Climate emergency still failing to capture sustained media focus

Here’s a piece I filed with the Business Post in July which took a look at how the alarming extreme weather events ramping up this summer are still failing to raise a red flag in the media, both here and internationally. Given the mountains of scientific data, backed up with the evidence on our TV screens, how can we be still sleepwalking towards disaster, with scant sign that we have even begun to fully grasp the extent of the crisis that threatens to engulf us.

ON APRIL 19th last, the World Meteorological Organisation’s flagship State of the Global Climate report was published. Launching it, United Nations secretary general, António Gutteres stated bluntly: “we are on the verge of the abyss”.

To some, that may have sounded somewhat melodramatic. Then June 2021 happened.

Though still early in the summer, large areas of the northern hemisphere, from Siberia to southern Europe, India and the United States have been racked by extreme heatwaves. In the US and into Canada, the Pacific northwest, a normally temperate region on a similar latitude to Ireland was hit by a deadly heat dome that killed hundreds and left over a billion animals dead.

Prior to June 2021, nowhere in Canada had ever experienced a temperature above 45ºC. This record was smashed when the town of Lytton in British Columbia hit 49.9ºC. “Words cannot describe this historic event”, was how Canada’s weather service put it.

Also in late June, a leaked copy of a 4,000 page report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) painted an unremittingly bleak picture of how life on Earth would be impacted by a rapidly destabilising climate system in the decades ahead.

This translates into mass species extinctions, more frequent and widespread disease outbreaks, unliveable heat, ecosystem collapse, mass forced migration and cities and coastal regions inundated by rising seas. “The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own”, the IPCC report noted.

Most chillingly, it added: “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans cannot.”

Exasperated at the ongoing inaction in response to the unfolding climate emergency, NASA climatologist, Dr Peter Kalmus tweeted last week: “The intensity and frequency of climate catastrophes has increased dramatically over the last five years. Imagine what the next five will be like. Please wake up, get those pitchforks out of the shed and storm the castle, do whatever it takes. Those in power do not get it.”

A study conducted by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) network on the heatwave in the Pacific northwest concluded it was “virtually impossible” in the absence of climate change.

More ominously, the WWA observed that “nonlinear interactions in the climate have substantially increased the probability of such extreme heat”. The key phrase here is “nonlinear”, which means the growing possibility that the Earth’s climate system is on the edge of a series of irreversible tipping points.

Due to its enormous size, there is a vast amount of inertia in the global climate system. Despite extensive human-driven disturbances, to date, it has maintained a broadly stable climate. However, beyond a certain point, it is projected to “flip” into a new, hotter state of equilibrium. This, scientists warn, would be incompatible with civilisation, and well beyond the ability of most mammals (including humans) to adapt. Have we already crossed this line? Nobody knows for sure, but if not, we are fast approaching it.

If by now you are wondering why the climate emergency isn’t routinely headline news, you are not alone. The only thing more astonishing than the gravity of the climate emergency is the eerie pall of media and political silence that still surrounds it.

In 2020, epic heatwaves and wildfires swept much of the world, including the western United States. Despite this, it received just 0.4 per cent of US network time. While comparable data doesn’t exist for Ireland, the situation here is likely similar.

Consider our national broadcaster, RTÉ. Its Science and Environment correspondent, George Lee, has been seconded for more than a year to cover the covid crisis, leaving the entire network without a single climate or environment specialist among its staff of over 1,800 and an annual budget in excess of €330 million.

I recently queried RTÉ’s managing director of news, Jon Williams online, wondering if it was “asking too much” to expect RTÉ to have such a specialist. “Sadly it is”, Williams replied. “If everyone paid their TV licence, RTÉ could have an environment correspondent”, was his astonishing response.

Despite all these licence fee dodgers, RTÉ has somehow found the money to retain correspondents covering GAA, golf, religion, education, crime, business, economics, politics and arts and media, among others. And to fund ‘Pulling with my parents’. This is manifestly about priorities, not resources.

Quantity is one issue; quality is another. RTÉ’s reports around the recent heatwaves are routinely  framed strictly as “weather” stories, with scant regard to the climate dimension. Its current affairs shows rarely and fitfully broach climate issues, and even then, are just as likely to give airtime to fringe contrarian voices such as certain media-savvy rural TDs decrying climate action.

The situation isn’t much better in the commercial broadcast sector or indeed print media generally, but these outlets have at least the fig leaf of not receiving major public funding with which to fulfil an explicit ‘public service’ remit.

NUIM climatologist, Prof Peter Thorne took the unusual recent step of complaining publicly about RTÉ’s climate coverage, saying he “should not be so bitterly disappointed” by how it performs. He urged RTÉ to “join the dots” on climate change.

It didn’t have to be like this. The all-party Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (Jocca) report in 2019 called for climate literacy to be embedded throughout our educational system.

It proposed “a significant awareness-raising programme by Government” to explain the key issues to the public and to spark wider debate and awareness. It also recommended that licensed broadcasters be given formal quotas of climate coverage.

The Jocca report noted that “false balance” in the media on climate is a serious impediment to progress. Despite a Green minister, Catherine Martin, having oversight of RTÉ, there has been no sign of a shift in policy.

Imagine if the government had tried to implement its often unpopular but crucial covid strategy without supporting it with a multi-million euro advertising and communications blitz? This is unthinkable, yet it’s exactly what is happening every day on climate action.

Meanwhile, some international media is mobilising. The Economist magazine now has a ‘climate risk correspondent’; the Financial Times has massively ramped up coverage of what it calls “the big story of our age”, and Sky News UK runs a ‘Daily Climate Show’ in prime time slots.

The Irish media needs to shake off its provincial mindset and give the public the coverage this existential crisis so desperately deserves.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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