Times Environmental Questions: Who's Asking? 

At first glance, Justin Gillis's full page Q & A about the environment (Sunday, September 25, NY Times) is intriguing and promising. Eye-catching illustrations by Jon Han depict ecological deterioration - from verdant and lush to arid and lifeless - and beckon readers to engage in a subject both beautiful and ominous. Seventeen questions framing the images fall under three bold headings: What Is Happening? What Could Happen?  What Can We Do? 

Reading the text - part of a continuing "climate complexity" series - one encounters basic, colloquial questions, posed with childlike simplicity: how much is the Earth heating up? What is the greenhouse effect? How much will the seas rise? Answers are explanatory, and shaped to focus our attention: "Coral reefs and other sensitive habitats are already starting to die; "tens of thousands of people are already dying in heat waves." "carbon dioxide is a major player; without any of it in the air, the Earth would be a frozen wasteland."

Given this year's rash of climate-related crises and news headline, some of the 17 questions are startlingly naive, as if readers are dropping in after a decade-long absence: "What is the Paris Agreement?" "What's the latest with electric cars?" "How much trouble are we in?" "How much should I worry?"

As science is Gilles's beat, he references scientists frequently, if cautiously: "Over the coming 25 or 30 years, scientists say, the climate is likely to gradually warm, with more extreme weather." "Scientists have published strong evidence that the warming climate is making heat waves more frequent and intense."

"Experts" are also a source: "Many experts believe that even if emissions stopped tomorrow, 15 or 20 feet of sea level rise is already inevitable..." "Experts say the energy transition needs to speed up drastically." 

While the article is laudable as a public advisory or warning, its setting within a paper of record raises broader informational issues: why are key environmental risk factors omitted or glossed over, such as ocean acidification, loss of bio-diversity; animal agriculture; water scarcity and contamination, soil degradation, and air pollution, among others. Who is responsible for connecting all the dots, and ensuringcomprehensibility? 

Further, why is no effort made to vary the news lexicon by offering alternatives to overly-politicized terms such as "global warming' and 'climate change?' Journalists have a key mediating role, and can choose to use - or avoid - terms used by scientists to describe what they measure, depending on what will empower and motivate citizens to take constructive action. There is no imperative to stick with 'global warming' and 'climate change' if they lack power, and suppress a broader, more transformative conversation. 

Addressing and resolving the crisis of environmental degradation will require all citizens on deck - regardless of leanings and lifestyles - to help recalibrate the relationships between society's needs and scarce resources. Ensuring broadest collaborative action requires richly diverse language that fosters coherence and common purpose.  

As Gilles's notes in response to the very last and most critical question, "what can I personally do about it:" "Entire states and nations have to decide to clean up their energy systems, using every tool available and moving as quickly as they can." Entire nations is key- and 'every tool' should encompass every idea, every hope, and each individual act of environmental stewardship.

Susan Haigjustin gillisComment