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Drought, Climate Change and Journalism 101

An Aug. 23 segment on NPR’s Morning Edition about the 2012 drought touched my sentimental side when a Kentucky farmer’s voice quivered while he spoke to correspondent David Schaper. “My wife and I just look at each other every night, and we look at our children’s faces before they go to sleep, and we wonder, will this be one of the last days?” he said. The piece was titled “Drought Extends Reach, Some Farmers Ready to Quit.” I’ve spent a lot of time in Kentucky and writing about the place. I’ve met guys like this one.

Sadly but predictably, nowhere in the story did Schaper mention the drought’s relation to climate change. Neither did the one that preceded it – “How Smokey the Bear Effect Led to Raging Wildfires” – nor any other segment on that morning’s story list. Indeed, a search for “climate change” on the NPR website shows no Morning Edition stories the entire month of August. Talk of the Nation, yes. All things Considered, yes. But Morning Edition, no.

While I do sympathize with this family, especially the children, I’d have to advise the Logan County cattle farmer featured in the piece to look in the mirror. He’s a victim of manmade climate change. And as a Kentuckian, he bears as much or more responsibility for his fate as anyone in the world. He and his bluegrass neighors, along with all the rest of us, brought the climate-induced 2012 tragedies of drought and wildfires upon ourselves. Payback is indeed a bitch. And we’ve only begun to pay.

In fact, drought was among the first consequences of global climate change that scientists predicted when they officially went on record on the subject in 1983. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – primarily from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas – were building up in the earth’s atmosphere, trapping heat like greenhouse roofs do. That, said scientists from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would warm the planet and lead to climatic extremes.

The two bodies issued separate reports that year. The academy’s provided a comprehensive review of the effects of human-caused increases in the levels of atmospheric CO2. EPA’s reviewed previous scientific findings on the “greenhouse effect.”

Reporting on the EPA document in October 1983, New York Times environmental reporter Philip Shabecoff quoted EPA Director of Strategic Studies John S. Hoffman: “The projected average temperature changes do not necessarily reflect the disruptive effects of wide seasonal swings that could bring extremes of heat or drought or rainfall.”

***

In the 29 intervening years, study after study, not to mention daily human experience, have built upon the scientific foundations that the NAS and EPA laid in the early days of the Reagan Revolution. The most recent is a paper titled “Perception of Climate Change,” published in August in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Study authors, led by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies head James Hansen, compared summer and winter temperatures from 1951 to 1980 with the three decades since. The base period had “conditions resembling those of  the Holocene, the world in which civilization developed,” the report says. The last three decades have been a “rapid global warming period.”

Among the important changes the study identified was a category of “summertime extremely hot outliers,” a.k.a. anomalies, that were more than three standard deviations warmer than the climatology of the base period. Over these past 30 years, it found, seasonal-mean temperature anomalies have changed dramatically, especially in summer.

“This hot extreme, which covered much less than 1 percent of Earth’s surface during the base period, now typically covers about 10 percent of the land area,” Hansen and the authors say.

From that, the report says, it can be stated with a “high degree of confidence” that record droughts like those that struck Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 “were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.”

Hansen submitted the paper on March 4, 2012, before the summer of expansive heat and drought. An Aug. 15, 2012, report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 38 percent of the contiguous United States had suffered severe to extreme drought as of July 31. Schaper reported that more than half the nation’s counties have been designated eligible for federal disaster aid, so far.

In the PNAS report section titled “Broader Implications,” Hansen and his fellow researchers concluded: “With the temperature amplified by global warming and ubiquitous surface heating from elevated greenhouse gas amounts, extreme drought conditions can develop.”

***

While it’s a marginal call indeed, it is a fact that Kentuckians, like the farmer featured in the Morning Edition drought piece, share more responsibility for climate change than most of the rest of the U.S. population. The state has one of the heaviest concentrations of CO2-emitting, coal-fired power plants in the world.

According to EPA data, Kentucky industries released 150 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2010, ranking 12th in the nation. Indiana ranked sixth, with 228 tons. The two states, along with Louisiana, have the highest per capita releases of carbon dioxide in the nation, by far.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says Kentucky leads the nation in coal production, producing 105 million tons in 2010. That was nearly double the output from Pennsylvania, which ranked No. 2 with 59 million tons. Indiana was fifth, with 35 million tons.

And an Aug. 9 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council said Kentucky also led the nation in 2010 in toxic chemical releases from coal-fired power plants. Four other Ohio River states – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia – rounded out the top five.

Additionally, Kentucky’s political class is as climate-change-denying as it gets.

Logan County is part of the state’s Second Congressional District, represented by Republican Brett Guthrie. “He believes that we must expand our domestic oil production by approving environmentally safe drilling in ANWR and around our nation’s coastlines, and increase our refining capacity,” according to OnTheIssues.org. “Brett also supports investing in new technologies to take advantage of Kentucky’s abundant coal reserves as an important energy source.”

In his 2010 Primary victory speech, Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul cited “petty dictators” like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Bolivia’s Eva Morales as saying efforts to stop climate change were “about ending capitalism.”

The Louisville Courier-Journal’s veteran environmental reporter James Bruggers posted a July 6, 2012, blog entry titled “McConnell dismisses climate change science.” He quoted the state’s senior senator and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from a recent Louisville Rotary meeting.

“As recently as 30-35 years ago we were worried about the globe getting too cold,” McConnell said. “I suppose over decades and maybe centuries we’ll figure this out.”

***

In the end, however, Schaper and his colleagues at NPR and the rest of the corporate media bear the brunt of responsibility for the emerging climate change catastrophe and the impacts it is having on all humanity, from Kentucky farmers to Maldives resort workers.

In the PNAS paper, Hansen says it was suggested decades ago that, by this time in American history, an informed public “should be able to recognize that the frequency of unusually warm seasons had increased.”

Instead, in the midst of the 2012 drought and heat wave, a July Washington Post/Stanford University poll showed that public concern about climate change had dropped to all-time lows. Only 18 percent said it was the world’s top environmental concern, surpassed by air and water pollution. Five years ago climate change was No. 1, with 33 percent citing it as the top world concern.

The public’s failure to connect the dots is a direct function of the corporate news media’s failures as democratic institutions. It’s the press’s responsibility to sort the truth from the propaganda so citizens can reach informed decisions about critical issues that affect their lives and livelihoods, like climate change. I was reminded of a Robert F. Kennedy Jr. interview we ran in The Bloomington Alternative nearly a decade ago.

“A lot of journalists say, ‘I’ve done my job as long as I’ve told both sides of the story,'” Kennedy told Indianapolis journalist Thomas P. Healy. “But that’s not your job. Your job is to tell the truth.”

Journalists can tell both sides of the story by saying virtually every major meteorological scientist in the world says global warming exists and is caused by industrial emissions and quoting “mercenary confusionists” who are paid by the oil and coal industries to muddle the issue, Kennedy said. But giving climate deniers equal weight with climate scientists distorts the truth.

“That’s actually confusing the public,” he told Healy. “What a journalist needs to do is say, ‘Okay, 99 percent of scientists say this exists. There’s a few kind of average, marginalized people who are paid by the oil industries to say it isn’t.’

“If the truth comes out, we win.”

That’s fundamental, Journalism 101. NPR fails.

Steven Higgs edits the Bloomington Alternative.

 

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Steven Higgs is an environmental journalist and photographer living in Bloomington, Ind. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More. His new book A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana is scheduled for release by Indiana University Press on April 20, 2016.

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