A Convenient Excuse

By WEN STEPHENSON  |  November 5, 2012

Yet even as climate scientists sound increasingly alarmed, there's virtual silence in the mainstream media — even in the midst of a crucial election campaign — about the urgency of the threat. This is the case even in places that feature serious coverage of climate science, including the New York Times and NPR. A welcome exception was this quote of Rutgers scientist Jennifer A. Francis in Times reporter Justin Gillis's August 27 piece on Arctic sea ice: "It's hard even for people like me to believe, to see that climate change is actually doing what our worst fears dictated . . . . It's starting to give me chills, to tell you the truth." (The story didn't make the front page.) In the Globe, a piece like David Abel's lead A1 treatment, on June 25, of increasing sea-level rise along the northeastern seaboard, and what it means for Boston — the fact that in coming decades a mere nor'easter could put a half dozen Boston neighborhoods under water — was an all too rare acknowledgment of what's really at stake.

The Atlantic, now edited by an old friend of mine, has failed to run a single in-depth feature, much less a cover story, on the climate crisis in almosttwo years — since Jim Fallows' December 2010 cover story on the daunting problem of coal. But in the magazine's annual "Ideas" issue this summer, Chrystia Freeland cheerily noted that "fossil fuels are here to stay" — without a hint that she, or the editors, are aware that climate change is happening. (The editors of theatlantic.com seem to know climate change is happening, but true to prevailing Beltway wisdom, they apparently consider it a lower-order concern.) PBS Frontline has just aired the welcome though belated Climate of Doubt, a disturbing look at the people driving the climate-science denial machine. We should be grateful. But it's been almost exactly four years since the series produced a documentary on climate: 2008's Heat. Indeed, even the New Yorker, home to the invaluable climate reporter Elizabeth Kolbert, has devoted more space and more serious consideration in the past year to the insanity of geo-engineering (in a piece by Michael Specter) than to the kinds of policies, such as an economy-wide price on carbon, that economists across a wide spectrum say are necessary — and the kind of politics that could make them possible.

What's needed now is crisis-level coverage. And you guys know how to cover a crisis. In the weeks and months — nay, years — following 9/11, all sorts of stories made the front pages and homepages and newscasts that never would have been assigned otherwise. The same was true before and after the Iraq invasion, and in the months following the 2008 financial meltdown. In a crisis, the criteria for top news is markedly altered, as long as a story sheds light on the crisis topic. In crisis coverage, there's an assumption that readers want and deserve to know as much as possible. In crisis coverage, you "flood the zone." You shift resources. You make hard choices.

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