It’s a fact: media shapes the public discourse about climate change and how to respond to it. Even the UN’s own Intergovernmental Panel of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC) warned clearly of this for the first time in the latest of its landmark series of reports.
According to the IPCC, this “shaping” power can usefully build public support to accelerate climate mitigation – the efforts to reduce or prevent the emission of the greenhouse gases that are heating our planet – but it can also be used to do exactly the opposite.
This places a huge responsibility on media companies and journalists.
The Panel also noted that global media coverage of climate-related stories, across a study of 59 countries, has been growing; from about 47,000 articles in 2016-17 to about 87,000 in 2020-21.
Generally, the media representation of climate science has increased and become more accurate over time, but “on occasion, the propagation of scientifically misleading information by organized counter-movements has fuelled polarization, with negative implications for climate policy”, IPCC experts explain.
Moreover, media professionals have at times drawn on the norm of representing “both sides of a controversy”, bearing the risk of a disproportionate representation of scepticism on the scientifically proven fact that humans contribute to climate change.
So how can journalists be a force for good amid these challenges and what UN Secretary-General António Guterres has deemed a ‘current climate emergency’?
UN News spoke with Andrew Revkin, one of the most honoured and experienced environmental journalists in the United States, and the founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
Mr. Revkin has been writing about climate change for decades, even before the IPCC was created 30 years ago, for renowned media organizations such as The New York Times, National Geographic and Discover Magazine. He has also participated in events led by the UN Environmental Programme, the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, UN-Habitat and other UN agencies.
Drawing on Mr. Revkin’s broad experience, and the expertise of UNESCO and the IPCC, here are five ways in which journalism can support climate action and fight misinformation.
As climate change takes hold, people are increasingly demanding information about what is happening, and also about what they and their governments can do about it.
According to UNESCO, three of the media’s traditional roles – informing audiences, acting as watchdogs, and campaigning on social issues – are especially relevant in the context of a changing climate.
Mr. Revkin explains that journalists are attracted to voices that are out in the landscape, and “subservient” to how the story is being framed, whether it is by the UN Secretary-General, or by activists blockading a street in London or New York.
“I’ve been on the Greenland ice sheet. I’ve written hundreds of stories about sea level. The range of sea level rise by 2100 is still kind of where it was when I wrote my first story [for Discovery Magazine] back in 1988. So, when you put all that together, we end up conveying unfortunately more of a problem story to the public”, he says.
The journalist adds that modern media also tries to get people’s attention amid a lot of competing priorities, and there is a “tendency” to latch onto the dramatic angle.
“I run a programme where I’m trying to, among other things, get people to stop and think about the words they use. When you use the word “collapse” to talk about a glacier, are you thinking in the many centuries timescale that the scientists are thinking, or are you thinking about collapse like when the World Trade Centre [towers] fell? It’s really important to be clearer when we choose words and how they might convey a false impression,” he underscores.
According to UNESCO, and studies carried out by the Thomson Reuters Institute, the “doom and gloom” narrative can also make some people simply “turn off” and lose interest.
“[The dramatic angle] will get you the clicks. But one thing I say a lot these days is if clicks are the metric of success in environmental journalism, then, we’re kind of doomed because what you really want is to build an engaged back and forth with readers and with experts so that you as a medium, or journalist of a media company, become a kind of trusted guide,” Mr. Revkin highlights.
Part of getting away from the doom and gloom and inspiring that engagement with readers and science experts is to realize that climate change is not just “a story”, but the context in which so many other stories will unfold.
“If you start your day thinking about questions like ‘how do I reduce climate and energy risk?’, ‘how do I define it and help communities grapple with that?’ then it really changes everything. Because I could keep writing stories warning how global warming is [progressing] or how this is going to be the 4th hottest year in history, and that is part of what journalism does, but it doesn’t move us anywhere towards risk reduction,” Mr. Revkin argues.
He says that taking a more contextual approach can also create space for stories that might go unreported otherwise.
“It’s about creating a pathway for impact. Sometimes the output won’t be a story, but it could be a tool. For example, a [savings] calculator.”
As an example, the journalist cites an online calculator created by an American NGO called Rewiring America. By inputting a few personal details, individuals can learn how much money they may be eligible for under the Inflation Reduction Act (a recent Congressional legislation that reportedly sets up the largest investment in combating climate change in US history) by switching to cleaner energy options.
“Do you know as a person in Ohio, what the benefits of this new climate legislation will be for you? How easy could you transition your home to solar or think about getting an electric vehicle? And you know, what will be the benefits? That’s the kind of thing [it will show] and could be just as true anywhere in the world,” he highlights.
The calculator does not mention climate change on its website, but it motivates users to switch to cleaner energy because of the benefits they might get.
“In the case of developing countries, the most important new information to convey is about risk, environmental risk, flood risk and also energy opportunities. And this is very different from the way journalism operated when I was a lot younger,” Mr. Revkin explains.
Indeed, in a handbook for journalists, UNESCO states that contrary to popular belief, climate is an issue full of knock-on concerns that can sell newspapers and attract new audiences online, in print and on the airwaves; journalists don’t really need to put ‘climate’ in their headlines to tell good climate change stories.
The IPCC scientists have also recognized how “explicit” attention to equity and justice is important for both social acceptance and fair and effective legislation to respond to climate change.
By analysing local contexts and social factors, journalists can also create stories related to climate justice.
“Energy risk is not just about stopping fossil fuels if you are in a developing country that hasn’t contributed any greenhouse emissions at all, if you are living a life of 0.1 tons of CO2 per year in rural Rwanda… So, anyone who’s writing simplistic stories about fossil fuel use is missing [the point that] that energy vulnerability matters too,” Mr. Revkin says.
He also gives as an example the Durban floods and landslides in South Africa earlier this year that left nearly 450 dead and displaced some 40,000. A local geographer, Catherine Sutherland, studied the areas where people had drowned and where the worst damage had occurred.
“That problem [was about so much more than] climate. It was about vulnerability created by racial and poverty drivers. Where do you live when you have no money and no power? You live in the places where no one else will live because they know they’re going to get flooded. So that’s the story. That’s where the whole idea of climate justice comes from. It’s too simplistic to say it’s just about fossil fuels,” the journalist adds.
Mr. Revkin underscores that energy decisions and climate vulnerability are largely a function of local conditions, which means they are a “very important part of the story”.
“For example, the World Weather Attribution Project has been doing a rapid analysis of how much global warming contributed to the recent disaster in Pakistan. Journalists focused on climate change because it is important, but each of those reports also has a section on the other drivers of loss, like where and how people were settled, government policies related to how water damns are handled, and flood infrastructure that is too vulnerable.”
For the Columbia scholar, it is important to build a community of local journalists that has a “climate risk lens” in their reporting toolkit.
“Everyone will be better off because you’ll be able to navigate all these factors more effectively and potentially with more impact for your community,” he explains.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists from The Atlantic realized that there was a flood of unreliable information online and so, with the help of some epidemiologists, they created a COVID-19 tracker which became a vital tool for people.
“The Atlantic is best known for doing nice narrative articles about things… but to me, the COVID-19 tracker exemplifies this other possibility, and the same can be said for climate,” Mr. Revkin notes.
He mentions the work of geographer Stephen M. Strader, which examines the “expanding bulls-eye” of climate hazards.
“Every year there’s typhoons, hurricanes and cyclones…But when a cyclone hits the shore the losses are [based on] of how many people are there, how much stuff is there and how prepared they are for taking a hit.”
Mr. Revkin provides as an example the case of Bangladesh, which he deems a remarkable success story.
“When I was a kid they had horrific losses, hundreds of thousands of people killed because of flooding related to cyclones. And while every death is terrible, the [fatalities] are now measured in the dozens, and from the same kind of storm [or stronger]. So, there is a way in which you can actually not just tell people and policymakers how big the storm is, but tell them what the expanding bullseye is, and not just report on the climate part, but the losses driven by the [overall] landscape.”
According to Mr. Revkin, normalizing and creating a simple way to have a “risk formulation” in journalists’ stories would be a major tool to combat misinformation.
“You build trust, you build engagement, and you get around this idea of “it’s a hoax” because you’re talking about risk…There will always be ideological arguments around that, just like there are around vaccination, I have a close relative who never got vaccinated. I love him, you know, but I’m not going to change him with a story. So, then I have to think at the community level. What can I do?”.
For him, a good example is the Solutions Journalism movement, which investigates and explains how people are trying to solve widely shared problems.
“I think a lot of traditional reporters think of solutions journalism, and they think ‘oh you’re like selling happy talk’, but no. [Taking into account the] expanding bullseye, for example, we can inform communities about practices that can foster resilience where vulnerability is greatest. And it’s still society’s responsibility to grapple with that, but it just makes it easier for them to figure out what to do”.
For Mr. Revkin, climate change is a complex and multidimensional issue. Thinking of that, he realized when he worked for The NY Times that sometimes a blog could fit the issue better than a “classic front-page story”. In that spirit, he created Dot Earth, which ran from 2007 until 2016.
“Who will succeed [in journalism] is the one who is more like a mountain guide after an avalanche than a traditional stenographer. Meaning that you have people develop an understanding and trust in you as an honest broker, amid all this contention and you know, conflicting arguments, and follow along”.
He calls it “engagement journalism”, reporting that gets past “the headline approach” and that emerges from a dynamic conversation with the community.
“I’d like to see ways for the big media, such as BBC, to adopt or integrate and give voice to the community of local journalists more, instead of [them] having to own the story,” he emphasises.
Another way to create this conversation, he argues, is to move away from an advertising business model and into a more subscription-based one.
“A tool and a portal through which communities can identify more clearly the risks and solutions around them… You’re not buying a story. You’re buying a relationship with a guide you know. I think that’s …how I would love to see that mature, as a real viable model for journalism going forward in a changing climate.”
Mr. Revkin talks about a shifting relationship between journalism and scientists that he sees as positive.
“It used to be me with a microphone interviewing you the glacier expert. Increasingly, you’re seeing these examples of scientists coming into the newsroom and helping to build models whether it’s COVID or climate. I’m sure there are many outlets around the world that have started to do this, so that requires a whole new learning curve.” he explains.
The journalist underscored that looking back over the more than 30 years of his experience, the story of environmentalism was for decades framed by the word “stop” (stop polluting, stop fracking), but has now shifted into a call for activism and is framed by the word “start”.
“For example, in the United States, there’s now 370 billion to spend in 10 years on clean energy. But how does that happen after decades of ‘stop’? How do we have more transmission lines? How do we do that in a way that is just for people who tend to be the dumping ground for all our infrastructure? That’s the news story. It’s a ‘start’ story … a ‘yes’ story. It’s activism of ‘yes’ and it’s for journalists. It’s been too easy to write the scary stories”.
Indeed, UNESCO tells us that coverage of climate change means several things. At the local level, it can save lives, formulate plans, change policy and empower people to make informed choices. Through informed reporting, journalists can shine a light on the wealth of activities that people are already undertaking to prepare for climate change.
On an international level, journalism can also bring regional stories to global audiences and help encourage the rich and powerful countries, their citizens and the companies based there, to act in solidarity with climate-vulnerable communities.