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Ambivalent coverage of climate change’s ‘new normal’

August 12, 2013

By Alexis Sobel Fitts

On Tuesday, the American Meteorological Society released its annual “State of the Climate” report, a hefty, 258-page document chronicling changes in global warming data. Compiled by members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with 384 scientists from 52 countries, the report is used to set and influence domestic climate policy and distributes statistics that form the baseline for discussions of climate change.

This year’s report holds a wide roster of data—ranging from interesting to doomsday—and most major newspapers and wire serves at least ran something based on the report press release. But considering the importance, and acute detail, of the information contained in the release, the mainstream press provided a surprisingly limited amount of analysis.

Reuters filed a short summary, “Signs of new climate ‘normal’ apparent in hot 2012 report,” culling information entirely from NOAA’s press release, with one skeptical insertion framing the slowing surface temperature rise: “The decrease in temperatures has been noted by climate-change skeptics who question the impact of human activities.”

Likewise, MSNBC, the Los Angeles Times , and the Wall Street Journal pulled a quote from the press release, classifying 2012’s record-breaking temperatures as the “new normal.”

The Associated Press explained the slowed surface temperature phenomenon—why snow melt, sea level rise, and ocean temperature break records yearly, while surface temperature only sneaks into the top 10—more fully. While surface temperature “haven’t risen in the last 10 years,” the AP wrote, such statistics are “only a blip in time due to natural variability. When looking at more scientifically meaningful time frames of 30 years, 50 years and more than 100 years, temperatures are rising quite a bit.” Read more in the Columbia Journalism Review.

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