In 2015, climate change was in the headlines, as world leaders gathered to address the threat of a warming climate at the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris.
The International Collective on Environment, Culture and Politics tracks climate change coverage in media around the globe. They say media interest spiked when former US President Barack Obama attended the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, but, then, climate change all but disappeared from view until Paris.
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump put climate change back in the news, when he decided to pull the US out of the Paris agreement.
Media Matters for America watches US mainstream media for its climate coverage. Its most telling finding is that – aside from when world leaders are raising or dashing hopes – most of the time there’s simply nothing to see.
“In June of this year, there was a big burst of coverage when Trump announced that he was gonna pull the US out of the Paris Climate agreement. And in the year and a half in between, there was almost no coverage whatsoever in the US media,” explains Lisa Hymas of Media Matters for America.
“During the presidential election campaign, there was not a single segment about how the election would affect climate change. That was a huge miss by the media. Donald Trump said more than once that he intended to pull the US out of the Paris agreement, but the media did not cover that,” she says.
The Trump effect only underlines the media’s tendency to seek villains and heroes to focus our attention on, to look for someone, or some country, to blame.
For a while, that was China, but because China signed onto the Paris accords and made a massive investment in renewable energy, that no longer washes, says Martin Lukacs, environment writer at The Guardian.
“Environmental journalism was more about the drama of the players involved and less about the actual discussion of the planet,” points out Jenni Monet, journalist and filmmaker. “With Donald Trump withdrawing the United States’ support, I think there’s more and more opportunity to start raising questions about who are the human lives on the ground and who are the people that are being affected?”
Climate change is all around us. Once-in-a-century weather events are happening every year. And scientists agree that if much more is not done soon, the worst, by far, is yet to come.
“On the one hand, there is a real need or a real desire among journalists, and the press in general, to tell the story in all of its seriousness,” explains Nicholas Beuret from the University of Lancaster. “On the other hand, there’s a real desire not to make people too scared. When we narrate future scenarios, there’s a gap in the reporting between what the future looks like and what we can do in the present.”
A call to avoid politicising a tragedy is often heard in the wake of destructive weather events, masking the inherently unjust way in which climate impacts are felt, and caused.
Over the past 30 years, more than 70 percent of greenhouse gases were produced by just 100 major companies. And while corporate media often turn the spotlight on consumers and national governments, big business and the capitalist model itself are seldom examined.
“Treating climate as a question of environmental justice means starting from its impact on people rather than from abstract modelling or doomsday scenarios,” says Beuret. “The best of environmental journalism takes what are often private experiences of deprivation, of injustice, and enables people to sort of connect the dots, to create a shared experience around which they can organise themselves.”
Echoing those sentiments, journalist Amantha Perera emphasises the importance for journalists to move beyond abstract concepts and break it down to how climate change affects people.
“The environment impacts politics, the social fabric, economics – everything. Communities that are finding it hard to feed their families. People moving out of their villages and going into towns. It’s important to report on these vulnerabilities, because then you see how much of an impact climate change is having before the impact becomes huge. So, it’s the journalists who have to bring all these facets together and report this complex story in a way that everybody understands,” says Perera.
Lisa Hymas, Media Matters for America
Nicholas Beuret, University of Lancaster
Martin Lukacs, environment writer, The Guardian
Amantha Perera, journalist
Jenni Monet, journalist and filmmaker
Source: Al Jazeera