The IPCC report, infrastructure, and a missing climate connection

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an arm of the United Nations, published its first major report on climate science in seven years, warning that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying” and urging immediate, large-scale emissions reductions. As Andrew McCormick, of Covering Climate Now, a climate-journalism project led jointly by CJR and The Nation, writes in a piece out today, US news organizations quickly and prominently featured the report with striking imagery, helpful explainers, and links to extreme weather events that have recently been in the news. Still, the coverage was far from perfect. Major outlets played down the climate-justice angle, often failing to note the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis on the world’s poor. As McCormick and others have noted, some of the framing, particularly in headlines and tweets, implied that it’s too late for humanity to take action. Axios, for its part, covered the IPCC report in a newsletter sponsored by Chevron, the energy company.

Nor was the source material perfect. On Tuesday, Emily Atkin, a climate reporter, wrote in her newsletter, HEATED, that news organizations often rely heavily on reports like the IPCC’s when it comes to communicating climate science to their audiences—but the IPCC report, while sound scientifically, was not intended to be a tool for public communication so much as a framework for world leaders. Its language had to be agreed upon by nearly two hundred governments; as a result, Atkin writes, it “tends to be pretty conservative, particularly when it comes to talking about who to blame.” The report’s summary (on which a lot of coverage drew) doesn’t mention “fossil fuels”; some authors of, and commentators on, the report considered it a victory that “unequivocal” human culpability for the climate crisis was stated plainly. “If this is the only time we’re communicating climate science to the public,” Atkin concludes, “then the public is going to get a pretty warped view of what scientists actually know.”

Related: Coverage of the ‘code red’ climate report was good. Here’s how to sustain it.

The press, of course, could address this problem by centering climate science more routinely, and not just when a scary study comes out. We’ve seen recent progress in that regard—but, as I’ve written before, the news cycle is structured, to a large degree, around discrete “news pegs,” and that privileges events over long-term trends. Attention tends to be fleeting: Coverage of the IPCC report topped major news sites’ homepages on early Monday morning but, as McCormick writes, the stories were buried or removed by that afternoon. According to CNN transcripts, the report was discussed on air just twice yesterday, and not at all in prime time. As of this morning, the report was nowhere to be found on the homepages of the New York Times or the Washington Post. It got a mention on the homepage of the Wall Street Journal, but far below opinion pieces called “Democrats Will Ruin The Climate” and “Climate Change Brings a Flood of Hyperbole.”

As it happened, the climate has been central to another of this week’s big stories: the Senate’s vote to pass a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, and the intensifying negotiations around a more ambitious package that Democrats hope to push through on a party-line vote. The infrastructure story has ground on for weeks beneath the toplines of the news cycle; some of that coverage has attempted to unpack its climate-focused components. Yet, as Kate Aronoff wrote recently for The New Republic, reporters on the infrastructure story—who tend to specialize in covering politics, not science—have struggled to translate the text of the bill, which is long and stuffed with legalese, into assessments of real-world impact. They also have also been mostly ineffectual in communicating the “dual reality” of the bill’s climate provisions—that they are both historic in their scope and insufficient in addressing the crisis at hand. Some coverage, especially on cable news, hasn’t even tried to discuss the climate implications in depth.

That the IPCC report coincided with the Senate passage of the infrastructure bill offered the press an opportunity to reorient climate within the infrastructure story—by comparing, for example, the scale of the policies under review in Washington with the actions recommended by the report. Some coverage—including several stories in the Post—made an effort to link the two; yesterday, Politico’s DC Playbook mentioned the report while describing differences in climate policy among Senate Democrats. Generally, though, the two stories have been siloed. Major coverage of the report didn’t mention infrastructure at all; coverage of the bill has focused mainly on the political horse-trading behind it. Numerous articles hailed the infrastructure bill as a “bipartisan win” for President Biden. Those I read mentioned the report not at all, and the climate only in passing.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

That isn’t to say that climate journalism must mention a given report to be successful. But the IPCC report’s relative absence from infrastructure coverage signifies a media ill-equipped to focus on multiple big stories at once and draw links between them. The global climate crisis, the report, and the infrastructure bill are, in an important sense, all part of the same story. America’s climate commitments aren’t just tied up in domestic political squabbles; they determine the administration’s credibility in international climate negotiations—the next round of which are scheduled to open in the UK in November. As Allison Fisher, who leads the climate and energy program at Media Matters for America, tells McCormick, “The needle on climate coverage is moving forward, but the climate emergency isn’t a one-day story.” Nor is it a one-report story.

Below, more on the climate crisis:

  • By the numbers: Fisher and Evlondo Cooper, of Media Matters, calculated the amount of airtime that TV networks devoted to the IPCC report on Monday: news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS gave a combined twenty-two minutes to the story, a figure that rose to sixty-six minutes on MSNBC, and thirty-three minutes on CNN. Fox News gave the report fifteen minutes of airtime, and some of the coverage “attempted to sow doubt about its findings,” Fisher and Cooper write. Other networks’ coverage mostly “characterized the severity of the climate emergency as articulated by the report.”
  • Climate justice, I: On Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman spoke about the report with Saleemul Huq, who leads the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh. At one point, Goodman asked Huq how he thinks recent extreme weather events in the US and Europe have affected media coverage of the climate crisis. “In Bangladesh, and indeed in the rest of the Global South, this is not news at all,” Huq said. “We’ve known this for the last decade. We’ve been suffering. We’ve been dealing with it as best we can, with the rest of the global media not taking much interest.” Now that more climate catastrophes have hit the West, he said, they’re getting “wall-to-wall television coverage.”
  • Climate justice, II: Recently, Ezra David Romero explained, for NBCU Academy and Covering Climate Now, why it’s important that reporters center climate justice in their stories. “The climate justice story is often not told well, if it’s told at all. Like the climate crisis itself, the dominant media narratives around climate change have been shaped by the wealthiest nations and the most powerful newsrooms, whose most powerful members are often disproportionately white,” Romero writes. “Telling climate justice stories means unpacking why the climate crisis is harming the most vulnerable first.”
  • “Visual failings”: Last week, Michael Shaw wrote, for CJR, about the poor visual choices many newsrooms made in illustrating extreme heat in the American West. “The images that led news stories widely minimized the event. Many photos made it look like a run-of-the-mill heat wave; some were so banal as to conjure stock photography,” Shaw wrote. “Headlines about widespread fatalities were accompanied by images suggestive of a typical hot summer day.”


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: On accountability and Andrew Cuomo’s rise-and-fall story

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.