Media throws in the towel on coverage of climate change

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,

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 Twitter: @think_or_swim

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, Sustainability and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Media throws in the towel on coverage of climate change

  1. Emullally2000 says:

    Have you read the Opinion post in the WSJ signed by 16 leadng scientists in regard to ‘No need to panic about Global warming’.
    Interested to hear your thoughts.Eamonn

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Eamon, a couple of things to understand here: 1) The WSJ is the mouthpiece of Rupert Murdoch, one of the nastiest, most mendacious billionaires ever to darken this world. 2) You will always find a few nutters with PhDs to argue your point if you’re prepared to look under a few rocks. 3) The talking points in the above article have been debunked hundreds of times already. 4) Same WSJ, while lapping up this agitprop, refused to publish a letter signed by, wait for it, 255 actual, practising climate scientists and supported by every scientific academy on Earth (apart, perhaps, from North Korea).

    Here is a comprehensive debunking of the WSJ twaddle:

  3. Geoff Berry says:

    Thanks very much for writing thid article and, as you say, to the IT for publishing it (that’s how i have come to this site). I’m new to the country, here for a year’s research from Australia, where the climate ‘debate’ so often sadly becomes a game of political populism and media ignorance also – both situations leading to inaction. I’d like to know more about how Ireland, and western Europe in general, are moving ahead with creative responses to the challenges we now face. This site looks like a good place to start becoming more aware.

  4. Van Poynton says:

    For the record, here’s a reply to the last pair of comments on the IT original, which, because of, I assume, laziness or incompetence or both (or even, perhaps, censorship), they didn’t (and after my protest wouldn’t) publish. It was submitted well before comments closed. I might have worded it a bit differently, but nonetheless:

    @ JonJ. As Gibbons might say, “only the most obstinate or delusional persist in denying that it’s real, it’s serious and it’s getting worse.” As, appropriately, a fictional character (as authoritative about the science as you but entirely credible on psychological matters in this instance) once said, “You can’t handle the truth.”  
    Also, those two “choices” are according to you – not me. But your eagerness and readiness to distort my comment is revealing. Thanks for yet another chilling insight. (“Chilling”? My use of the word is clear proof that warming is a farce, I hear you imagine. Whatever helps you sleep at night; whatever absolves you of responsibility, it’s all yours.)  
    @ Philip Thomas. Please note the article is an opinion piece. Gibbons is permitted to make logical connections such as those in the article, which, understandably, you find “appalling” (climate meltdown is appalling; as is our inaction and willful self-delusion about our responsibility for it) whereas the IPCC, immeasurably more serious and informed on this topic than any JonJ or Philip Thomas, are bound by scientific norms and can only produce reports about what is “likely”.  
    It’s worth nothing the IPCC tailors its reports to government stipulations (being “Intergovernmental”), and as governments – being pathological about economic growth – tailor policy for big business, the IPCC’s projections are invariably conservative and rarely in sync with current scientific findings. Hence us rational people who are curious about reality shudder when even their outlook is so grim. Look to their ‘worst case’ and picture it even worse. I know you won’t.  
    It’s also worth noting (again, I know you won’t) that a recent report found that the sort of “skepticism” in which you indulge is “largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, found most frequently in the US and British newspapers.” Odd that two of the nations most responsible for this expanding holocaust are also the two most actively misleading the public on its nature.

  5. John Gibbons says:

    No problem Geoff, and welcome to Ireland. Do stay involved in the discussion; there aren’t that many of us, so every warm body counts! There are some interesting stirrings in the long grass here in Ireland about how to cope with what is shaping up to be a tumultuous decade ahead. Beyond that…well, no one wants to look much further at the moment, and for good reason, I suspect.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    Cheers Van, I did follow (sort of) the thread on the IT. Even more curiously, the couple of times I’ve tried posting responses to goon attacks on stuff I’ve written for the IT, it’s my comments that get blocked! Even the pretty meek ones. I’m not especially paranoid, just reckon there’s a muppet or two at the controls in there. The anti-science squad bring the righteous zeal and ideological blinkers of the religious bigot to bear on the argument, and are, by definition, impervious to reason or rational argument. Their belief systems vaccinate them, if you will, to any positions that deviate from their pre-conceived standpoint. Hence, debate is as futile as it is exhausting. But fair play for trying!

  7. Van Poynton says:

    They came back to me with “The Irish Times reserves the absolute right not to publish comments. Its decision is final,” which made it sound like a decision had actually been made. Whereas I’m sure, as you say, it was probably more a case of “a muppet or two at the controls” than censorship.
    Agree fully about the futility of engaging the needfully (or gainfully) deluded, but sometimes argument just can’t be resisted.
    Good article, cheers!

  8. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    I would have thought that a proposal for a pumped storage
    reservoir at Glinsk Mountain, Belderrig, Co Mayo, was good environmental news,
    given that the reservoir will be filled using wind energy and it will then
    provide hydroelectric power when there is no wind, thus eliminating the argument
    against windpower, its intermittency.


    But the Cantillon column in The Irish Times’ Business Today
    page of Thursday last paints the proposal as one with adverse environmental
    consequences for the environment and the people of Belderrig. This despite the
    fact that the project is being broadly welcomed by the community.


    Even allowing for the fact that the proposal may throw up
    many environmental issues, and that these will have to be weighed and
    considered carefully, there is something very positive in a pumped storage
    reservoir finally being proposed, at a specific location, perhaps the first of
    many. So you would have to wonder why Cantillon of The Irish Times tries to
    throw cold water on it right away, even before it has got any wind in its
    sails, so to speak.

  9. Pingback: Met Éireann & climate change: time to break the silence | ThinkOrSwim (the Blog)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *