Medill School of Journalism Northwestern University October 17, 2012
By Anthony Raap
Curbing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels may seem like a luxury “when everybody’s worried about paying the bills,” said Justin Gillis, renowned environmental reporter for The New York Times.
“Worrying about the environment is something people do after they’ve got the basics of life satisfied,” Gillis said Tuesday at a packed Northwestern University lecture on climate change and media coverage of it.
But Gillis warned that the dramatic acceleration of climate change no longer leaves room for procrastination.
Global warming is already driving the rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic, an air conditioner for much of the Earth, he said in a talk appropriately called “Hot Copy! Journalism in the Greenhouse.”
Gillis said a 40 percent rise in greenhouse gas emissions since the dawn of the Industrialized Revolution is the thermostat linked to global warming. This is melting the polar ice caps and causing sea levels to rise.
Even conservative climate models, Gillis said, predict a 30-foot rise in sea level in coming decades, wiping out many low-lying islands and coastal communities around the world.
Finally, prolonged drought is expected to burn up crops, exacerbating world hunger.
Gillis laid it on the line. Climate change, he said, “is the mother of all problems.”
He spoke before a packed forum of science professors, researchers and journalism students — people he says realize how urgent the climate crisis is.
But for many Americans, global warming isn’t a priority, Gillis said, and it probably won’t receive serious attention until “we have a robust economic recovery.”
The partisan divide isn't helping either. Congress can’t seem to agree on how serious the climate problem, Gillis said, despite overwhelming scientific evidence showing the earth is warming at an alarming rate due to human activities.
In his first budget proposal, President Obama called for a cap-and-trade program that would curb emissions 14 percent by 2020. The program would have set a ceiling on how much carbon could be released into the atmosphere.
Under cap and trade, individual companies would be assigned an allowable emission rate. Manufacturers, utilities and refineries essentially would be charged for the greenhouse gases they emit.
A company could acquire more allowances for emission through auctions or by buying unused allowances from other companies. Republicans have derided this system as “cap and tax.”
In 2009, the House passed a cap-and-trade bill, but it was shot down in the Senate. On Jan. 1, California will become the first state in the nation to implement a cap-and-trade program.
“National politics is just a disaster on this subject right now,” Gillis said.
Asked at Tuesday’s lecture how the government could be persuaded to do more about global warming, Gillis advised getting the message heard.
“Governments don’t do things until people … go out and march in the streets and demand,” he said.
“It’s only when the public gets loud enough and insistent enough that the government finally moves and responds.”
Gillis said that if people fully understood the climate crisis, there would be a stronger clamor for carbon reductions. He said the purpose of “Temperature Rising,” his ongoing series for The Times, is to take readers “back to the basics of climate science.”
His aim, he said, is to illustrate “how much trouble we’re in” through richly worded descriptions of the melting sea ice in the Arctic, where he has traveled to report firsthand. In other articles, he has gone directly at climate naysayers, exploring their best arguments and showing why those arguments aren’t “very good,” Gillis said.
Last year, the series won the Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism.
Gillis said it’s possible for the U.S. to “move the needle in the right direction” by reducing emissions. Just look at Denmark, he said in an interview before Tuesday’s lecture.
About 30 percent of that country’s electricity comes from offshore wind power. It also relies on solar, biomass and geothermal energy as well as heat pumps.
Denmark has announced it is moving toward becoming carbon neutral - removing as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as is emitted - by 2050. So it can be done, Gillis said, but in order for the U.S. to replicate the Denmark experience, the country’s political leaders have to get on board.
“We’re nowhere close to where we need to be,” he said. “But we have to start somewhere.”
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