Why Doesn't the Media Get It?

01/08/2007 04:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New York, NY -- A surreal walk today in Central Park. A bedraggled sign warns, "Thin ice -- Danger" at one of the seeps near the bird sanctuary. It's 72 degrees outside, so any ice must be very thin indeed. A hundred yards ahead the Zamboni machines at the park's skating rink strive earnestly to freeze up a skatable surface, all the while pushing a bow wave of ice melt ahead of them, like amphibious landing craft hitting the beach.

The Zambonis' plight makes a good metaphor for what we as a species are trying to do. Climate has always been bigger than technology. The deep human struggle pits cultural and technological evolution against the challenge of climate -- and our winning strategy has centered on our flexibility. We have learned to live within the fixed cycles and normal weather patterns in diverse places. We've adapted both to the freezing cold of Baffin Island and to the scorching heat of in the Kalahari Desert -- not to mention Manhattan. We've proven our ability to thrive in a wide variety of climate patterns. Underscore patterns.

Climate, as differentiated from weather, is by its very nature predictable. At least it was. Now our technology of ignition and combustion -- burning fossil fuels -- is putting the climate on steroids. If this is a war, we are about to unilaterally disarm. Global warming is taking away the reason we've been successful in adapting to climate -- the patterns and predictability.

It's really not hard to understand why this is bad news. Almost everyone gets that. Even the Bush Administration's Interior Department gets it, although it is not yet allowed to admit it. Interior recently agreed to list polar bears as a threatened species, in response to a lawsuit brought by environmentalists, "We've reviewed all the available data that leads us to believe the sea ice the polar bear depends on has been receding," said an Interior official. "Obviously, the sea ice is melting because the temperatures are warmer." As to why temperatures are warmer, the official was silent.

But the real problem is that while almost everyone gets it, there are a few enormously important exceptions. The carbon complex, the libertarian right, President Bush - they all still have their head in the sand. (Rumor has it that the White House will address global warming in the State of the Union address, but even if Bush officially concedes the problem is real, it's unlikely he will undertake any significant action.) But as worrisome as all that is, it's not what worries me the most, which is simply that the media doesn't seem to get it.

The American media needs to cover global warming as the urgent, real-action-required-now challenge that it is. Instead, it seems torn between selling it as a disaster story or reporting it as a political food fight. So when NBC decided to feature "strange weather", on January 5, they turned to the Bush Administration to explain it. A spokesman from NOAA, whom NBC surely knew had been placed under a gag order by his political bosses, said earnestly, "This is NOT global warming." The only counter was by Bryan Williams who ended the segment, in a sceptical tone, "We'll take your word for it."

NBC is not alone. A recent Andrew Revkin article in the New York Times was headlined A New Middle Stance Emerges in Debate over Climate. The lead was, "Amid the shouting lately about whether global warming is a human-caused catastrophe or a hoax, some usually staid climate scientists in the usually invisible middle are speaking up." Revkin then goes on to cite scientists who "agree that accumulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe gases probably pose a momentous environmental challenge, but say the appropriate response is more akin to buying fire insurance and installing sprinklers and new wiring in an old, irreplaceable house (the home planet) than to fighting a fire already raging." Revkin then quotes Carl Wunsch, at MIT, who says:

Climate change presents a very real risk,... It seems worth a very large premium to insure ourselves against the most catastrophic scenarios. Denying the risk seems utterly stupid. Claiming we can calculate the probabilities with any degree of skill seems equally stupid.

Reading on it's clear that this is not a continuation of the debate about the reality of climate change; rather, it's a debate about how to effectively communicate with the public that we need to act now even though there remain many uncertainties as to how severe the results of any given level of CO2 increase will be. But the headline and the lead, from one of the best writers in the most respected paper, have the effect of reinforcing the misleading notion that there remains a serious scientific debate about whether or not we need to take action, now, about global warming.

There is no debate: We do.

Why doesn't the media get this, and what do we do about it? (Note: It's not the problem of media ownership - NBC is owned by GE, which some time ago embraced global warming as a real and serious problem, and hence a major business opportunity.) Because if the media doesn't get it, it will be very difficult for the American people to mobilize themselves in time.