Early signs: Reports from a warming planet

U.C. Berkeley journalists traveled the world to report on the front lines of climate change.

Published March 17, 2006 12:13PM (EST)

In recent years, evidence has been emerging from various parts of the globe that climate change is not only real, it is beginning to have significant political, economic and human impact. Much of the reporting on the subject in the U.S. has focused on the "debate" over whether warming is occurring, and if so, whether humans are partly the cause. Scientists, however, have already answered these questions -- resoundingly in the affirmative -- as represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which comprises more than 2,000 scientists representing over 100 nations.

With early signs of climate change emerging, the time was right, it occurred to me, to send a team of reporters into the field to investigate. I approached colleagues at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, where I teach international reporting, and after several encouraging conversations, I determined that these early signs were sufficient for a full-scale investigation by a team of the school's reporters. Dean Orville Schell recommended we ask climatologist John Harte, of U.C.'s Energy and Resources Group, to join the team. Professor Harte readily agreed to be my co-teacher and our team's science advisor.

On Sept. 1, 2005, 12 journalists gathered for our first class, charged with finding stories in which global warming would be explored not only through the lens of science and the environment, but also in human terms: How is a warming planet starting to affect people and the lives they lead? "Early Signs: How Global Warming Affects Commerce, Culture and Community" was designed as a two-semester seminar and reporting workshop. Our task was to combine intensive study of the science, politics, economics and social impacts with active story development in regions as far-flung as the sub-Arctic, South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the South Pacific.

A central premise of the class was based on the scientific consensus that global warming is real, and is caused in part by human activity. We intended to avoid the pitfall of creating a false balance of "dueling experts," which gives equal weight to unequal sides. This did not mean that we wouldn't learn all sides of an argument, but that in our pursuit of knowledge and story ideas (which would involve several hundred pages of reading each week in the first two months), we'd place such skepticism in scientific and political context.

Accepting that global warming exists and that humans are part of the engine driving it did not, of course, mean that we'd abandon the rigor or skepticism that reporters always apply. Indeed, as my reporters began to research stories in Australia, the Azores, Bangladesh, Canada, Cuba, India, Peru, Portugal, New Zealand, Tanzania, Tibet and the Pacific islands, they were required to vet the science through a formal review process overseen by professor Harte

Through Harte's review, and reporters' conversations with other experts in the field, we decided not to move ahead with stories on agriculture in Argentina, potential threats of sea level rise in the Azores, farming in Zambia, and drought in Australia. We also decided not to focus on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita for a number of reasons. These included the timing of our work, the heavy news coverage from other outlets, and as Harte pointed out, even though the science strongly suggests that warming oceans will generate more powerful hurricanes, it is difficult to point to any specific storm and connect it with global warming.

Harte explained to students that each successful story proposal would likely fall into one of three categories. One type would document the result of changes due to sea level rise or melting ice, which science has clearly linked to global warming. Another kind would focus on political or economic impacts, such as a South Pacific refugee program for displaced islanders or planning for sea level rise in vulnerable delta areas like Bangladesh. A third category was more challenging. In situations in which changes from a warming planet were more subtle or indirect, the story proposal would need to show scientific evidence that the situation was "clearly not the result of a long sequence of fluctuations that are part of natural variability." Thus, stories about powerful storms or droughts carried a higher burden of proof, and reporters had to cite peer-reviewed science explicitly linking such stories to global warming. Ultimately, each story had to be stamped with Harte's approval.

As Harte and I signed off on the students' proposals, the reporters worked up extensive story memos to show us their ability to transform their ideas into compelling narratives, populated with real people and a sense of place.

The first report, a profile of Churchill, Manitoba, "Polar Bear Capital of the World," is by Nick Miroff and Jon Mooallem. Other dispatches examine the warming of Lake Tanganyika and its potential impact on fish supply in east Africa (Jori Lewis); a program to resettle residents of a Pacific archipelago whose islands may be inundated by sea level rise (Alexandra Berzon); a portrait of one such island, Kiribati (Aaron Selverston); a front-lines report from the vulnerable delta areas of Bangladesh (Emilie Raguso and Sandhya Somashekhar); the disappearance of glaciers and their impact on water supplies (Kate Davidson at Mt. Kilimanjaro; Pauline Bartolone and Felicia Mello in the Ecuadoran Andes); and a Maori view of climate change in New Zealand (Durrell Dawson).

The series runs Fridays through May 5 in Salon. Radio versions of each story will be on "Living on Earth's" Web site. The series will also run on "LOE's" nearly 300 public radio stations nationwide.

By Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan is author of the international bestseller "The Lemon Tree" and "Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land." He has reported from more than 35 countries, and extensively from Native American country. He is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter: @sandy_tolan

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Environment Global Warming