Media coverage on climate change: cooling off?

In his book Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, maverick author/professor Bjorn Lomborg argues,

Many other issues are much more important than global warming…such as hunger, poverty, and disease. By addressing them, we can help more people, at lower cost, with a much higher chance of success than by pursuing drastic climate policies at a cost of trillions of dollars.

One can only hope Lomborg never intended for this to be taken as a politically pragmatic solution in America (he is Danish, after all). Hunger, poverty, and disease are all critical global problems that need to be addressed and arrested; however, if it were only a matter of weighing the relative impacts of different global ills when setting a global agenda, we would, at the very least, have a vaccine for malaria by now (although there is hope…).

Instead, climate change has the potential to act as both a focal point and a platform from which to address these often closely related issues. By attacking global evils from the vantage point of a threat that we all face, it is easier to mobilize public attention and funding for ills that are otherwise thought to afflict people too far from home and issues too far removed to merit taxpayer money. It is politically more feasible to increase climate assistance to developing countries than it is to push for increases in ODA through the USAID, simply because the impact of that assistance is evenly distributed globally and therefore also felt at home.

Even so, Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times wrote this week of the “fading of global warming from the (American) political agenda.” Joe Romm of ClimateProgress highlighted, in a couple of scathing blog posts, the dwindling of media coverage (NYT included) in 2010 to 2005 levels. I happen to think Romm is unfair when he blasts the Times and other sources for not featuring climate change in its “largest lead headlines” — it is difficult for a media outlet dedicated to covering “all the news that’s fit to print” to consistently have a single non-immediate issue recur in its headline. A straightforward Google Trends cross-check, however, seems to verify his broader accusation: the volume of internet searches and news related to climate change has certainly dropped in the last couple of years.

An interesting observation is that “climate change” and “energy” news/internet volumes do not perfectly correlate, and in many cases even mirror each other — potentially indicating that Romm’s claim that the media does not adequately “connect the dots” among these closely interrelated issues is valid. Throw in “economy,” however, and the pattern is clearer — as is expected, “energy” and “economy” closely follow each other (except, inexplicably, in 2011). The only time “climate change”/”global warming” coverage even approach the levels of “energy”/”economy” is around COP-15.

Romm is right when he says media need to do a better job of connecting issue areas and creating a more holistic picture of the issues, challenges, and progress in these areas. Climate change mitigation, with its clear link to national energy security, potential for job creation, and pressing urgency, is both a pressing policy concern in itself and a gateway to related development challenges like poverty, hunger, and disease.