Climate Progress' super-blogger Joe Romm discusses the status quo media, dazzling fake controversies and cutting through the crap with ecopolitology's Dave Levitan.
[Our ongoing series “Communicating Climate Change” with Dave Levitan will often feature conversations with journalists and other communicators who face the challenge of writing on climate issues. Two weeks ago we featured former New York Times climate reporter and Dot Earth blogger Andy Revkin.- Ed.]
Joseph Romm is the editor of Climate Progress and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He spent five years in the Clinton administration, notably as Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. He also holds a PhD in physics from MIT, and is among the more outspoken and visible voices on climate and energy issues around the web. I spoke with him about his media criticism, progressive messaging and how his background has informed his blogging work. Links and emphasis are mine.
Dave Levitan: I’ll start with a post I saw of yours from a couple of days ago, regarding your new book: Straight Up: America’s Fiercest Climate Blogger Takes on [the] Status Quo Media, Politicians, and Clean Energy Solutions. Whether or not the “the” makes it in there, could you tell me about the "status quo media?"
Joe Romm: It wasn’t my intention when I started the blog, but media criticism has become one of the main things that I do. It is now certainly equal to what I intended to do, which was an insider’s guide to climate science and politics. It is something that I think has just emerged.
Basically, the establishment journalists just don’t get global warming. When they write about it, they don’t bother to educate themselves about it. They write about the political horserace. It’s Al gore versus Sarah Palin, or Arnold Schwarzenegger versus Sarah Palin, and oh, now there’s an e-mail story so that means climatologists aren’t doing so well. I think the mainstream media are agents of the status quo. It is certainly not everyone in the media, but by and large they don’t get that global warming is an existential threat.
DL: Do you think that outlets that have a fairly clear agenda, like Climate Progress, suffer from the problem of having a readership that already basically agrees with your message? And if so, is there a solution, or a way to deal with that, and get to a wider audience?
JR: First of all, we’ve had people do analyses, and Climate Progress is one of the few blogs in this space that is read across the political spectrum. My target audience has evolved. A great many people in the media read the blog. Scientists read it, certainly a lot of policy types, Hill types in the DC area read it. And of course the right wing reads it, [judging] by the glee with which they write about it.
[However,] I’m sure that most of my readers share my concerns. But at the end of the day, even though I have a lot of readers for a climate blog, I don’t have a lot of readers. This isn’t TMZ. I’m not trying to create a mass movement here, but if you want to go to one blog to know what is going on and to cut through the 99 percent of stuff out there that you don’t need to know.... I’m just trying to cut through the crap. But I do aspire to persuade those who are persuadable.
DL: Back to the media criticism for a minute. What is it specifically that you think the media gets wrong in its coverage of climate and energy issues? Where are the gaps or mistakes commonly found?
JR: Who knows where to begin there. Certainly, the science is still not well covered. Anybody who thought that the science was getting a bit better covered, well, it ain’t. The media is still easily dazzled by fake controversies. So I don’t think that the basic scientific message has been conveyed to the public. That’s not entirely the media’s fault, because I don’t think the IPCC or the scientific community has done a good job of laying it out simply.
I think that the issue of the extreme weather that we’re starting to see, and some of the climate impacts that we’re starting to see, that often gets covered by someone outside of the science writer house. Like the bark beetle story – many people have done a good job on the bark beetle story. I’ve done a whole bunch of posts on this – NBC did a dreadful story, the New York Times did two dreadful stories. I don’t see how you can write about the bark beetle and not mention global warming.
I think the climate economics stories are dreadful. They hardly ever talk about the cost of doing nothing, they talk about the trumped up costs of action that have little basis in real economics.
The scientific community has gotten worse at communicating. There were never a lot of great scientist communicators, but the generation [that had some] has died out. I think there was a lot of snobbery in the community that people like Carl Sagan weren’t real scientists, they were popularizers. Which is odd, because most of the great scientists, certainly the ones you remember, were great communicators. Certainly Einstein and Darwin were great writers. We certainly don’t have a lot of great scientist communications anymore. Continued...