Climate and Very Serious Media (3)

Part three of my exchange with David Roberts of Grist.

(Read parts one and two.)

From: Wen Stephenson
To: David Roberts

Couple more things:

Jay Rosen (and plenty of others, including my old colleague Jim Fallows at The Atlantic) recently wrote about NPR’s new guidelines and the so-called end of “false equivalence” in reporting (giving equal weight to opposing “sides” in a debate, regardless of the evidence supporting one or the other). What did you think of NPR’s new policy, and do you expect it to have any discernible impact on climate coverage beyond NPR? (funny that Rosen didn’t use climate as an example).  Have you noticed a shift in the way major news orgs cover climate science — is it my imagination, or do we seem to be seeing less “false equivalence” when it comes to climate science vs. the doubt peddlers?

– MIT’s Kerry Emanuel — who, as you know, is a top climate scientist and an exceedingly rare Republican in the field — recently spoke to a group of us in Wayland. And one of the main points he likes to make is that uncertainty in climate science — especially in projecting impacts — is a “double-edged sword.” He told us: “We’re very uncertain about the future. We cannot state with confidence that the warming is going to be what we project it to be. It could be a lot less. It could also, with equal probability, be a lot more. It’s a double-edged sword. Uncertainty doesn’t translate to ‘no worries, mate.’ It’s the opposite. We have, on the high-end of the probability curve, we have some pretty scary scenarios. … And if we want to act, we have a very narrow window of opportunity.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to see this idea enter the mainstream conversation with a little more frequency? I don’t know what that’ll take, but it seems like an elementary point that almost always goes unmentioned.

– Lastly, doesn’t “brutal logic” suggest that we need to start talking about adaptation and resilience in a major way, even as we keep pounding the message that no amount of adaptation will be enough if we don’t stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere? In other words, the adaptation and mitigation messages need to go hand in hand? (as Mark Hertsgaard, for example, argues in his book “Hot“). That it’s no longer a matter of “preventing” or avoiding the coming storm, but how to survive it?


From: David Roberts
To: Wen Stephenson

1. I don’t think it’s your imagination. The “he-said she-said” approach to climate science coverage has not been common for quite some time (despite the enduring popularity of that critique). Generally speaking, when I see climate science addressed in the mainstream media, there’s some mention that “most scientists believe the climate is warming,” or some such.

To my mind, science reporting isn’t the problem. The problem is dragging the implications of the science into other areas of coverage — coverage of foreign policy, or weather, or politics, or economics. Particularly economics. Generally speaking, press coverage of the economics of climate and climate solutions is abysmal. That’s where you find the really terrible “he-said she-said” stuff these days — crazy conservative projections of economic doom put side-by-side with sober economic projections, as if both were equally credible. Conventional economic wisdom in DC leans right, to say the least, so this problem will be far more difficult to solve than the false-balance problem in science coverage.


2. I couldn’t agree more. Here’s a good article on just that, called “Uncertainty is not your friend.”

Economist Martin Weitzman has done great work on this, showing how the presence of potentially huge (even limitless) “fat tail risks” completely scrambles traditional cost-benefit analysis. Here’s a good paper.

Weitzman said that most economic analysis of climate, because economists work with average values that hide fat-tail risks, becomes “a knob-twiddling exercise in optimizing outcomes,” and that certainly rings true to me. The idea that we can spend exactly the right amount to produce the optimal outcome is just an economist’s wet dream.

The right model here is insurance, where you spend as a hedge against future risks that are low-probability but potentially high-impact. The world could easily “insure” itself against climate risk if it spent as much as it does on life and home insurance!


3. Yes, agreed. I said so here.

One thing I don’t think the public gets at all is that climate change is already underway; even if global CO2 emissions stopped on a dime tomorrow, warming would continue well past mid-century. The mitigation efforts we make today will only pay off in the latter half of the century, but if we don’t make them, our grandchildren will face a climate spinning out of control.

Relatedly: I’ve always thought it’s misleading to see mitigation and adaptation as two entirely distinct activities. Nothing is more conducive to resilience than reducing dependence on finite, imported fossil fuels! Distributed energy (energy democracy) increases self-sufficiency. Walkable, tight-knit communities with high social capital are more adaptable. Etc.

So yes, resilience. We would need it even in the absence of climate change; lack of resilience is hurting people even as we speak! It’s all part of finding sustainable ways for large numbers of people to live on earth.

(Read parts one and two of this exchange.)


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