BAR HARBOR, Maine — Justin Gillis says people should demand more from the media and politicians.
The New York Times reporter spoke Tuesday night at College of the Atlantic about the issue of climate change, the topic he has covered for the paper for the past couple of years. Gillis writes the newspaper’s Temperature Rising series which, according to the Times’ website, focuses “on the central arguments in the climate debate and examines the evidence for global warming and its consequences.”
Gillis told an audience of about 80 people gathered Tuesday night at COA’s Gates Center that the issue of climate change has been hotly debated in recent years but poorly understood. The public needs to demand more action from their governmental leaders on the issue, he said, and it needs to demand better coverage of the issue from the media.
The scope of the implications of climate change runs the gamut — from fires to powerful storms to bug infestations, he said. The ways in which climate change will manifest will affect governments, citizens and media outlets at all levels from small towns to the United Nations, he added.
“Reporters in all beats are going to have to cover it,” Gillis said.
For most reporters the issue has proven to be overly complicated and too easily muddled by people who have economic or political motives for casting doubt that the climate is changing and that human carbon emissions may be to blame, he said. That is why he focuses on objective scientific research on the issue when he reports for the Times, he said.
“Our coverage has been tepid. It has been shallow,” he said, speaking of the media in general. “Coverage of global warming has been a casualty of that.”
Much of his initial approach in reporting on climate change has centered on what Gillis called “Climate 101” — how climates are changing and what the implications of those changes are. He said he sometimes will read through hundreds of scientific papers trying to discern if there is consensus in the scientific community about a particular phenomenon before he decides to write about it.
That scientific grounding in his reporting, he said, gives him the leverage to write objectively about the issue without falling prey to the “false balance” that has often accompanied climate change stories. False balance, he said, is the need some media outlets feel they have to include differing opinions in their stories, even if those opinions are not based in science and are far outnumbered by those opinions that are.
“The climate deniers will want to confuse you about this,” Gillis said.
He said that in his reporting he does not ignore the position of such “deniers” entirely because they do have political influence. Even though there is no widely held scientific data that supports the deniers’ arguments, he said, he does mention the influence they have when it comes to governmental policy.
After his talk, Gillis compared the current climate change debate with the debate over evolution in the early 20th century, which reached its critical point in 1925 in what now is called the Scopes Monkey Trial. In that trial, a Tennessee high school teacher was charged and eventually convicted for teaching evolution in a state-funded school, which at the time violated state law.
“We’re in 1925 on climate science, unfortunately,” Gillis said. “This [climate change denial] position is out there, it’s having this political influence. It’s scientifically discredited and illegitimate to say, ‘There is no problem.’
“Now, if you want to scientifically say, ‘We don’t really know how big the problem is,’ that’s completely different,” Gillis continued. “That’s a valid argument. But to say there is no problem is just disproven, so I treat it as what it is. I treat it as this kind of strange, curious political argument in quasi-scientific clothing.”
Gillis was equally critical of international efforts to mediate environmental treaties between nations because, in his view, they haven’t worked. Some grass-roots campaigns such as 350.org, founded by author and activist Bill McKibben, have shown some promise, he said, but he is skeptical of the top-down approach. For example, despite all the debate and energy that has gone into the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol, which the United States has not ratified, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere keeps increasing, he said.
“The governments of the world have dragged their feet in meeting their own stated goals largely because not much pressure is coming from their citizens,” he said. “If nothing else, [the UN discussions have] been a global stage for discussing this issue.”
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.