2010 — That Was the Year That Was: 10 Notable Climate Stories of Year Just Ended

Just about anything that substantially affects climate change science or policy inevitably affects communication on those issues. The Yale Forum focus in this feature, and the major criterion for inclusion in notable climate developments of 2010, is on key climate happenings influencing public understanding of the subject.

The year now just behind us flew by with record warm temperatures, severe droughts, and numerous other weather anomalies; policy action and inaction; evolving attitudes on geoengineering and adaptation; and evolving attitudes and action by American voters on climate change.

Several ongoing analyses point also to a significant decline in network news and major metropolitan newspaper coverage of climate-related issues in 2010, with experts still debating the exact cause-and-effect relationship, if any, with changing public attitudes on the climate issue. More on that in a future Forum feature.

Some significant 2010 events affecting communications on, and public perceptions of, climate change science and policy follow … all of them contributing to the mosaic of factors likely to influence the trajectory on these issues in the New Year.

What’s with the Weather Extremes?

Widespread reports of unusually severe weather persisted coast-to-coast and across much of the world throughout 2010, reconfirming for some the nonlinear impacts of a changing climate but also buttressing talking points for those inclined to be contrarian by, among other things, conflating short-term weather with long-term climate.

As fire and record heat shut down Moscow and killed thousands, floods devastated Pakistan. The Arctic saw extremely warm temperatures, the Mid-Atlantic states in early 2010 recorded record snowfalls, and record heat in the oceans led to massive bleachings of coral. And, despite the cooling effects of La Niña and natural climate variability, early reports of global temperature indicate that 2010 will tie with 1998 or 2005, as some experts prefer, for the warmest year on record.

These stories provided an opportunity for journalists to give context and deepen readers’ understanding of the kinds of severe weather events that are likely with climate change as levels of heat-trapping gases continue to rise. But financial and institutional pressures consuming many media outlets led to too few seizing those opportunities.

Action … and Non-Action … on Climate Change

In November, voters in California voted overwhelmingly to uphold their state’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. They did so by voting to reject Proposition 23, which would have suspended the state’s landmark A.B. 32 law to bring greenhouse gas emissions back down to 1990 levels. New Mexico, too, took action when it approved a cap-and-trade program that’s one of the most comprehensive greenhouse gas regulations in the country. (New Mexico is also part of the Western Climate Initiative, a consortium of states implementing policies to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases. A change in governorship in the state could lead to some changes on this issue in coming months.)

In response to increasing despair among climate change policy advocates over the potential for near-term federal or international greenhouse gas reduction requirements, control advocates appear to have warmed-up to the need for increased adaptation efforts, while continuing to pursue mitigation strategies over the longer term. This trend may account in part for some limited, but not insubstantial, increased receptivity to concepts tied to geo-engineering.

With the U.S. Congress having effectively tabled short-term prospects on federal “cap-and-trade” greenhouse gas legislation, these initiatives help set the table for upcoming Supreme Court action on a key climate lawsuit involving greenhouse gases as a public nuisance, a ruling that may open the door to still more legal battles. (See related Yale Forum article.)

Failure to Enact Federal Legislation

It had at least three short-hand names — the climate bill, the cap-and-trade bill, the Waxman-Markey bill — but one official eulogy.

In July, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) announced that he would abandon plans to move forward in the Senate on federal legislation to control greenhouse gas emissions. Post-mortem analysis points to a multitude of reasons for failure of the legislative effort, high among them the sagging economy, an absence of presidential leadership, opposition from climate skeptics and stiff Republican opposition, and reverberations from the health reform legislative battles. With Republican climate skeptics now taking over as chairs on key House of Representatives committees responsible for energy and policy, few expect meaningful climate change legislation at the federal level any time soon.

Passing of Stanford’s Stephen Schneider

Few voices in climate science have equaled that of Stephen H. Schneider, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a prominent IPCC author. The high-energy/always “on” Stanford University climatologist passed away in July while on a flight returning from a science meeting in Stockholm.

Equally committed to the hard science and to communicating complexities to non-specialists, Schneider long had been among the most widely recognized and respected — and, by contrarians, among the most controversial — climatologists in the world. His death came at a time when his voice could have been expected to be particularly crucial in upcoming Capitol Hill hearings on climate science. He leaves a gap the climate science community is struggling hard to fill.

America’s First National Oceans Policy Established

In July, President Obama established a sweeping new policy to proactively manage ocean resources. The policy represented a major shift from established practices, but many major news organizations did little actual reporting on it. The dearth of coverage was especially glaring with respect to climate change, since two separate studies published a week later in Nature described news of phytoplankton in 40 percent decline, which scientists blame on rising sea surface temperatures. (The public and policymakers disregard the vital importance of plankton at all of our great risk, scientists emphasize.) Their notable findings saw little coverage among major media, but a few outlets (see here and here) dove into the topic.

For The New York Times, Key Departures

The year 2010 opened with the departure from the nation’s premier “newspaper of record” and leading science section of two by-liners long considered mainstays in reporting on climate science and policy.

Andrew C. Revkin, who reported on climate change for two decades, took a corporate buy-out at the end of 2009. Revkin remains active with the Times online through his DotEarth blog, which was moved from the news section to the Times‘ Opinion section. He remains an active blogger, but many observers agree that the paper’s in-print climate science coverage — quantity and quality — clearly has suffered. Former colleague and one-time “Science Times” Editor Cornelia Dean, who long had reported on science, oceanography, and natural systems for the Times, also left with a buy-out. She too contributed a handful of science reports to the Times in 2010 as a freelance writer.

Geo-Engineering Gets a Serious Once-Over

In December 2009, the American Geophysical Union Council adopted a position statement on geoengineering. In part, the AGU said, “Geo-engineering will not substitute for either aggressive mitigation or proactive adaptation, but it could contribute to a comprehensive risk management strategy to slow climate change and alleviate some of its negative impacts.” Geo-engineering emerged as a serious hot button issue in 2010 with the first ever geo-engineering hearing on Capitol Hill and the approval of a ban on large-scale projects by 193 nations under the global biodiversity treaty. Governance issues of who should have authority over geo-engineering will continue to fuel interest in the coming year.

Media Storm over Hacked E-Mails

As the aftermath over e-mails hacked from prominent climatologists raged, legitimate science news too often was given cursory treatment in early 2010. Even though 2009 had tied as the second warmest year globally since records began in 1880, media outlets throughout the year often zeroed-in on what some say were “cherry-picked” but widely publicized quotes used to imply misdeeds on the part of scientists and the Climactic Research Unit (CRU), University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

A series of follow-on investigations, by Penn State and the InterAgency Council and others, held the scientific evidence un-dented, but for some those studies only justified their further muddying of the waters, and the “ghost” of the e-mail controversies continued to color much coverage throughout the year. How those controversies play out in the new U.S. House of Representatives may be one key carryover from 2010.

More Scientific Reports … but Public Opinion Not Swayed

The America’s Climate Choices reports had been billed as among the most comprehensive studies of climate change to date.

The National Research Council issued the four reports in May and June at the request of Congress to provide advice on why the U.S. should act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop a strategy to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The America’s Climate Choices reports were perhaps a missed or lost opportunity because they had the potential, with nearly 100 leading scientists and stakeholders involved, to broadly affect public opinion and climate change communication.

In “Advancing the Science of Climate Change,” the report conclusion didn’t mince words: “Climate change is occurring, is largely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks … for a broad range of human and natural systems.”

Despite strong statements by the nation’s leading scientific body, Americans remained confused, perhaps even more so than in earlier years. Numerous public opinion polls and surveys reflect a decline in general public awareness, interest, and concern over climate change compared with attitudes of two or three years ago. Whether that trend reflects, or is a result of, a decline in mass media coverage of the issue throughout 2010 is unclear; and so, too, is the extent of any relationship with controversies involving the hacked e-mails and IPCC Himalayan glaciers snafu. Experts continue to look into those issues.

A Gallup poll showed 48 percent of Americans now believe global warming is exaggerated, up from 41 percent in 2009. Several polls by George Mason and Yale universities offer similarly grim accounts. A June 2010 survey shows that some 61 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening, but just half of Americans believe it is caused by human activities. In Yale’s study in October 2010, Americans’ Knowledge on Climate Change, 63 percent of Americans believe global warming is occurring but don’t understand why. Roughly half of those polled would fail a basic test assessing their understanding of climate change. On a bright note, the same Yale report indicated that Americans trust scientists and scientific organizations far more than any other source of information.*

Investigation by Virginia Attorney General

Virginia state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli spent part of his first year in office on a crusade against former University of Virginia researcher Michael E. Mann, now professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State. Cuccinelli subpoenaed from the University of Virginia documents, e-mails, and more related to grants Mann had received while on its faculty from 1999 to 2005.

From the beginning, the Cuccinelli investigation was widely condemned as a “witch hunt.” Nature published an editorial that said, “Given the lack of any evidence of wrongdoing, it’s hard to see Cuccinelli’s subpoena … as anything more than an ideologically motivated inquisition that harasses and intimidates climate scientists.” A number of leading scientific organizations and academic groups joined in condemning the effort.

A judge dismissed Cuccinelli’s initial efforts because “[t]he nature of the conduct is not stated so that any reasonable person could glean what Dr. Mann did to violate the statute.” Still, Cuccinelli has persisted, in September launching a new effort to obtain documents related to the climate scientist’s work. Further legal actions and decisions are pending, making the issue a clear carry-over story from 2010 to 2011.

*Editor’s Note: The writer of this piece freelanced as development editor of the Advancing the Science report described here. The Yale University study was done by Anthony Leiserowitz, publisher of The Yale Forum.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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