves out there.”

After their opening remarks, the audience of Georgetown University faculty and students and governmental and non-governmental attendees pressed for details on the research, writing, and editorial processes behind climate news stories.

Harris noted that climate change remains at the bottom of the public’s lists of national priorities, as measured each year by Pew Research Center. But news stories about climate change do generate attention, including “a lot of negative noise.”

Koch agreed: “They get a lot of attention, but not necessarily attention you want.”

Stories about adaptation to climate change appear somewhat less controversial. “Adaptation stories are easier to tell,” Harris said, “because you have characters, you have action.”

Media Mission: Maintain Audience, Not ‘Change the World’

But asked if reporters have a particular role to play in communicating climate change, Carey, Harris, and Koch all cautioned against blurring the line between journalism and advocacy. “News organizations are businesses,” said Harris, “our fundamental goal is not to change the world but to maintain our audience.”

The session closed with a series of questions about politics. Harris said he doubts people do cost-benefit analyses on whether they should accept scientific explanations about climate change. Rather, he argued, citing work by Dan Kahan and the Culture Cognition Project at Yale Law School, people make choices based on what their social cohort thinks.

Which, Carey said, means that attitudes toward climate change are wrapped up in peoples’ core political identities. To change minds, “you have to pry apart that connection.”

“People get upset whenever I talk to a ‘skeptic,’” Harris responded, but they’re clearly part of the political equation in the U.S.

Asked if the political climate in the U.S. is now operating outside the bounds of normal variability, Koch quickly agreed: “Politics in this country is so broken.”

Carey, however, pointed out that fundamental political change occurs only in one of two ways: the public rises up and forces their representatives to act, or individual states move first and then businesses insist that the federal government enact uniform regulations to level the playing field. Speaking to a concerned audience in a small room in Georgetown, Carey thought national action on climate change is possible even in America’s polarized political atmosphere.

A Web video link for “Covering Climate Change” is to be posted on the Georgetown Climate Center website.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...