The Sorry State of Environmental Journalism

Crossposted with

The New York Times makes a technical flub. Does it matter?

EPA has moved to crack down on nitrogen oxide pollution from the Four Corners Power Plant in Arizona.
EPA has moved to crack down on nitrogen oxide pollution from the Four Corners Power Plant in Arizona.

This is anecdotal and, well, a generalization, but I find that the American people have an appallingly poor understanding of the environment and how it works. And it's not just me; I hear similar complaints from many of my colleagues in the environmental sciences.

For evidence, take a look at some of the conclusions from a 10-year study on the subject, synthesized in the 2005 report [pdf] Environmental Literacy in America, published by the National Environmental Education Foundation (formerly known as the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, a private nonprofit chartered by Congress in 1990 to advance environmental education around the world):

  • "At a time when Americans are confronted with increasingly challenging environmental choices, we learn that our citizenry is by and large both uninformed and misinformed."
  • As an example, only 27 percent of the people polled knew that coal-burning was the primary source of electricity in the United States; 40 percent thought that hydropower is the major source. (Actual numbers are: ~46 percent for coal, ~7 percent for hydropower. See chart below.)
  • And perhaps most disturbingly: "Despite the fact that two-thirds of the American public say they know a fair amount about the environment, large numbers actually subscribe to environmental misapprehensions. Ironically, for several issues, those who think they know the most are the ones who are most likely to believe the environmental myth."
  • U.S. Electricity by Energy Source, Through June 2010
    U.S. Electricity by Energy Source, Through June 2010
    Americans get their electricity primarily from power plants fueled by coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy. (Source:

    Normally, a lack of understanding of technical issues would be lamentable but not a major problem at least in so far as our ability to govern as a nation.

    But in the case of the environment it is a problem -- as members of a democratic society, we are called upon to make decisions (or vote for representatives who will have to make decisions) about our environment and thus about our health and our family's health.

    How can we be expected to make those choices when we do not understand the issues or their ramifications for the country?

    For example, how can individual voters make judgments about how to (or even whether to) limit the impact of our electricity-generating system on air quality and climate change if we do not understand the huge role coal plays in that system? It's little wonder that some of our fellow citizens are unconcerned about greenhouse gas and/or air pollution (not to mention the waste) from burning coal because "a majority of Americans think our electricity is generated in ways that have little or no impact on air quality."

    It is especially sobering to learn that the folks who think they are very knowledgeable about the environment are most likely to have it wrong. There are apparently a lot of self-proclaimed environmental experts out there practicing without license, so to speak. (This goes beyond the environmental realm, by the way, as the new film Waiting for Superman points out -- among 30 developed countries, according to the documentary and its trailer [video], which is getting a lot of play, Americans rank 25th in math and 21st in science and "have fallen behind" in just about every other area except ... "confidence.")

    Shrinking Science Desks Not Helping Combat the Problem

    Not a great state of affairs. What to do about it?

    Obviously education is a tool of choice, some of which must clearly come in the classroom. But most Americans have long left the classroom and must get their information from other sources, like, for instance, from journalists.

    Sadly, my experience suggests that the state of environmental understanding for many journalists these days is not that much better than that of the average American. One contributor to the situation is the rapid demise of the science journalist and the environmental journalist in particular in the nation's newspapers. According to a news feature in the journal Nature, about 95 U.S. newspapers had "dedicated science sections" in 1989; Cristine Russell, a freelance science writer and president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, found [pdf] that between 1989 and 2005 that number had slipped to 34.

    Some Particulars of Particles

    Even at the New York Times -- that supposed bastion of intellectual might -- environmental standards are declining. Case in point: in an article in today's paper ("Coal Plant Would Get New Controls") about the government's proposal to install pollution controls at the Four Corners Power Plant in Arizona, reporter Felicity Barringer writes: "No other power plant in the country ... emits as high a level of nitrogen oxides as the Four Corners one. Such particles [emphasis mine] contribute to forming ozone and regional haze."

    Wrong. Nitrogen oxides are gases not particles. Particles do not lead to the formation of ozone.

    Why is that distinction important? The explanation is a little complicated, but I will try to give you the main points.

    Particles can affect the light that enters our eyes -- think smoke. Gases like nitrogen oxides are invisible to the naked eye. A reader of the NYT article might expect to look at the plume from the plant's smokestacks and see lots of smoke. But there is very little particle matter or smoke emanating from power plants these days, although there are gaseous pollutants. What he or she would see is some smoky looking stuff from the stack that is actually water droplets that disappear as they evaporate. That reader might then think: "Where are particles? There's no problem here. Another example of the Environmental Protection Agency screwing around where they don't need to."

    In fact, as the plume moves away from the plant, the invisible nitrogen oxides begin to undergo chemical reactions that eventually lead, sometimes miles and miles downwind, to the formation of ozone and haze. And that is why EPA has proposed its rule for a plant it ranks as one of the "largest pollution sources in the United States."

    Hey, New York Times: stop blowing smoke.