Scientists, climate change, and the media

by Flor Lacanilao

Climate scientists have been warning about "the risk for big storms and serious flooding in New York" for the past 12 years. Perhaps this warnings -- together with the accurate, timely weather forecasts, and excellent preparation, like early evacuation -- have prevented more deaths, despite the biggest to hit the U.S.  

Death toll is less than 100. Compare that total deaths with those of our much less powerful typhoons -- like the 2009 Ondoy with 280 and the 2011 Sendong, said to be nearly 1,500 -- and the figures will tell you how much work we need to do seriously and capably. 

With the inevitable and increasing destruction from changing climate, like the superstorm, our governments and the public have only to depend on the important role of scientists and media people. Best and worst examples of these are seen in, respectively, developed and underdeveloped countries. 

One role of the scientists is to explain the nature and processes of climate change and related events, like those seen below.

In their job, crucial for the media people is to know first who the scientists are, so they can be effective in informing their readers with useful information. This will help the government and the public to effectively prepare for, and to lessen, the impacts and damage to property and human life.

Three examples are shown below: in an article by a climate scientist and two news reports -- by an international and a local media.  

Kevin Trenberth, who chairs the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, discusses -- in Super storm Sandy  (Scientist, October 31, 2012) -- the relations between  climate change and the destructive hurricane. Knowing the different key information in these events is important in designing ways of adapting to their impacts.

In the Associated Press release -- Scientists Look At Weather Pattern  (in Manila Bulletin, Nov 1, 2012) -- three reporters name seven distinguished climate scientists, led by Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University. They brief the readers on various aspects of climate change and the superstorm Sandy. Like the preceding science article, useful information on climate change and for adaptation measures is given.

A typical example of a news report on climate-related issue from local media is Reclaiming land seen as measure to deal with climate change  (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Nov 1, 2012). It does not name any scientist or give evidence-based (properly published) information. It cites a government Bureau Director, a Department Secretary, an architect, a government reclamation agency, and the University of the Philippines National Institute of Geological Science (NIGS). 

No scientist is mentioned, although there are 2 or 3 at NIGS, who have contributed useful popular articles, views, and advice on climate-related issues and disasters. Recent active contributor is Dr. Alfredo Mahar Lagmay.

Change of doing things is long over due, for those working and reporting on natural disasters facing our country. Increasing loss of human life and damage to property from climate-related events call for more  determined action -- with the right people in charge (Put right people in charge of science, education  (PDI Oct 20, 2011).

Flor Lacanilao
Retired professor of marine science
University of the Philippines Diliman