"Celebrities, scientists and polar bears, oh my"
Op-Ed, Chicago Tribune
December 11, 2007
Author: Cristine Russell, Senior Fellow, Environment and Natural Resources Program
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Environment and Natural Resources
What a difference a year makes. In 2006, global warming stories were still struggling for front-page attention. By 2007, climate change was the issue du jour and "going green" a daily staple in news stories about everything from home building to Wall Street banking. Much of the credit for this dramatic transformation certainly goes to former Vice President Al Gore and the UN panel of climate change scientists who received the Nobel Peace Prize on Monday.
Not joining them at the Nobel ceremony but deserving of special recognition is Ursus maritimus, the vulnerable polar bear whose plight has personalized the threat of global warming in a way that scientific statistics could not. Once again, it took a celebrity campaign and visually appealing, emotional symbols like great white bears stranded on shrinking Arctic ice to create a sense of crisis among the news media -- and the public -- about a problem that had been brewing for decades.
The scientific community could not have cracked the publicity barrier if Gore and his Hollywood friends had not jump-started the process with their heavy promotion of the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." And Gore couldn't have done the Academy Award-winning film without the climate change science that gave credibility to his arguments. The sharp upswing in national global warming stories started in spring 2006, when advance publicity about the release of "An Inconvenient Truth" helped generate myriad newspaper, magazine and TV reports. HBO jumped in with its own Earth Day television special "Too Hot Not to Handle," and Time magazine's breathless cover story featured a lone polar bear and the warning: "Be Worried. Be Very Worried."
The world did become more worried in early 2007 -- and news coverage spiked up again -- when conclusive reports from the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change convincingly put an end to the long-standing debate over whether climate change was caused by humans. The case was bolstered by alarming new reports of melting polar ice caps suggesting that climate change was arriving faster than scientists had predicted.
Through it all, the polar bear emerged as the poster child of global warming. Nearly half of television news stories about climate change in 2006 mentioned disappearing polar glaciers or ice, and at least one in six included polar bears. Bears showed up on newspaper front pages and in editorial cartoons.
Baby polar bears had particular appeal. Actor and global warming activist Leonardo DiCaprio appeared on a May Vanity Fair cover that digitally added a cute polar bear cub named Knut from the Berlin zoo to a photo of the actor shot in Iceland. A Time magazine story on the final IPCC science report was accompanied by a poignant image of a polar bear family from the movie "Arctic Tale."
The deluge of recent stories has brought a new sense of urgency to the U.S. public, and the timing of the Nobel award ceremony marked a significant turning point for climate change coverage. The story has now shifted from the science of global warming to the contentious debate about what to do about it in a world of competing energy policies, economics and national interests.
In his acceptance speech in Oslo, Gore issued a challenge to delegates attending the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia: "We must quickly mobilize our civilization with the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilized for war." Gore also will globe-trot to Indonesia to join the talks about steps needed to draft a new international climate change treaty.
Going forward, the news media face an even stiffer test covering complex, controversial proposals for cutting carbon emissions, from "cap and trade" programs to carbon taxes, which are more challenging for public consumption than the science of greenhouse gases. With hope, the news media will manage to convey the substance and not just revert to convenient political "horse race" coverage of who's winning and losing.
Meanwhile, the world will be watching to see if the sea change in recognition and concern about climate change ushered in by Gore and his scientific allies will translate into meaningful United States action. But this time around, political leaders -- not celebrities and winsome animals -- will need to carry the day. Don't look for polar bears in Bali.
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