Running long, digging deep

Of all the pressures facing an environmental reporter on deadline, the limited amount of space he or she has to explain complex issues might be exceeded in difficulty only by the short turnaround time in which to do so.

While magazine writers share these burdens, they generally have more freedom from them than daily filers, giving them the ability to follow their stories deeper and deliver work that gives a fuller and more nuanced account of the news.

I was reminded of this while reading a recent New Yorker piece about the problems of using carbon footprints as a measure of environmental impact. The story, by staff science reporter Michael Specter, actually came out a few weeks ago. One disadvantage of magazines' slowed-down production cycle is that it can take readers a while to get to your work.

"Big Foot," which the magazine has made available online, is no quick-take blog reaction, topping out a little above 8,000 words. But in that space it dissects the moral and practical difficulties of carbon calculations with the confidence of a skilled surgeon, and gives a realistic look at how people can best ameliorate the effects of climate change.

The article takes as its starting point the efforts of a British grocery chain, Tesco, to label its products with their carbon footprints, making it as easy for consumers to figure out the carbon count of their spending habits as it is to count calories. But whereas shorter treatments of the decision might let the story stand there, Specter drives on, picking apart the various factors that make carbon footprints so hard to determine.

By the end, Specter has made a convincing case that carbon measurement has gained such currency because people prefer to reach for a handy rubric, not because it's the most effective means of driving down greenhouse gas emissions. Which isn't to say the story is entirely negative, or just a debunking that sends the reader into the next story bereft of hope. Specter manages also to suggest how certain strategies – cap-and-trade systems, halting deforestation – would do far more immediate good than shopping-mall palliatives.

It's fitting that an article about how over-simplifications can hamper people's efforts to help the environment could probably only appear in a magazine, where journalists have the space to go past the simplifications of the 24-hour news cycle.