Challenge of Making Climate Change News Sound Newsy

By Michael D. Lemonick

Dog bites man: news or not? If you’re a journalist, you don’t even need to think about it. The phrase is our professional shorthand for an idea that hardly qualifies as news, that it's not out of the ordinary. Man bites dog (goes the second half of the cliché), now that’s news!

It’s not an ironclad rule, though: if the dog bites the man after winning first place at the Westminster Dog Show, or if a marauding dog is biting its way through a terrified neighborhood, or if First Dog Bo bites Sasha or Malia — that’s news, too.

So when January 2012 was officially declared America’s fourth warmest January on record yesterday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was that news or not? Here at Climate Central, we thought it was. But then, we would. Do a Google News search, and you’ll find that a whopping eight news outlets agreed with us, and one of them was the Weather Channel, so it hardly counts. (Extra points to, which came up with a clever angle: it feels like it must be the warmest January ever, but surprise! It’s only fourth!) But for most media, it was kind of ho-hum, because, really, haven’t we heard it all before? It’s always the warmest this, or the second-warmest that.

For scientists who think about climate, though, that’s the point. Especially in the past decade — a time when climate skeptics argue, bizarrely, that global warming has stopped — these records or near-records are being set all the time, and extreme weather events, including droughts, heat waves and torrential storms have been more frequent and more severe.

And that points to a story that doesn’t change much week to week, or even month to month: Earth keeps warming, and result is like climate on steroids. If we keep pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, the climate will keep changing, and it’s likely to be highly disruptive, at best, in all sorts of ways.

In the dog-bites-man sense, it isn’t really news, since it’s pretty much always the same story — a situation that led AP reporter Seth Borenstein to argue last year that a month that for once was colder than average would get his journalistic antennae vibrating. At least it would be different. Just repeating that global warming is still happening, along with the obligatory explanation of how the greenhouse effect works, feels something like Chevy Chase’s old SNL routine from the 1970’s: “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.” 

Yet a slow, inexorable slide into a world where the sea level is higher, weather patterns are changed, and trillions of dollars worth of roads, buildings, farms and other infrastructure, along with many hundreds of millions of people, may find themselves stuck in places where conditions are no longer hospitable — surely that’s got to be news.

The question is, how do we present it so that peoples’ eyes don’t glaze over. The “man bites dog” rule isn’t just something we invented to show how clever we are. It’s a reflection of our collective experience of how people respond to news. In this case, it’s news that’s on one hand too scary to think about for long, and on the other depends on a fair amount of scientific explanation to make clear.

Most people have little patience that sort of thinking — not because they’re dumb, but because science isn’t really part of our cultural conversation. It’s no less complicated to figure out who the favorites are likely to be for next fall’s World Series, based on all sorts of interacting factors and statistics and alternative scenarios, but since sports are part of the culture, we have no trouble slogging through those chains of reasoning.

The other problem with reporting on climate change is that because most people don’t have a good grasp on the science, pundits and politicians have no trouble distorting matters — again, suggesting that global warming has stopped, which is pretty much nonsense, or that the science is far more uncertain that it is, or that climate scientists are a bunch of conspirators chortling into their handlebar moustache as they make fools of the public (the “climategate” affair). That’s why the question of whether the science is even valid keeps coming up. This wasn’t an issue a decade ago, when the science was actually less solid than it is now.

Given all these hurdles, it’s a real challenge to keep this slowly evolving story fresh and urgent. But given its overwhelming importance, we need to keep trying. This is the point where I’m supposed to offer a bold new vision. Instead, I’m asking for suggestions. How would you approach it? What are your best ideas for making our changing climate an ongoing source of compelling news? The fourth warmest January on record isn’t going to cut it.

What stories should we be telling to hold your interest?