NewsJanuary 13, 2013

The Global Warming Hot List for 2013

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By Peter Dykstra, The Daily Climate

Clutches are in. Red is the new black. A Korean rapper's cantering dance has been trending since August. Any number of lists promise the hot trends of 2013. But where to get hip to what's in vogue with climate change this year?

The Daily Climate can fill the gap. Using the news website's global archive of 139,000 climate change articles published by “mainstream” media – 18,546 from last year alone – we can look backward to get a glimpse of where we might be going in 2013.

HOT: Science. 

Scientists are trending in their own (small) way in The Daily Climate's archives. Michael Mann, the Penn State climatologist who famously likened the sharp rise in the past century's temperatures to the upturned blade of a hockey stick, saw his media profile jump in 2012: 61 mentions, compared to 36 in 2011.

Michael Mann saw his media profile jump in 2012: 61 mentions, compared to 36 in 2011.
Credit: American Association of University Professors.

NASA's James Hansen, the only other published climate scientist with as high a profile, saw a similar rise: 55 mentions in 2012, versus 35 and 36 the previous two years.

Profiles of scientists, advocates, skeptics, organizations and topics can rise and fall fairly dramatically, and not always for the best reasons. We make no claims that TDC's daily haul of stories from the English-language press is all-encompassing – or that we can read the future – but it makes a good measuring stick for what's hot and what's not. 

The archives search only the top few paragraphs of news stories, but searches of deeper databases by Radford University journalism professor and Daily Climate contributor Bill Kovarik confirm the trends reported here.

NOT: Skeptics

Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who says climate science is an immense hoax, peaked in media mentions in 2011 with 60. His 2012 totals dropped back down to 35, despite his releasing a book on the hoax in question.

The economist Bjorn Lomborg has been an oft-cited skeptic who believes that climate change is real, but its future consequences are overstated and its remedies too costly. Lomborg peaked with 35 mentions in both 2009 and 2010, but slipped back to a mere 10 in 2012.

Climate activists confronting Lord Christopher Monckton.
Credit: Mat McDermott/flickr.

It was also a down year for Lord Christopher Monckton, the theatrical British peer and climate denier. His Lordship peaked in 2011, with 25 mentions. That year, he toured Australia to rail against that nation's proposed carbon tax, while fending off demands from the House of Lords that he cease and desist claiming he was a member. The Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley made the archives only 10 times last year.

But the biggest “hot-then-not” winner is the Heartland Institute.

No one person or group saw its climate profile rise more dramatically – and for the worst possible reasons – than the Chicago-based nonprofit. It's always had a modest presence, largely through its annual global conference for climate skeptics and deniers. From 2008 to 2011, Heartland averaged just over 10 mentions per year in TDC's archives.

In 2012, coverage of Heartland increased tenfold, with 119 mentions – due to two stunning incidents. In February, confidential documents intended for Heartland's board were leaked, showing a network of payments to climate skeptics and funding for a school curriculum designed to cast doubt on climate science. In a Grisham-esque turn, prominent scientist/activist Peter Gleick admitted obtaining the documents by posing as a Heartland board member and apologized for his ethical lapse. Some climate advocates called for revocation of Heartland's tax-exempt status, while Heartland called for criminal charges against Gleick. Neither happened.

Three months later, Heartland's reputation came under attack again. This time, the wounds were self-inflicted: Heartland posted a video billboard on a busy Chicago freeway, likening climate advocates to “murderers, tyrants and madmen” like Ted Kazcynski, the “Unabomber” of the 1990's. Staff, supporters, and funders bailed on Heartland. Then it faded into obscurity faster than Paris Hilton.

Bill McKibben speaking at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources.
Credit: Univ. of Michigan.

NOT: News judgment

Buried in all this is a teachable moment for journalism: A group widely recognized as being on the fringe of climate science and politics got twice as many news mentions for its twin fiascoes as the two most prominent climate scientists got for being scientists.

HOT: Bill McKibben

Author/academic Bill McKibben, who has led campaigns against the Keystone XL pipeline, grew steadily from 23 mentions in '08 to 55 last year. His newest push – equating investment in fossil-fuel companies with support for 1980s-era Apartheid South Africa – seems to assure more mentions for '13.

NOT: Al Gore

Al Gore, longtime champion of climate action, slipped from 313 mentions in 2008 to 87 last year. But even with a lower profile, the former Vice President remains one of the most frequently-cited names in climate news stories.

HOT: Sea-level rise

Satellite view of Hurricane Sandy.
Credit: NASA.

Lest we forget some actual issues, there's no surprise here: Superstorm Sandy's inundation of the New York area sent the number of stories mentioning sea-level rise surging one-third over 2011 totals. But the topic still fell short of 2009 mentions, a year that stands as the most prolific for reporting in Daily Climate's five-year history.

HOT: Acidification

Ocean acidification stories tracked similarly, growing in 2012 but still less than in 2009. Stories about geoengineering – the sometimes-exotic schemes to use technology to outwit the impacts of climate change – peaked in 2010, and have taken a 40 percent dive since then.

As for the inevitable, here's your dose of 2013 punditry:

  •  Business Week's stark, post-Sandy cover trumpeting “It's Global Warming, Stupid” will be the herald of a partial media awakening. On Sunday, CNN re-entered the game with an hour-long, prime-time special on climate and severe storms. Newsrooms will follow the leads of the New York Times and the Associated Press and bolster their coverage, and nonprofits like Climate CentralInside Climate News and TDC will find a wider audience.

  •  Cracks will form in the Republican Party's de facto ban on taking climate change seriously, and the self-imposed climate omerta we saw from both Presidential candidates and debate moderators will erode.

  •  TV meteorologists, one of the last strongholds of any kind of science on television, will feel more empowered to connect the climate dots – partly due to the Forecast the Facts campaign, but also due to how bloody awful the world's weather has become.

  •  Science may not become a media rock star – that's a hope as perennial as spring wishes for a Cubs World Series win. But on-the-ground evidence of climate change will prompt a reduction in the attacks on climate scientists. Climate denial will begin to fade as a rallying point for the likes of the Tea Party and Fox News, just like gay marriage and “partial-birth abortions” have faded. Maybe they can turn their full attention to something meaningful, like the War on Christmas.

  •   Inhofe's daily regimen of exercise, clean living and strict avoidance of science will keep the youthful-looking 78-year-old alive to 100. This will also allow him to see how this climate hoax thing works out.

  •  Don't hold your breath waiting for pop culture to catch fire on climate change. The 12/12/12 benefit for Sandy victims packed high-wattage star power: the Rolling Stones, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, among other AARP members. Too bad none opted to bring something “political” like climate change into the discussion. Maybe soon, we'll realize that storms, heat and sea levels aren't political. Hopefully then, We Won't Get Fooled Again.

We don't represent this survey as exhaustive or analytical, but rather a snapshot of trends. We did not tally which story subjects were portrayed negatively, positively, or neutrally, and we did not separate opinion pieces from ostensibly “straight” news stories. Daily Climate readers can track and replicate these results in our archives.

The Daily Climateis a nonprofit news service covering climate change, and a Climate Central content partner.