What the Scientists Have to Say: Dr. Kevin Trenberth on Climate Change

Photo courtesy of UCAR

My coworkers and I -- along with countless others worldwide -- continue to be astounded by how little the major television networks cover issues relating to climate change. In 2012, ABC, CBS, and NBC covered climate change in their evening broadcast a total of only 12 times combined, and this year it's been mentioned just 6 times

According to a study done by Nielson Media Research and presented by Pew Research Center, 22.5 million viewers watch nightly news on ABC, CBS, or NBC. Overall, 30% of Americans get their news from these networks. The fact that their news outlets are leaving them uninformed about the very real dangers of climate change is unacceptable.

Those who don't get this important information will miss out on the chance to become part of the dialogue on climate change. Without them, it will be difficult for the US to take global leadership on the climate change issue.

This is why we launched our newest campaign: #CoverClimate. Will you join us?

In addition to the petition we've launched and other actions we're taking to demand the broadcast media start paying more attention to climate change, we're also working on identifying what top US climate scientists think about this issue. I have had the pleasure of interviewing several of them to determine what they think are the major climate-related news stories that aren't getting enough coverage and which stories deserve future coverage. We want to package these stories and give them to the major networks to cover.

My first interview was with Dr. Kevin Trenberth. Dr. Trenberth is a Distinguished Scientist in the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Climate Analysis Section. He was a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 1995, 2001, and 2007 reports and shared in the Nobel Peace Prize won by the IPCC in 2007. He currently chairs the Global Energy and Water Exchanges (GEWEX) scientific steering group. Dr. Trenberth has studied and published widely on climate variability and on many different aspects of climate change.

Here are some key excerpts from my interview with Dr. Trenberth:

GS.org: What do you think of the coverage of climate change in today's media? 

Dr. Trenberth: Well as little as... ten years ago, but it may be more, a lot of newspapers had a science reporter or somebody who handled technical aspects. Those have mostly gone. Even some of the big papers... they've downgraded the positions. ...And so, the education of reporters these days with regard to science, and with regard to climate, has diminished substantially and is really quite poor.

... Last year was a standout year in the US for climate related issues because there was a major drought, and major heat waves and wild fires. There was also superstorm Sandy...[And] the reporting was extremely poor and as a result the general public doesn't tie the climate and wildfires together very well: it is a major problem.

GS.org: More specifically, which particular climate related issues do you feel have not gotten sufficient coverage?

Dr. Trenberth: ...The big stuff that's going on at the moment is all of the wildfires out in the West, and the drought in the West. In general, especially west of the Rockies-in the Southwest-the drought is a major story, and the wildfires. There's a role of climate change in all of these.

In other areas at the moment, in Europe, there has been some major flooding and I haven't tracked it to see the extent to which climate change is linked in. But, the risk of flooding goes up because there's more moisture in the atmosphere. The hydrological cycle speeds up. Often for events that are some distance away, people don't pay much attention to. But the stories are incomplete. And ensuring that these kinds of events have a climate change tag attached to them would be very helpful in many cases. 

GS.org: What do you think contributes to this lack of coverage?

Dr. Trenberth: [One thing is, there's always]this undercurrent of politics and the inability to actually take this on, and the US is a major part of the problem internationally in this whole issue. The US has done a certain amount, as it turns out. The Administration has managed to do certain things, but the framework is not really there to do it properly and there's no international framework to do this all in a proper manner that is fair and equitable. 

GS.org: What kind of climate-related news do you see on the horizon that you feel the media should cover?

Dr. Trenberth: The ...drought and wildfires are going to probably continue to be with us.  ... There are prospects for a more vigorous hurricane season this year. That's the official forecast from NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]...  [that says] the conditions seem favorable, very favorable for an active hurricane season. While we have seen several active hurricane seasons in recent times there is no guarantee that any storms will make landfall. ...There's always a drought somewhere in the US, it varies in size and intensity and this year we've already got a drought in the West and Southwest, but not so much in the East in the moment. ... The weather pattern is not the same this year as last year. I don't think it's generally as favorable for a repeat of the big nationwide drought that we had last year. I don't see that coming.

GS.org: What are the top few things that you think should be done quickly to reduce carbon emissions?

Dr. Trenberth: [I would love to see] a national policy relating to putting a cost on carbon, which then has to propagate throughout the economy and throughout foreign trade and foreign policy related matters. So people can't undermine this, then, by importing goods from China that are not subject to this kind of thing. It has implications probably with regard to foreign policy, and trade and tariffs, and things like that. And this is why some people don't like it and why many people will fight it very strongly. But this is why it's an issue that needs to be addressed at the highest level. At the moment there are certainly a number of politicians that are quite interested but it hasn't gotten to... a high enough level to really make a difference. But this could be a game changer. That's the thing a number of us have in the back of our minds. You know if there is a real game changer than maybe things can really develop and take off differently in the future. But, it requires a new framework to provide a different incentive base.

I was glad to have had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Trenberth about these issues and learned a great deal about climate change. I hope you'll stay tuned for my future posts about the other interviews I've been doing!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.

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