Below, my article, as it appeared in last Thursday’s Irish Times (and fair play to the IT for running a piece that is openly critical of its own editorial policy in this area; that’s the true mark of a serious newspaper).
Still, it’s all a far cry from Monday, December 7th, 2009. On that day, the Irish Times joined 55 other major newspapers in 45 countries around the world to publish an unprecedented joint editorial ahead of the opening of the climate conference in Copenhagen. Who could forget the following dramatic call to arms from many of the world’s most respected newspapers, which began: “humanity faces a profound emergency”.
“Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year’s inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.
“Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’. The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.”
That was then. The “calamity…that will ravage our planet…which we did nothing to avert” draws ever closer. But the world’s media, having never encountered a story of the magnitude, complexity or civilization-ending consequences, has quite literally capitulated and walked away from what is, without doubt, the story of the 21st century, or any other century you care to name.
From an objective “news” standpoint, this is bigger than Darwin, Newton, Copernicus, Marco Polo, Martin Luther, the Atom Bomb, JFK, Galileo, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the Black Death – combined. Yet the news media, having briefly come to its senses just over two years ago, has quickly fallen back into its customary stance, so presciently described by George Bernard Shaw: “Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization”.
GLOBALLY, 2010 was a year of weather-related disasters on an almost unprecedented scale. Last year was worse, with a record $380 billion in economic losses attributed to ‘natural’ disasters, many climate-related, according to insurance giant Munich Re.
Few experts expect to see any break in this upward trend this year, or any time soon. Instead, as record emissions of greenhouse gases continue unabated, the climate system is now behaving precisely as scientists have been projecting for decades. The rapid build-up of energy in the system is the ‘engine’ that is fuelling extremes, from storms and floods to severe droughts.
This time last January, an area of Australia twice the size of France lay submerged. Last summer, over 3,000 monthly weather records were shattered across the continental US. Meanwhile, Ireland, has endured a series of so-called ‘one in a century’ flooding events in recent years.
Whether or not you choose to ‘believe’ in climate change and what is fuelling it, only the most obstinate or delusional persist in denying that it’s real, it’s serious and it’s getting worse.
Of course, none of this is news. But what is news is that it’s not news. At a time of unprecedented weather disasters fuelled by climate change, the media has, both here and abroad, largely walked away from the story. Given what is at stake, this is a truly extraordinary state of affairs.
RTÉ, under its public service broadcasting Charter, is committed to covering a wide range of areas, from news and current affairs to entertainment, religion, children’s programmes, sport, etc. Nowhere in its extensive Charter is there any mention of the environment.
Indeed, since Paul Cunningham left early in 2011 for a new posting, the position of Environment Correspondent has been “suppressed”, a spokesperson told me this week. This means RTÉ isn’t even considering filling it. It’s simply not a priority for a station with 2,000 staff and a £350 million-plus annual budget. And it shows. November 28th last marked the first day of the crucial UN climate conference. Not alone did RTÉ have no reporter in Durban, the COP 17 conference didn’t even make that evening’s TV bulletins.
Nor is RTÉ alone in throwing in the towel. This newspaper’s environmental coverage peaked in 2007 and 2008, with, on average 6.2 mentions per edition of the phrase “climate change” or “global warming”. By 2011, coverage had slumped to around 1.5 mentions per issue – the lowest level since 2004.
Overall, that’s a 75 per cent drop in coverage intensity in just four years (in contrast, the UK Guardian, with twice the circulation of the Irish Times, gave climate issues seven times greater frequency of coverage in 2011).
The situation is much worse elsewhere, with many media outlets, notably those controlled by Rupert Murdoch, engaging in open ideological warfare against climate science.
Globally, the decline in newspaper coverage is flowing from the top down. The number of newspaper editorials on climate change fell by over 50 per cent between 2009-2011, according to monitoring website, Dailyclimate.org.
Eric Pooley of Harvard University framed the issue like this: “Suppose our leading scientists discovered a meteor, hurtling toward the earth… governments had less than ten years to divert or destroy it. How would news organisations cover this story?”
Even in an era of recession and financial distress they would, he argued, “throw teams of reporters at it”. The race to stop the meteor “would be the story of the century”. The analogy is imperfect but useful. The man-made meteor that is climate change is right on target to render much of the planet uninhabitable later this century. The Harvard study pointed to a combination of ‘climate fatigue’ among editors and editorial cutbacks leading to the loss of specialist, science-literate reporters.
Given the complexity of the issues involved, non-specialist journalists are often easy meat to be drawn into spurious ‘debates’ which give unwarranted airtime to contrarians and industry shills (this is known as bias-in-balance). And, as in RTÉ’s case, without a senior correspondent to guide them, the news desk often simply ducks the story entirely. The lone voices in the Montrose wilderness (Duncan Stewart and Met Éireann) have this in common: neither is on the staff of RTÉ.
Analyst and author, Prof Justin Lewis argues that the media is collectively engaged in “one of the most obstinate displays of inertia in human history, a time when, like latter-day Neros, we fiddle while our planet burns”.
Environmental scientist, Prof Robert Brulle adds: “people take their cues about what’s important from what shows up in the headline of a newspaper”. The decline in public understanding of the gravity of climate change is directly attributable, he says, to decisions being made at editorial meetings every day.
It took forecaster Evelyn Cusack to remind us one evening last September: “climate change is not a matter of faith, it’s a matter of physics”.
– John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and is online at Thinkorswim.ie. Twitter: @think_or_swim