Gulf Oil Leak Shrouds Climate Change But Still Holds Key Issues

October 15, 2010
Bud Ward

E-Reporting Biz


Picture a lone and seemingly forlorn polar bear adrift on an ice floe. It represents the end of an entire species. But it's no match, it turns out, for some heavily soiled brown pelicans. Particularly if the latter is the state bird.

Or think of it this way: A daily counting of "Day 54, Day 55, Day 56,…Day 96…." — sort of the opposite of the Bulletin of American Scientists' iconic Doomsday Clock counting downward — may have a lot more resonance with the broad public than a global warming clock ticking by necessity in increments of years, decades, and centuries.

Not to be flip, but the relentless spewing forth of what ends up being billions of gallons of oil a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico has it all over, from a public relations standpoint, the most gripping images of a warming world.

The Gulf oil leak has an easily caricatured villain or bad guy, BP ... and Tony Hayward, he of "I'd like to have my life back" infamy. Global warming's bad guy is you and me and our everyday humdrum high-carbon existence.

Game, set and match. Case closed, hands-down. No wonder that an American public so rightly consumed and piqued by the Gulf disaster sometimes appears like it could care less about a hotter world down the road.

For journalists intent on covering major energy- and environment-related stories and natural disasters, the BP Gulf of Mexico oil leak, with 24/7 images of gushing hydrocarbons a mile deep, easily supplanted climate change and virtually all other national stories in the nation's steadily shrinking print and broadcast news hole. That's not so much a criticism as a fact, and the focus may indeed be understandable and entirely appropriate.

What as recently as a year ago had been widely assumed to be the defining news story of the century — both by many journalists and by policy makers alike — climate change ends up, for now at least, appearing little more than an afterthought: neither the story of the week, of the month, of the unusually hot summer season, or of what appears likely to end up being among the planet's hottest-on-record calendar years.

There are of course striking parallels and profound differences between the sudden and in-your-face Gulf BP spill and the incremental and nonlinear climate change issue. Each on its own has plenty of lessons-learned to offer the news media for years, even decades, to come:

  • SEJers who have tilled these fertile news fields for any length of time are well aware that it's not just what you can see, touch, and smell "up close and personal," as a thoroughly disgusting ad campaign puts it. It's also the devil you don't and can't know — the hidden risks, the infinitesimal concentrations, the perils lurking under the sea and not solely those floating on top of it for all to see.

    This is virtually certain to be the case also with the BP disaster. Just as there were assertions from the start that the dangers and risks might last for decades or eons, there are certain to be those seeing no residual risks at all once the most visible sheen, tar balls, and utter goo no longer qualify for "Live at 5."

  • Proponents of climate action early on felt they might succeed in turning the Gulf fiasco to their political advantage. Just contrast the oily image of "the old energy" against the glittering promise of a green economy, their logic flowed. But with the BP disaster virtually deep-sixing any Capitol Hill political compromise spanning deep-water drilling and nuclear power interests, just the opposite happened.

    The Gulf oil leak cemented no strong national consensus on an aggressive new low-carbon energy future, but rather offered another reason to put off the actions likely needed to tame our oil dependency and put the reins on runaway warming.

  • Early estimates of volumes of oil leaked, whether by gallons or barrels, appeared no better in hindsight than early estimates of ecological damages inflicted. Both, in fact, were estimates and needed to be treated (and questioned) by media as such. That's likely going to remain the case for some time in the future, and time and time alone may shed definitive light on how much damage occurs, how much is "serious," and how much remains irreversible.

Media can count on one thing for sure here: Blowhards and bloviators on the extremes will over-and understate their forecasts to fit their own agendas. Reporters should do their best to parse out the evidentiary basis for those estimates and the error ranges…and be snookered neither way. SEJ's upcoming Montana annual conference and other articles in this SEJournal surely can shed constructive light on these issues.

On one's deathbed, they say, it is common to revisit life's monumental passages. Not just those of the personal sort — the birth of one's children, the passing of one's parents, the union with one's someone special, but also those of a more collective and societal nature. For those of us of a certain age, it's likely such a list could consist of things like the assassinations of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the "long hot summer" of 1968; the 9/11 attacks on our country; the Tet Offensive or perhaps Hamburger Hill or the My Lai "incident" or Kent State.

Add now Katrina and the BP Gulf nightmare to those key societal passages that some of us will take to our graves. The Gulf leak is likely to be a BC/AD experience for many of the reporters most serious about their responsibilities for covering our nation's energy and environmental challenges. How they learn from the experience might just have a major impact on how our fellow citizens respond to the next set of comparable challenges.

For those, it's regrettably a matter of when and where and not whether. And they'll again need outstanding independent journalism to help see through the fog of confusion, over-and understatement, and partisan posturing.

Bud Ward is an independent journalism educator and founder/former editor of Environment Writer.  He now is editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media

* From the SEJ newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2010 issue.


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