A World War II Scale Effort: Foreign Affairs

What level of public attention is required for the “WWII-scale effort” urged by Thomas Friedman and others? To provide a provisional answer to this question, GW students in Professor Svoboda’s UW-20 classes examined ten magazines published during WWII and still in print today. They compared each magazine’s coverage of WWII during 1942 with its coverage of climate change from July 2008 to June 2009 . Up to 12 issues were examined for each period. (See a more detailed overview of the project here.) Today we present an analysis of Foreign Affairs, a journal of global current events, foreign policy, and international relations published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

A World War Two–Scale Effort?  A Look Inside Foreign Affairs

By Justin Kits and Paul Fischer

Our small group studied four issues of Foreign Affairs from 1942 and compared them with six issues of Foreign Affairs published from July 2008 to June 2009. (Foreign Affairs was a quarterly in 1942; it now publishes six issues per year.) We expected the high percentage we found for WW II; we were surprised by how rarely Foreign Affairs discussed climate change.

We reviewed only the major articles from the four issues of Foreign Affairs published in 1942 and the six issues published in 2008-09.  To determine whether an article was about WW II or climate change, we skimmed the article to decide if these topics were the main focus of the article or just briefly mentioned. Only articles whose main focus was climate change or WW II were determined to be “about” those subjects.

Of the 55 articles published in Foreign Affairs in 1942, 47, or over 85%, were about WW II.   And even articles not focused on WW II at least made passing mention to the conflict.  This reflects the unity of the nation in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Of the 63 articles published in 2008-09, however, only 6, or 9%, were about climate change.  Climate change was rarely addressed, except in articles prominently featured on the cover (as in the Sept/Oct 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs). For example, one article discussed Brazilian biofuels but did not explicitly mention climate change.  Another discussed globalization, but again made no explicit mention of climate change. A third article about hunger and food shortages briefly mentioned climate change, but the article itself was not about climate change.

We were not surprised by these results; in fact, we expected the percentage of articles about   WW II to be higher. The high percentage of articles on WWII can be attributed to the global focus and national unity surrounding the conflict.  It was a war that consumed the world.

The United States of America is not nearly as united now on the matter of global warming. Climate change is not as frequently discussed as the U.S.’s involvement in WW II.  Skeptics feel free to publicize their views, which was not true in WW II. And most Americans in 2008/2009 do not consider climate change as pressing an issue as Americans in 1942 viewed the threat from Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire.

No “Pearl Harbor” has yet called America’s attention to the problem. Some have argued that Hurricane Katrina was, or should have been, the event that prompted the U.S. to mobilize against global warming. But the media focused more on the politics than the science. If the media had focused on the causes, perhaps the public would pay more attention to the dangers posed by climate change.

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