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Covering climate policy: science versus politics

Maybe it’s time to renew my pledge to write more often about climate science and how it shapes the political debate.

Reuters reports on a new study that shows that under 10 percent of the articles written about last year’s United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen focused primarily on climate science:

Much coverage from Copenhagen instead focused on hacked e-mails from a British university that some skeptics took as evidence of efforts by scientists to ignore dissenting views. The scientists involved have since been cleared of wrongdoing.

There’s no doubt that reporters (myself included) are under-serving their readers when it comes to a substantive discussion of climate science. Because many of us in Washington cover energy and the environment through the lens of politics, climate science often gets short shrift. But climate science and climate politics don’t have to be separate beats. In fact, they must not be.

More often than not, science plays a minimal role in politicians’ public discussions about various energy and environmental policies because polling says it doesn’t test well with the average constituent. Instead, policies are explained in terms of jobs, the economy and national security — the key issues of the day. But what’s lost in those explanations (e.g. “a renewable energy standard will create jobs” or “building a new fleet of electric vehicles will lessen our dependence on foreign oil”) is the scientific rationale for these policy choices. The wealth of scientific research shows that inaction will have dire consequences: drought, deforestation, sea level rise.

But one line in every story about the “scientific consensus on climate change” is not enough. Increasingly, readers don’t trust reporters, so it’s important to show them the research and then explain it. I haven’t been doing that enough and will work to do it more.

I can tell you all from experience that my own posts about climate science don’t traffic well. So the question is this: How can reporters balance the often-juicy political reporting that readers crave with the take-your-medicine science reporting that readers need?

I’ve got a few ideas, but I’d be interested in hearing your suggestions.

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