Big news on climate, except in the papers

Soaring emissions, especially in China; hopeful news from the Great Ice Age; dire forecasts from the IEA; extra-innings diplomacy at Durban. So whre's the coverage in our two "Times"?

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A coal-powered generating plant in China.

Soaring emissions, especially in China; hopeful news from the Great Ice Age; dire forecasts from the IEA; extra-innings diplomacy at Durban. So whre's the coverage in our two "Times"?

You wouldn’t know it from reading the papers, but it’s been an eventful few weeks for the story of the century — global warming and climate disruption, and the efforts by various nations and other interests to act on it or block action on it. In mid-November the International Energy Agency — the people who were right about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMDs, to no avail — issued its report on future energy use. It found that current and foreseeable reduction efforts won’t come near meeting the pledge set at the 2009 Copenhagen climate set to hold average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit — once a feared, now a prayed-for outcome, that would have effects comparable to an ice age in reverse). Then, as the Durban climate summit opened, the IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, issued an unusually stark warning: the planet is on track to warm by more than double the outdated “consensus” projections, by 6 degree (Celsius (10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by century’s end, with effects to beggar the imagination.

Then came a ray of hope, from Oregon State University. Atmospheric scientists led by OSU’s Andreas Schmittner examined Great Ice Age records and concluded that global temperatures are less sensitive to carbon levels than previously thought; ergo, their rise should be at the low end of current estimates, about 2.3 degrees Celsius by 2100. Other experts point out, however, that Schmittner underestimates Ice Age cooling. And even if it did only fall 2.2 degrees below modern, as he supposed, that was enough to bury this region in a mile of ice and lower sea levels nearly 400 feet. Imagine equivalent change in the opposite direction.

And finally some current data, which did not bolster optimism: Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel burning and cement production, which fell 1.4 percent in 2009 due to the economic slump, roared back to all-time record levels in 2010 thanks to economic bounceback and lots of government stimulus spending. (Infrastructure = cement = carbon emission = climate change.) And despite mounting efforts to reduce emissions and develop alternative energies, China pumped out 10 percent more carbon last year than in 2009. Tellingly, Chinese domestic consumption for the first time caused more emissions than U.S. domestic consumption. (It still takes four Chinese to do the climate damage of one American.) China already surpassed America as the biggest nominal emitter of carbon, but a third of its emissions come from export production; by importing carbon-intensive products from China, the United States and other countries effectively export their emissions there.

Meanwhile, the Durban climate conference lurched to a close Sunday (Dec. 11) after two weeks of diplomatic wrangling that made the federal budget negotiations look like a school board meeting. Despite dismal expectations, the meeting was far from a total bust. The United States confirmed its status as obstructionist-in-chief, blocking European efforts to institute a “road map” to legally binding emission reductions, and India also held out against them. But three other developing powerhouses, China, South Africa, and, unconditionally, Brazil, all endorsed the idea of binding reductions post 2020. This signals a breakthrough from the impasse over the 20-year-pld Kyoto Agreement, which the United States back off from ostensibly because it doesn’t included developing economies. That enabled the summit to close with a 13th-hour agreement to work out such a treaty, to take effect in 2017 or 2020, at future sessions, and to kick the Kyoto standards forward till then (for what they’re worth).

Big news, but you’d have gotten just dribs and drabs of it from the printed pages of the two papers most influential in Seattle, The New York Times and Seattle Times (sorry, Weekly, Stranger, rump Publicola, and Crosscut colleagues). The NY Times did offer a substantial inside-page story on Dec. 8 on the 2010 surge in carbon emissions, the "biggest jump ever recorded." And its reporter  John M. Broder sent dispatches from the conference, but most dispatches didn’t make it to the print edition, let alone the front page, where they'd have gotten much broader attention. Exceptions: a soft, peripheral profile of Greenpeace International director Kumi Nadoo, who’s from Durban, one report on the “familiar standoff” between the United States and China consigned to page 16, and a good Sunday-edition analysis of the outcome — on page 11.

As of Saturday, the Seattle Times had offered much less that I could find (please tell me if I missed something): a brief version of the Washington Post's report on the IEA warning, buried near the bottom of page 4, and a one-sentence snippet on the impasse in its Dec. 5 “global” briefs. On Sunday, the paper's A-section contained a seven-paragraph AP report. Neither the New York nor Seattle papers' editorialists seemed to have anything to say about the summit or the climate, though NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman did praise President Obama for making manufacturers improve their cars' gas mileage.

By comparison. Britain's Financial Times was generous in its coverage, which included a 12-page special tabloid section handicapping the Durban talks. Public radio — both NPR and PRI’s The World — also covered the climate talks more consistently. Democracy Now, hosted by Amy Goodman and airing locally on KBCS-FM, made the biggest commitment:  decamped to Durban and reported live for the duration.

It's true that Herman — remember him? — Cain's conjugal history was pushing a lot of other news off the front pages during Durban's first week. And both Times do offer more on their websites (wire stories in the Seattle Times’ case). But there’s no shortage of news on almost anything to be found online. The justification for expensive print editions, beside comfort  is that they sift and weigh news, offering a judgment as to what’s important and a base for conversation. That justification is looking ever more threadbare. And that suggests one easy way to spare some trees and reduce your carbon footprint.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.