The Big Climate Stories of 2011

What was the big news and will it carry over into the New Year?

In 2011, there were numerous themes that ran through climate change media coverage: 1) crazy weather, 2) a litmus test for Republicans, 3) man bites dog, 4) evidence of an actual climate movement, and 5) futility.

Here are the stories, corresponding in order, with their designated theme.

1) A major, recurring story involved extreme weather — which PBS discussed last week. In that episode, the Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters likened the (global warming juiced) atmosphere to a baseball hitter on steroids. But the climate change/extreme weather connection is a complex one, and reporters struggled to get a handle on it in 2011.

Still, this storyline is sure to play out in the future. After all, there will always be floods, droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes. But climate scientists (and climate advocates) are increasingly making the case for a greenhouse gas link. So does this mean that all extreme weather events will soon come with a climate change imprimatur? We may soon find out.

2) Another big story that got worldwide play involved Berkley physicist Richard Muller, a sharp critic of climate science whose (preliminary) independent review of temperature data ended up confirming evidence already produced by researchers at leading institutions, such as NASA and NOAA. Climate skeptics had once approved of and applauded Muller’s initiative, but they quickly soured on him after his consensus-affirming results were released with much fanfare, including by Muller himself.

So where does the Muller saga go from here? Hard to say, but it’s not likely to generate the same level of media attention again, even after all his “BEST” temperature studies get peer reviewed. Muller, like Georgia Tech scientist Judith Curry before him, became a media curiosity — someone whose previous position or image gets turned on its head. In Curry’s case, she was a consensus climate scientist turned gadfly, while Muller has seemingly taken the opposite trajectory. Is there another high-profile scientist waiting in the wings, ready to take the heretic baton?

3) Politically speaking, a theme that continued to sharpen in the U.S. was outright rejection of climate science (and dismissal of climate change) by much of the Republican Party. Last month, Coral Davenport in National Journal surveyed this attitudinal shift and summed up:

Over the past year, GOP politicians have increasingly questioned or flatly denied the established science of climate change. As the presidential primaries heat up, the leading candidates have either denied the verdict of climate scientists or recanted their former views supporting climate policy.

As Davenport and others have noted, this is a huge departure from previous years, when leading Republicans had expressed their concern about global warming and even sponsored climate legislation.

Given that we are in an election year, this story of Republican rejection on climate change is likely to have continued traction. Environmental issues never play a big role in Presidential campaigns, but this election cycle could be different, as it already has been in so many ways. Because there will be a stark difference (with respect to global warming) between President Obama and the eventual Republican Presidential nominee (unlike 2008, when Senator McCain was the GOP candidate), climate science and related issues might well get aired out later this year during the general election.

4) The victorious anti-Keystone XL protests energized the climate movement and has became a touchstone for greens, but some policy analysts wonder if the issue will backfire on environmentalists or even do anything meaningful for the climate.

Regardless, this was a sustained news story over the summer and into the fall. And now that the pipeline has become political dynamite, it is certain to remain in the headlines well into 2012.

5) The agreement forged in the final hours of the latest climate summit in South Africa served as a fitting coda to a year in which little political or policy achievement was expected on climate change. But interpretations of the outcome in Durban have diverged wildly among pundits and analysts. Mark Hertsgaard, in The Nation, spewed a withering critique, while Andrew Light at the Center for American Progress and Harvard’s Robert Stavins have argued that tangible progress towards a climate treaty was made. But Stavins acknowledges the lack of clarity on what was actually achieved in Durban. He admits that the final deal “represented something of a ‘half-full glass of water,’ that is, an outcome that could be judged successful or not, depending on one’s perspective.”

The particulars of the agreement are likely to be scrutinized further in bloggy forums but it’s doubtful mainstream media will pay much heed again until later in the year, when the next summit convenes in Qatar.

By then, the trajectory of carbon emissions will certainly not have changed, but a new crop of big climate stories might have emerged.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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