The ‘Both Siderism’ That Once Dominated Climate Coverage Has Now Become a Staple of Stories About Eating Less Meat


False Equivalence and Dietary Change

For years, the reality of climate change was presented in newspaper articles as an open debate. Coverage attempted to offer “both sides” a voice, including scientific experts alongside climate deniers (who often had financial interests in fossil fuels). That false balance has largely improved, with most media coverage on the topic acknowledging the role fossil fuels play in climate change.

But a spectacularly similar thing is happening with newspaper coverage on the topic of changing our diets to eat less meat, a new study found. Research has made it clear that to combat climate change and use the planet’s resources more sustainably, the world will need to produce less meat, as the livestock industry is a massive source of pollution, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Yet newspaper coverage is still framing this issue as an open debate, often including expert opinions alongside representatives of industry-friendly trade groups, an analysis of American newspaper articles showed. 

“It is a sensitive issue,” said study lead author Jillian Fry, an assistant professor at Towson University in Maryland. That’s because, she said, it’s much more difficult to talk to someone about their food choices than about how their electricity was generated. 

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The analysis was conducted by Fry and other researchers at Towson University based on 238 articles that included content about shifting diets or food waste. Like the meat we eat, food waste is also a problem for climate and sustainability. 

But while food waste in the articles was framed as a problem that required a solution, the need for changing diets was presented as an ongoing debate between two falsely equivalent sides. Fry called the difference “striking.” 

Fry said she hopes that journalists can come to understand how strong the evidence is that dietary shifts are a necessary part of combating climate change. “The evidence shows so clearly and so consistently that this should not be up for debate,” she said. 

“What could be up for debate is: ‘how we should do this?’” she added. “How should we shift our agricultural system and our food environment? How should we shift it so that it is much more sustainable and healthy? There’s plenty to debate in terms of what are the best ways to get there, and we need to move on to that debate.”


A Volcanic Threat to Las Vegas?

Low water levels in Lake Mead caused by the decades-long, climate change-fueled drought in the West, have revealed a number of secrets: dead bodies, shipwrecks and now ash from past volcano eruptions.

Geologists from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, looked at ash deposits in recently-exposed rock at Lake Mead and found evidence of several eruptions in the last 12 million years. These eruptions weren’t from any volcano nearby, but rather from far away places, like the Long Valley caldera in California or the Yellowstone area. 

Often when people think about volcanic hazards, they think about volcanoes that are nearby, said Eugene Smith, a UNLV emeritus professor of geology. For instance, people in Seattle might worry about Mount Rainier. “But you also have to think about what hazards might be related to volcanoes that might be hundreds of miles away,” Smith said.

Some of the volcanoes that caused the ash deposits the scientists found are still active, indicating that Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, could one day be blanketed by ash again. 

“What we see in the past record is a pretty good indication of what might happen in the future,” said Smith.

Even a small amount of ash can cause damage to a city, coating roads and runways. When wet, ash gets extremely heavy and can take down power lines, said geologist Rachael Johnsen, who works with Smith. The ash also contains microscopic glass particles that are sharp and can be harmful when inhaled, she added.

Trying to prepare for an event like a volcanic eruption is incredibly challenging, Smith said, because it is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence—if that. “How do you prepare for an event that may only occur once every 500 years?” he said. “I don’t know how to answer that question. City planners, that’s the first question they ask, ‘What do I do? How do I plan for it?’ And I don’t have an answer.”


Gaming Sea Level Rise 

Can you picture what five or 10 feet of sea level rise would look like, or how it would change our world? 

Most people can’t, says sea level rise expert John Englander. But a new video game may help players visualize the destruction of sea level rise and try to solve the challenge of creating a better world. 

In Floodland, a new game for PC from Ravenscourt coming out next month, players are dropped into a civilization that has been nearly wiped out by sea level rise driven by human-caused climate change. What remains is a few disparate colonies and scarce resources that players must manage to maintain peace and survival. 

The game’s creators consulted with Englander, who provided expertise on the reality of sea level rise. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects seas will rise 1 foot by midcentury and 2 to 7 feet by the end of the century depending on the trajectory of future emissions. Although the Floodland game is not itself based in reality, Englander hopes that players will make the connection between the challenges they face in the game with the future challenges of sea level rise they may be hearing about in the news or elsewhere. 

“How do you rebuild a society after devastating climate disruption?” he said. “Gaming is as good as any way to get people to engage and participate in that.”

About 3 billion people around the world play video games. A report last month found that video game players in the United States are concerned about climate change, and some have even taken action after seeing climate change content in games. 

Englander sees the medium as a massive opportunity for climate change communication, since it is so much more immersive and individualized than something like a lecture or a movie. “Gaming is one of the few places where you can get somebody to go into another world,” he said. 


Every Tree on the Planet

Creators of a new global database of trees claim the platform accurately accounts for the carbon stored by every tree in the world. 

The nonprofit CTrees will unveil the new platform at COP27 next month. The database compiles data from universities, space agencies and commercial satellites integrated with artificial intelligence to measure the carbon stored in the planet’s trees. This information can be used to validate carbon markets and offsets, said the platform’s lead creator Sassan Saatchi, a senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“It’s a platform that works at the scale of every tree, and then integrates everything to the whole planet,” said Saatchi. “It will tell you exactly the footprint of even a single tree on the whole carbon cycle of the planet.”

Saatchi said this platform is unique from other carbon accounting platforms because it is global, accounts for all trees inside and outside of defined forests, and can map not only deforestation through clear cut logging but also degradation of forests through selective logging to account for the carbon lost through those activities.

Plants and soils absorb about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, a study in Nature found last year. That’s why, Saatchi said, it is extremely important to preserve forests to prevent climate change.

“This is something that nature is providing,” he said. “And forests have a lot of other ecosystem services. Water, biodiversity, food and fiber all basically come from this interaction of the forests globally. So I think there are a lot of interests, and rightly so, identified to really preserve this and monitor it rigorously, because it’s a source that we cannot afford to lose.”

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                    Katelyn Weisbrod                    </a>


                <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Columnist and Web Producer, St. Paul</h4>

                Katelyn Weisbrod is a reporter and web producer for Inside Climate News based in Minnesota. She writes ICN’s weekly <a href="">Warming Trends</a> column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier. She joined the team in January 2020 after graduating from the University of Iowa with Bachelor’s degrees in journalism and environmental science. Katelyn previously reported from Kerala, India, as a Pulitzer Center student fellow, and worked for over four years at the University of Iowa’s student newspaper, The Daily Iowan.

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