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Ice falls from the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. (AP)

Time is running out for covering the environment

ASK THIS | April 05, 2004

Some reporting on the environment ranks with the best journalism around, according to the eminent scientist Edward O. Wilson. The problem is, there isn't nearly enough of it.

Q. Climate change, natural resources, water shortage and biodiversity conservation are great problem areas that will determine how life on this planet survives. What does it take to get reporters to cover them?


Q. A common perception is that George W. Bush has run a stealth campaign to reverse the environmental progress of earlier administrations. The question is, is that correct or not?


Q. Two questions here: First, politics aside, what is the status of global warming. And second, what are the politics of global warming?


By E.O. Wilson


This is the assignment. I believe it offers you extraordinary opportunities for first-rate journalism, and on the environment, where it is sorely needed.


First, some background. It is commonly said that 9/11 changed everything. That’s not entirely true, of course, but one change has certainly been the marginalization of environmental issues in American political life. The environment deserves the return to the mainstream, and the campaign year of 2004 is the logical time. The past three years have seen no diminishment of problems worldwide and the potential for economic growth offered by any effort made by this country to solve them. The science and technology applicable to the environment has continued to surge forward. The relevance of environment to public health, foreign policy, and the economy have continued to grow disproportionately. If we are now in the Century of Biology, with biotechnology the spearhead, knowledge of the living environment and its wise use will be paramount by whatever measure of progress can be logically applied to the human condition.


Sadly, only traces of this widely held conception work their way into the contemporary media. As a jury member of the Oakes Award (which aims to become the Pulitzer of environmental reporting) I have been impressed by the high quality of news stories and opinion pieces that continue to be published about the environment in spite of its otherwise wide neglect. In my opinion, this sliver of journalism ranks with the best of American print journalism. But overall the body of work submitted to the Oakes jury has two limitations. First, it is overwhelmingly local in scope, only occasionally national, and seldom global. Further, it is predominantly concerned with pollution. In general, current environmental journalism holds back from the great issues of climate change, natural resource degradation, water shortage, and biodiversity conservation. It is inadequate in placing these topics within the present American political theater.


All the big environmental issues are vital to American interests both at home and abroad. They are key elements in the future of our trade, economy, national security, and ultimately thereby, the quality of all our lives. Yet 9/11 and the war against terrorism have transfixed us. They have largely blinded the media and public to the importance of environment. Meanwhile, during this period of narrowed focus the Bush administration has, in the nearly universal opinion of environmental professionals, conducted a “stealth campaign” to reverse the progress made during previous administrations. Obedient to the ideology of minimalist government, it has sought to weaken environmental regulations at home while opposing restrictive protocols abroad—and all in the stated interest of short-term economic growth. The policy is so slanted, many believe, that it could have been written by corporate CEOs.


Is this perception of Bushian federal policy true? Is it fair? Either way, it can and should be a major concern in 2004.


Let me now focus on explicit topics to pursue. They offer, in whole or part, great opportunities for investigative journalism.

•      Background topic: Why on Earth did the Republicans, the party of Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon (yes, Nixon, the environmental president who signed the Endangered Species Act) needlessly surrender the high ground of environmentalism to the Democrats? (hint: see highjacking of environmentalism by the radical left in the 1960s).

•      Background topic: Conversely, and following upon the history of the past 40 years, what are the real beliefs held by present-day Republican leaders? Aside from paying tribute to the environment with bromides and euphemisms (La Rochefoucauld was right: hypocrisy is the tribute paid virtue by vice), who among the leadership, including presidential and congressional candidates, are true environmentalists, as opposed to cornucopians who believe there are no intrinsic limits to human growth? Ferret out, if you can, the true feelings and philosophical foundations—in case of the latter, if they exist.

•      Surprisingly, there is a strong albeit still embryonic pro-environment movement among religious leaders, including evangelicals (see the Green Cross), although some on the religious right view environment as irrelevant, pretty much a waste of time as we await the Second Coming, which may be imminent. Check it out.

•     More background: What if anything do national political leaders have in common in their true beliefs and the environmental policies that can be expected to flow from these beliefs (caution: Bush’s pre-election environment statement in 2000 sounded as good as Al Gore’s).

•     Final background assignment: Is there any chance at all that the environment can be depoliticized, at least to the extent that it is put on a more scientific basis, with cost-benefit analysis, and weighed as a national priority accordingly?

•     The assignments below follow as relevant parts to the above foundational topics. They involve science and our professed American love of hard facts and cold-eyed judgments.


What is the present status of global warming? This seems a no-brainer, but many Americans still think it is a controversy, e.g., the 1000+ scientists of the IPCC vs. Rush Limbaugh.

What is the present status of the ozone layer hole? Is this the success story we assume? Does the Montreal Protocol serve as an example to emulate? What about genetically modified crops, and the Cartagena Protocol? A success there? On GMOs, is this an instance where the U.S. is right and Europe wrong?


Resource experts generally agree that fresh water is the limiting resource of the world, and a future fount of regional and national conflicts, from China to Africa to the U.S. What do our candidates think about this? Safe to ignore as an issue until 2008? Yellow alert: drying up of the Yellow River Basin could be a bigger problem than terrorism within ten years.


This brings us to the developing countries, which contain 80 percent of the world population, all the population in growth, the worst food and water crises, the fastest disappearing natural resources, the greatest part by far of vanishing ecosystems and species, and a potentially bottomless morass of civil strife and terrorism. But also, potent future trading partners. Our foreign and economic policies should be interwoven into a vision of the environmental future of the developing countries. Are our leaders and candidates thinking about this?

Edward O. Wilson
Photo by Jim Harrison

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