Many news outlets all but ignored a crucial part: the urgent need to adapt to changes already underway and in the pipeline
Research shows that wildfires in the western United States are already burning hotter, wider, and more frequently, thanks in large measure to human-caused climate change. Shown here is the 2018 Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park. (Source: National Park Service, Glacier National Park) The White House released a massive scientific report on climate change the day after Thanksgiving. Given that timing, you may have missed it entirely (which is probably what they had in mind). But if you did manage to hear about it in news coverage, you may well have gotten the impression that the 1,656-page assessment, produced by 13 federal agencies, was devoted exclusively to the dire future we'll continue hurtling toward unless we reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. That impression would be understandable, given that many news media outlets, including the New York Times, chose to frame their coverage almost entirely around predictions of crop failures, deteriorating infrastructure, thousands of deaths from heat waves — and a worst-case hit to the economy of 10 percent of the nation's GDP by century's end. Largely left out of much of the coverage that I've seen is an equally important part of the Congressionally mandated report: the pressing need to adapt to changes that are already occurring, and inevitable future changes. The federal report, prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, mentions the words "adapt" or "adaptation" at least 40 times, and "resilience" or "resilient" another 39 times. But the word "adapt" appears just once in the main New York Times story about the report; "resilience" or "resilient" not at all. And many other news outlets seems to have followed the lead of the Times. Make no mistake about it: This second volume of the climate assessment, focusing on impacts, risks, and adaptation to climate change in the United States, does emphasize that global action is needed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But this mitigation of greenhouse gases, or GHGs, is just one part of the needed response, according to the report:
In the absence of more significant global mitigation efforts, climate change is projected to impose substantial damages on the U.S. economy, human health, and the environment. Under scenarios with high emissions and limited or no adaptation, annual losses in some sectors are estimated to grow to hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century. It is very likely that some physical and ecological impacts will be irreversible for thousands of years, while others will be permanent.
Note that mitigation and adaptation go hand in hand in that statement. In fact, adaptation is no mere afterthought — it comes up time and again in the report, including in the title. Why is it important to prioritize both mitigation and adaptation? Most obviously, climate changes like hotter heat waves, drier droughts, rising sea levels, intensifying storms, and nastier wildfire seasons, are already very much part of the new normal on our planet. Consider wildfire. The first volume of the climate assessment, published in 2017, noted that recent decades "have seen a profound increase in forest fire activity over the western United States and Alaska," thanks to warming and drying of forests. The report cited research appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that human-caused climate change caused more than half of the documented drying of forest fuels in the West since the 1970s — and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984. The just released second volume of the report included some sobering details. From chapter six of the report, focusing on forests:
Wildfire burned at least 3.7 million acres nationwide in 14 of the 17 years from 2000 to 2016—an area larger than the entire state of Connecticut—including a record 10.2 million acres in 2015 (an area greater than Maryland and Delaware combined). Over this same time span, annual federal wildfire suppression expenditures ranged from $809 million to $2.1 billion.
Those expenditures aren't spiraling so high solely because fires are growing in scope and intensity. Another factor is that more and more people are choosing to live and work in increasingly fire-prone areas. With that in mind, wouldn't it make sense to encourage policies that would help communities become adapted to wildfire? There's another reason why the National Climate Assessment emphasized adaptation as much as mitigation of greenhouse gases: Even if we were to magically slash emissions to zero overnight, wildfire and other climate change impacts would not quickly cease. In fact, the climate would continue to change for quite some time. That's because CO2 and other greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for many decades. As the report's chapter on adaptation puts it, this means:
. . . many climate-influenced effects are projected to continue changing through 2050, even if GHG emissions were to stop immediately. Thus, climate risk management requires adaptation for the next several decades, independent of the extent of GHG emission reductions. After 2050, the magnitude of changes, and thus the demands on adaptation, begins to depend strongly on the scale of GHG emissions reduction today and over the coming decades.
Here's my translation and interpretation: Because entire towns are now being quickly swallowed by wildfires made much worse by human-caused climate change — and because horrible things like this will continue for at least decades — we'd better figure out how to reduce risks, right here, right now, through policies designed to help us adapt. Given the obviously pressing need to adapt to climate change — and just how prominently it figured in the climate assessment report — it is disturbing that the main New York Times news story barely mentioned it at all. And to make things even worse, the story ends with this stunning factual error:
The variable going forward, the report says, is the amount of carbon emissions humans produce.
It is patently untrue that the variable — singular — going forward is the amount of carbon emissions humans emit. The report couldn't have been any clearer: How we choose to adapt to change is another key variable in determining how millions of Americans — not to mention billions of people worldwide — will feel the impacts of climate change.
I teach science journalism at the University of Colorado, and if a student had turned in the New York Times story, I'd send it back for a rewrite. This failure was by no means limited to the Times. CNN framed their web story completely around the dire changes that will be coming if we don't cut emissions of greenhouse gases enough. The story ignored adaptation — not a single mention. For its part, MSNBC got political in one of its stories, pointing out that the White House buried the report by releasing it on the Friday after Thanksgiving. This seems obviously true, and I'm glad they pointed it out. But when the story got to the report's findings, it too ignored adaptation. MSNBC had a second chance to deal with the subject in another segment elaborating on the report's findings. But this segment also contained not a single mention of adaptation. Given the quality of its past coverage, I had high hopes for the Associated Press. But in its story, the AP also failed to mention adaptation. Meanwhile, CBS News did manage to bring up the subject — but just once and only barely in passing in a ten minute segment about the report. In it's coverage, the Washington Post actually got it right:
The authors argue that global warming 'is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us.' And they conclude that humans must act aggressively to adapt to current impacts and mitigate future catastrophes 'to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.'”
National Geographic also nailed it in their story. Mind you, I just sampled the coverage from a handful of outlets. So there may well be other examples that accurately reflect what the report actually says. If you find examples, please feel free to share them in the comments section below. I've been left wondering how reporters who otherwise do a truly excellent job covering climate change missed the mark. Ben Hale, an environmental philosopher and a colleague of mine at the University of Colorado, wrote in a Facebook post that he believed "the adaptation taboo of 15 years ago is still in effect. Some people continue to think that accepting adaptation amounts to giving up on mitigation." That may well be true. And it suggests that reporters and editors are filtering things unconsciously (or not) through groupthink. As I wrote in my reply to Ben on Facebook:
My God, entire cities are being swallowed by flames, and what we should be doing to deal with that right here, right now, is an obvious urgent question. But instead they are worried what people will thingk if they report on something that some view as being associated with denialism?
| Update 11/26/18: Since posting this story, Bob Henson of the Category 6 blog at Wunderground.com has written an excellent story covering all aspects of the National Climate Assessment released last Friday — both mitigation and adaptation. He gets it just right. So for a well-written run-down covering the most important aspects of the report, check out his story: A Report Not to Be Buried |