How Long Will Global Warming Remain Center Stage?

Climate change is here to stay. But will media attention drift away?


Earlier this year, more than 100 European researchers and policy experts convened at the University of Copenhagen to discuss an issue that used to be in the headlines regularly — biodiversity.

The University issued a press release after the meeting titled, “The biodiversity crisis: Worse than climate change.”

The statement that followed was not so unequivocal, but still made its point: “The challenges of conserving the world’s species are perhaps even larger than mitigating the negative effects of global climate change.”

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Conservation biologists can attest that stemming the loss of biodiversity has proved just as vexing a problem as climate change. Indeed, both issues share many similarities, from the globally diffused nature of the problem and the elusive solutions, to the galvanized response of scientists and activists. Bear in mind too that once upon a time, in the not too distant past, spotted owls and the Amazon Rainforest were flashpoints in environmental debates. That we don’t hear much about endangered species and deforestation any more suggests the media have moved on. That might be a bad omen for climate campaigners.

How so? Recall that environmental journalists, until recently had been busy chronicling “the sixth extinction.” Stories over the past few decades have centered on the nascent conservation biology discipline and studies it has generated on threats to individual species and biodiversity.  This research, in turn, became fodder in the tug of war over the U.S.  Endangered Species Act (ESA), the long-contentious lever for preserving habitat of imperiled plants and wildlife. Sound familiar?

Now ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw biodiversity in the headlines? Is it no longer a worrisome issue, or have reporters gotten bored writing about rainforests and habitat destruction? What happened?

This is a question that biologist-turned-journalist Brendan Borell wrestled with in a 2009 Slate piece. He wrote:

The magazines, newspapers, and websites that pay my salary have little to say about habitat loss these days. Now, being green is all about greenhouse gases: Neighborhood moms are more apt to fret over food miles than felled forests; organic cattle farmers are more interested in offsetting the methane coming from cow burps than pondering squished tadpoles in hoof prints. Even scientists have grown bored with the question of habitat loss, tweaking their grant proposals to emphasize the climate angle no matter how tenuous the connection. Saving the Amazon is so 1980s.

At the time, some critics of Borrell’s Slate essay argued that he was downplaying the threat of climate change to wildlife. Science writer Carl Zimmer wrote an excellent rebuttal along these lines (which Borrell responded to).

In the three years since that Slate piece appeared, it seems fair to say that climate change has come to dominate environmental discourse. And not everyone who works on environmental issues is pleased about this. For example, Chris Clarke, a conservationist and green-minded writer, noted in a recent article:

Look at the websites of major environmental organizations and you might be persuaded that climate change is the only real environmental issue we face. A majority of American environmentalists have adopted climate change as their main cause, and it’s easy to understand why: when scientists agree that our planet is likely to be 5° to 10° F hotter by year 2100, that’ll get your attention.

Clarke agrees that climate change “is a serious issue,” but he hammers home the importance of biodiversity, and recent research (see here and here) indicating that it is an integral component of vibrant ecosystems. (This notion has been around for some time.) He also writes:

Over the last few years an increasing number of scientists have suggested that the planet’s collapsing biological diversity may well be the largest and most intractable environmental problem we face.

On that score, there is some competition. A couple of years ago, the University of Minnesota’s Jon Foley also lamented the “collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems.” Foleys’ big concern is ecological degradation on a global landscape level. Thus, we should be equally worried, he argued, about “the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies.”

Hmm, if society has lost interest in biodiversity, which not that long ago was a top-level environmental calling card, it’s probably a stretch to think we can throw even more items into the public’s worry box.

But climate change campaigners might well reflect on the disappearance of biodiversity from the national conversation, and consider the possibility that in ten or fifteen years, global warming may be where biodiversity is today — largely ignored by the media and relegated to the sidelines by environmentalists.

Not that climate change will go away (if anything, it’s likely to be much more pressing), any more than threats to wildlife have. But let’s face it: all mass media stories have a finite shelf life, and the public too often has a short attention span. Let’s keep checking back over the next decade or so.

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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7 Responses to How Long Will Global Warming Remain Center Stage?

  1. Ken Orski says:

    Keith,
    Except for a narrow circle of climate scientists and their camp followers, the subject of global warming has long ago left the “center stage.” All you have to do is scan the pages of daily press and weekly magazines or watch TV news. When have you last seen/heard a story about global warming?

    • keith Kloor says:

      Ken,

      There is a big difference between general news coverage and that that appears in environmental media. But even in mainstream outlets, when environmental issues get play, it usually climate change-related.

      On that note, see the collaborative mainstream media project called Climate Desk: http://climatedesk.org/

      (I should have noted this project in the main post.)

      The focal point of Climate Desk is obviously climate change, which tells us something about the environmental issue that mainstream media editors have decided to emphasize above all others.
      http://climatedesk.org/

  2. BBD says:

    Let’s keep checking back over the next decade or so.

    I suspect that climate change will be back on the front page before the decade is out.

    In the meantime, we aren’t obliged to live in a binary universe. The planetary boundaries approach developed by Johan Rockstrom and co-workers provides a properly inclusive framework for examining human impacts on the environment.

    There are nine suggested boundaries. Biodiversity and climate change are both on the list.

  3. Eli Rabett says:

    It is nonsense to discuss the climate crisis without discussing the biodiversity crisis and visa versa. They are tightly coupled both in cause and effect.

    Let us consider the Amazon which is under great threat from development and climate change. Is Mr. Kloor claiming that if there are the kinds of significant changes in Amazonian rainfall as predicted by regional climate models and the IPCC, that biodiversity will simply sail on? Is Mr. Kloor claiming that continued tropical forest clearance in the Amazon will not affect the Amazonian climate?

    What is Mr. Kloor claiming?

  4. Jack Hughes says:

    I’ve still got my old T-shirt with
    Committee to Save the Gay Whales

    I’m waiting for this important issue to come back center stage.

  5. Gillian says:

    I believe that climate change will remain a focus of attention because it is driving government policy and economic transition. Responses to climate change will affect more and more aspects of our lives. It is a time of wonder and awe.

    Capital is shifting to renewables (According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the International Energy Agency investment in renewables rose from $52bn in 2004 to $260b in 2011. Over the same time investment in fossil fuel power production fell from $250b to $40b.) This is radical!

    EVs are becoming a reality (NRG is rolling out charging stations in Houston so that no one will be more than 8 miles from a station).

    The media is getting better at avoiding ‘false balance’. (http://tiny.cc/sdahew)

    Loss of biodiversity affects us only indirectly, but climate change affects all aspects of society quite directly: finance, urban planning, building design, transport, energy systems, etc, etc. I don’t see it falling out of sight for long. And if it does, every new weather event will put it right back in focus.

  6. Paul Quigg says:

    For over forty years I have closely watched the environmental movement wax and wane through many challenges. The latest peak was 2006-07 in the Gore-IPCC phase and it has fallen dramatically since. My local book store had about 30 feet of shelf space on the environment in 2007 and recently I had a hard time finding the remaining 4 feet. Nothing like a global recession to get peoples attention. The incredible complexity of the climate change subject which involves every aspect of the environment, the economy, politics, all of the sciences, etc. is lost in the petty arguments over the merits of this or that policy or belief.
    The major roadblocks to any significant action on climate change are 1. The atmospheric lifetimes of GHG’s delay todays actions 40 to 50 years into the future and “time discounting” shows that those time lines are off the charts. 2. Alternative energy production is decades away from any real impact. Political, economic, technological, and infrastructure problems will contribute to the delay. Every governmental and scientific organization acknowledges the slow evolution of alternative energy growth. 3. International governments are years away from any realistic cooperation on climate change. Goals for 2020, 2035, 2050 will go the way of Kyoto as political posturing and rhetoric will fill the air.
    The earth is not some fragile orb floating in space but a gynamic creation of great complexity which will weather this climate change storm as only time will tell.