Media needs to step up on covering the climate emergency

They say that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re likely part of the problem, and that certainly seems to hold for much of the media when it comes to the climate and biodiversity emergency. Whether it’s as a result of neoliberal ideology, the ever-present influence of advertisers and sponsors, or the inertia of newsrooms where science literacy is the exception, even the so-called quality broadsheets are by and large failing us badly. Yes, there are some notable exceptions, and some individuals doing truly sterling work, but they remain the exception to the rule. And that is before we even consider the deeply toxic billionaire press owned by Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond and others. I explored this in a piece for the Irish Examiner in late July. I gather it annoyed RTÉ’s Joe Duffy enough to warrant a written complaint to the paper.

VETERAN BRITISH broadcaster and author, Andrew Marr, this week reached the end of his tether.”I for one have had enough of being told by pallid old businessmen and lazy, ignorant hacks and sleazy lobbyists who aren’t real scientists, any of them, that the science is wrong”, he railed on LBC radio.

As the UK boiled in the hottest temperatures ever recorded on the island, with buildings ablaze and red alert warnings from the Met Office, this in no way deterred the climate deniers and their media shills.

This was perfectly captured in a surreal exchange on the right-wing GB News channel last week, where meteorologist John Hammond explained that with temperatures in Britain set to breach 40C, “I think there will be hundreds if not thousands of excess deaths. The charts I see in front of me are frightening. We all like nice weather but this will not be nice weather, it will be potentially lethal weather for a couple of days”.

The heatwave will, he warned, “be brief but brutal”. The response of presenter Bev Turner was to ridicule her guest. “I want us to be happy about the weather; I don’t know what’s happened to meteorologists to make you all a little bit fatalistic and harbingers of doom – haven’t we always had hot weather, wasn’t the summer of 1976 as hot as this?”

Hammond shook his head as he replied that, no, this was anything but normal, adding that he didn’t think we should be “too light-hearted about the fact that many are going to die”.

This segment could have been lifted straight from the recent satirical film, Don’t Look Up starring Leonardo di Caprio, where scientists who had identified an incoming planet-killing asteroid were derided in television interviews and dismissed as self-serving alarmists.

The heatwave that was the cause of such mirth for GB News has already led to at least 1,000 fatalities in Portugal and Spain to date – these countries are well used to high temperatures, but the latest heatwave is altogether more dangerous, with temperatures having topped 45.7C in Spain.

Tabloid reactions

In the British tabloid press, pre-heatwave mockery was much in evidence. Last Tuesday, the Daily Mail, a paper with a long track record in promoting climate denial, led with the headline: “Sunny day snowflake Britain had a meltdown”.

The following day, the front page screamed “Nightmare of the wildfires” over a photo of a row of houses in suburban London in flames triggered by the record heat.

An almost identical scenario played out in the Daily Express, which gleefully front-paged an image of a beach packed with people enjoying the sunshine on Monday last, with the headline “It’s not the end of the world – just stay cool and carry on”.

Two days later, the same front page was dominated by scenes of devastation, under the headline “Britain burns in 40.3C heat – wildfires rage in hottest day in history”.

Reality bites

While it may seem absurd that both editors would choose to ignore the overwhelming meteorological evidence that a deadly heatwave was fast approaching, it follows a pattern over many years of right-wing media actively campaigning on behalf of their billionaire owners and advertisers to discredit climate science and ridicule environmentalists.

The sheer force of habit may have led them to once again assume their deception would not be called out. Of course, there was no apology – there never is.

Climate-deniers in Ireland

While it is easy to point across the water to these egregious examples of media enabling climate denial, what about Ireland?

David Horgan, chairman of a fossil fuel company, Petrel Resources, was on RTÉ Radio One’s flagship magazine programme with Brendan O’Connor at the weekend, having already been on both NewsTalk and TodayFM to deny the climate emergency and taunt the “treehuggers” calling for action.

Horgan’s unqualified comments about ruminant methane were completely scientifically inaccurate, including his false statement that “cattle recycle carbon” while dismissing the dangerous impacts of biogenic methane. In response, O’Connor admitted he was “not qualified to get into the detail of this with you”, thus letting this stand uncorrected on RTÉ.

Horgan is a signatory to an international climate denier group styling itself “Clintel” which declares “there is no climate emergency” and goes on to describe the dangerous planet-warming gas, carbon dioxide as “plant food”.

Despite now being able to witness climate breakdown in real time, our media continues to platform well-connected climate deniers with a vested financial interest in spreading propaganda, whether about oil or cattle.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that many in the media as well as politics and wider society are living in a bubble and still fail to grasp the existential nature of this crisis.

RTÉ News, for instance, was criticised last year for its woeful coverage of the 2021 heatwaves and its repeated failure to join the dots between extreme weather and climate change. Its managing director of news, Jon Williams accepted that the station had failed and promised to do better.

In some respects, it has. Prime Time, for instance, used to cover climate around once every three to four years, usually in the form of hosting a glorified shouting match, whereas now it has committed to quarterly “climate specials”.

These are modest steps when in reality a truly revolutionary approach is now required of all media. Elsewhere in Montrose, big-name broadcasters like Joe Duffy carry on as if they have literally never heard the term “global warming” while playing to the gallery in attacking moves to limit either aviation or dairy expansion.

Influential British journalist and author George Monbiot made a rare appearance on RTÉ this week, in a quite surreal Prime Time debate with the president of the IFA. As Monbiot outlined the probable collapse of human civilisation, Tim Cullinan discussed Teagasc projections.

On a separate occasion, Monbiot was asked which industry presents the greatest environmental threat, oil or media? His reply: “I would say the media. Every day it misdirects us. Every day it tells us that issues of mind-numbing irrelevance are more important than the collapse of our life-support systems”.

Is he wrong?

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer 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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2 Responses to Media needs to step up on covering the climate emergency

  1. Noel Ryan says:

    Very good piece, thanks John
    Joining the dots for all of us is key and seeing contradictions and misinformation.

  2. Pingback: Media needs to step up on covering the climate emergency | Climate Change

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