March 2nd, 2012


Reporter, The New York Times

Reporter, Los Angeles Times


While stories about climate change made front-page news during the 2008 presidential campaign, today’s media coverage regarding climate is down. In spite of surging gasoline prices and severe weather events, has “climate” become a dirty word? What’s behind the headlines? What’s driving the energy narrative?

According to Felicity Barringer, environment reporter for the New York Times, there are two fairly large environmental issues at the fore—the Keystone XL Pipeline and hydraulic fracturing. Regarding the pipeline, “It’s a way for the environmental movement to focus on an indirect consequence of climate.” With fracking, the gas industry was blindsided, she believes. It was not until fracking landed “in the backyard of the East Coast megalopolis that it became a major issue.” And, she added, when you weigh the environmental consequences of natural gas against the use of oil and coal, “the larger context is sometimes missed.”

Marc Lifsher, business writer for the Los Angeles Times, believes that the climate issue is, in fact, getting covered, though in different ways by many reporters. “It’s not organized how things wind up in the paper. It’s much more random than the layman might think. But there still a lot of stories.” Barringer agreed. While climate change is not front and center in the political agenda, she pointed to stories about glacial ice, permafrost, and sea level rise that have received huge coverage in the NY Times. To that, Lifsher added a note about recent coverage on Solyndra and other solar projects.

Over the last two years, according to Barringer, the NY Times has dedicated a group of reporters to the climate issue. In addition, she spoke of two NY Times blogs — Dot Earth and Green — which take up some of the slack. For their own information, both reporters go to the Internet as well as traditional sources. Barringer said she’s become a convert to Twitter “because it’s like a wire service feeding you things.”

When asked whether he thought there was a balance bias in the media, Lifsher said, “We may have developed some scintilla of expertise, but we’re not scientists, we’re not judges, and we don’t come down with rulings. We do the best job we can to gather the information in an impartial and not passionate, but still interesting, manner. Then it’s edited by editors who can improve it and make it more fair.”

The two reporters spoke of how California is in the forefront of the climate issue. “The biggest success in California is energy efficiency,” said Lifsher. “In this, the state has led the world. You can save so much electricity in 30 years it’s probably the equivalent of 25-30 power plants.” He cautions, however, that solar has a rough road ahead because of environmental, financing, and economic pitfalls. Not to mention transmission. “No one wants a power line near their house or in a beautiful vista.”

But water, that’s the exception to California’s stellar performance. According to Barringer, California has been one of the last states to even think about asking anyone with a well how much groundwater they are pumping. “This state has to change its plumbing configuration,” she said.

Regarding California’s landmark cap-and-trade regulation, Barringer expects it will be watched as a trial. But will it have a major effect on greenhouse gasses? “Probably not,” she said. Lifsher expects a number lawsuits from manufacturers who will see cap and trade as driving electricity rates even higher than they now are.  

In answer to a question regarding the role of the media in educating the public, Lifsher noted that he’s charged with getting good stories that people will read to the end, and possibly share. “If it’s about the environment, we’re looking for something new, maybe something contrary to the traditional line of thought. We’re just looking for good stories.”


– Lucy Sanna
March 2, 2012
Photos by Steven Fromtling
The Commonwealth Club of California