Although global warming still can't compete with Iraq and the so-called "death tape" of Anna Nicole Smith (yes, one has surfaced on the web showing paramedics administering CPR), it continues to garner attention from columnists and pundits. Toay's installment comes from Ellen Goodman in her Boston Globe syndicated column.
"It may be, paradoxically, that framing this issue in catastrophic terms ends up paralyzing instead of motivating us," Goodman writes. "Remember the Time magazine cover story: 'Be Worried. Be Very Worried.' The essential environmental narrative is a hair-raising consciousness-raising: This is your Earth. This is your Earth on carbon emissions." Faced with the catastrophe, people just go into a state of denial.
Goodman calls for a reframing of the issue: "Can we change from debating global warming to preparing? Can we define the issue in ways that turn denial into action? In America what matters now isn't environmental science, but political science."
In his excellent blog, "Framing Science," Matthew Nisbet aplauds Goodman for writing "one of the best summaries I've seen on just how central public communication is to this issue," and for issuing a "call to arms" on reframing climate change.
But there are two issues Nisbett does not discuss. They deserve an airing. First, Goodman indulges in a typical liberal rhetorical maneuver to frame the issue of climate change skepticism in apocalyptic terms, not only undercutting her laudable main point but also casting grave doubt on her credibility.
"Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future," Goodman writes.
Excuse me, but being skeptical about the scientific basis for global warming is nowhere near on a par with Holocaust denial. That is an utterly offensive statement — one that seems to comes up more and more in liberal discourse about climate change. If this is reframing the issue, count me out. I'll take run-of-the-mill catastrophism, thank you very much.
The second issue is this: What role should journalists play in reframing climate change from one of catastrophe in the making to a moral and religious issue, a corruption of science issue, and an economic issue, as Nisbet puts it?
I would argue that it's not the job of a daily news reporter to reframe the issue, at least not per se. A daily reporter's job is to ask challenging questions designed to elicit news and essential information, and to go where the story leads. And if the story leads to new details about catastrophe on the way, that's where we have to go. But it is also a reporter's job to try to stay ahead of the story. And if doing that means asking experts like Mathew Nisbet whether a reframing of the issue is in the offing, or essential, that would seem like a great story to me. Moreover, the questions reporters ask may well contribute to a reframing of the issue. Should this be a reporter's mission? That word "mission" makes me nervous. We're supposed to report the news, not make it. On the other hand, if something is happening out there — if others are taking on this mission, that's where we need to go with our reporting.
And please do note: I'm making a deliberate distinction between daily news journalism and other forms. As a magazine writer, I would feel no qualms at trying to change the terms of the debate.
Lastly, I see a story here about the expropriation of "Holocaust denier" for use with reference to global warming skeptics. I suspect there are some people who are mighty angry at Ellen Goodman today. That would make an excellent jumping off point for a potentially compelling story.