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The climate context in Japan

When I was a young journalist working as the environment editor for a Thai newspaper back in the 1990s, one of the first things I learned was this: In order to cover the environment, you have to understand the energy sector—not just what it emits, but the politics, economics, and technical issues surrounding it. And vice versa: Those reporting on energy development have to understand its environmental impacts to provide good coverage.

The interlocking nature of these issues has again become tragically evident in recent weeks following the disaster in northeast Japan. The media coverage—including a proverbial renaissance of reporting on nuclear power—has generally reflected the comprehensive nature of these events in a compelling way, but much of it has failed to explain the full implications of climate change in the debate about what comes next.

When the earthquake and tsunami first hit on March 11, it seemed to be a humanitarian story, rather than an environmental one. This was the planet impacting people, not people affecting the planet. Some tried to make it the latter. The Bolivian communications minister attributed the earthquake, erroneously, to global warming and blamed the world for failing to listen to his prime minister, Evo Morales, who has sought far tougher action against climate change by developed countries. A columnist for Grist also made claims linking tsunamis to climate change, before retracting them.

They didn’t need to stretch so hard. The story quickly turned into an environmental parable with plenty of profound lessons. First and foremost, it demonstrated the raw awesome power of nature. The pictures and video of the tsunami sweeping over everything in its path—even generating a nightmarish whirlpool, rarely seen outside of Homeric legend—reminded us of who really runs this show. Most frightening of all, we learned that even a wealthy, technologically advanced, and earthquake-aware country like Japan can be overwhelmed, suggesting we have to respect the “the limits of safeguards and human foresight,” as The New York Times put it.

Then the scale and implications of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors became evident, grabbing the public’s attention and holding it, even if, in countries like the United States, the media quickly turned its attention to the violence in Libya. The silver lining to this still-unfolding crisis has been the tremendous amount of renewed focus on the risks and benefits of nuclear power, a debate which spread in the press around the world, with numerous repercussions in the policy realm.

From Thailand to Argentina, governments have set up safety reviews and protestors have revived demonstrations against nuclear plants. In South Asia, the Times of India and Dawn reported respectively that India and Pakistan would each take steps to increase safety at their nuclear plants. But Bhubaneswar-based journalist Manipadma Jena maintains that India’s response has been largely “academic,” and Indian civil society’s reaction lackluster compared to, for instance, the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal signed in 2008, which spawned protests in the streets. Nepalese journalist Navin Khadka of the BBC reports that essentially there have been no major policy shifts in the region. In general, global coverage seemed to reflect the revived safety concerns over nuclear power, but without providing enough context about the risks of other energy options, especially those that contribute to climate change.

That lack of context is evident in Der Spiegel’s coverage, for instance, which predicts “the end of the nuclear era”. Although the future of nuclear power has certainly become cloudier - particularly in Germany, which shut down seven nuclear plants - on a global level this could be only a temporary setback, and possibly even a prod toward needed reform. Charles Ebinger of the Brookings Institution told Greenwire that China, India, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and most likely Indonesia and Malaysia will eventually continue with their nuclear building plans. Indeed, the main obstacle to more nuclear power plants may remain economic, albeit partly because increased safety concerns can increase the up-front costs required to build them.

For journalists and science communicators, a major challenge has been to accurately convey the risks inherent in nuclear technology, and comparing them to other sources of power. Both the Columbia Journalism Review and the Earth Journalism Network offered briefing materials on how to communicate risks responsibly. Bloggers for ProPublica, Discover, and DeSmog Blog all emphasized the limited reach of Fukushima’s impacts so far. David Ropeik in Scientific American and Gregg Easterbrook in Reuters warned that fears of nuclear disaster are generally overblown. Taking the opposite position were Amory Lovins in The Huffington Post and Jonathan Schell in Yes, who argued that the risks of meltdowns are simply too great.

There was plenty of irresponsible reporting, too, an interview carried out by Nancy Grace of CNN Headline News serving as a particularly egregious example of a journalist raising alarms without seeming to understand the science. Ropeik worried that poor risk communication by the Japanese authorities has stoked mistrust, fear, and anger toward nuclear power.

What seems clear, however, is that even taking Chernobyl into account, nuclear power has caused far fewer deaths than coal. “Some studies indicate that on a per-kilowatt-hour basis, the electricity from coal-fired generation is 4,000 times more deadly than electricity from nuclear generation, primarily because of harmful emissions and premature deaths,” noted Richard Caperton, an energy policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

The problem is that nuclear disasters, although rarer than those in the coal industry, tend to be more highly publicized. This is one of the reasons why nuclear power has a high “dread to risk” ratio, a subject ably explored by Andrew Revkin at his New York Times blog, Dot Earth.

Looming over this whole debate like a dark cloud is the threat of climate change. One of the reasons for nuclear power’s increasing popularity in recent years is that, as a low emitter of greenhouse gases, its development can become one of the “wedges” used to mitigate global warming. As with the threat of a nuclear meltdown, humans find it difficult to assess the risk of climate change because it presents a low probability of a catastrophic disaster—although that probability increases with each year we fail to act against it. What’s more, effective regulation of both nuclear power and fossil fuels in the U.S. have been stymied by “regulatory capture”—when regulators are controlled by the industry they’re supposed to oversee—of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and (while under the George W. Bush Administration) the EPA, respectively.

But it is the divergences between nuclear power and climate change that have been least remarked upon by the press. Despite the global debate surrounding it, nuclear power is ultimately a local issue. Yes, plumes of radiation and contamination of food and water can potentially travel long distances, but the threat posed is mostly confined to a certain radius. Climate change, on the other hand, is the ultimate global issue, “the disaster that we refuse to see coming,” as Ezra Klein of The Washington Post puts it, although he asserts that “in a rough way” it is “easier to predict.”

Journalists and most other commentators are used to depicting these debates as pitting “environment vs. development.” But with nuclear power touted as one of the energy alternatives to prevent climate change, that dichotomy is becoming out-dated, increasingly replaced by a public discourse of “global vs. local.” What is good for the planet may not be good for local people, and vice versa.

We face the same conundrum with—and the media have provided far less attention to—the issue of large dams. They, too, have a renewed popularity among policymakers because they’re seen as a climate-friendly energy source (although decaying plant matter in reservoirs do release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas). What’s more, in a world facing increasing water stress, dams are a crucial means for storing and providing fresh water. And yet they are incredibly destructive to local communities and ecosystems, and thus fiercely opposed by local people.

So even if we find the resolve to mitigate climate challenge, the responses we adopt are likely to be just as contentious as the fights over dams and nuclear. Ironically, the two major policy carrots the Obama White House offered to U.S. legislators in seeking to pass a climate bill were increased support for offshore drilling and nuclear power. Both have literally blown up in the administration’s face over the last year. Even seemingly innocuous initiatives in support of energy efficiency, transportation alternatives and renewable energy have been coming under attack, either from the right (spurning compact fluorescent lights and high-speed rail) or the left (fighting bike lanes and wind farms).

What does it all mean? Whether for policymakers or the press, coming to grips with energy and environment—not energy vs. environment—is getting harder all the time. The vast resources of the web allow dedicated netizens to explore all the interlocking issues, but it’s rare to find a journalist who provides it all in one place.

The writer James Fahn is the executive director of Earth Journalism Network. This article was originally published in Columbia Journalism Review and has been reprinted with permission.

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