A crisis in media and climate communication

Overlaying the climate crunch, there is a parallel full-blown crisis, in Ireland and elsewhere in the Anglophone world in climate change communications. This will not be news to regular visitors to this blog, but happily, there is now a lot more solid evidence to back up this impression.

A valuable new addition to our national understanding of this crunch issue has just been published by the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Climate Science. Its paper, entitled ‘Climate Change Communication in Ireland’, was authored by Emmet Fox and Henrike Rau.

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The paper sets out to review and assess existing research on climate change communication in Ireland, rather than engage in primary research in the field. It points to the “marginalization of climate change in the mainstream media, which is further amplified by its segregation from closely related topics of major public concern in Ireland such as extreme weather events, flooding, energy resources, or economic recovery”.

Since the late 1990s, various narratives have developed, with what the authors call ‘ecological modernisation’ now the increasingly dominant view. They point out that more radical responses (for example, those questioning the paradigm of economic growth or the core unsustainability of capitalism itself as a system) “remain largely absent” from what we might call the national conversation on responses to the climate crisis.

The paper focuses specifically on climate communication via the media in Ireland. This is a topic we have covered elsewhere on this blog; the researchers find that media coverage of the issue has only really begun to emerge in the last 15 years or so, and even now, “Irish media coverage of climate change remains low compared to other European countries”

Quoting ongoing research from Dave Robbins in DCU, it points out that coverage in equivalent European newspapers of climate issues was at least twice and often three times the space given to this issue in Ireland since 2000. This Irish media ‘blind spot’ extends to its paucity of coverage of science and technology in general.

And on occasions when the media have no choice both to focus on environmental issues, such as during the 2009 and 2014 flooding disasters, coverage “focused on local impacts and concerns, with limited attention being given to global causes of flooding such as climate change, increases in extreme weather events, and rising sea levels”.

The parish pump nature of our politics, which drags TDs, ostensibly our national representatives into “brokerage” of local issues adds to this myopic, ultra-localised focus. Indeed, as with practically every other environmental issue you could mention, pressure to act has almost invariably come from outside this country, specifically, the EU, via which we are signatories of the Kyoto Protocol.

Similarly, our EU membership is the only conceivable reason a visibly uncomfortable Taoiseach, Enda Kenny even attended the COP21 talks in Paris last November (Ireland has since grudgingly signed up, almost the last EU state to so do, in the last week or so).

The long shadow of the powerful agri-industrial sector looms over any and every effort on the part of this state to seriously engage with emissions reductions. “Food Harvest 2020: A Vision for Irish Agri-Food and Fisheries commits to growing the value of the beef sector by 20% by 2020”, the report adds, pointing out that Ireland’s agricultural emissions are proportionally the highest in the EU, with a de facto blank cheque by way of political commitment to protect this sector, seemingly at any cost.

The report references my Irish Times article earlier this year on the health and climate costs of meat (specifically, beef) consumption, noting it “confirmed this pro-growth agenda and reflected the unbroken political influence of the agricultural lobby on Irish politics”.

There have been some bright spots amid the gloom of fudge and inaction, the report points out, including Ireland joining others such as the Nordic countries in implementing a carbon tax (though not at a level remotely high enough to effect necessary behavioural change).

The efforts of the FF/Green coalition to link CO2 with VRT for cars is noted (though the backfire of this in enabling dirty diesel to gain primacy as the ‘low CO2’ fuel of choice thanks to the criminal mendacity of car manufacturers, notably Volkswagen, could have been hard to predict back in 2010). Despite many setbacks, the involvement of a party in power with climate action as its core principle did impact, at least for a while, on media engagement, the report finds.

The economic crash of 2008/2009 meant this new era of green politics was brief indeed. “The 2011–2016 Fine Gael/Labour coalition government, while initially espousing “green” solutions to aid Ireland’s economic recovery (DJEI, 2012), were highly resistant toward meeting EU 2020 agricultural emission targets and pushed for the sector to be treated as a “special case”, the authors noted.

Interestingly, they surmise that the breakup and near disappearance of the Department of the Environment earlier this year “suggests that increased attention is given to climate change and natural resources while other environmental issues are relegated to the bottom of the political agenda”.

This would imply, paradoxically, that climate action actually competes with, rather than complements, focus on other environmental issues. The sphinx-like posture of our new Climate Action minister, Denis Naughten perhaps personifies the conundrum. Naughten, despite playing to the local gallery on constituency-friendly issues such as peat harvesting, is a scientist by training, and must know well that we are up the climate creek without a paddle.

Knowing while pretending or appearing not to know it is a classically Irish approach to squaring up to seemingly intractable positions, and were the situation not so serious, I would have quite a bit of sympathy for Naughten, who, whatever about his predecessor Alan Kelly, is clearly no eejit.

Back to the meeja: the report accepts that overall, the Irish media presents what has been described as a ‘reformist’ approach to climate coverage. “This position deals with climate change within the prevailing institutional and economic system, as opposed to advocating a “radical transformativism,” which promotes large-scale changes as a consequence of conceiving of climate change as a product of that system”.

The notion that climate change represents an existential challenge to just about everything we understand about how societies and economies actually work rarely if ever penetrates the collective media consciousness. This in turn means a complete non-engagement with the reality of what it might mean to live in a post-carbon world, with focus instead being with tinkering around the edges of the current system and accommodating the demands of special interest groups.

Significant space is given to the work carried out by researchers Clare Watson and Mark Cullinane on RTE and climate change. Their findings are deeply worrying, especially when it is borne in mind that, unlike many other parts of the Irish media landscape, RTE has a statutory ‘public service broadcasting’ remit, supported by around €160 million a year via the (compulsory) TV licence fee.

If informing the public about climate change and the global ecological crunch doesn’t fit under the remit of ‘public service’, it’s hard to imagine the phrase actually having any meaning at all. And on those rare occasions when RTE does cover climate change, it is almost invariably presented as an ‘international’ story, with little or no effort made to connect this to its local impacts (while Met Eireann wasn’t covered in this study, the RTE malaise has clearly also infected the good folks in Glasnevin, who often appear to be performing yogic manouevres to avoid joining the dots between global climate change and local climate impacts).

One intriguing finding highlighted in this report is the emergence in the Irish media of a key narrative called ‘feeding the world’. This quite brilliant piece of counter-framing allowed the agricultural sector to steal the clothes of sustainability and flip what was a clear sectoral threat (climate action) into a narrative about our agriculture being a ‘special case’ since we had the job of, well, feeding the world.

This bogus narrative was cheerfully pedalled for years by both industry spokesmen and repeated by politicians leery of falling foul of the IFA. The media also largely swallowed this porkie without much scrutiny. The report directly quotes my phrase from that Irish Times article pointing out that inaction on tackling Ireland’s spiraling agri emissions was largely due to a “fear of backlash, principally from powerful interest groups, and in few countries is this more apparent than Ireland, where food policy is shaped primarily by the agri-industrial lobby.”

Taking the wider view, the media’s own conventions are examined, such as the practice of ‘balanced reporting’, which works well for politics but creates acute problems of bias-in-balance when contrarian or industry shill voices are given equal media access in the interests, ostensibly, of airing ‘both sides’ of what is, in the case of climate science, a pretty much one-sided argument.

My on air-tussle with Lord Monckton of Blenchley on Matt Cooper’s TodayFM radio show back in 2014 is cited in the report as a case in point – I still have my ‘Notice of intended proceedings for libel’ letter from said Lord Monckton on file as a souvenir of that particular media exchange, complete with impressive letterhead that looks an awful lot like the official House of Commons stationery (iron gate, crown, chains) but this is apparently an unfortunate coincidence.

The report finds little evidence of any significant traction in the mainstream Irish media for a de-growth narrative, pointing out that this has been restricted to what it calls “marginal publications such as the largely leftist Village magazine”. The publication of Naomi Klein’s influential ‘This Changes Everything’ in 2014 did, momentarily, attract the attention of mainstream media to the possibility that alternate narratives about our collective future might in fact exist.

But the blinkers are rarely removed. Cullinane and Watson’s observation of an RTE news item regarding a possible major oil find off the coast of Cork led to seven of the eight people interviewed being drawn from the oil industry or local businesses, with not a single ecological voice consulted.

I witnessed an identical scenario this summer with an RTE news report on the proposed new runway at Dublin airport. At least half a dozen people were interviewed, with the sole opposing voice given to locals with (legitimate) concerns about noise. Again, it seems to have simply never occurred to the RTE news desk to seek out the views of an environmental/climate NGO.

Amid the failures, some successes. Prof John Sweeney and broadcaster Duncan Stewart are singled out for their “outstanding media performances and reputation”, resulting in good media attention for their calls for climate action.

This blog and its curator was chuffed and a little surprised to be included in the researchers’ roll call of effective climate communicators: “Similarly, recent articles by John Gibbons in traditional media outlets such as The Irish Times and Village magazine, or his regular contributions to the ThinkorSwim.ie blog, have drawn attention to the complexity and potential political explosiveness of climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts in Ireland, including the need to take on powerful political actors such as the agricultural lobby (Gibbons, 2016b). These efforts deserve much greater research attention than has hitherto been the case”.

The efforts of Friends of the Earth and the Green Party are also noted positively. The report concludes by pointing out the need to give far greater focus on issues of class and social inequality, noting that coverage is very much seen from a high-consumption middle class perspective, one that fails to critically challenge the “conspicuous emissions of the wealthiest”.

Overall, the climate change debate in Ireland, they argue, reveals “the narrowness of the media portrayal and demonstrate how this severely limits opportunities for the general public to engage on this important issue”. This is, they add, an impediment to public literacy on transitioning to a low-carbon future, a transition that, if we don’t make voluntarily, is likely to be imposed on us by nature in the harshest way possible.

The authors of this study are to be strongly commended for effectively drawing together the many disparate strands that loosely comprise our understanding of the field of climate communications, one they acknowledge to be still in its infancy in Ireland. It needs to grow up – fast.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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4 Responses to A crisis in media and climate communication

  1. Aisling Kelly says:

    I want to do anything I can to help climage change but your email doesn’t seem to work!

  2. J. P. says:

    Hi there,
    great reading so far,
    may I suggest a very important website too? It’s the blog about climate change and the solutions to prevent it, written and constantly updated by my brother Alexander, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford, and researching about this delicate, but important topic.
    http://www.alex-pfeiffer.com

    Cheers,
    J.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    @Aisling First off, apologies for delay in responding. Please use: irishclimatemac.com to contact me. Let me know how you’d like to get involved and I’ll see if I can offer you any suggestions from there. Thanks, John G.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    @J.P. Glad you’ve been enjoying, and thanks for sending on the link to your brother’s website, I’ve had a visit and we’re happy to share the link as a resource for others. John G.

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