The climate crisis is a story for every beat

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, in the Mojave Desert. Photo via Climate Visuals.

Ten years ago, climate journalist Brian Kahn watched coverage of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. At the time, the momentum seemed unstoppable. There were negotiations over a global framework for tackling climate change. Climate scientists’ conclusions in reports leading up to the meeting were stark and urgent. He felt the dam would break, and climate change would be everywhere: in political debate, in bars, at PTA meetings, certainly on the news.

Now he can’t imagine what he was thinking.

Coverage by climate journalists has never spurred a comprehensive social response, nor has it reshaped journalism itself. We now better recognize the difficulties of communicating climate change, but it still gets scant attention and resources in newsrooms. Many outlets still insist on  false balance, in which fringe views are presented on a par with the more established scientific consensus.

“The timeframe in which science happens and the timeframe in which news happens are just fundamentally mismatched,” Susan Matthews, Slate’s science editor, says. “That problem is just so much larger when it comes to climate change.”

THE MEDIA TODAY: Covering climate change, now

Climate change is an economic story and a public health story; global warming shapes supply chains, water resources, tech infrastructure, community development and loss, and on and on. Yet climate coverage has historically been relegated to the science and environmental beats, outside the realm of hard news.

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“There’s a feeling still amongst a certain generation of editor that being an environmental journalist is a bit campaigner-y,” Leo Hickman, editor of Carbon Brief, a publication focused on explaining climate science and policy says. “And that’s reinforced the ghettoization of climate change as a subsection of environmental journalism.” (Disclosure: I previously worked for Carbon Brief.)

It’s both an environmental issue and an everything issue. It’s what’s going to happen to mountain goats, but at the end of the day we’re also talking about the most pressing economic story of our time.

That perception of climate coverage has only started to shift. Science and environmental journalists have looked for new angles on climate change in order to demonstrate its impacts in ways that appeal to new audiences. Kahn, now a senior reporter for Gizmodo’s Earther and a lecturer in the Climate and Society program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, covers classic climate science stories such as new research and threats to beloved species, but also looks at the implications of US cities’ climate policies, climate discussions in the presidential race,  and the ways inequality dramatically exacerbates the impacts of extreme weather.  

“Climate change is a strange kind of dual issue—it’s both an environmental issue and an everything issue,” Kahn says. “It’s what’s going to happen to mountain goats, but at the end of the day we’re also talking about the most pressing economic story of our time.”

Journalists outside the science and environment beats are slowly beginning to pick up on climate stories. In 2017, the Carbon Disclosure Project released a report attributing more than 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions to just 100 companies. Sara Law, CDP North America’s Vice President of Global Initiatives, says journalists picked up the news as a business story. “More and more journalists are understanding that the corporate world has a major role to play,” Law says.

Still, research shows the overall volume of climate coverage remains thin, and mainstream coverage is episodic. Last year, an analysis of news coverage following two key climate reports in CJR showed a lack of sustained attention from US news media; big spikes in reporting fell away almost immediately. And a study by Media Matters for America showed that coverage of climate change on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox—primary sources of news for most people—fell by 45 percent between 2017 and 2018.

James Painter, a research associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, says other parts of the world also fail to cover climate change as much as he would hope. “It is worrying that in some parts of the world, like Russia and parts of eastern Europe, and in parts of the global south, the amount of coverage remains relatively low,” he says. “Television is key, as it remains the most trusted and used source in many countries.”

Environmental journalists identify a few popular impediments to climate-change coverage. Last year, more than 500 members of the Society of Environmental Journalists completed a survey by George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication. Of those respondents, two-thirds identified insufficient time for field reporting as an obstacle, and more than half identified a lack of time or space at their new outlet. Forty-one percent said insufficient training in climate science hampered their reporting, and one-in-four respondents said they lacked support from management.

Climate Matters in the Newsrooma new collaborative program run by the grant-funded Climate Communication nonprofit, George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, and Climate Central—hosts in-person training sessions to help local newsrooms work through obstacles such as those flagged in the SEJ survey. “It’s not always about creating another story,” Susan Hassol, Climate Communication’s director, says. “It may be about incorporating climate change into a piece you’re already doing. So people are reading and hearing stories they are interested in, and they can see how climate change relates to those topics, even though they may not necessarily be seeking out a climate change story.”

Climate-change coverage can seem repetitive. Journalists too often fit new events into existing narratives—something Andrew Revkin, who has covered climate change for ProPublica and The New York Times, terms “narrative capture.” Stories that link extreme weather and climate change can overlook other relevant factors; Revkin mentions the California wildfires, and notes the role that development played in contributing to damage and loss.

“You have to have a systems approach to thinking, ‘Well, what actually happened here?’” Revkin says. “But when you do that, it misses the narrative that everything that’s burning or flooding is global warming.”

Since Elizabeth Kolbert’s influential New Yorker feature, “The Siege of Miami,” national outlets regularly cover the city’s vulnerability to rising seas and the hubris of its building boom. But  they pay less attention to the climate-related policies the city is putting in place, including a resilience strategy that includes a commitment to address affordable housing. “These narratives tend to miss resilience efforts—which are just getting started and are not always well-run, but still, they’re happening,” Kate Stein, a climate reporter based in Miami, says.

Homogeneous newsrooms are particularly vulnerable to narrative capture. “Imagine how much more informative the media landscape would be if newsrooms stopped simply hiring in their own image,” Leah Cowan, a writer for gal-dem, a British magazine written by women and non-binary people of color, says. “So often, analysis of critical issues such as climate change are rooted in a particular ethnocentric and Eurocentric perspective.”

Cowan cites the UK’s role in the global climate crisis, which stems from a history of extractive colonialism and continues through entities such as UK-traded fossil-fuel companies operating across Africa, as an example. Rather than thinking about how empire and its legacies continue to drive the climate crisis, Cowan says, the media tend to focus on “individual actions to combat environmental degradation, such as high-profile campaigns to reduce single-use plastic straws in the UK which are harmful to turtles,” while ignoring or misreporting efforts by minority-led groups such as Black Lives Matter to call attention to the ways privilege protects some people from climate change’s effects. As companies continue to make money out of the spotlight in regions vulnerable to climate impacts and political unrest, the UK—which does not count offshore emissions in its carbon emissions totals—holds itself up as an international climate leader.

People just don’t think it’s normal to talk about climate change, and that’s not just true of journalists. It’s true across society.

Science, the bedrock of climate journalism, also suffers from structural biases. “Science can be just as extractive as any other kind of industry,” Brentin Mock, a staff writer at CityLab, says. For example, Hawaii’s thin air is particularly conducive to both stargazing and measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. But Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, volcanoes which house NASA- and NOAA-constructed research facilities, are sacred areas for native Hawaiians, who have objected to the sites’ expansion since their creation in the 1960s.  Should optimal conditions for observation take priority over thousands of years of cultural connection? How might scientists work with traditional ecological knowledge while showing it appropriate respect? More journalists might ask such questions of scientists. And, as  journalism scholar Dr. Candis Callison wrote earlier this year, learning from and hiring indigenous journalists could help their efforts.

Discussions about climate-change journalism often overlook newsrooms’ visual vocabularies for talking about it. A quick image search on Google for “climate change” reveals a dismal selection of lone polar bears, melting ice, and anonymous smoke. But humans need to see themselves in the climate change story in order understand the human connection to its causes, consequences, and potential solutions, Dr. Adam Corner, Research Director at Climate Outreach and an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Psychology, Cardiff University, argues. Climate Visuals, an image repository co-founded by Corner, provides hundreds of pictures for use, with explanations based on research about why certain images might connect with audiences.

“There’s no shortage of amazing climate and energy photography out there, but it doesn’t get the mainstream bandwidth,” he says. “A more diverse, human-focused visual language that joins the dots between climate impacts, our health and wellbeing, and the human impact of low-carbon technologies would revolutionize the visual meaning of climate change.”

Collaborations such as such as Mother Jones’ Climate Desk  and The Invading Sea, a joint effort from four Florida news outlets, have opened up new avenues for reporting as cash-strapped news organizations search for ways to share expertise. By pooling efforts, outlets can complement each other’s strengths: specialty outlets such as  Inside Climate News have time and space to do deep dives into data, science, and policy; Earth Journalism Network offers a global platform to climate reporting from around the world; national newspapers such as the Times can invest in specialized climate desks and have an unmatched ability to set the agenda for discussion; many local outlets enjoy high levels of trust from their audiences.

Climate change is not yet what sociologists call a “social fact.” Silence is still the norm, even among people who say they accept that climate change is happening. “People just don’t think it’s normal to talk about climate change, and that’s not just true of journalists,” Dr. Alice Bell, a writer and co-director at 10:10 Climate Action, says. “It’s true across society.” Journalism too often reflects and reinforces this problem of silence, abetting years of lackluster policy debate and ever-rising emissions. But journalists should not underestimate their role in helping to change that landscape, no matter their beat.

“It’s really hard to say that this is something you should care about as much as affordable housing, as much as national security,” Alex Harris, the Miami Herald’s climate change reporter, says. “But it affects each and every one of those things. So if you’re doing a service to your beat—no matter what you write about, nationally or locally—if you are including this context, it makes you smarter.”

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Rosalind Donald is a journalist and communications PhD candidate at Columbia Journalism School, where she studies community understanding of climate change in Miami. Before beginning the PhD program in 2014, she was deputy editor of Carbon Brief, a UK-based climate change fact-checking website.