Fact-checking Climate Change

Colleen Scheck, Producer

Page of Annotated Script for "The Moral Math of Climate Change"The image to the right (larger version) is a scan of one of the pages from our script that I marked up during our last editorial listen for "The Moral Math of Climate Change." It may not seem like it, but one of the very interesting aspects of working as a producer is fact-checking scripts and interviews to ensure that what we present to our audience is accurate and credible. This felt like a somewhat daunting task for this week’s program with Bill McKibben.

Climate change is a very broad topic, heavily covered, with many details, points of debate, and advocates from all directions. For example, a good start is simply clarifying the use of the phrase "climate change" versus "global warming" — phrases that are sometimes used interchangeably though they have distinct meanings.

For me, the most important aspect of this task is making sure Krista’s script is accurate, and that’s why I value our highly collaborative process of multiple reviews and refining. It starts with simple points, such as the use of quoted material:

First script draft:
He’s currently focused his energy on 350.org, an international campaign that he founded, with a mission to build a movement that can quote “unite the world around solutions to climate change that both science and justice demand” unquote.
Second script draft (after reviewing the mission statement posted on 350.org):
He’s currently focused his energy on 350.org, an international campaign that he founded, with a mission to build a movement that can quote “unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis — the solutions that science and justice demand” unquote.

But also often includes more nuanced points:

First script draft:
This became personal for Bill McKibben in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2007 when he caught Dengue fever — one of several mosquito-borne diseases that are rapidly spreading in Asia as a direct result of a warmer planet.
Second script draft:
This became personal for Bill McKibben in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2007 when he caught Dengue fever — one of several mosquito-borne diseases that are spreading to new areas of the world in part as a result of rising temperatures.

That evolution happened after one of our listen sessions where the phrase “direct result of a warmer planet” was questioned (Is the correlation that direct? And exclusively the result of a warmer planet? Is “warmer planet” an accurate phrase to use in this case?). Further research (such as articles like this from the Natural Resources Defense Council) yielded better language.

Beyond our script, there’s considering the accuracy of statements of the guest. Here we are careful to respect the guest’s authority, expertise, and personal experience while at the same time seeking clarity about the information they share in an interview. A good example this time was Bill McKibben’s "90-second course in climate science” (actually closer to four minutes).

We were all impressed by his succinct explanation of the history of global climate change, so much so that we’ve isolated it and invited you to share it with others. But we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t ask “Does he get it all right?” We put that question to our colleague Ben Adair, the editorial director of sustainability and global climate change coverage for American Public Media, who has been steeped in the details of climate change for a few years. Though McKibben’s information is accurate, Ben responded, it is incomplete in that it is focused primarily on the history of how the target figure of 350 parts per million came to be. There’s much more to tell, but what McKibben shares is very compelling and a reflection of his own focus and intersection with the issue.

Finally, there are things discussed in an interview that just make you want to know more. Our fascination with this was borne out for a while in the “Particulars” section we produced for each program. Unfortunately, we eliminated that section due to time constraints, its labor-intensive nature, and changes in the focus of our work. Every now and then, though, we hear a program that begs for particulars (such as next week’s production on Sitting Bull), and this is one of them.

There are many fascinating points to explore, including:

October 24 and the story of Noah:
McKibben mentions that he was pleased to note the Torah reading for October 24, 2009, the global day of action organized by 350.org, was the story of Noah. It’s true that the Torah portion for that day is Parashat Noach, readings from Genesis 6:9-11:32. Indeed the biblical flood story is a powerful metaphor for climate change. If you consider the triennial cycle observed by some synagogues, however, then the Torah portion for October 24 is not about the flood itself, but the final third of Parashat Noach that begins with the Tower of Babel. It’s a story of God’s contempt for human pride, and also a story of the division of nations and languages, both interesting metaphors for climate change.

Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita:
McKibben also mentions that J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita when he watched the first test detonation of the atomic bomb. Video of his quote is online: ”Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds” Like all scripture, the Gita is subject to translation and interpretation. One translation online has the quote as: “Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people.”

In the end, there’s never enough time to dig in as deep we would like to, and so we do our due diligence and move on to the next topic. But that’s where we enjoy hearing from you. We’d like you to contribute your own knowledge and experience with this vast topic. Are there sources of information on climate change that you’ve found credible and helpful as you consider this issue on different levels both practical and moral? What did we get wrong? What could we have phrased better for the tight format of the radio? Even, what did we do right?

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