Climate Change and Lake Michigan
A recent scientific conference detailed all the problems -- and got no coverage from the Journal Sentinel.
Comedian John Oliver recently did a hilarious piece on the issue of global climate change, culminating in a “statistically representative” debate on the issue, with 97 scientists arguing that climate change is occurring and 3 scientists disputing this who got drowned out by the throng. His point was that climate change was a fact on which there was an overwhelming scientific consensus, yet the media continues to treat this as a “belief” about which scientists disagree.
Oliver had fun ridiculing TV news shows featuring one-on-one debates, but you could make the same point about the state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which routinely runs opinion columns by those on both sides of the issue, while doing little to report the facts. That seems a remarkable oversight, given the huge impact climate change is having on Wisconsin and others in the Great Lakes region.
Last month there was a conference of scientists at Wingspread in Racine to discuss the issue of “Great Lakes Restoration and Climate Change,” which received not a word of coverage from the Journal Sentinel, although the facts presented were alarming for anyone who cares about this issue. That should arguably include everyone on this planet, given that the Great Lakes contain about 21 percent of the world’s and 84 percent of North America’s freshwater. And it would seem to be a golden opportunity for Dan Egan, the JS Great Lakes reporter, probably the only full-time reporter handling this beat in America, to update us on what is going on.
The current and future impact cited by experts includes:
-Warming of the lakes’ water, less ice-cover and more evaporation, which has contributed to Lake Michigan’s water level declining five feet;
-Increased variability in temperatures and precipitation, drops in dissolved oxygen, more extensive harmful algal blooms, exacerbated flooding (Milwaukee has experienced five 100-year or greater storm events since 1990), increased nonpoint source pollution, and more combined sewer overflows;
-More frequent and intense rain events are predicted to increase coastal erosion, increase nutrient and sediment runoff, overwhelm existing wastewater containment and treatment infrastructure, and undermine efforts to contain toxic sediments;
-Climate-induced shifts in wind can greatly alter the chemical and thermal regimes of lake habitats, placing stress on native plant and wildlife species and allowing invasive species to establish through the region;
-Climate change may impact cold-water streams critical to sustainable fish populations in Wisconsin. Warmer groundwater inputs and air temperatures may put fish at increased risk for predation, parasites, and disease;
-Because of the long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere, climate change over the next 50 years is already mostly out of our control and effectively cannot be mitigated. Observed climate change effects in the region to date are just the tip of the iceberg.
Egan and the Journal Sentinel have written about some of these problems for the Great Lakes — invasive species, loss of fish populations, etc. — but never with any mention of the impact of global climate change. Use the JS search function for “Great Lakes and global climate change” and almost nothing comes up, just a couple opinion columns. Indeed, the newspaper has printed countless opinion pieces on climate change, while failing to report on these changes in its own backyard.
And it’s not for a lack of reporting resources or newspaper space. As I’ve previously reported, the newspaper did 39 stories about the declining water level of Lake Michigan between 2005 and May of 2013 — and not one story mentioned global warming as a possible cause. When Egan and the JS finally did a story on how changes in climate are affecting the Great Lakes, nowhere in its 144 paragraphs and three full pages in the newspaper did Egan ever mention the words “global warming” or “global climate change” as I’ve also reported.
Egan and the JS have hammered away at the impact of the dredging of the St. Clair River in Michigan on Lake Michigan, suggesting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to repair the damage. But they ignored this recent conference, as least half of which was devoted to making recommendations on developing “policy-based strategies to integrate climate variation into future restoration and stewardship practices.”
Ironically, the very first recommendation in the conference report is to “Build Awareness and Understanding of Climate Change Impacts.” That’s very difficult to do if the media won’t report on the problem.
I should add that the Journal Sentinel is hardly alone in under-covering the issue.
Some interesting research on this was done by the Center for Science and Technology Science Research. It counted the newspaper stories on climate change or global warming and found the number rose about ten-fold in North America from about 100 stories per month to a level several times that, then suddenly spiked at about 1100 stories per month in late 2009 and early 2010. Why the spike? That’s when the so-called “climate gate” controversy arose, with conservatives outraged by the idea that a couple scientists might have been manipulating the research on global warming. But after that spike, coverage of global warming declined back to a level of about 200 stories per month.
A study by Media Matters showed a similar trend in broadcast journalism. The coverage of global warming on nightly news shows and Sunday morning news shows spiked in 2009 and then dropped off after that. The nightly news went from 135 minutes discussing the issue in 2009 to less than 35 minutes in both 2010 and 2011. By 2013 the coverage had gone up somewhat but still nowhere near the spike of 2009. And for all practical purposes the issue did not exist on Fox News, which gave it three minutes of coverage in all of 2013, the study found.
But here is my favorite part of the study: from 2009 to 2013, the researchers found, the Sunday news shows did not interview a single scientist about global warming. Mostly they featured media figures and politicians, and 75 percent of these politicians were Republicans. If anything, John Oliver’s scathing summary on the media’s handling of this underplayed the problem.
Why is the mainstream media, with its alleged “liberal bias,” so reluctant to report this issue? The answer, I believe, is they fear the anger from climate change deniers. I’ve seldom seen an issue that elicits so much anger in emails and phone calls from readers.
Polls show that as many as 18 percent or even 23 percent of Americans don’t believe global climate change is happening. Odds are that percentage is considerably higher in heavily Republican Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties, where most of the Journal Sentinel’s readers live. Nothing makes a newspaper more likely to look liberal and out of touch with those readers than stories about global climate change. So maybe you just skip that part of the Great Lakes reporter’s beat.
Needless to say, if the issue continues to be seen as a matter of belief, it will be very difficult for political leaders to do anything about the problem. The fate of humankind may well depend on how the media chooses to cover climate change.