Calling the media to account for climate change coverage

Based on measurements for the first ten months of this year, 2010 is now reckoned to be tied with the scorching 1998 as the two hottest years globally since reliable record-keeping began in 1850. This of course is on top of the decade 2000-2009, which has already been confirmed as the hottest yet recorded. Or put it another way: every single year from 2000-2010 inclusive has been hotter than any other year recorded since 1850, with the solitary exception of 1998.

These unequivocal scientific facts come against the warning from UN under-secretary, Robert Orr: “As preparations are underway for the next IPCC report, just about everything that you will see in the next report will be more dramatic than the last report, because that is where all the data is pointing.”

Climate deniers constantly complain that the IPCC’s AR4 in 2007 got it wrong. Turns out they may have a point, but in precisely the opposite direction than the Pollyanna projections from the Tolborg wing of climate disinformation.

Communications expert and author, Prof Justin Lewis of the University of Cardiff was in Trinity College Dublin last night as one of a panel of speakers at the Earthtalks event, the theme of which was to look critically at the role and performance of the media in covering topics from climate change to sustainability, resource depletion and green energy.

So, how have we been doing then? The first hint is that you won’t find a line about last night’s meeting in any of today’s papers. You might say we’re now so collectively preoccupied with worrying about the plummeting value of our White Star Line shares that we’ve abandoned the crow’s nest and taken our eyes off the icebergs.

“We live in a risk society”, Lewis mused. “We worry about things like our kids being abducted by paedophiles, things that are extremely remote possibilities, but when faced by a huge crisis like climate change, which will lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions and potentially billions of people, most people just shrug their shoulders and say ‘a bit warmer is OK with me'”.

The media, he acknowledges, has and continues to be more a part of the problem than the solution, and by and large, serious media coverage of climate change, from a peak in late 2007, has fallen away at precisely the time that the scientific evidence has been strengthening and its implications have become ever more alarming.

Globally, the advertising business is now worth $445 billion a year, and advertising spend has increased an astonishing 60-fold since the 1950s. “Advertising now colonises every cultural space in society”, Lewis pointed out. “We regard advertising as apolitical, but collectively, it is deeply political, selling the message that happiness and satisfaction comes from buying something. In a world of over-consumption, that is a deeply political message”.

He pointed out the basic axiom that for every newspaper article or TV programmed pointing out the dangers of climate change and resource depletion, there are tens of thousands of adverts (and plenty of editorial too) selling the precise opposite message.

The function of news should, he added, be to create and nurture an informed citizenry. “The 24/7 news culture means that news rapidly becomes obsolete – what’s important is what’s current, up to date; it’s not surprising in this context that the media is not doing a good job on reporting climate change”.

The media’s determination to ‘cover the controversy’ has led to massive skewing of coverage. A relatively minor typographical error about the expected date by which the Himalayas are expected to lose their glaciers received blanket media space, he pointed out, “those few lines probably got more coverage than the 3,000 other pages in the report”.

The news media’s frame of ‘balance’ is paradoxically a major contributor to imbalance, with the skeptic/denialist position enjoying practically zero support among the scientific community but given massive uncritical coverage (and credibility) by the media, in the interest of a meaningless construct called “the debate”.

“With its focus on techno-fixes, the media displays a consumerist attitude to climate change, rather than querying the consumerist credo itself. On our attitude to  growth, there is an increasing body of opinion that economic growth is not all it’s cracked up to be, yet the idea that we should even question ‘growth’ is not even being raised (in the media). In this context, it’s very hard for us to even imagine a world in which there could be balance rather than constant growth”.

Seamus Dooley of the NUJ also made a useful contribution to the debate, admitting that “the media is (lagging) behind everyone else when it comes to climate change”. An over-dependence on advertising, especially property advertising, “compromised the ability of journalists to do their jobs”.

The recent wave of redundancies and out-sourcing has led to a collective loss of experience and expertise in many newsrooms, with fewer inexperienced journalists now expected to produce more and more articles. Many environmental stories are complex, and evolve slowly, and they require in-depth understanding among reporters that more often than not is simply not there, said Dooley, who strongly advocates for ‘in-service’ training for journalists of all grades to ensure their skills are keeping up with the issues they are required to cover.

The human dynamo that is Communications Minister, Eamon Ryan last night had the demeanour of a man who hadn’t slept properly in a month, but to his credit, he made an unscripted contribution and stayed for the full debate. He spoke of his passion for ecology being awoken as a 15-year old. “I’ve tried everything (to get people to understand climate change) but no matter what you say, the headline still says ‘shock, horror, the Greens have put up the carbon tax”.

And before you nod off, what about that Climate Bill, Minister? “I believe it will be published, I hope we’ll get it through in January – this legislation is the legacy we’d like to leave”. Molly Walsh of FOE put it well earlier today: “When John Gormley and Eamon Ryan were recommending going into Government to their members in 2007 they said they knew it was a deal with the devil. But they said that the urgency of climate change meant it was worth it. It was why they went to planet Bertie, to save planet earth from the climate crisis….Leave without it, and they will have been to planet Bertie and back, and failed on the aim of the mission”. Hear hear.

Two nights earlier, the redoubtable Mary Robinson delivered a superb contribution to a packed audience in the Round Room of Dublin’s Mansion House. Her topic, in the EPA climate change series was: “Reshaping the debate on climate change”, and she pulled few punches.

There are, she pointed out, “powerful media figures giving oxygen to the (climate) deniers”. The main motivation of the media in this instance was, she argued, “of wanting a particular approach to governance” (i.e. laissez-faire economics). “Some within the media are very big players – Mr (Rupert) Murdoch is a problem – let’s call him by his name”, she said, to sustained applause.

The Murdoch press, notably Fox News in the US, has done untold damage to the fight against climate change and its toadying to corporatism; its media tentacles here in Ireland are extensive, from Sky News to the Sunday Times, The Sun and of course the News of the World (home of “columnist” Bertie-in-the-cabinet Ahern).

Echoing Justin Lewis’ points, Robinson stated bluntly: “we’ve reached the limits of the the world’s development space”. Despite the current media-stoked spasm of denialism, “as climate events proliferate, their man-made causes will become ever more difficult to deny”. The current level of global economic growth of around 2% per annum “is simply not compatible with the urgent need to reduce emissions – even with a revolution in green technologies, it’s clear that stark choices lie ahead”.

As the atmospheric carrying capacity for CO2 is at or approaching critical levels, “the space for carbon-driven development no longer exists for developing countries. We’ve used up the (atmospheric) space for a safe world….we’ve been using it in a greedy way, we have confiscated this development space from the poor, and the poor are further paying for the ravages of climate change that they contributed little to create”.

We live, she added, “in a world of increasing intimacy; my carbon-rich lifestyle directly contributes to floods and droughts elsewhere…the good life we still enjoy here in Ireland has been built in part on the precariousness of the lives of climate refugees in Bangladesh”.

Despite the media panic-driven coverage of the very serious economic crisis in Ireland, “we don’t have the luxury of not attending to the longer term”, Robinson reminded her audience, in what was a commanding performance from a woman whose powers of reason, passion and persuasion remain undiminished after more than four decades of fighting the good fight.

She moves back to Ireland permanently next month. It can’t come a moment too soon.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Calling the media to account for climate change coverage

  1. Brian O'Brien says:

    Missed the Earthtalks lecture, but very much enjoyed Mary Robinson on Tuesday night, and judging by the reaction of the audience, so did most people present. Hard to believe that even someone as powerfully persuasive and credible as her is still being ignored by the mainstream media (didn’t see anything about the Mansion House meeting in the papers either). Maybe it’s not a “story” because it just doesn’t fit into the neat cookie-cutter shape that the media seems to require what it calls news to fit – i.e. lots of visuals, lots of conflict, crisis, action, resolution, outcome, and quickly on to the next story.

  2. John,

    Many thanks for post… I wasn’t able to get to either talks but got so much from your summary. When is Ireland going to wake up to the fact of the ‘meteor that is climate change that is hurtling towards us’ is upon us and of more consequence than the current local economic crisis (I like this meteor metaphor of yours).

    John, I agree that the inaction/inability of the media to engage is a huge problem, with many key media people in Ireland also active in climate denial, but I think there is a wider crisis across the world’s cultural sector to begin with.

    I managed to get to the first international Culture and Climate Change conference at the Copenhagen COP15 summit last December 09. Representatives from Arts Councils (no one from the Irish Arts Council was there of course) across the world along with cultural practitioners from all creative fields who are engaging in work on climate change, were present and the organisers presented a comprehensive draft policy on culture and policy. It was ambitious to say the least but the lead cultural organisations identified that to change the behaviour of the world’s society over the next few crucial decades, that the cultural sector will have a big role to play in leading that change. I wrote a summary of the event here but after the fallout of the COP15 talks, this group and the policy have stalled (I have a link to the draft policy on this post and did try and circulate it to people in the arts here but very little awareness/interest at all).

    Anyway, the policy recommended the immediate introduction of sustainability initiatives /climate change information across all cultural sectors, including arts education and across all creative industries. ‘Julie’s Bicycle’ in the UK has made large strides for the music industry for instance and this is a hugely influential sector in society in regards to young mass markets). This was based on the idea that policy on climate change in all these sectors would begin to start to spread these ideas through society.

    Probably the draft was far too optimistic considering how few in the culture sector are engaged… I’ve been involved in the arts a long time but think its my former background working in science, then later in environmental and policy groups that has informed me. Unfortunately very few in the arts have access to engage with science… there are the beginnings of initiatives here and there and one hopes this will grow but I wonder if it will all be a bit late.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Cathy, glad you found the posting useful. There is, regrettably, very little by way of routine coverage of events such as the two described above, and for many of the reasons so well outlined by Justin Lewis on Thursday night.

    I take your point re. poor engagement among the arts community with wider issues of sustainability, etc. This failing is replicated in the media, but also in the trade union movement generally and in many other ‘movements’, from human rights to feminism, gay rights etc. With everyone busily looking after their ‘patch’, who is left to speak for the global commons, the shared ecosystems upon which all life depends? Individual triumphs will matter little and will be swept away by the tsunami of systemic failure.

    Meanwhile, here’s a genuinely interesting thought from Grist: “Beliefs tend to be reverse engineered, as it were: People tend to construct an identity around what they (and their tribe) do. That suggests that they will only construct a different identity when they start doing different things….Belief doesn’t come first; action comes first. Changing people’s behavior — in small, incremental, but additive ways — is the best way to open their minds to the science. It all comes down to change on the ground. Climate hawks need to get smart about driving behavior change wherever they can. Those behavior changes will pull changes in consciousness in their wake.”

  4. John,
    thanks for the reply and the Grist comment is good – perhaps my small art project of transforming my 2 acres of monoculture conifer plantation to a permanent mixed forest is ok afterall 😉 My neighbours are benefiting from firewood at least.

    Hope that Mary Robinson can get some real media time soon as hasn’t the systemic failure begun already?

  5. denis says:

    There is no solution to global warming. Nothing will be done about it, because nothing can be done about it.
    I don`t believe in God, but prayer has as much chance of working as anything else, and it doesn`t use up any additional fossil fuel, unlike all other touted solutions.

  6. Paula Downey says:

    John… superb summary. I wasn’t aware of either event, and this is so helpful. I often think that one of the things we’re missing in our media-driven ‘culture of critique’ is a sense of genuine appreciation for what ‘is’. Too often, I despair. Too often, I forget to appreciate. So I try to sometimes remember. And this is just a quick note of appreciation for all that you do… which is lots. Thank you.

  7. John Gibbons says:

    Paula, many thanks for your extremely generous comments. The work you and David are undertaking over at has been enormously helpful to me and no doubt others, as we all grapple with the Sisyphean challenges involved in trying to effectively communicate on climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, etc. to a public (and media) that seems desperately determined to not understand just what’s at stake here.

    Your calm counsel and clear eye on the bigger picture are invaluable resources in this lop-sided battle against inertia, fatalism and outright denial. JG

  8. Ian says:

    Hi Denis

    Inaction is not an option. We do have to live here after all.

  9. denis says:

    @ Ian—-inaction is probably our best response to GW——don`t drive, don`t fly, don`t buy anything: stay at home grow your own food, and cycle out into the countryside for your holidays.
    Whenever “we” do something, it invariably leads to us consuming more fossil fuel.
    Combating GB starts with us—-no use looking to Governments to do something, we are the ones producing the CO2.

  10. Eddie says:


    In order to save the earth from climate change and global warming we have to abandon the use of gasoline as a fuel and the use of coal as an energy source. If we keep using gasoline and coal, and don´t change our fuels and energy sources to environmentally friendly fuels and energy sources. Then the agriculture will be affected, there will be shortages of food and water and there will be flooding when the glaciers are melted away and the water level rises by 7 feet, countries like Bangladesh will disappear. Diseases will spread and there are more of them as skin cancer and various viruses and bacteria that thrive in heat and it will be dry. It can also cause conflicts, such as theft of food and water and war. Those countries and people who are affected may invade other countries such as the neighboring country for survival, and for protection and various resources such as food and water. Several million people will fly and they must have somewhere to go and then there may be conflict over land areas. When it gets warmer more people die and when it gets warmer, there are also more ozone in the air that damages the lungs and is very dangerous for people with asthma. In 70 years half of the world’s population will suffer from water shortages and the mountain glaciers will disappear, and 40 percent of the global population will have major problems because it gets its drinking water from these glaciers. When the ocean salt water reaches the land surface it will be in contact and destroy the groundwater that we drink. It will occur more natural disasters and many islands will disappear in 15 years, and Kilimanjaro glaciers to be gone soon. Gulf Stream can be disrupted and fail and then there may be a new ice age in Europe.

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