Experts say media must cover climate change

By By Jaime Winston

By Jaime Winston

Salt Lake City set forth initiatives in 2002 to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 31 percent.

To do this, sport utility vehicles in the city government’s fleet were replaced with smaller cars, electrical generators were put in at the waste water treatment facility and landfill, and compact florescent light bulbs were installed in city and county buildings.

This was done within four years and has served as a model for other cities on how governments can combat global climate change.

But the real solutions don’t come from the policy makers, said former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.

“It has to come from the people, from journalists and students,” he said. “It will never come from the elected officials.”

Last week, four U climate change authorities met with local government officials at the Salt Lake City Public Library to discuss how the issue of climate change is presented to the public. Communication professors Julia Corbett and Ron Yaros joined David Chapman, a professor in geophysics and geology.

“Climate change is a tough story,” said Chapman, adding that the most difficult aspect to communicate to the public is the fact that changes are small and slow. “Trying to get people worried about small changes, one-tenth a degree in a decade, is hard.”

Chapman said that to convince people, he asks them to consider 650,000-year-old ice. In the last 150 years, the carbon dioxide levels in Antarctic and Greenland ice have risen from an average of 280 parts per million to 385 parts per million. One part per million is equivalent to about 1 milligram per liter. When carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are emitted, Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere warm up.

Scientists predict the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double by the year 2100, but there’s still hope, Chapman said.

Andrea Arel, who attended the meeting, said she hopes to let the public know about initiatives in Utah that are fighting climate change. She is the executive director of hopeandknowledge.org, a website that will act as a resource to connect sustainability programs with the public once it is launched.

“It’s going to have streaming videos so people who are sitting home, that can’t get out of the house, can go on the website and see the lectures they are missing,” Arel said.

Corbett said that websites like Arel’s are important to reach certain audiences.

“If you get to the people that are interested, their action will be more likely,” she said.

In addition to reaching segmented audiences, Corbett said that industries like skiing and wine need to be shown climate change will affect them specifically. She also advocates for more local implications of climate change to be shown to the public.

Along with having climate change localized, Corbett said that authoritative figures, such as politicians, need to become involved. A study she worked on traces the communication of climate change issues by the media, government and other outlets since the 1970s. She said that although other countries have been covering climate change issues for decades, media in the United States started covering it thoroughly in the last three years.

Corbett said that one of the reasons the issue has not been covered extensively is because people have tried to increase uncertainty about the issue. Journalists covering climate change attempt to create balanced stories, using the views of contrarians to question climate change’s legitimacy, even though the vast majority of the scientific community believes it is happening, she said.

Fritz Hasler, a meteorologist in attendance, said that he believes climate change is happening, but that we need to focus more on conservation than reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which have an variable atmospheric lifetime ranging from five to 200 years.

“The sustainability things are not in question, but there is some question about the reasonable cause (of climate change initiatives) unless we learn to sequester all of the carbon dioxide,” he said.

Corbett disagrees. She said the only way to prevent a doomsday scenario is for people to participate in a joint effort to combat climate change.

“We’re taught in journalism school about balance, fairness, accuracy, both sides, all sides,” Yaros said. “The journalists need to represent the majority of the scientists that are in agreement and that would help to educate the public.”

Yaros also said that journalists need to become more educated in areas of science and strongly advocates collaboration of journalists and scientists to convey messages about the greenhouse effect causing climate change. He said that with the historical data available, it can be done.

“I’m hoping that someone will be convinced,” Yaros said.

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