The latest news on human-made climate change is grim, very grim. 2010 tied with 2005 as the planet’s warmest year on record. And the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 390 parts per million, a figure almost 40% higher than it was before we started burning fossil fuels for industrialisation.
Except that it’s not news. Or, at least, we don’t seem to hear so much about it anymore. Almost all the UK media virtually ignored the above reports.
Since 2004, Max Boykoff of the University of Colorado and Maria Mansfield of Oxford University have tracked global trends in media coverage of climate change. Their research shows a noticeable upsurge in media interest in 2006-07, followed by a gentle decline. There was a spike in coverage at the end of 2009, followed by a sharp drop for most of last year.
The trendline for Europe, which is more pronounced than most other regions, takes in coverage by The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Mirror and The Express and all their Sunday titles.
The trends matter because media coverage influences what people are most concerned about. Ipsos MORI showed in January 2007 that 19% of the public rated the environment (unprompted) as “one of the biggest issues facing Britain today”. (That was up from a tiny figure a few years previously.) In January 2011, just 7% said that environment was one of the biggest issues.
I agree with Bob Ward of the LSE’s Grantham Institute, who suggested that “climategate” – the controversy over the hacked e-mails from the UEA’s climate change unit - may have made climate scientists’ assertions too hot for some news editors to handle.
Yet the shock and trance cycle has other, more straightforward explanations. Lord Stern’s review of the economics of climate change appeared in late 2006 and the following year saw the release of Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and the publication of the IPCC’s four assessment reports on climate change. The latter took place in four stages, thereby maximising the amount of coverage that the report received. The 2009 news spike can be put down to Copenhagen and, perhaps, the attempts in the US to pass cap and trade legislation.
At the end of 2008, however, the global financial crisis, the recession and the ensuing worries about jobs shot to the top of media agendas everywhere and chloroformed their coverage of climate change. After the disappointing outcome at Copenhagen, “climate change” looked, more than ever, like a problem that was both huge and intractable. It also seemed old hat and, perhaps, a bit of a bore. Dr Boykoff’s chart shows that the media started to wake up to climate change around the end of 2010, when the Cancun conference was going on, but quickly dozed off again.
The snooze factor is really important. Matt Nisbet of American University argues that for the US media and public, climate change has lost much of its perceived dramatic qualities. He says that:
. . . journalists' coverage of climate change is driven by the need for dramatic storytelling and novel narratives. Much of the drama in news reporting generally -- and in science reporting as well -- derives from visible political conflict, personality clashes, and contested claims over risks that allow journalists to construct a “news saga” that they can cover for more than a day or week.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that climate activists and some politicians have looked for ways to inject a sense of drama back into the issue. The most noteworthy is 10:10’s “exploding schoolchildren” video last October. But that ended in disaster. Big drama = high risk.
So, where next? Nisbet suggests that the media will only look at climate change anew if they have:
a new novel storyline . . . for the issue that does not define the problem in terms of environmental impacts but rather in terms of something more proximate, localized, and relevant to the public.
That’s right, we’re back to reframing climate change – except that the media, rather than politicians, companies and NGOs are making the shapes. I agree that the public health frame has the potential to pick up traction with the media and the public. [click here]. Yet stories about threats to the economy, jobs and lifestyles are, surely, more likely to grab their attention, for a longer period of time. As for localised stories, floods and droughts in the UK may work in the way he suggests, with one caveat: there may still be too much uncertainty as to whether global warming is the reason for personal catastrophes.
But some interesting new frames and storylines may be emerging. Recently, Kate Galbraith of the New York Times suggested that coverage of climate change and environmental issues has evolved and become more specialised. She instanced the way reporters are subjecting politicians’ and companies’ green initiatives, as well as the challenges and quirks of new energy technologies, to more scrutiny.
In January, Andrew Revkin of Dot Earth showed how his colleagues at the New York Times have illustrated the impacts of climate change on communities and tried to show how clean energy solutions have transformed peoples’ lives in developing countries. He went on to say:
Good reporters, those always eager to get to the root causes of a problem . . . will still track climate science. But they will devote more time and effort to diving deeper on energy policy, habits and innovations — whether unraveling counterproductive subsidies, pointing out the lack of money for path-breaking research, or revealing examples of social and financial innovations percolating around the world — any one of which could make a big difference if the information gets out and around.
My views are impressionistic rather than being based on a Boykoff-type study, but I perceive that the British media’s coverage of climate change and environmental issues has evolved and matured, possibly faster than its American counterparts'. Fiona Harvey of The Guardian (and before that, the FT) has covered the “green growth” debate and the economic arguments around EU emissions reduction targets. She has also placed claims about “green jobs” and companies’ various claims to environmental virtue under scrutiny.
Last year, The Observer’s Juliet Jowitt focused on risks to the world’s biodiversity and brought out the threats they pose to future economic prosperity. She has also been known to question how low carbon energy policies will impact on consumers power bills.
James Murray’s Business Green website is indispensable for its coverage of “green growth” and the “green economy” debate and of new UK business initiatives and innovations that will reduce our carbon footprint. The Sunday Times’ energy and environment page is largely devoted to new green technologies and their potential impacts.
John Vidal of The Guardian measures up to Andrew Revkin’s global standard. So does the BBC’s Richard Black. Black has framed the climate change in terms of national and international security risks. The Financial Times has developed the security theme for a few years now.
None of the journalists mentioned above has stopped writing about climate science or climate risks.
So, the British media has not turned off climate change. They are covering the issues in different ways. But the question remains as to whether the media’s stories will help build the political space that is needed for effective policies to tackle climate change. Perhaps that’s a job for the politicians – if the media will allow them to be heard and the politicians tell interesting stories.