Clearing the air

By Stuart Smallwood

When climate scientists published the latest and most startling warnings about climate change catastrophe, the media either sounded the alarm or challenged the disturbing data. Most missed the very real solutions proposed by the report.


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By Stuart Smallwood

Journalistic coverage of climate change (or is it global warming?) has developed much as the science has. It began with a debate – is global warming happening? Is human activity the cause? And anyway, what could be so bad about a warmer earth? An informed public may now realize that to suggest global warming is due to a natural process would be akin to suggesting a forest fire caused by a carelessly tossed cigarette is natural. But the debate has merely shifted focus. Now it’s about the severity of the effects of climate change.

These debates create a haze of uncertainty. In this haze it is difficult to focus on solutions. Perhaps this is why, when the latest and strongest scientific testament to the dangers of climate change made the news, a significant shred-of-hope aspect of it went nearly unreported in the media.

The hope comes from a May 16th report headed by global warming icon Dr. James Hansen, NASA’s top climatologist at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The report, titled “Climate change and trace gases”, says we have about 10 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lest we warm the Earth 1 C higher than it was in the year 2000. At the 1 C mark Gaia will take over. Tundra permafrost will melt, releasing methane — a greenhouse gas — stored for millions of years under the soil. More catastrophic, the Earth’s mega-glaciers, the polar ice caps, will begin to melt uncontrollably, their melting contributing to more melting, potentially leading to sea level to rise meters within this century.

If it all sounds sensational, well, that’s because it is. The media was all over the sea level warnings because they were drastically more severe than the predictions made by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Yet the science behind the report would take more than a precious centimetre of newsprint to summarize. And to summarize, one would need to analyze the document thoroughly, not to mention understand it. Still though, the old saying, “the Devil’s in the details”, doesn’t apply here. The warnings — more severe than ever — stood out like a trail of blood still warm on the snow. It was only after following the trail, delving into the report, that it seemed less alarmist and more hopeful.

The hope is this: by focusing separately on non-carbon climate change contributors — what are collectively called “air pollutants” — we may be able to slow warming long enough to develop effective and realistic infrastructure changes to our carbon-dioxide addiction and keep the temperature below the danger point.

In effect, reducing the “air pollutants” represents a window of opportunity, if only a small one. Yet, despite its potential, the idea was rarely mentioned in the media coverage of the Hansen report.

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Search “Hansen and global and warming” on Factiva, an Internet media database, for the last six months and you will find many articles from English papers around the world on the man and his May 16th report. This shouldn’t be considered a scientific sample of the media, but it is a general sample of the media atmosphere. Some are news pieces about the warnings of the report, others are follow-up debate style articles, and many are “for-shame” editorials about the inactivity of politicians and the sedation of the plebeians. In general, though, they all either sounded the alarm, or brought in other scientists to determine if Hansen (considered the world’s leading climatologist), is being alarmist. If they did discuss solutions, they were carbon-based solutions. Only one article focused on the importance of the “air pollutants” in keeping our earth below the ill-advised 1 C mark.

This one article came from the U.S. daily The Christian Science Monitor. The article, written by main science writer Peter Spotts, discusses the warnings of Hansen and his colleagues as a preface, and later as context, for the necessity of a new strategy to limit the effects of climate change.

“The main idea: focus intensely on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions other than carbon dioxide in the short term, giving the world a little leeway in dealing with the trickier issue of CO2,” Spotts wrote.

downlows-globalwarmingIt shone like a beacon in all this fog.

“It isn’t enough to sound the warnings, because otherwise, you can leave readers saying ‘What in the bloody hell can we do about it?'” says Spotts, on the phone from Boston. “At least [this way] the reader…will know there are people out there thinking seriously about how to deal with this. At least they won’t come to the conclusion that the sky is falling.”

So, there may not yet be cause to swarm the streets in panic. What is cause for concern, though, is the slant Hansen’s report generally received in the media: “Long-time prophet of doom makes his greatest prediction yet if we don’t tackle carbon. Should we believe him?”

A perfect example of this type of coverage comes from an article by freelance writer Zoe Cormier. Her piece in The Globe and Mail was, in itself, well written but it didn’t mention the short-term solutions suggested by Hansen. Instead it analyzed the warnings, quoting scientists from several perspectives.

Cormier says her editor assigned her the idea to cover Hansen’s sea level predictions and ask other scientists about it.

“It wasn’t up to me to change the angle,” She says. “This piece – like most anything you’ll see in a newspaper – was looking at one specific issue in Hansen’s paper. It is extremely difficult to mention all the important aspects of any study in one short news article. It’s pretty wide ranging and pretty arduous, and frankly, there were many aspects to that paper that could have had entire news pieces devoted to them.”

Cormier, who considers herself in a minority of scientifically trained journalists, says it’s easy to see why journalists focused on the rise in sea level.

“That is by far the most grabbing and shocking part of the paper,” Cormier says. “Normally you would never find that kind of language in a scientific paper. Hansen clearly had it in mind to push a certain point. He’s trying to make people understand how bad it could get, and advocating for action.”

Yet, the general consensus by the other scientists from Cormier’s article went like this: Hansen’s science is essentially right, but it is difficult to make definite predictions about sea-level change, etcetera. As one scientist in the article put it, we aren’t “going to hell in a hand basket”.

And the debate rages on, and on.

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To be fair, Dr. Randall Martin of the Dalhousie Physics and Atmospheric Science department says it may be a case of media priorities. Still, he agrees the lack of discussion about the air pollutants should be considered “a significant omission”. “It’s a point that he raised before,” Martin says. “That might be why there was less attention this time. Nonetheless I think it’s very important. If the media response is in terms of what’s new, then maybe that’s not a point of interest. If the media is interested in highlighting what we can do about the situation, then I think it’s an important point to include.”

Given the severity of these new warnings, the “air pollutants” become all the more important. Their link to the warnings is novelty enough — they are a solution to them.

“The point that he’s raised previously is that air pollutants have a fairly strong role in climate change,” says Martin. “What seems to be new to me is the tie to a specific temperature increase, and linking it to a reduction of sea ice in the arctic.”

Hansen first reported the idea of focusing separately and intensely on non-CO2 climate contributors in 2000.

“[I] nearly got my head taken off,” Hansen says. “Nature magazine, the Union of Concerned Scientists, everybody it seemed was furious because they thought the U.S. Administration would use it as an excuse not to deal with CO2… I had to write an ‘open letter’ to the scientific community, because Nature would not let me answer their charges without editing my letter and UCS would not give me their e-mail list.”

Hansen says this reaction from the scientific community may still play a role in the lack of discussion today, though he does admit that he has had difficulty communicating the issue accurately to journalists.

“It makes the problem a bit more complex than they would like for a sound byte,” he said. “I have not been pushing it very hard — only so much energy.”

Hansen touches on a point that Dr. Larry Hughes and Martin both raise — the omission may be a case of over-simplification. Because journalists are under strict time constraints, it can be incredibly difficult to grasp something as complex as the climate change issue. Just as Cormier alludes, there is only so much space in an article.

“Have you tried writing a piece on Hansen in 800 words?” asks Hughes, a professor for Dalhousie University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He heads the department’s Energy Research Group, which examines energy and environmental concerns for Atlantic Canada. “By the time you get past the reasons behind the problem, that’s three quarters of the paper. It could also be a case of – you’ve got a deadline and you have to meet it. If all the journalist knows is that climate change is caused by carbon dioxide, you are now muddying the water for them.”

Oversimplification can also be caused by a lack of understanding.

“It’s more complicated than CO2,” says Martin. “CO2 is pretty easy – you burn fossil fuels, CO2 goes in the atmosphere and a warming occurs. The others – they all have chemical feedbacks, they all have non-linearity involved in their relationship with climate. That complicates the issue and it’s more difficult to make simple statements, to make sound bytes. They are less well understood by the public.”

But the price of oversimplifying the issue is high given the looming threats Hansen says we face, and the difficulty of severely reducing CO2 emissions.

“Eliminating carbon emissions is a problem of enormous dimensions,” says Hughes, also a member of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce energy subcommittee. “If you want to talk about the backbone of our economy – it certainly is.”

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Martin believes the public would benefit from more attention to these other climate change contributors. He says it would lead to a better understanding.

And who knows? Increased public knowledge might lead to the political pressure needed to tackle what might be our last, best hope. Though, for his part, Hughes is skeptical that even perfectly meticulous journalism (of a kind only possible in a vacuum) would have made much difference, now or 20 years ago.

“It might have made a little bit of an impact, but I know it wouldn’t have made the impact we would have required. Because you’re not going to get anything done without the political will. And unless the population is literally up in arms about it, then there is no reason for the politician to create change.”

Still, one can’t help but notice this gleaming potential sound byte, somewhere in the middle of the Hansen report, and wish it had received more attention:

“The most rapid feasible slowdown of CO2 emissions, coupled with focused reductions of other forcings, may just have a chance of avoiding disastrous climate change.”

Air pollutants: What they are and why they’re important

The reports says the “air pollutants” (if you’re counting – tropospheric ozone and methane, black carbon, organic carbon and the aerosol indirect effect on black carbon and organic carbon) are important because they stay in the atmosphere for far shorter periods of time than carbon. A quarter of the carbon in the atmosphere today will be there 500 years from now, and the Earth hasn’t yet warmed up to the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere (like a roast in an oven, it takes time). So, we are already locked into a certain amount of warming by carbon no matter what. Most air pollutants, however, have decadal shelf-lives. Their near elimination would have almost direct climatic effects. Just as importantly, they can be dealt with more easily than carbon.