AAAS Kavli Lecture: Miles O'Brien on Covering Climate Change

Earl Lane

Although spotty and often misinformed news coverage of climate change has long been a problem, veteran science correspondent Miles O’Brien told an audience at the University of Missouri that public perceptions on the topic are changing and journalists can play a vital role in describing potential responses to the dire climate outlook.

“We need to start thinking about giving people solutions” rather than just “doom and gloom” stories, O’Brien said during an Oct. 24 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture at the Missouri School of Journalism's Gannett Hall in Columbia. “Climate change is not one problem, it is a million problems,” he said, and journalists need to look more closely at those problems locally as well as globally.

“We have inescapable evidence all around us that it’s not remote, it’s not in the future, it’s not just a polar bear on an ice cube somewhere,“ said O’Brien, a freelance correspondent for the PBS NewsHour who also has produced documentaries for NOVA, the PBS science series.

Miles O'Brien

Noting the university’s location in a rural part of Missouri, O’Brien said that “some of the people who know the most about climate change are farmers. It’s a bread and butter issue for them.” He urged journalism students in the audience of about 200 to “tell stories about your neighbors.” The impact of a changing climate is “all around us,” he said. “You just have to look for it. The impacts are everywhere.”

In a lively talk that traced the history of news coverage of climate change from the 19th century to the current day, O’Brien discussed the uneven performance of media outlets. He noted the ways in which opponents of tough measures to combat global warming were able to shape the public debate by arguing there was no consensus in the scientific community.

The result was a tendency by editors and reporters to include climate skeptics in all stories even after there was overwhelming agreement in the scientific community that the releases of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other gases produced by human activities were causing a troubling rise in global temperatures. The demand for “false equivalence” in reporting tended to sow confusion and bias, O’Brien said.

“You have to bring your brain to a story and your knowledge of what you know to be true and bake that in,” O’Brien said in response to audience questions.  “That’s getting closer to the truth than a lot of the constructs that we have in journalism that can be misapplied when it comes to science.”   

Gannett Hall

O’Brien also noted the role of many TV meteorologists, including the lead weathercaster at CNN where he worked for 16 years, in questioning the validity of research on global warming and climate change. He cited a 2010 study by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas that found only about half of 571 television weathercasters surveyed believed that global warming was occurring and fewer than a third believed that climate change was “caused mostly by human activities.” 

Still, O’Brien said there is some evidence the tide is turning, driven in part by the impact of catastrophic hurricanes, more frequent megafires, melting glaciers and dying coral reefs. His former CNN colleague recently renounced his previous views on global warming, part of a larger trend toward acceptance of the reality of climate change. Two-thirds of the respondents in a recent public opinion poll said they believe global warming is being caused by human activity.

Even during times when coverage of climate change was rare, O’Brien said, there had been some attention to important scientific papers on the role of carbon dioxide emissions in trapping heat in the atmosphere and even some prescient video segments in the popular realm. He cited “The Unchained Goddess,” a 1958 episode of a TV series sponsored by the Bell System, that focused on weather and climate impacts, including the potential for sea level rise due to carbon dioxide emissions.

O'Brien answers audience questions.

As Frank Baxter, a UCLA English literature professor who hosted the program, told his viewers: “Even now man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of his civilization due to our release through factories and automobiles every year of more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide which helps air absorb heat from the sun. Our atmosphere seems to be getting warmer. This is bad? Well, It’s been calculated that a few degrees rise in the earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps, and if this happens an inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi Valley. Tourists in glass bottom boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami.”

There were reports that proved to be wrong as well. Several scientific papers in the 1970s predicted the possibility of global cooling, leading to stories by outlets such as the CBS Evening News and Newsweek magazine. But the scientific consensus on a warming trend already was starting to emerge, O’Brien said. The research on cooling “wasn’t mainstream science,” he said, although the resulting news articles “are still to this day used as red herrings by climate denialists.”

While acknowledging the difficult challenges ahead, O’Brien said public perceptions of the climate crisis are changing, highlighted by an angry generation of youngsters like teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg who told a United Nations gathering recently that “you have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

For his part, O’Brien is energized by his role as a science journalist. “When you cover science, you are covering somebody who is looking at a problem and is trying to come up with solutions,” he said. “That is what I love about science. Just by its nature it leads you to solutions. There is a real opportunity for science journalists to educate people on the fact this is not an insurmountable problem if we take the right actions now.”   

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The AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award Lecture series, now in its third year, brings winners of the distinguished journalism award to campuses for public lectures and workshops with journalism students. O’Brien won the award in 2015 for a two-part PBS NewsHour series about prosthetics and the challenges of developing a fully functional human limb. Also speaking this fall: British journalist Angela Saini, a 2015 award winner, at the University of Maryland on Oct. 30 and Nsikan Akpan, a 2016 award winner and digital science producer for the PBS NewsHour, at Florida A &M University on Nov. 6. 


Associated homepage image credit: Shutterstock; other photos by Earl Lane.