To tackle climate change, we must first address the crisis in coverage


A worker splashes water on his face to cool himself on a scorching summer afternoon in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh. AP/Rajesh Kumar Singh

This summer India experienced an intense heatwave that broke temperature records and affected two-thirds of the country. Even Finland has sweltered in weeks past, with the town of Oulu — just a degree shy of the Arctic Circle — registering 32.3°C in the first week of June. Meanwhile, parts of the American Midwest that were said to flood only every 500 years have seen record flooding, owing to the wettest 12 months in the 124 years for which the US federal government has data.

All of the above and much more offers a foretaste of what is to come as the planet warms. But it hasn’t turbo-charged the debate and action over climate change. Why?

The issue faces two very particular problems right now. First, it’s become an all-too predictable dirge — virtuous but seemingly alarmist and tedious in its vast, impenetrable and terrifying implications.

Second, the Trump administration in the US — a nation that has prided itself on being a world leader in evidence-based science — is trying to suppress data, monitoring and analysis, which proves the scientific consensus that human activity is driving the planet’s rising temperatures. US federal agencies are being asked to ignore and even deny climate change, while methods of measuring public-health risks are being discarded. Experts say it is unconscionable that Trump’s America is abandoning the task of collecting the necessary information, computing it and drawing the right conclusions. Indeed, it is a dispiriting and dangerous development, but at least the rest of the world can pick up the slack on evidence-based science.

It’s harder to overcome the other, more serious problem. The very words “climate change” have become politically loaded, polarising, and frankly, a bit of a turn-off for everyone except those already committed to the cause and young people such as the Swedish school-striking environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Both media coverage and public engagement have suffered as a result. And politicians who style themselves as patriotic conservatives are able to portray any discussion of renewable energy and eco-friendly practices as liberal over-reaction meant to stop everyone from flying, grilling burgers or running an air-conditioner.

Unsurprisingly then, the US — the world’s second-largest producer of carbon dioxide — doesn’t get to hear much about climate change and certainly not consistently. According to the US non-profit Media Matters, ABC television’s flagship programme spent more time last month on Britain’s new royal baby than it did on climate change in all of 2018. The reasons for this are probably frivolous and ratings-driven, rather than anything else. But it’s also an indication that climate change doesn’t help ratings or readership.

Belatedly, there is a growing sense that the changing climate and its implications for the economy, immigration, national security, human health and the food we eat should be a compelling everyday story for everyone, regardless of politics, profession, country or creed. Accordingly, attempts are under way to reframe the debate in more urgent and universal terms. In the UK, the Guardian newspaper has said it will describe the situation as a climate crisis or global heating rather than climate change, which sounds rather too “passive and gentle”. In the US, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation magazine have jointly launched #CoveringClimateNow, an initiative to improve creative storytelling of what experts now openly call an “existential threat”.

Overall, a bit of rebalancing is happening. Along with the plentiful bad news — extreme weather events, such as record storms and heatwaves, fires, flooding; the projected threat of dengue infection in cooler parts of the world; warnings that time is running out — green initiatives are getting more attention than they once did. They are sprouting in disparate places and more frequently than before. Highlighting them helps to encourage as well as flag initiatives that could be replicated.

There have been a lot of them in recent months. The UK became the first major industrialised economy to pledge a legal commitment to “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A small Portuguese island in the Atlantic began testing electric cars that store up solar power during the day and return spare energy to the electricity grid by night. Starbucks launched a first-of-its kind trial of reusable cups at London’s Gatwick airport in order to cut down on single-use plastic. Dubai, the world’s busiest international airport, said it would ban single-use plastics from next year. Portland, Oregon, is said to have the most extensive climate-justice school curriculum in the US, which means environmental crises will be framed as a human rights issue. Meanwhile, in a remarkable development, each of the 20 Democratic politicians jockeying to replace Donald Trump in the White House are talking about their plans for the environment and reducing carbon pollution.

Clearly, the climate crisis can only be addressed when we tackle the parallel one in coverage, but change is happening.

Originally published at