Three Veteran Business/Environment Reporters’ Perspectives: Covering Climate Change from the Business Beat

Business editors and reporters over the past few years have found themselves covering climate change implications as policy makers and the public move beyond the science of whether and why the Earth is warming to the policy issues: what the impacts will be, how they might be mitigated, and costs and benefits.

Climate change scientists still have a lot of legitimate inquiry ahead of them. But in newsroom after newsroom, editors across all media are beginning to accept science’s basic message about climate change, and reporting on climate change is moving beyond specialized science and environmental beat coverage.

Business reporters are finding themselves awash not in the red and black ink of the usual stories but in stories about green – green energy, green investment, and, yes, green-washing. Reporters long accustomed to interpreting profit and loss statements now struggle to decipher complex peer-reviewed journal articles about climate forcing, carbon sequestration, and the “hockey stick” (the lingo comparing the last century’s temperature rise on a graph to the shape of a hockey stick).

Businesses are seeing the same mounting climate change scientific evidence. Many are responding with green investments, green energy, and green policies and pronouncements. At the same time, they’re still aggressively promoting their products and services, and envisioning an even more competitive domestic and international marketplace.

Only a few short years ago, many industries appeared to dread the kinds of seismic shift some now fully expect will lead to federal carbon dioxide regulations. Some major greenhouse gas emitters are moving aggressively to limit their emissions, and more and more are expected to work with law makers, and not against them, in shaping federal emission rules preempting highly variable state and local initiatives.

On the business beat, several factors contribute to the changing landscape.

First, the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment this year pointed to stronger than ever scientific consensus on the speed of the warming, the role of human beings in that warming, and the need to move expeditiously to limit carbon emissions. The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for IPCC, shared with former Vice President Al Gore, only further solidified the group’s standing and clout.

Another key factor that can’t be ignored: The future of the world’s oil supply is ever more uncertain, both in its security and its supply, and oil prices are teasing the $100 a barrel level.

One more important factor: Many entrepreneurial and venture capital interests see great investment opportunities, and not just financial risks, presented by challenges posed by ongoing climate change.

Business editors and reporters find before them a quickly changing landscape of business and environment. Larger companies are naming chief sustainability officers to go along with their CEOs and CFOs. In the current climate – Who knows just how long it may last and whether it eventually will wither or crescendo? Will the green eyeshade accountants soon trump the newly minted green sustainability chieftains?

Three veteran business/environmental journalists from the business desks of The New York Times, Business Week, and The Wall Street Journal recently shared with The Yale Forum their own insights on how the business beat is changing in light of mounting climate change concerns, offer suggestions on how business reporters can best cover the issues for their primarily business audiences.

Claudia Deutsch, The New York Times

Businesses don’t usually lie, but they do “spin.”

Deutsch has covered “basic industries” for the Times for 23 years. She says she always watches for ways companies, in ways that respond to current attitudes and interests, announce products that actually aren’t really new in themselves.

For instance, she said, “Less than a year ago, when we all ‘knew’ – put ‘knew’ in heavy quotes – that gas was going to be $5 at the pump over the summer, every car company took out ads talking about the fuel efficiency of their various models. Gas didn’t hit $5 at the pump, and come fall, all of the same companies advertising all of the same models advertised them as having the lowest carbon emissions. Now, both claims were absolutely true.” The lesson here is that companies are going to push their products, but that alone isn’t enough for a story.

Several years ago, Deutsch wrote a story about Sun Microsystems’ campaign to allow employees to telecommute, a strategy the company said was designed to retain young mothers. Two months ago, the company sent a press release about the same telecommuting policy, but this time it was on a list of sustainability initiatives.

About two and a half years ago, General Electric held a press conference in Washington unveiling some products it had already been selling, but now under a new “eco-imagination” label.

“That’s something I would tell someone covering business from the environment angle: you need a pound of salt,” Deutsch said. “A shaker will not do.”

Report more on climate change stories – for the simple reason that industries care a great deal about climate change now.

“When you’re covering business, which I do, and when the business world pays as much attention to something as the business world is paying to climate change right now, then of course you cover it,” Deutsch said. “You are derelict if you don’t cover it, but you cover it in the same way as if you covered sub-prime mortgages.”

Don’t get bogged down in the science.

Contrary to some advice, Deutsch said that if she were to read and understand scientific studies herself, she would have no time to cover business. The key is to find respected academic sources that can explain the science. She noted that working at the Times gives her the advantage of touching base frequently with its science reporters. She regularly checks in with reporters such as Andrew C. Revkin, who recently helped her appreciate that all greenhouse gases are not carbon-based but in fact include water vapor.

“You need to know what a greenhouse gas is,” Deutsch said. “You need to know what heat trapping gases are. You need to know the vocabulary, but you don’t need to know the science.” In an article on companies switching their vending machines from those that use hydro fluorocarbons to the less damaging carbon dioxide, she verified her facts with scientists while remaining comfortable that she herself is not capable of explaining why one machine is less damaging than the other.

“You develop some good contacts at universities, people who do not have research grants from DuPont and Coca-Cola,” she said.

Do a lot of reporting before deciding whether you have a story.

This seems basic, but Deutsch said that in covering business and environment she routinely asks business sources she doesn’t know “a bunch of questions you know the answer to.” In this way, she can better divide the real news from the promotion.

She wrote a story about a Fiji Water Company announcement that it would use less fuel to transport its bottled water, work to preserve rainforests, and use less plastic. When she asked if any of the green initiatives were simply matters of self-interest, a company spokesman pointed out that harm to the basin where the water came from could put the company out of business.

John Carey, Business Week

Know about the science.

Now, for something that sounds contrary to Deutsch’s advice. Carey, a 19-year veteran of the magazine who covers science and technology, does suggest that reporters read reports like those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He says it’s important that they also find independent scientists to help interpret the studies.

Recognize that businesses see cutting emissions and energy efficiency as in their self-interest.

This is a relatively new trend or at least one that has grown to new levels over the past few years. Many companies long had routinely delayed expensive energy-saving strategies, many saying climate science remained unsettled or denying that climate change was a problem.

Some companies still believe those things – and Carey has written about their denials – but he said that many of the largest companies increasingly take climate change seriously both as a science and a competitive issue.

“It may sound Pollyannaish, but there is an element of companies wanting to do the right thing,” he said. “Counterbalancing that is the strong financial incentives to take advantage of the situation as much as possible.”

Because they want to use their funds wisely for the future, business now would rather know what the long-term emissions regulations are going to be than have to change their equipment and controls later. Carey said, “The companies that have gone over to pushing for mandatory rules are in the vast majority.”

No longer must a business writer write stories debating climate change science.

Carey has written stories that always quoted the skeptics. He said that for several years there were about six of them, including Patrick Michaels of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Carey has now quoted Michaels as saying, “How was I to know?”

John Fialka, The Wall Street Journal

Cover climate change computer models from a larger context than the latest prediction.

Fialka, who has covered climate change since 1996 and worked for the Journal since 1981, knows well the ease with which reporters fall into the trap of covering a new study as a “breakthrough” involving an alarming prediction.

It’s vital to step back and see the larger picture, he says, to understand that scientists are constantly in a dialog with their peers, and that each new computer model and study is a piece of that dialogue.

To illustrate the problem reporters face, Fialka recalled earlier predictions that world weather patterns would change the Gulf Stream and cause dramatic cooling in the North. “I wrote a lot of articles about that,” he says of a theory now debunked.

“It’s easy to become an alarmist,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people understand the difficulties of predicting the future.”

Business writers need to keep an eye on the politics of climate change.

Fialka, who is based in the Journal‘s Washington, D.C., bureau, said he has witnessed “a political sea change” on climate change over just the last few years.

“You’re seeing industries coming in and saying, ‘Please regulate carbon dioxide emissions.’ That’s been going on for about two or three years.”

States and cities have been moving in to fill what some see as a federal leadership void, moving to regulate carbon emission regulations to the states, which are beginning to implement rules. But industries want the rules to be consistent throughout the country. Fialka said the current political atmosphere on climate change reminds him of the 1960s, before the federal Clean Air Act was passed. “States were out in front and it finally took businesses to push the federal government to take action.”

Cover businesses efforts to improve energy efficiency.

With the escalating price of oil, corporate boardrooms are turning to energy efficiency as the fastest and easiest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Fialka said. He said their approach would be much different if per-barrel prices were still at more moderate levels.

Review your chemistry and physics courses from college, and be skeptical, always.

A lot of reporters new to climate change coverage don’t realize the value of basic science courses in covering the environment, Fialka said.

“That’s critical, because a lot of environmental reporting tends to fall on the alarmist side,” he advises. “Saying Rome is burning when only one sector of Rome is burning. That’s kind of what happened with the ocean currents story. People took off and ran with that and didn’t consider that the factual basis was problematic.”

There are so many players in these stories – not only the advocacy groups who have worked to sensitize the public, Fialka reminds his journalism colleagues. He points out that wind power and solar energy options remain problematic as potential major sources of energy, reviving questions about the potential of nuclear power, a prospect advocacy groups find hard to swallow.

“For a lot of them, it would be a kind of painful U-turn,” he said, “because they have all sensitized the public to worry about the waste problem and nuclear accidents. And it may be one of the solutions that’s in plain sight here. I think they have to be honest about that.”

Fialka says he tries to see these stories from all angles. “To see the play,” he said, evoking a football metaphor, “you have to sit at the 50-yard line. Especially when you’re on deadline, environmental groups make it really easy for you to accept one side and not get a balanced picture. You really need that.

Christine Woodside

Christine Woodside is a freelance writer living in Deep River, Connecticut. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: christine@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @chriswoodside)
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