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Why the Media Has a Dilemma About Climate Change

By Flora Prideaux

London, United Kingdom

The Syncrude Operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta (Michael Kodas / NBC)

In 2021, US carbon emissions increased by 6.2%. This rate of growth was even faster than the US GDP, which grew by 5.7%. The “COVID Bounce Back,” and subsequent increases in carbon emissions, has put the US far from its climate change target of halving emissions by 2030, which would require around a 5% decrease in emissions each year.

2021 saw a 22% increase in the usage of coal, the fossil fuel which emits the most greenhouse gas. This is the first time we’ve seen a year-on-year increase in coal use since 2014.

Graph of Carbon Emissions increase by Sector in 2021 (The Rhodium Group)

Yet, this has scarcely been reported on, even at a time when President Joe Biden’s bill to tackle climate change has been stalled in Congress. Those that have chosen to report on it, have approached these statistics with a doom and gloom outlook, shouting that we are closer and closer to the point of no return.

Yet, despite the blinding fact of climate change, we continue to do almost nothing to address it.

Why? And what role does the media have to play?

Throughout recent American history, the media has been the key to turning public opinion, which informs the course of public and political debate.

One famous example is Phan Thi Kim Phuc, more commonly known as “Napalm Girl” whose devastating photograph helped turn the tide of public opinion against the war in Vietnam. Another is the broadcasting of the civil rights struggle on the TV of people throughout America, which helped the movement gain momentum and support.

Newspapers highlighting the awful tragedies in Vietnam (The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia)

We’ve witnessed the opposite effect with respect to climate change, considering an absence of media filling the crucial role in turning public opinion; climate change is yet to have its watershed moment. Even when climate change is having an immediate impact on people, for instance, in the extreme weather events of 2020, the ‘c-word’ is barely mentioned, with less than 4% of devastating weather reports using the words ‘climate change’.

Even when people such as Greta Thunberg speak out against climate change, we quickly see initial media attention dropping away, and political responses following. Despite being one of the most vocal climate change activists, Greta wasn’t invited to the crucial conference of COP26. Her lack of invite reveals a fear of those whose policies are labeled ‘too extreme’ as well as a decrease in public attention towards climate activists. This phenomenon is true not just with people, yet also with new reports, findings, weather events and more. The UN’s most recent paper on climate change received an average of 150 minutes of news coverage the day it was released, yet by day three, it received less than four minutes of air time.

Why is this?

There are a multitude of reasons why the media is opting out of climate change coverage.

In a phenomenon known as climate illiteracy, many editors of public journals, newspapers, and TV channels have broadcasted little scientific coverage. There is an absence of science literacy among editors, many of whom haven’t studied science since high school, or who have become out of touch with new scientific theories and debates. Stories surrounding climate change get pushed to the science desk, and occasionally the politics one, instead of being handled by mainstream media.

The press has hugely contributed to climate doubt. Climate change activists and scientists have been receiving equal airtime as disbelievers, which indicates that there is a debate surrounding the facts of climate change, as opposed to recognizing them as being close to indisputable. This is potentially part of the increasing phenomenon in news where clickbait news is prioritized over traditional stories, due to changing sources of revenue. Many newspapers and journals now receive income from advertising, rather than traditional sources of buying licenses and papers.

Indeed, many journalists are uncomfortable publicizing articles on climate change, for the fear of being labeled an activist. Even though most editors and writers will agree on the facts, all too often, publishing climate change articles is still seen in a negative way. The facts are often so challenging that editors dislike publishing articles around climate change, which can instill fear in readers, especially given the absence of concrete solutions that can be presented alongside them.

This has led to an absence of education for the public around the facts of climate change, a lack of urgency, and breaking news not being reported. Those that choose to tell the facts are labeled as fear-mongering and ostracized from reporting on the mainstream news.

Wolfgang Blau, the former Chief Editor at Condé Nast, is now an environmental journalist. Speaking recently in an interview of the BBC’s The Climate Question he discussed how the articles that do speak out around the facts of climate change only serve to instill fear and little action, because of the lack of control we have over the situation.

Even in the depths of COVID-19, the media was clear about simple solutions we could undertake to protect ourselves, be it to work from home, be vaccinated or wear a mask; each individual had some sense of control over their own actions.

Climate change isn’t that simple; we don’t have an obvious solution, and each person individually cannot change too much.

In response to this situation, we’ve seen little reporting from the media on climate change at all, including the most recent 6% rise in US emissions.

But this is precisely the wrong thing to do. The media has a role in driving public opinion and political debate and has a crucial responsibility to try and change public opinion, or at least start raising a greater awareness around the urgency of the issue, without descending into a “no hope, end of the world” narrative.

As the public, we also have a responsibility to encourage other people to start discussing this issue, to move it into the public debate, regardless of how you believe we ought to tackle climate change.

We all have a role to play, and the media has a public responsibility, both of which have been ignored for too long.

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