The Arctic is not under-covered. Some might even say the opposite is true. The polar bear has been “the poster child of climate change” for years, for instance, but communications experts worry that journalists’ fascination with the charismatic animal has made global warming seem like a distant problem and hindered public engagement. Reporters should localize climate-change coverage, these experts say, by focusing on energy use, public health, and other “backyard” angles.
It is possible to localize the Arctic itself, however. A good example of how this is done is a terrific 14-page special report in The Economist’s June 16-22 issue, which explores what “the vanishing north” means for global politics, trade, and natural resources.
“The Arctic, no longer distant or inviolable, has emerged, almost overnight, as a powerful symbol of the age of man,” writes James Astill, the magazine’s environment editor. He then sets out to scrutinize the region’s peril and promise over the course of eight articles, explaining that “the retreating ice offers access to precious minerals and new sea lanes—but also carries grave dangers.”
The package begins, logically, with a review of existing Arctic science, which lays out the basics: warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, thinning sea ice, melting permafrost, concern about so-called tipping points, and threats to biodiversity. This includes the obligatory mention of polar bears and it’s the driest part of the report. “Much of the change in the Arctic is understood; little of it is reassuring,” Astill reminds readers. But he localizes the science, to some extent, by citing tentative new research, which suggests that thawing can destabilize the Arctic’s “boundary layer,” allowing snowy winds to descend upon cities far to the south.
“In 2009 and 2010 Europe and America experienced two of the coldest winters on record. That was not because global warming is not happening, but because the climate system is complicated,” Astill explains, while cautioning, “It is too early to be sure about this.”