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Columbia Missourian

Flick a switch and light up a global controversy

By Bill Allen, assistant professor, agricultural journalism program
January 9, 2009 | 10:08 a.m. CST

Dear Reader,

Things are rarely as simple as they seem. Especially things we take for granted.


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Consider, for example, that light switch on the wall.

You flip it up, the light goes on, just as reliably as water from the faucet or heat from the furnace.

As reliably as the arrival of the energy bill each month.

As reliably as mining companies providing the local power plants with coal, at some cost to the health of mountains, streams and humans.
As reliably as the power plant burning that coal.

And you can count on the carbon pollution — coal is mainly carbon, after all — escaping from the stack, enhancing the planet’s natural greenhouse effect and raising the atmosphere’s temperature seemingly only a bit.

That change shifts weather patterns, starts melting the polar ice caps and triggers other complex climate disruptions, which are likely to affect the global economy, public health and national security over the next decades.

This raises concern in boardrooms, military headquarters, world capitals and among U.S. government officials and politicians representing a kaleidoscope of economic, party, public and personal interests.

They will make decisions that affect our pocketbooks, our choices in the voting booth and the future of our children and grandchildren.

So perhaps the simple act of flipping a light switch is not as simple as it seems.

Who is going to explain this complicated puzzle of science, politics, economics and society as climate change and our attempts to adapt unfold over the coming decades?

The answer: journalists.

Journalists who are smart, well-educated, tough and oriented to public service. Journalists from the political, business, science, foreign and other specialty beats. Journalists who are unafraid of the technicalities and are imbued with the values of accuracy, integrity, fairness, responsibility and unrelenting pursuit of the truth.

Future journalists will be challenged to respond to this complexity while also adapting to new journalism technologies and business models.

The recent large-scale layoffs in newsrooms around the country have disproportionately affected coverage of science and the environment – the keystone beats of the climate story.

A notable exception is the New York Times, which in mid-December formed a new unit to focus on global environment and climate change issues. The unit includes eight of the Times’ most experienced journalists from the science, national, foreign and metro desks and Washington bureau. They will work closely with reporters on the business desk.

Could it be that a coordinated, multi-beat brand of journalism will better explain the complexity behind the switch and why it matters?