08/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are We Suffering from a Climate Change Information Overload?

When does too much information simply become, well, too much? In a much discussed article, NYT science reporter Andy Revkin last week addressed what he called the "whiplash effect": the phenomenon of having climate change news veer from one extreme to the other, resulting in readers experiencing journalistic whiplash. Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach touched on a similar theme in his column yesterday, blaming the media for attributing all unexplainable natural disasters to climate change. Though noticeably different in tone -- Achenbach adopting a more sarcastic, even caustic, perspective -- both writers were essentially arguing that much of the current coverage was helping muddy the waters for readers by presenting sometimes contradictory findings, leaving them confused and uncertain about the potential impacts of climate change.

The main problem with climate change coverage, as far as I can tell, has much more to do with the sheer quality of it, rather than the quantity. Remember how often it came up as a topic during the primaries? Yeah, me neither. Because the field of climate science is, almost by definition, in a constant state of flux, reporters shouldn't sweat every new study as much. Instead, they should be focusing on the general trends, examining questions such as: Are the predictions getting worse? Are there elements of climate change that we still don't yet fully grasp? Will proposed climate change legislation have a measurable mitigatory impact?

As someone who often falls into that trap, I know how easy (and appealing) it can be to just take the latest study from a bunch of big-name scientists and plaster it onto your front page as a short, newsy piece -- leaving little room for actual analysis. And while it's certainly the case that many readers will have no trouble understanding it and placing it in the context of other recent climate stories, there is a much larger number of readers who may get lost in the science, particularly if the study appears to contradict some earlier findings. The only way to get around this, and not lose readers in the process, is to either devote more space to the story or to avoid the nitty-gritty details and only describe its broader implications for the reader. If the study doesn't seem to have any particular relevance to the reader, it's best to just skip out on it entirely unless it's a big scientific breakthrough.

One element that adds to the confusion is the fact that scientists often only seem to speak in uncertainty and percentages. You will rarely hear any of them deem a particular natural event, or even series of events, "definite" evidence of climate change -- let alone "very likely" evidence. Much to their questioners' chagrin, it is not uncommon for scientists to refuse to give a straight answer, not out of any malice but because they feel as though their research does not justify it. This type of hedging, of course, makes for humdrum news. So instead of getting a more nuanced (and accurate) take on a complex issue, we, as the news consumers, get one extreme or the other -- Revkin's "whiplash" effect in action.

By keeping the discussion focused, and in context, reporters would have a much easier time of holding the readers' attention. Not only that, but by stressing the basics -- the science behind climate change and the IPCC's general predictions, for example -- they could make sure that all readers at least have a solid rudimentary knowledge of climate change. While they shouldn't shy away from explaining some of the underlying uncertainty, the reporters should be clear about differentiating scientific disagreements from skeptic propaganda. In an ideal world, we shouldn't have to listen to climate change deniers and their industry backers in a misguided effort to always achieve "balance," of course, but that's a whole other matter.

I would argue that researchers, more so even than reporters, have the ultimate responsibility of clearly communicating the science. As galling as it may be to some, there are still many (way too many) who believe climate change is a big hoax -- or at least that it's not serious enough of a problem for us to drastically change the way we consume energy. Until we have more researchers like James Hansen who are willing to challenge the status quo and speak out in favor of sound climate policy, we will have a difficult time convincing the American public of the need to endure higher gas prices and to move towards a cap-and-dividend or carbon tax system.