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Veteran journalist urges new take on climate change

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The recession and the presidential election has pushed the issue of climate change far from the headlines. But scientists agree this summer's drought and record sea ice melting in the arctic should sound alarms more than ever.

ABC News' climate change reporter argues journalism needs to find a new way to cover the story. Bill Blakemore has reported on national TV for more than 40 years and for 8 years on climate change. Blakemore is speaking tonight at 7:30 pm at St. Lawrence University as a part of its Climate Change conference.

Blakemore says climate change is a bigger, longer-running story than any newsroom has ever had to tackle, and the first step is moving past appearances of "balance" on whether climate change is real.

Blakemore told David Sommerstein climate scientists have agreed on the five basic facts of global warming.

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David Sommerstein
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When Mt. St. Helen's suddenly blew up, we didn't feel compelled to give the other side equal time.
It’s warming. It’s caused by a human activity, human emissions. It’s coming far faster than was expected even five years ago. It’s very dangerous. It’s causing enormous changes to agricultural prices, [and] to seasonal rhythms. And the fifth part of the basics which, as the science keeps showing, that if humanity were to somehow figure out how to drastically reduce greenhouse emissions on a global scale—if humanity were to do that, then it could prevent this rise in temperature, which is…going to continue for at least twenty or thirty years, from then shooting up even further after 2050.

You know I think it’s obvious that the recession, among others things, has pushed a lot of climate change reporting out of the public eye. How do of assess the landscape of reporting on climate change, you know, right now.

In the United States, starting at about 2005 to 2009—for about 5 years—we were getting man made global warming stories on the air, stories about global warming, about climate change, whatever you want to call it—fairly often. There was a sort of outbreak of the story, finally.

For the last two years on mainstream media, it’s almost disappeared to a large degree. I think it’s about to come back because we’ve just had a summer with a lot of drought in this country and around the world in many places, on a global scale, which is firmly linked by the world’s scientists to manmade global warming.

And I think it will become very likely an issue…during the debates again. President Obama has on one or two occasions indicated that he’s ready for it to become an issue, whether he’s going to play it that way if it comes up, we don’t know. We don’t know how Governor Romney—we don’t know how candidate Romney will play it, either. But my suspicion is that, because the warming itself is continuing, we’re going to inevitably see—we’re already seeing—a new critical mass of concern and as the economy gets under some kind of control—if it continues to improve, it’ll come back again and again.

How do you approach this issue, given its politicization? As a journalist, fair and accurate.

Yes, yes. I discovered the gravity of the global warming story—as described by the world’s climate scientists—about 8 years ago, about 2004, 2005. And I quickly came to understand it as an event story, not a politics story. That is to say: It’s not a politics story; it’s not about politics. It’s a political issue, of course, but the core of the story is an event that is happening, according to all of the world’s climate scientists. Like when Mt. St. Helen’s suddenly blew up, we didn’t feel compelled to give the other side equal time or something like that that you hear in political reporting. So, by and large, there’s been—I consider it an event story that you just keep covering, and ignore the false politicization of it.

Now this gets complex because there’s been a lot of solid, investigative, and academic journalism and research that shows that there is a vigorous disinformation and intimidation campaign trying to confuse people, especially in America, about how solid the science is. You talk to any credible, established, professional climate scientists, and they will tell you that the basics of global warming are as solid as science ever gets. And that’s the way I cover it. And if I should find it different, I’d be immediately ready to change it. But I just keep covering it as an event.

I know that there’s all kinds of confusions about the story, partly because it’s so big. It’s unprecedented in its scale. It’s not the elephant in the room, it’s the elephant we’re all inside of. For example, conversations that I and a lot of my colleagues around the country have with our editors is—those of us in the field—are telling our editors, “Look, this isn’t, please don’t think of this as a weather story primarily, or an environment story primarily. It’s not. It’s primarily a security story and a finance story.” So there’s all kinds of new categories that the whole profession of journalism is having to come to understand.

What do you think is most missing from this dialogue about climate change?

I’ve heard lately a number of colleagues and other academics say that, in America, what’s been missing is discussion of what the realities would be if we—what the economic realities would be—if the government and the society in general did try to tackle it and sort of plan it out. Now, in fact, there have been a number of studies done. Lord Nicholas Stern in Britain did a study about, ‘if the world did this, what percentage of GDP would have to be lost every year?’

Another thing that I personally feel is greatly missing in the United States from the discussion about what to do about global warming is a healthy, strong Republican and conservative voice in this. It seems—and I have no party identity myself; I make a point of not have any; I’m not an advocate to try to stop global warming, I’m just trying to report it—but my impression is that as long as one of the major political parties has a large faction trying to pretend that, or claim that, the problem isn’t significant or isn’t there, their voice is sorely missing from the real discussion that I would suspect we need in this country about what to do about it.

And as soon as we have a real, serious debate in which both sides have said, ‘okay, we’ve got a problem; what are we going to do about it?’ We’re going to hear from Republicans and Conservatives at that point. And I think it will become very interesting and my suspicion is that it will become rather productive in a uniquely American way. And I wouldn’t even want to begin to guess what that’s going to be, but it’ll be interesting.

Bill Blakemore reports on climate change for ABC T.V. and ABC online. He talks Thursday night at St. Lawrence University, 7:30 p.m. at Eben Holden Hall.

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