UC Berkeley News


Student journalists report on 'Early Signs' of global warming
From Manitoba to Tanganyika, warnings of biotic and cultural change abound

| 05 April 2006

Reports from the field by 11 graduate-student journalists that document the impacts of global warming from East Africa to the Arctic to the South Pacific are appearing weekly this spring - online and on the air - on Salon.com and National Public Radio's Living on Earth program.

Drought on the mountain
Berkeley student journalist Kate Cheney Davidson recounts her experiences reporting from the farming communities on Mt. Kilimanjaro, which are already feeling the negative consequences of a changing climate.
The series, "Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet," is the product of a two-semester seminar and reporting workshop taught at the Graduate School of Journalism by Sandy Tolan, a veteran international reporter, and John Harte, a leading climatologist and a professor in the College of Natural Resources as well as the Energy and Resources Group.

Students spent the fall 2005 semester examining the science and politics of climate change and identifying potential news stories in more than 20 countries, Tolan says. After a rigorous journalistic and scientific vetting process, students selected eight explorations of climate change in six countries and headed out into the field. They produced their stories this current semester.

"We wanted to get beyond the 'debate' about whether global warming exists, to document actual changes on the planet," says Tolan. "The time was right, and we had the team to do it."

Their reports look at the political, social, and environmental impacts of melting glaciers, sea-level rise, and warming lakes and savannahs, while focusing on the human impact. The pieces feature compelling narratives populated with real people and a sense of place, Tolan says.

"At each location around the world, the 11 reporters listened to a diversity of voices on climate change and its causes, consequences, and cures," says Harte, who checked and verified the scientific content in multiple drafts of each story.

"The American public also is confronted with such a plethora of views," Harte says. "This series of reports exemplifies how reporters, and the public as well, can rely on basic science to sort out the confusion and be a better-informed citizenry."

A central premise of the class, Tolan says, was the scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to global warming. Harte says that by getting the students well-grounded in the scientific fundamentals of global warming, they avoided something for which he's often criticized the media - creating a false balance through the use of "dueling experts" and essentially giving equal weight to unequal sides.

The series includes reports from far-flung places that have in common their current or pending experiences with the effects of global warming. These include Churchill, Manitoba, the so-called polar-bear capital of the world; a Pacific archipelago and its program to resettle residents whose islands may be inundated by rising sea levels; the vulnerable delta areas of Bangladesh; and the southeastern side of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the Ecuadorian Andes, two places where vanishing glaciers will have a significant impact on water supplies.

Harte commended each report, but says the one that most surprised him linked Lake Tanganyika's declining fish population to global warming and its changing lake temperature to the "overturning" of nutrients in the lake and the amount of algae growth. Student journalist Jori Lewis was the first reporter to pull all those pieces together, he says.

The reports run Fridays through May 5 on Salon.com. Radio versions of the stories will air on Living on Earth's nearly 300 public-radio stations and can be found on its website at www.loe.org. A list of stations and times the program airs can be found online at www.loe.org/where/where.htm.